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Book Review: The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi 2015)

Note: in this review, I avoid spoilers beyond the first few chapters.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Water Knife is set in the not-too-distant future American West. Water shortages have reached critical levels; states sabotage and fight one another for water rights. We have three main characters; Angel is a Las Vegas “water knife,” a shadowy figure that does the dirty ground work of securing water rights through any means necessary. Lucy is a high-minded journalist from the northeast that came west to cover the collapse of Phoenix and found herself unable to pull away. Maria is a teenage refugee from Texas stuck in the wreckage of Phoenix who schemes to go north. Rumors send Angel to Phoenix, and we get a first row seat to the violence and desperation surrounding water in this dystopian future.

I finished reading The Water Knife over a week ago and I still can’t quite decide what I think of it. I felt the same way after I read Bacigalupi’s Wind-Up Girl, though I now find myself reflecting favorably on that book. Bacigalupi seems to have a knack for leaving some questions unanswered. This is probably a good thing, but it left me unresolved at the end. Both of his books leave you in consideration for a while. His writing style is easy and engaging; both books drew me in quickly with a good balance of action and character development.

My least favorite part of the book is the future dystopian southwest, although it is a critical element of the book. I usually dislike dystopias and find myself remembering an Ursula Le Guin quote from the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life. —Ursula Le Guin

Bacigalupi’s Water Knife is undeniably extrapolative. And that extrapolation is undeniably cancerous. In history, the path that unfolds always seems richer and more meandering, even when things worsen. I felt unconvinced by a corrupt future where states are nearly at war over water. The book makes numerous mentions of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a 1993 nonfiction book about water shortages in the west. Perhaps reading that would provide some of the context I found lacking.

But as a New Mexican with a lawn and garden, and there’s no doubt Bacigalupi meant this work as a cautionary tale. Bacigalupi himself lives in western Colorado. It’s that intention that compensates for the gloomy dystopian aspect—it’s gloomy for a reason. In The Water Knife, Texas fundamentalists called “Merry Perrys” pray that water will simply return. In 20 years, readers may wonder why a Merry Perry, but today’s reader knows he means Rick Perry without any explanation. Until this year, I always lived in places with oppressive humidity and abundant water. The water landscape here is very different, but the attitudes toward water don’t seem much different. After I watched the Ken Burns’ documentary about the dust bowl, I was struck by how early settlers tended the land as they would have any last east or in Europe. The United States, with its European roots, is rooted in a culture that never considers water as a finite resource. In the west, even today, it must be considered as such, and you still see pushback to this rationing in protests against the Bureau of Land Management and in California’s current drought. The Water Knife is meant to be a cancerous extrapolation; it’s the doctor sitting down with the smoker and discussing the future.

Like The Wind-Up Girl, I would recommend The Water Knife to any sci-fi fan. Both books are thinking science fiction, enjoyable but challenging. In both books, the setting is a strong element in the plot. Much as I love distant future space operas, I also love science fiction set in concrete locations with real streets and climates. The commentary on problems in today’s world perhaps diminishes the escapism a bit, but cautionary science fiction is an old subset of the genre that deserves thoughtful revivals like this one.

 

The delightful illustrations of George Barbier

I am two years into a project of science fiction illustration inspired by Hiroshige’s 100 View of Edo. I’m working on 100 views of Vironevaeh. I’ve completed 75 line art drawings, and am satisfied with 44 of them. It’s a project that ebbs and flows, and I constantly seek new sources of inspiration. The floor of my office is littered with books tabbed with post-it notes—a photo essay of the Koreas, French war illustrations from World War I, a Western photo essay, amongst others. This weekend I found art deco master George Barbier.

I’ve written about my interest in art deco and art nouveau before. (see: Victor Horta’s architecture, Alphonse Mucha’s posters and Walter Crane’s childrens books.) When I found a book of George Barbier illustrations on my shelf, purchased over a year ago, but forgotten in a cross-country move, I found inspiration.

The book is the top Barbier hit on Amazon, though it is mostly in Japanese with some original French. Barbier was one of the top artists in France after World War I, but disappeared largely after his death in 1932, a fate that seems to happen to many of the commercial artists of this period. Blissfully, he is in ascendance, even if the most accessible manifestation at the moment is an unreadable rendition in metallic blue. The illustrations are good enough that that doesn’t matter.

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The book has hundreds of illustrations from what seem like a variety of sources. The impenetrable Japanese let my imagination run wild. Below are just three.

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One inspired me rather directly. Can you tell? Time to take my scattered brain back into the world of inspiration.

 

Book review: What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? (Neil F. Comins 1993)

What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? is a book that asks just that– what would Earth be like if the ancient collision that led to our present-day moon never happened and the Earth had no moon? Comins, a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Maine, also asks what if the moon was closer, what if the Earth was smaller, what if the Earth was tilted like Uranus, among other questions.

This book is a must-have for science fiction writers interested in writing about other planets. Comins follows through on his initial questions in a way that science fiction enthusiasts will appreciate. If the moon didn’t exist, the moon’s tidal pull wouldn’t exist. Due to the lack of that tidal pull, Earth’s day would be 8 hours long, not 24. Which would cause much stronger winds and storms. And the tides would be lower. Which would impede the transition of  life from water to land. And that life would have to adapt to the windy, stormy short days. Would that life develop hearing, with all that wind? Would plants opt for low-surface-area needles instead of broad leaves? Assuming humans developed, how would early man tell time without a lunar cycle? Would this influence man’s scientific development? Comins asks and suggests answers to all of these questions. It’s exciting food for thought, and it made me want to go dream up worlds of my own.

What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? is over twenty years old now. I expect some of the science in it may be outdated (none that I actually noticed, but given the advances in planetary science since 1993, it seems likely). However, the logic the book employs is sound, and I still found it very stimulating. And in researching this post, I discovered two more recent books my Comins: What If the Earth Had Two Moons? written in 2011 and The Hazards of Space Travel: A Tourist’s Guide written in 2007. They seem similar in tenor and I expect to like them too.

More bookbinding

Winter is a great time to look outside at the cold rain and bare trees and stay in and bind books instead. Below are three projects from last week.

Book 1

Upholstery fabric makes great book cloth. It’s thick enough that it doesn’t need backing paper to keep the glue from coming through. It’s substantial enough that it doesn’t tend to bubble or warp. And it often has interesting textures that work well for a book cover. I love the fabric for book 1, the way it fits on the cover, the feel, and the sheen. Upholstery fabric can be pricy, but the retail price is similar to prepared book cloth. The fabric for book 1 was an $8 remnant; this project took at most 1/5 of that fabric. That’s not bad at all.

I did a coptic stitch with red waxed linen thread. At $16 a spool, it’s pricey, but it is a lot of thread. I’d estimate one spool could sew very roughly about 50 books of this size.

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I did my very first box for this project, following this set of videos for guidance. Sage Reynolds YouTube channel seems like an excellent source for book binding expertise. I’m sure I’ll be back there.bookbind-04049 bookbind-04048

Book 2- Dragonfly journal

For Book 2, I did my first long stitch book. For this binding, you simply sew through the spine. It was quick and pretty painless. I added a dragonfly embellishment to the cover, which I designed in illustrator, and had my Silhouette Cameo cut out. Another use for a favored toy. (Read more on the Cameo.)bookbind-04040 bookbind-04037

Book 3- Mad Scientist Lab Notebook

Book 3 features more raised details. Again, I did a coptic stitch. The endpaper I printed using the Silhouette Cameo’s art pen. It took a long time to draw all those paths, but I am in love with the result. The black slipcase (my second box!) features a mushroom cloud, cut with the Silhouette Cameo.

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The cover features a radioactivity symbol. I’m really excited about the mad scientist theme, so I’ll probably do more of these.bookbind-04034

Book Review: Train (Tom Zoellner 2014)

Rating: 3/5

In Train, author Tom Zoellner rides the rails of the world. He discusses the history, the current state, and the future of rail. Growing up in suburban St. Louis, I rarely saw trains. Now I live 100 feet from active rail tracks and walk along them every day. I take the Amtrak to DC and Baltimore and New York. This summer, I went to the O. Winston Link rail photography museum in Roanoke, Virginia. So I was eager to learn more about the history of rail– such a backbone to our economy, but often viewed as an anachronism.

I was disappointed by Train. It was a pleasant enough read; I didn’t have trouble turning the pages as I basked at the pool. But it felt like junk food.

At its best, the book gave interesting perspectives on the psychology of rail: how we have stories of hero sea captains, drivers, and pilots, but not of train conductors. That we both love and hate the rail, such an engine of commerce, but also hugely representative of collectivism that’s been dominated by robber barons.

I enjoyed the chapters on foreign rail much more than the ones about the U.S. and Britain. The chapter on India was fascinating and horrifying. Some rails in India corrode ten times faster than normal because the tracks are constantly covered in human excrement. This is because the trains don’t have storage tanks for the toilets, but also because people living by the tracks preferentially potty on the tracks.  As you can imagine, the job to replace the tracks isn’t nice; Zoellner’s conversations with the workers are interesting. Zoellner suggests that India wouldn’t be a single country without the railways installed by the British. This chapter solidified my view that I would rather read about India than visit it.

Overall, too much of the text was devoted to Zoellner’s conversations with random train passengers, upon which he congratulated himself loudly and often. I didn’t care about the guy taking the train to West Virginia hoping to find work in a coal mine, nor did I care about the young man reuniting with his estranged mother. I would have tolerated some of this, but the chapter on American rails was a bloated 90 pages, compared to 30 pages each for Russia, China, and Peru. The chapter on America wasn’t more informative; it was more pointless. The chapter on Britain was also packed full of useless conversations.

When I was preparing to write this review, I noticed that Zoellner is an English professor. And that’s what the book feels like: an English professor waxing nostalgic about the majestic railways and their heroic riders, with sprinklings of historic details. I hoped to read something more focused on history. Train passes the time nicely, but I found it unsatisfying. Maybe it would be a better read for someone who already knows the history and wants to read the stylish praises of another rail enthusiast.

Art and Math: Poemotion (Takahiro Kurashima)

Poemotion and Poemotion 2 books of astonishingly beautiful patterns. They are beautiful because they are so simple and yet I struggle to describe them here. The book comes with a lined overlay, and when the images of the book combine with the overlay, they dance and amaze.

These dancing patterns arise from something called a Moiré pattern, a creature of math and physics. These kinds of patterns naturally arise when two patterns are overlaid.

Moire pattern (wikipedia)

 

You’ve probably seen Moiré patterns when people wear busy patterns on tv:

We usually associate Moiré patterns with annoying visual artifacts, but science has found several ways to exploit them. Moiré patterns can be used to measure strain in materials. They can also be exploited to take microscope images at high magnification. The little lines on US dollars are designed to create Moiré lines when scanned, as a mechanism for defeating counterfeiters.

Kurashima’s Poemotion (just in black) and Poemotion 2 (in color), contain dozens of Moiré patterns. Every time I look at them, I feel such simple joy. The patterns are so deeply familiar and yet I had never consciously noticed them before. These books made me look at the world differently.

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Book review: One Summer- America 1927 (Bill Bryson 2013)

Rating: 5/5

In One Summer, I learned a ton about a period I didn’t care about. I care now. I’m from St. Louis, and I didn’t care about The Spirit of St. Louis or Lindbergh. Last week, I saw his plane in the Smithsonian. I tried to imagine flying for 33 hours with a single engine, a pen and paper to chart my course, protected from the elements by canvas. I tried to imagine landing in Paris, the field mobbed with people, with a plane without any forward-facing windows. Apparently it was beyond the imagining of even his contemporaries–they favored multi-engine planes with multi-man crews. In that tiny plane, Lindbergh flew better than any of them, and his flight ignited an aeronautic industry in the US which had badly languished.

One Summer centers around the summer of 1927, the summer of Lindberg’s transatlantic flight, of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s home run battle, of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and more. The summer of ’27 is the primary focus, but Bryson weaves in details from decades before and after, covering Warren Harding’s mega-corruption, Herbert Hoover’s relentless self-promotion, and Henry Ford’s remarkable stupidity and racism.

One Summer does what I wish my history classes would have– it gives not just the facts and the names, but a sense of the 1920s versus today. In one 20s baseball double-header, the first game lasted 50 minutes, and the second lasted an hour and 15 minutes. As a lifelong fan of baseball, I had no idea that baseball even could be so brief. Neither did any of my friends. I was shocked. On one hand, the 20’s reveled in public gatherings and the wonder of radio broadcasting Lindbergh’s return. On another, they suffered the anxiety of mass immigration, anarchist bombings, and prohibition.  In short, One Summer relates the wonder of a world rapidly transitioning from an isolated one to an interconnected one.

I can’t imagine who I wouldn’t recommend this book to. It’s light enough to fly by, but full of unconsidered things. In a world of ISIS and shitty politics and Mexican immigration, it’s somehow relieving that the ’20s dealt with Italian anarchists, the worthless Harding administration, and eastern European immigration. Those who don’t remember the past may or may not be doomed to repeat it, but remembering the past surely puts the present in context.

Book Review: Color (Victoria Finlay 2002)

Rating: 3.5/5

Color by Victoria Finlay is about the history of various pigments and dyes. We learn about where and when colors arose and their influence on culture. This parts of the book devoted to color were totally and utterly fascinating, almost rapturous.

So why 3.5 stars? This book had two faces– one about the colors (which I loved), and another about the author’s travels to find these colors (which I didn’t love). I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to others. But I have little interest in reading more work by Finlay. The history of color is in itself compelling, at times in spite of Finlay.

The details of Finlay’s travels really don’t inform the main interest, the colors; they seem more to congratulate her for traveling so well. The travel descriptions are not brief, and are at times she romanticizes them to a nauseating degree. In Taliban Afghanistan, she remarks that burkas (the type where even the eyes are covered by lace) seem to increase flirting. Well, isn’t that just quaint and lovely, then? A large portion of the chapter about blacks involves Finlay “imagining” what a woman from a Greek myth might have done with various black pigments. It was useless and nonsensical, solely there to add artsiness without substance. In the chapter on orange, she travels to the city where Stradivarius and others made fine violins, and asks the natives how they managed to be such a center for fine instruments. “I don’t know,” replied the clerk at the tourist desk, people in the street, and I asked myself why they ought to know, and why their uncertainty was worthy of including in the book.

These bits I mention so annoy me because the subject is excellent, and otherwise the writing is good. I learned a whole new appreciation for my paintbox and the paintings at the art museum. Much of the book highlights the difficulty in obtaining permanent and good color. In the search for attractive, permanent colors, people traveled the world, poisoned themselves, invented absurd multistep processes, spied, and died in mines. All of this for color, something that is only there in the frequency of light reflected by these paints, something whose value is really a function of our eyes and brains rather than nature.

Lead white was the main white paint for many years. As you might imagine, it was toxin. But more, it can turn black in the presence of certain chemicals. Cochineal red, used in make-up and cherry coke, is made of crushed bugs. Before this red, brazilwood was a common source of red, the namesake of Brazil. Brazilwood is still considered the best wood for the bows of string instruments, though now it is terribly rare.

Gamboge yellow comes from one specific tree in Cambodia, though it takes a whole year to collect the sap. Brilliant arsenic-based Scheele’s green may have killed Napoleon, leaching from his wallpaper in the humid air of St. Helena. Most of the lapis lazuli, and ultramarine paint, in the world comes from one little valley in Afghanistan.

It takes 17 steps to dye something Turkey Red, and no small amount of espionage went into learning this process. Before this book, I had no appreciation for the difficulties and sophisticated chemistry of dyeing something. Many pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer started first as dye works. Black was a very hard color to make; in order for the puritans to have their modest black clothes, pirates had to transport trees from halfway around the world.

There were two aspects to this book, a beautiful wonderful one that inspired my curiosity, and a self-indulgent, tedious one that made me roll my eyes. I would have liked there to be more chemistry, but I understand that this doesn’t enhance the joy for most people, and I don’t state this lack as a negative. I learned a lot from this book and learned to see colors in a new light, and in all likelihood, you would too.

 

Book Review: The Witling (Vernor Vinge 1976)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 3/5

As far as I can tell, “The Witling” is Vernor Vinge’s second novel, and to some extent, it shows. I enjoyed reading it, but it doesn’t have the depths of Vinge’s later works like “A Fire Upon the Deep” or less-known but also good “The Peace War”. The book is only about 175 pages long; I’m not the fastest reader and I finished in two pretty short sessions, also unlike Vinge’s other novels.

The story opens with two humans who have become marooned on an alien world with human-like inhabitants. Only after being captured do the humans realize that the natives have what we would call supernatural abilities: transporting themselves or objects by will of the mind. The magnitude of this ability varies from person to person; those with the least ability are called witlings. The two humans, with no ability, fall into this category. The prince of the realm also happens to be a witling, which is a great source of shame for him. He is intrigued by the humans, especially the woman. The humans must get off the surface, as all the alien foods naturally contain heavy metals, and continued exposure will be fatal.

Although he provides no supporting science for the abilities of the aliens, Vinge does what I like best in sci-fi–he takes a simple premise and runs far with it. With these abilities, how would you imprison someone? How would you travel the world? Would you even need doors? How would you conduct warfare? These issues come up again and again through the book, and each time they are a delight.

Another interesting point touched upon is body image. The book starts with the human male describing the woman, Yoninne, as ugly and unpleasant, too stocky and temperamental. The aliens, who it’s hinted have a slightly stronger gravity, are stockier, and to them, Yoninne is close enough in build, but different enough to be exotic and tantalizing. I haven’t read much sci-fi of this era that deals with such issues of perception; unfortunately, this thread is not continued throughout the book.

The primary reason I rate “The Witling” as a 3/5 and not higher is because I found the ending unsatisfying. I won’t go into specifics in this review. The action was quite good and fun, but it conceptually bothered me.

With that caveat, I would recommend this book, especially to those who have read a lot of other works by Vernor Vinge. It’s interesting to see the form of his early, less perfect work, plus it’s a super quick read.

Achievements!

Today I submitted my second technical paper. I should know its status in a couple of months. I really hope it gets accepted, because I think it has some really good results.

I also finished binding a rough draft of my novel. I finished the draft itself last Thursday =). To reward myself, I bound a copy for myself. Then I’m going to reread the words and mark up alllllll the things that are wrong or that I want to change. I’ve never gotten this far before, though, so I wanted to recognize that achievement with a binding. I’ve included some pics below. 360 pages (including some blank pages for my comments between chapters) and 82,000 words. Hooray! Just simple photos for now, maybe I’ll get around to a nice photo shoot in a few days.

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