Tag Archives: book

Book Review: Downbelow Station (C.J. Cherryh 1981)

Note: I avoid spoilers in this review. Any plot details I mention occur early in the book.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I’ve had Downbelow Station on my shelf for a while. It’s 526 pages, so a little on the long side. I’d seen the book on a few “best of” lists, but no one I know has ever mentioned it. It was the 1982 Hugo award winner. So finally I bucked up and read it, and it was excellent.

Although I see “Downbelow Station” described as a hard science fiction book, the technological aspects of the book do not occupy the foreground. The interactions and desires of the characters do that; in some ways it’s a  high-class space opera. I found the style of the book most similar to Vernor Vinge in books like “A Fire Upon the Deep” with a little more militarism. I wonder how much the post Vietnam era affected the portrayal of militarism; the warring elements do not come off positively in this book. Cherryh does a good job developing culture; we can see the cultural differences between Union, Company, Pell, and the Downers. If you like sweeping science fiction, this is a highly worthy read.

Most of the action takes place on Pell Station, a space station orbiting a habitable planet with natives called “Downers” in the year 2352. Humans have expanded into space, one station after the next. At some point in history, humans developed faster than light “jump” technology, so they can spread further yet, into the “Beyond”. The humans in the Beyond have become disassociated with Earth; likewise Earth is somewhat detached from the stations. Pell finds itself between the forces of the Beyond and the renegade forces of Earth. The first 20 pages or so lay down this background; it’s a lot of exposition and it’s confusing and not totally engaging. The beginning is the weak point of this book. Once the ground work is laid, the story takes off.

We arrive at Pell when the Company ships of Earth force the station to take on a bunch of refugees from another station which has been destroyed in the conflict between the Company and the Union of the Beyond. These unregistered people are housed in quarantine, or Q, which is lawless and places a great deal of strain on the station’s resources. Over the course of the book, we watch people from Q, from Pell station, from Union, and from the Company as they vie for the strategically valuable Pell. The people of Pell station I found especially interesting, and their interactions with the Downers.

There are several other books in Cherryh’s Union-Company universe that I look forward to reading. Check out my Top 20 science fiction novels for more science fiction recommendation.

Making Lovely Books

As my blog might reflect, I have a tendency to lurch from one area of interest to the next. Last week, my interests moved again to bookbinding. The pile of lovely paper and fabric sitting in my office called out. (hollanders.com has some lovely stuff.) So I tried a few new things.

The book below is covered with Japanese linen. I used an exposed stitch on the spine, and exposed linen tape. This is the first time I’ve cut a hole in the cover. Appropriately (see last week), I found a Hiroshige painting in the creative commons to use in the hole.


Next I made a book that closes in the front with a bone clasp. The cover is black imitation suede.


Finally I did a more formal binding of my Zish and Argo story. It’s a pretty simple binding with only a single 7 page signature, but I’m really pleased with the way it turned out. In the second picture below, you can see one of the spreads. All of the illustrations are digitized watercolor paintings.


Beautiful Books: “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie”

I first saw “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” in an expat bookstore in Belgium. The book is vibrant and colorful and intriguing. After I got back, the book was still on my mind, and I purchased it. The book is an art-collage biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, and their Nobel-prize winning work on radiation. Their work is so influential that they named several elements (radium and polonium). A unit of radioactivity, a Curie, bears their name, and the element Curium was named for them.

Every page of this book is truly beautiful. The colors are deep and wonderful. Somewhere in the book, the author describes the techniques she used, and how they were specifically inspired by radioactivity, but I have not found this description on the web. This book is much more beautiful than most graphic novels, and I love that it is about science. The book makes Marie Curie especially relatable. She’s still the most famous female scientist a century after her great discoveries. She comes across as driven but human.

Here, then, is the big caveat in my review. The author relates a mostly negative view of radioactivity and nuclear advances. The damage to Marie and Pierre’s bodies, as well as their daughter, is given in detail. The bombing of Japan, the three-mile island incident, and Chernobyl are covered in great detail.

I found it incredibly saddening reading about Marie Curie, the most recognized female scientist perhaps ever, and then to read essentially a condemnation of the outcomes of her work. I also think this condemnation was unfair. To write the story of coal or gasoline would be to include tales of mesothelioma, ground water pollution, and air pollution bad enough in many parts of the century as to blot out the sun. The motors of wind power require mining for difficult-to-acquire materials, which comes from messy mining. No form of power comes without its evils just yet. That’s why we have scientists like the Curies, to keep stabbing away at the problem. Nuclear energy frightens people more than other forms of energy, but I think this is mostly an irrational fear. A simple Geiger counter reveals any stray radiation. Do you know when there are trace amounts of benzene about (a common hydrocarbon in oil)? Or other carcinogens? Hundreds of Superfund sites exist across the USA, many of them from hydrocarbon contamination. These sites can take decades to remediate.

Nonetheless, this book is beautiful and worth reading. The writing about Marie and Pierre Curie as people was wonderful. For those unfamiliar with the science of radioactivity, perhaps it will be a more inspiring read than it was for me.

The Best of Science Fiction

I began reading science fiction novels almost by accident. One day I saw an Alfred Bester book on the shelf at a book store. Viewers of Babylon 5 (the best TV show ever) will recall a character by this name. I had read many Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5 books, and I followed science fiction TV with ardor. So I assumed this book was in the same vein. It was not. The B5 character was named for a writer from the 50s.

Alfred Bester is best known for two novels: The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. They’re both amazing, and I recommend them. “The Demolished Man” works on a simple premise: how would someone go about getting away with murder in a society in which telepaths existed? “The Stars My Destination” (loosely based upon the Count of Monte Cristo) explores what would happen if people could transport themselves at will. How would prisons work? How would you prevent theft? “The Demolished Man” won the first Hugo Award in 1953. “The Stars My Destination” has been credited as perhaps the creator of cyberpunk.

After Bester, I was hungry for more. I scoured the web for lists of the best science fiction novels. Here is one good list of the top novels, though it is somewhat weighted towards older books. I also tried to read the winners and nominees of the Hugo and Nebula awards (you can find a list of wins by author here). Wikipedia lists the Hugo Award wins according to year here. I personally strongly prefer the Hugo Award books to the Nebula Award books, but you may find differently.

So after all that hunting, here are my top 5 science fiction novels:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula LeGuin, 1969)– A human envoy visits an alien world, hoping to convince them to join an alliance. The aliens have no set gender, but phase in and out of male, female, and neuter. The book explores the culture of this planet, both due to the unusual gender of its people, and the extremely cold climate. For whatever reason, men tend to be unimpressed with this book, but women I’ve recommended it to like it. The book explores gender and cultural topics without getting heavy-handed or obvious. The two main characters are amazingly drawn. The book is filled with little amazing legends and folklore from the culture.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, 1960)– A post-apocalyptic story with a very different twist. Broken into three parts at very different times, the first part opens in a Catholic abbey in Nevada several centuries after a devastating nuclear war. The novel has a charming humor and levity despite the settings. It explores religious themes (not very common in scifi).
  • The Forever War (Joe Haldeman 1974)– A story about a man involved in a space war. As the battles are waged, centuries pass, and the man is isolated from his own life by a questionable war. Haldeman was a vietnam vet, and it shows. I have read at least a dozen novels by Haldeman, and I would recommend every single one. He writes science fiction with a focus on heart. “The Forever War” is one of the best science fiction love stories I’ve read.
  • The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester 1956)– discussed above.
  • Camp Concentration (Thomas Disch 1968)– a dark and twisted “Flowers for Algernon”. A conscientious objector is sentenced to prison. He is then subjected to experiments that greatly increase his intellect, along with a number of other prisoners. This book is very literary to the point of sometimes being maddening. I skipped through some of the literary aspects that I didn’t relate to. But the story and the science fiction and the humor are spot on and excellent.

You may notice the heavy slant to the 50s and 60s. This is no accident. These books are old enough to be reprinted and therefore available, but old enough for the reprints to be available used (used books are so wonderfully inexpensive!). Some more modern very awesome scifi books are “Snow Crash“, “Mathematicians in Love“, “A Fire Upon the Deep“, and “The Windup Girl“.

If you are looking for more reading suggestions, check out my top 20 science fiction novels.

I could talk all day about science fiction, so drop a comment!

Book Review: The Absolute at Large (Čapek 1922)

The Absolute at Large was written in 1922 by Czech author Karel Čapek (free web translation to English here). It is about the advent of a machine called the Karburator. The Karburator split atoms into two parts: useful work and a mysterious force called the “absolute”. The absolute is a god force which causes intense religiosity in people, and allows them to perform miracles. As the Karburator spreads across the planet, so does the absolute, and the book describes what follows.

I really enjoyed this book, and I would highly recommend it. First, it’s smart science fiction. In 1922, forces such as radiation were pretty recent science. Radium was discovered in 1898. Čapek describes something very like fission well before its invention. Second, this book is subtly very funny. Through the book, Čapek lampoons religion, communism, and nationalism at least. Third, the book is a short and simple read. My copy was about 200 pages with large print and lots of white space. If you enjoy this book, you can try out Čapek’s possibly more famous work, R.U.R., the book in which the word “robot” was created (derived from the Czech word for serf labor). I haven’t gotten around to that one yet myself.

I had a special reaction to The Absolute at Large, which is largely set in Prague. I was lucky enough to spend a summer in Prague, during which time I was able to talk at length with older residents. The Absolute at Large captures a certain essence of the Czech spirit. The Czechs are cynical in a very witty way. They’ve had religion thrust upon them (read about Jan Hus, the Hussites, and the First Defenestration of Prague). They’ve had nationalities thrust upon them (read about the Second Defenestration of Prague). In 1922, Czechoslovakia had been an independent country for only 3 years following the fall of the Austria-Hungarian empire. Unlike the Poles, who seem to resist forcefully, and the Hungarians and their patriotic sorrow, the Czechs have resorted to humor to endure their less-than-dominant place in geopolitical events. A few years ago, the Czechs held a contest to vote for the greatest Czech ever. The Czechs voted for Jara Cimrman, a fictional man who had no official face (the sculpture had become smooth, they couldn’t find him in this photo of a few hundred, etc). However, fictional Cimrman was credited with many wonderful feats: he suggested the Panama Canal, he was briefly an obstetrician, he consulted with Zeppelin, Eiffel, Mendeleev and Curie. If you are ever in Prague, there is a free museum to Cimrman under the Petřín Tower.

The Absolute at Large has a similar sense of humor to Cimrmanology; Čapek lampoons the inevitable powers of the world and their effect on the Czechs. And how appropriate that the Karburator should be invented in Prague… perhaps Cimrman lent a hand.

Zish and Argo Artwork

My biggest goal over the holidays was to complete painting for the Zish and Argo book. Last night I finished the last painting! Hooray! Champagne! Zish and Argo has 13+ full size color illustrations, painted in water colors. The picture below shows the ones I finished during the holidays. For reference, they are about 8 inches tall. In the next couple of weeks, I will pull together the art and put up book details. The featured image shows the tentative cover that I just finished as well.

Tomorrow I head back north to new projects and adventures.




Artists: Walter Crane

I love to go to art museums to new style ideas. On a recent trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), I visited the art nouveau section and saw a piece by English artist Walter Crane:

Walter Crane plate at VMFA.

The plate mentioned that Walter Crane did children’s books.

So I went home and ordered a couple of his books. A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden anthropomorphizes the flowers of the gardens in beautiful art nouveau fashion. Below is a photo of one of the pages. This page depicts bachelor’s buttons. All the little details, down to their boots, are done to match the characteristics of the plant. Another panel shows a battle between a thistle knight and a snapdragon. Walter Crane has several children’s books besides this one. Since Walter Crane died in 1915, his works have entered the creative commons, and they can be had very cheap, especially digitally.


Walter Crane also did more adult works. Neptune’s Horses reminds me of the scene in Lord of the Rings where the elf summons up the waters to fend off the nazgul, but it was painted over a century before.