Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

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Review #70

The Earth is dying, wrecked and ravaged by humanity. A last group of surviving humans set out on the cargo ship Gilgamesh, beginning a desperate mission to find a new home. Frozen in stasis, they travel for centuries towards a distant solar system and find a wonderful treasure from the past, a planet terraformed and prepared for human life by the humans of the Old Empire. The crew of the Gilgamesh approach the planet with a new sense of hope, only to find that the planet is already occupied by their worst nightmares.

This novel spans thousands of years, beginning as the Old Empire approaches its destruction. Doctor Avrana Kern is putting the final touches on Kern’s World, a planet she has designed to harbor a unique form of intelligent life. Disaster strikes when a crew member decides that Kern does not deserve to play god, and sabotages the ship, killing himself and the experiments that were destined for the planet. Avrana Kern finds herself alone in a small satellite, watching her life’s work burn as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. She enters a cryogenic sleep chamber in the hopes that a passing ship will find her at some point in the future. Unknown to her, something has survived the burning of the ship, and will eventually evolve into a new and monstrous form of life.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction novel can be summed up in three words. Giant. Sentient. Spiders. As a lifelong arachnophobe, the early chapters of Children of Time, with their numerous descriptions of spider legs, spider palps, and spider fangs, gave me the serious creeps. But after the initial ick factor wore off, I found myself oddly intrigued by the descriptions of spider society presented in this novel. The spiders begin to evolve from the simpleminded predators that we have today into a true society. They develop language, culture, and technology that will allow them to contact the Messenger, the satellite orbiting their planet. They also engage in warfare, discover religion (and religious persecution) and begin to unravel the mystery of their own existence. Tchaikovsky should be applauded for his descriptions of the spider civilization. It is no easy task to convincingly write non-humanoid characters that feel “real”, especially if those characters are something that our minds naturally see as disgusting. I haven’t rooted so much for a spider’s well-being since Charlotte’s Web.

Another amazing thing about this novel is the way that Tchaikovsky manages to interweave a narrative that spans millennia in a very straightforward and linear fashion. As we watch the spiders evolve and grow their society, we also follow the crew of the Gilgamesh as they develop their own unique culture aboard the ship. Our primary protagonist among the humans is Holsten Mason, the resident “classicist” whose function is to interpret the language of the ancient Old Empire. He emerges from stasis at various intervals throughout time, and watches as the crew of the Gilgamesh fall prey to so many of the same follies that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Arrogance, selfishness, and megalomania are still entrenched in the human psyche, and Mason is there to testify that even though humans have managed to destroy their own planet, they may not have learned from the experience. Many science fiction writers take a rather pessimistic view of mankind, and Tchaikovsky is no exception. He does instill a pervading sense of hope throughout the novel; as flawed as humanity is he definitely sees the possibility of redemption.

This was a beautifully written novel that challenges our preconceived notions about what it means to be human. I truly enjoyed this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Children of Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #60

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

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Review #32

 

“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”

Most of us have looked up at the night sky at one time or another and asked ourselves about the nature of the universe. What is the relationship between time and space? What fills up the empty spaces of the cosmos? And what is our place in the scheme of it all? Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson boils these burning questions down to their essence, and explains them in a way that the average person is capable of understanding.

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy in the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period on the end of this sentence.”

Together with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson is on a short and esteemed list of scientists that are easily recognized by most adults. Part of this is because when you see him on television, his enthusiasm is purely and utterly infectious. Tyson never lost that wonder that so many children feel when they first learn of the universe spinning and burning outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. He combines this sense of excitement with an staggering intellect in his most recent book. Every line of Astrophysics is teeming with exhilaration. While reading, I sometimes got a mental image of an energetic five-year old, dragging me around by the hand to show me all of his favorite toys. That is, of course, if the five-year old then rattled off complex mathematical formulas to explain how those toys worked.

As a theoretical physicist, Tyson’s mission in life is to poke at the universe with a stick, trying to see what might pop out to say hello. He manages to sound colloquial even when he’s talking about immensely complicated topics such as dark matter and the theory of relativity. One of my favorite chapters was where Tyson lists half the elements in the periodic table and explains which ones have always been around and which one are more recent discoveries. As someone who barely passed high school chemistry, I was surprised how interesting the subject matter can become when you have a teacher who knows how to break a subject down to its core.

I will not lie to you and say that I understood all of what Neil deGrasse Tyson was trying to communicate. I’m an English teacher. I can rattle off big “literary” sounding words all day, but I struggle to comprehend the language of science. At a mere one hundred and ten pages, this should have been a reasonably quick read. However, I felt myself having to read each paragraph two or even three times to puzzle out the meaning. I think the most important thing that I took away from Astrophysics was a greater sense of wonder and curiosity. I still have no real idea what a quasar is. But I have a better understanding and respect for those who do. Some of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delight in the mysteries of the universe has rubbed off on me. I’m looking forward to the next time I am out in the country, where I can just look up at the night sky and try to puzzle out the magnitude of what I am seeing.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Astrophysics for People in a Hurry here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. It was while in the midst of this book that I heard about the death of Stephen Hawking. This post, meager and unworthy though it is, is dedicated to his wondrous lifetime of progress and achievement in the world of science.