Sunday, August 30, 2009

Magic Street, Orson Scott Card

Magic Street
Orson Scott Card

I think I got this one from my father in law, and (to be honest) I'm not all that certain of his reading choices. Nor am I all that certain I like Card, for that matter. I really liked Ender's Game, but the subsequent books drove me nuts. A few other things I've encountered in Card's work have left me cold as well, so I went into this with some trepidation.

And the first chapter or two had me wondering. I almost put it down, as it appeared to be a thinly veiled religious screed, at least initially. However, I must admit I was wrong about that - at least at some level. To tell you who the characters in the first two chapters actually are would give too much away, but I can say you've almost certainly heard of them before.

Once over the initial hurdle things held together pretty well. There was another spot later on where the religious aspects started to bug me, but they were actually relevant to the plot in that case, so I let them slide.

In the end I found it Magic Street to be a reasonably pleasant if somewhat lightweight read. If you like Card, this is something you'll probably enjoy. If you like modern fantasy, it's reasonably good.

One note: most of the major characters are black and the language used struck me as "off" at times. Not being black and thus not familiar with that culture in any depth I couldn't tell you how authentic it was, but I am quite certain that times it wasn't right. While I clearly noted this at those points - occasionally thinking things like "No one would say that, no matter what color they are" - I didn't let it distract me from the story. Your mileage may vary.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene

The Fabric of the Cosmos
Brian Greene

This is a book on cosmology for the lay reader. Green starts with Newton and works his way though Einstein, the various people involved in the discovery of quantum mechanics, and eventually into his own specialty, string theory.

I found Greene's book very readable and helpful in understanding those parts of physics that are pretty well established. His discussions of string theory are also well done, but here we hit a slight issue with more recent events.

The book was published in 2004, and in the time since there is a growing movement (as far as I can tell, anyway) among some physicists to call string theory a crock and abandon it. Greene isn't among those ranks, of course, and I have no way to assess the validity of the arguments on either side as the math is way, way beyond my abilities.

Still, I think the major objection is that string theory doesn't necessarily appear (and may not be) testable. Greene argues that there are things that can and will be tested. How well his arguments hold up against the growing group of people dissatisfied with string theory I don't know.

In any case, there are some very good discussions in here about Relativity, QM, Newtonian mechanics, absolute vs. relative space and time, and several other topics. If you want to know more about these things without being required to take 15 or 20 courses in advanced math, Greene's presentation is quite good.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenbegger

The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenbegger

This was a national best seller when it came out back in 2003. (Or at least that is the copyright date on the copy I have.) Reviews are a bit mixed, with many loving it and some hating it.

In something of a rare event for me I am going to come down on the side of the masses and say I really, really liked this book.

To explain why, though, I need to directly address what I think is the big complaint against it: problems that result from the main plot device. And note that I'm not giving anything away here... no spoilers.

There are two main characters - the entire book is told from the POV of one or the other - the time traveler and his wife. Niffenbegger saddles her hero with a real doozy of a problem: he can't hang onto his place in time and space with any reliability. With some frequency he just disappears to some other time and location - poof - leaving everything he was carrying and wearing behind. He'll return to the place he left eventually, but it may be hours before he does so, or just seconds. The process is unpredictable. The heroine, though, is totally normal in her relationship with time and space.

That's a challenge of a premise, and I think it - and a number of things that fall out of it - are what most of those who dislike the book are bothered by. But for those of us who like fantasy or science fiction literature, it's not a problem. The willing suspension of disbelief came easily for me, particularly because the rest of the book is so wonderful.

What The Time Traveler's Wife is actually about is the relationship between Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. It's a well written love story, with interesting characters and real situations, set against background of uncontrolled time travel.

Of course all the classic issues presented by time travel are present too. Can you meet yourself and what happens if you do? Can you change the past or the future? Niffenbegger has answers for these questions and more in her world, but they come up naturally in the course of watching a couple meet, fall in love, and build a life together.

In this case Clare meets Henry for the first time when she's only 6, and he meets her for the first time when he's 28, but he's only 8 years older than she is. Understanding that, and all that goes with it, is a lot of fun.