David Beat Goliath – the Reason Why is Not What You Think #review #bookreview #history

Surprise - moral of the story not what you thinkDavid and Goliath teaches a lesson, but not the lesson you expect. Modern readers misunderstand the story and have the original message wrong. That is so cool, I’m reviewing this non-fiction book for my news post.

We think of David as a hopeless underdog facing an unbeatable foe, saved only by divine intervention. “No one in ancient times would have doubted David’s tactical advantage once it was known he was an expert in slinging.”

Ancient soldiers using slingshots were as formidable as archers. Goliath was a sitting duck, a heavily armored infantry warrior. There was no way he could chase down and engage David.

What we commonly think of as strengths and weaknesses can be very different in reality, and the underdog wins more often than we expect. This book covers varying subjects such as children of wealthy parents, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, primary school class sizes, deterring crime, and girls’ basketball. Gladwell offers individual stories and adds research to generalize his points. What you think you know ain’t so – delightful.

Advantages may make someone stronger for a while, until getting “more” becomes a disadvantage. The once-stronger side focuses on what worked in the past and how things “should” be done, blind to the challenge that confronts them.

Consider “wars over the last two hundred years – how often do you think the [more powerful] side wins? Most of us would put that number at close to 100 percent… [but] just under a third of the time, the weaker country wins.”

Children of wealthy parents can be less self-sufficient than their peers.

There is an optimum class size for elementary school but Americans obsess over reducing class sizes: “77 percent of Americans think that it makes more sense to… lower class sizes than to raise [good] teachers’ salaries. Do you know how few things 77 percent of Americans agree on?”

“Cracking down” on criminals and insurgents often makes the problem worse. Before people obey an authority, they must feel they have a voice, that laws are predictable, and that the authority is fair. “What matters in deterrence is what matters to offenders.” When legitimacy is lost, offenders become willing to bear extreme forms of punishment. For examplem “a reasonable assessment of the research to date is that [extreme] sentence severity has no effect on the level of crime in society.”

Personally, I believe that what really happens in the world is more important than what should happen. We could be wasting time and money while defeating our own goals.

This short book offers an important argument: the upside Surprise - the story's moral not what you thinkdown “U” of strength and weakness. Advantages that strengthen you for a while can top out, and at some point become liabilities.

Before you double-down on an action, think about this and consider what the evidence tells you.

BTW, Goliath may have suffered acromegaly: speculation on the diseases of historical figures is always intriguing. I found this part of the book surprisingly interesting and fun; much better than the “favorite Bible stories for children” sort of idea I had before.

PS: I read a digital version of Gladwell’s book. After the cover and title pages is a “welcome” with links to “Begin Reading.” The table of contents, and copyright page come after the text. Since on-line retailers offer previews starting at page one, this arrangement gives the reader the maximum preview of text, and placing typical front-matter at the end is no inconvenience in an ebook. Ebooks are evolving and I enjoy the format.

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Fascinating Premise is an Excuse to Pit Ancient Armies in Battle #review #bookreview #scifi

Earth shattered through timeSegments of the Earth are suddenly transmorgified into their own past – “a patchwork of eras, from prehistory to 2037, each with its own indigenous inhabitants”. Two small groups of “moderns” from 2037 briefly make contact and agree to meet in the only place where a technological signal has been detected – Babylon. Along the way they meet Victorian era British soldiers and two famous ancient armies – led by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.

What I thought of the story
The book claims Clarke’s Space Odyssey series as its inspiration – a time odyssey instead of a space odyssey. I guess that’s why it opens with furry pre-human hominids. While interesting, they only appear occasionally and don’t add much to the story.

Once the premise is established and the weird world explored a bit, the book slows down. Its main purpose seems to be to show us what it would be like to live in the ruling courts of Alexander and Genghis. Very smelly among other things.

When two rulers dedicated to world conquest meet, it may not be much of a spoiler to say mayhem ensues. Personally I’m not a big fan of battles and began skipping entire chapters. The book ends in a mystical alien sort of way which allows a narrator (not a character) to provide a glimpse of what’s going on.

I liked parts of the book and skipped other parts, so that averages out to an “okay” rating from me.

What others are saying
As you’d expect from a legandary author, Time’s Eye has a high sales rank on Amazon – roughly top 7% in its time travel category on Kindle. (Amazon is starting to hide the data that lets me calculate a rank, so I may not be able to do this in the future.) From 109 reviews it gets 3.7 stars, which isn’t bad.

Readers who disliked the book found the middle with its long trudge to Babylon boring. Others called it “entertaining” and “interesting if not compelling,” while some say they’re going straight off to buy the rest of the trilogy.

About the hardcover book
I’m always a little skeptical when a book’s description starts by telling me how famous the authors are. Here’s the pitch:

Sir Arthur C. Clarke is a living legend, a writer whose name has been synonymous with science fiction for more than fifty years… a genuine visionary. If Clarke has an heir among today’s science fiction writers, it is award-winning author Stephen Baxter… [who] demonstrated dazzling gifts of imagination and intellect, along with a rare ability to bring the most cerebral science dramatically to life. Now these two champions of humanism and scientific speculation have combined their talents in a novel sure to be one of the most talked-about of the year, a 2001 for the new millennium.

I guess that’s inevitable when a publisher has a living legend in its stable.

I read an old hardcover edition from 2004 which included a CD with two of Baxter’s novels (downloadable pdf files that I haven’t read yet, but I reviewed another of his books here) If you buy a used copy be sure to ask if the CD is included.

There was also a pdf on how the book was created (which includes author biographies and lists of works). From these notes and wikipedia I get the impression that Clarke and Baxter developed the outline for the book and Baxter wrote it. Maybe that applies to all three of the books in the trilogy, since the last was published in December 2007 and Clarke (who had been ill for years) died three months later. A sad day.

On the Foreseeable Edge of our Future, Heroes Battle a Bloodcurdling Killer in Military Scifi Thriller #scifi #space #bookreview #review

Gripping Military ScifiEdge of the Future is an engrossing military science fiction story set on Earth and nearby space sometime in our future. Mark is a military scientist working on secret projects but not a combat soldier – at least, not until his lab is attacked by a mysterious villain.

Mark and his lab partner are put into protective custody with a pair of elite soldiers and Mark’s counterpart Axel trains him in self-defense. They become friends in a blunt combative manner befitting soldiers. In addition to hand to hand combat, there’s elite armor, cyber-hacks, mind-control, nifty weapons, and spaceships enough to keep a military scifi fan happy. I’ve never been in the military but the details felt very believable and the characters are well developed.

It becomes obvious the villain has not given up and operates a powerful organization that includes cyborgs. I won’t risk spoilers, but this is a powerful, resourceful, and vicious villain who’s willing to go to extremes to get the data she wants.

Especially the second half of the book is fast paced and flows. I read the last 25% in a single sitting – I had to find out how it ended.

There’s a real and satisfying ending – but some characters are still around so a sequel seems possible.

I always enjoy looking for an author’s little quirks. Stone’s characters take a lot of showers – perhaps because they’re sweaty and bloody so often. One quibble I might have is on the Lunar Base – Stone doesn’t show the effects of the Moon’s lower gravity as the characters deal with the good and bad that comes their way. But that’s easy to overlook.

If you like military scifi, this book’s for you.

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Colonizing Other Planets Not as Much Fun as You Think #review #scifi #books #amreading #sciencefiction #bookreview

The master of terraforming Mars sends colonists to a distant star system in Aurora. With his trademark attention to detail, the first quarter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book takes you on a tour of the large rotating spaceship. The main character, Freya, travels through the biomes and towns, talking with most of the two thousand residents.

Freya is aboard a generational spaceship nearing the end of its 170 year voyage, and things are going subtly wrong with the ship and the humans onboard. People chaff under the discipline required to keep systems in balance – Robinson is as interested in the psychological aspects of the mission as he is in the technology. If you wonder what life onboard a generational ship might be like, this section of the book is for you.

They arrive at their destination and landing parties prepare buildings and greenhouses for the entire ship’s complement, but things go terribly wrong. Half way through there’s a twist I wasn’t expecting and the mission takes an unexpected turn.

Most of the book is narrated by the ship’s artificial intelligence which gives the story a somewhat cold feeling. The ship also muses on human language and – instructed by the chief engineer to prepare a narrative summary of the final part of their voyage – frets over the use of metaphors which it finds to be imprecise.

While Robinson has been described as “a novelist who looks ahead with optimism,” Aurora is deeply pessimistic regarding human beings and their technologies. The settlers suffer frustrating slow-motion disasters that they never completely understand and their society breaks down into battling factions.

This is not a book to read in a rush – I could only read for short periods of time in a sitting. Take it on vacation – it’ll last all week.

What others are saying
Aurora earns a respectable 3.5 stars from 635 customer reviews on Amazon, and places in the top 2% of Amazon’s sellers’ ranking for Hard Science Fiction. I wish I did as well with my novels.

Readers who liked Aurora called it “sad but greatly satisfying” and “awesome and depressing.” Those who didn’t found it “long winded” and “repetitive.” Robinson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but no author is.

I’ve read a few of Robinson’s books and notice he likes the names Aurora and Pauline – and likes to point out that verbal metaphors can’t explain the physical world like math can. It’s fun to notice an author’s little quirks.

The quote above, “a novelist who looks ahead with optimism,” comes from the dust jacket of Robinson’s Galileo’s Dreams.

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I Sort of Read This Science Fiction Trip Through Space-Time #sciencefiction #scifi #space #physics #book #wormhole #review

Ring is the last of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence, and judging by Amazon reviews, it’s the least popular book of the series with 3.5 stars from 57 reviews. I had trouble getting through it, not because it’s hard science fiction with characters who frequently explain physics to each other (as other reviewers complained) but because it felt repetitive. Surely, I thought, the book already told me this about photino birds, about how the spaceship will tow wormholes around, about the characters’ near-immortality provided by nanotechnology.

Great ideas I couldn’t stick with
Diving into the Sun is neat, the ginormous interstellar spacecraft are cool, and the craft left behind by the Xeelee are amazing, but the story felt tedious and I could only read for a short time before taking a break.

After reading all of the first few chapters, I began to skim the first sentence of each paragraph and then one sentence per page, stopping to read when something new was introduced. I would have given up but, as chance had it, I had no other new-to-me books handy at the time.

Others enjoyed the story much more, “I absolutely flew through this book! It was amazing,” and love the vast sweep of space and time covered by the book – to the end of the universe.

The day I checked on Amazon, there was a paperback edition in English available but the only digital edition was in German. I guess that’s what happens as publishers put their backlist on Amazon – Ring is copyrighted 1994.

Live Like a Normal Person Until UFO Memories Absolutely Shatter Your Security #scifi #fantasy #books

feedbackFeedback contains three stories:

  • one set in the Koreas (an unusual choice for science fiction and well done) where a South Korean rescue helicopter goes down behind enemy lines while on a search for survivors of a UFO crash
  • one in New York City where Jason is drawn to an oddly lost young woman, and
  • an epilogue off-world.

They all tie together by the end.

Jason is a physics student and I enjoyed his professor being more interested in the equations he “doodled” on the backs of his homework pages than in the assignment. His best friend talks in vulgar banter all the time, which you may find funny or irritating. Once Jason invites the odd young woman into his apartment to dry off from the rain (it rains a lot in this book), things get rapidly odder.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll simply say physics explains all the bewildering events and apparent inconsistencies that Jason experiences. You’ll recognize the premise involved even if you don’t read much science fiction, but there are satisfying twists at the end.

Peter Cawdron’s book is wildly popular – in the top 3% of its best Amazon kindle category. If any of my books did that well, I’d be doing a very big happy dance. Those reviewers who disliked the book generally said the ending confusing or left events poorly explained. Even some of the reviews Amazon calls “critical” as opposed to “positive” said the book was enjoyable, including some from readers who are not usual science fiction fans.

In addition to some action-oriented violence, possible triggers include a few f-bombs, the best friend’s randy chatter, and torture.

A note on torture:
As most Americans, I was horrified at the Abu Ghraib scandal where members of our military tortured Iraqi prisoners. While individuals must be accountable for their actions, I couldn’t help but feel our nation had let our soldiers down. The military is supposed to protect them, but these men and women were allowed to practice evil in a way that must scar them as well as their victims. Was it poor training? Lack of oversight? Deficient understanding by those in charge?

Or is it a larger cultural issue?

Since Abu Ghraib I’ve become sensitive to torture scenes in TV, movies, and books. I never realized before how pervasive torture is in our entertainment. Even old favorites from my youth, like Star Trek TOS, include torture – though mostly performed by “bad guys” in older shows. Today, even the “good guys” torture, commit violence, or threaten torture to succeed. Now I’ve even got a president who thinks torture is okay.

Are we creating a culture where torture is acceptable? It’s enough to make me wish for the good old fashioned Superman.

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Interstellar Colonization or Soap Opera? #scifi #space #interstellar #review #bookreview

arkwrightArkwright – the name of a pivotal character and a wonderful title – is a story based on interstellar travel that is rooted in real physics, limited by the speed of light. No warp drives here. Author Allen Steele divides the story into four “books” plus one “interlude,” each separated by at least a generation. While the interstellar project spans the whole story, each “book” stands alone.

Book One, the first third of the story, follows a science fiction writer who gets rich and uses his money to create a private foundation dedicated to interstellar travel. This section is set in the world of 20th century scifi, though it could really be set in another industry, and – considering the money the writer must accumulate – probably should be. If you read classic scifi the name-dropping will be fun, but the famous names are only background noise.

The characters’ various relationship issues are featured but don’t follow through the entire story.

My favorite quote comes from a character complaining about science fiction stories.

Everyone who writes about space travel gets it wrong… the people who write it either pay no attention to science or simply get it wrong…if you want to distinguish yourself from all the other fellows who are writing science fiction… get the science right.

Steele embraces this advice and offers his fascinating premise for getting space travel right. It’s a grand idea backed up with awesome technology, which I won’t spoil here. This doesn’t mean the rest of the story’s science is ho-hum. Robotics, artificial intelligence, and especially bioengineering and terraforming exceed our current abilities, but don’t seem to violate getting the science right. There’s even a bibliography if you’d like to check for yourself.

Relationships and hook-ups are featured (Sex mostly occurs “off-screen”)
Given Steele’s nod to the early 20th century’s Golden Age of scifi, which is often considered short on characterization, it seems odd that he spends most of his writing on relationships. Discussions of the starship are fairly short and often feel incidental. This seems doubly odd since the book’s description calls Steele a “highly regarded expert on space travel and exploration.” I would have liked more from his space travel expertise.

If you’re keen to follow the starship plot, you can skip Book One and Book Three. There’s enough recap in the other sections that you won’t miss anything – perhaps this reflects the story’s beginnings as a serial.

Steele has a habit of shifting back and forth in time as he writes, using flashbacks or a structure where a character tells you the outcome and then goes back to relate the events. I got used to the style easily enough. It does result in characters “telling” their story which is a supposed no-no for modern fiction where “show, don’t tell” is the writing tip.

What others say
Arkwright has an Amazon Sellers Rank in the top 16% of its category of Hard Science Fiction – that’s a popular book. There are 65 customer reviews that average 3 1/2 stars – not bad. Complaints reflect my review – too much soap opera instead of the starship promised in the description.

Even reviewers giving the book 5 stars note that the “science fiction doesn’t start until well into the book,” but if they liked the cross-generational family dramas, they liked the book.

What is Hard Science Fiction?
Since both fans and critics notice the emphasis on relationships, it makes me wonder about the Hard Science Fiction category. Certainly the notion that hard science fiction is mostly about detailed technology is wrong. How many technical terms must authors throw in – or replace with common English – to gain or shed the category?

In my own series about a colony on Mars, I try to get the science

Join the first colonists https://books2read.com/u/bQZp1eright. Settlers have technical training to keep their life support equipment and robotics operating (the robots are rather cool if I do say so myself). Some have relevant university degrees, but they’re people, not walking technical manuals. Their mission is more like the real-life Mars One and less like NASA. They face danger, have conflicts, and explore the Red Planet as they try to build a home on Mars. Some of my readers today may step foot on Mars tomorrow – or morrowsol as Martians say – and will be able to tell me how well I did.

Reviewers who have commented on categories, though, call Glory on Mars hard science fiction, so I followed their lead and added that category on Amazon.

Subscribe to my readers’ club and I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Check out all four of the On Mars books, post reviews, and let me know: are they hard science fiction?