These are the reviews from September through December of 1999. For newer reviews, go back to the main book page.
Imagination is the soul of science fiction. In addition to constructing plot, breathing life into characters, and linking themes, a science fiction author must conjure up new speculations and hitherto unimagined worlds. With the science fiction field so crowded, it is a rare author indeed who manages to create a really new and unique environment for his work. In the Confluence series, Paul McAuley presents the amazing artifact and world named Confluence, with it great river, thousands of human species, enigmatic machines, and awesome progenitors: the Preservers.
The first book of Confluence, Child of the River, was published in 1997. In that story, the baby Yama is rescued from the great river, and grows up in the backwoods town of Aeolis. But his mysterious arrival, and growing power over machines, gets him quickly embroiled in the power politics of Confluence. Much of the book is devoted to Yama's journey from Aeolis to the capital city of Ys. Arriving there, Yama manages to gain entry into the mountainous Palace of the Memory of the People, center of politics and history on Confluence. Child of the River won some amount of acclaim, but left its readers eager for the next volume.
The second book of Confluence, Ancients of Days picks up Yama's adventures shorts after Child left them off. Once in side the Palace, Yama continues his efforts to understand his origins and his unique place on Confluence. Intrigue and violence follow him, as various factions try to leash his power to their own ends. Confluence is home to a vast population of intelligent "Machines", leftovers from a high-tech age when the vast stick-shaped world was built, and Yama can control them. His own bloodline, long since vanished expect for him, participated in the building of Confluence, and Yama gradually learns the extent of his ability to command the remaining Machines and lesser mechanisms. As the plot unfolds, Yama (and the reader) learn much more about the history of Confluence and the powerful, avaricious Ancients of Days.
As an adventure story, Ancients is solid and enjoyable, but
as science fiction it is spellbinding. Some of the themes that
Child only hinted at are revealed in detail here. Much of
the background Yama gains from a renegade Ancient, in a long
flashback broken up over the several chapters of a long river
Some of the ideas in the Confluence series are remeniscent of other famous science fiction works. As I was reading the two books, and gaining more understanding of Confluence and the mysterious Preservers that crafted it, I was reminded of Greg Bear's little-known Hegira, Stephen Baxter's Ring, Gregory Benford's Sailing Bright Eternity, and even Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series. But, while it shares some elements with earlier works, the combination and rich details of Confluence are unique and captivating. The story is full of energy and vivid characters.
Despite some background woven into the story, Ancients of Days relies on the background provided by Child of the River. Read them both, and you'll be looking forward to the third volume.
In 1980, the highly respected science fiction author Robert Silverberg wrote his first novel set on Majipoor, a huge and diverse planet populated by human and a variety of non-human beings. That book, Lord Valentine's Castle, was one of Silverberg's finest works. It also served as the anchor for the first Majipoor trilogy. In 1997, Silverberg wrote The Sorcerers of Majipoor, the beginning of a new Majipoor trilogy set thousands of years earlier than Lord Valentine. Indeed, the main character of the second trilogy, Prestimion, was universally regarded as a great and wise historical figure by everybody in Lord Valentine's time, reigning over a peaceful and prosperous world.
[Note: if you haven't read 'Sorcerers' yet, but plan to, skip the rest of this review, because it gives away some of the surprises.]
The events of Sorcerers show that the reign of Prestimion was hard-bought; to reach the throne for which he had been lawfully chosen, Prestimion put his world through a terrible civil war. At the end of that war, he commanded his sorcerers to wipe the memory of the war from the world, leaving the events clear only to himself and his most trusted advisors.
Lord Prestimion begins with the investment of Prestimion as the Coronal, or junior king, of all Majipoor. Everything seems well, except for the horrible aftereffects of the civil war. Prestimion makes a start a repairing the land, but more serious troubles soon arise. It appears, to the reader and to the new king, that a wave of madness is sweeping through Majipoor's vast cities, a madness derived from the enforced suppression of memories of the usurper and the civil war. To make matters even worse, the traitor who helped to start the civil war lies in prison beneath Lord Prestimion's castle, with no memory of his crime but a burning hatred of the new king.
With this situation established at the beginning of the book, a reader can expect the book to describe Prestimion's adventures in trying to set his world to right. He has adventures, yes, beautifully painted in Silverberg's flowing prose, but conditions seem to keep getting worse. Along the way, however, Prestimion meets some new friends that are able to aid him, although in unexpected ways.
In general, Lord Prestimion is a fine, enjoyable book, but it doesn't quite equal the scope and narrative power of the best of Silverberg's Majipoor novels. This is the middle book of the trilogy, and much of the character development seems to be directed toward establishing the figures that will be central to the trilogy's conclusion. The descriptions of Majipoor's varied cities and landscapes are very good; they form a wonder-filled background for the action, but even more importantly they help us to care about Majipoor the way Prestimion does. And that's the bottom line - is Majipoor worth yet another visit? Sure.
The history of i is much more contentious and complex than one might expect. In high school or college, most students are taught that i was 'invented' to cope with solutions to quadratic equations. In fact, as Prof. Nahin explains, it arose from work on solving cubic equations. The figures involved range from well-known mathematical greats like Euler and Gauss to relative unknowns like del Ferro and Wallis.
Unlike p and e, which are simple if important constants, i represents a wholly different way of thinking. The history of p stretches back to ancient Egypt, but its fundamental geometrical nature has been clear since before the time of Euclid. Dealing with i requires a wider view of 'numbers' than anybody seemed able to grasp until the 17th century. Prof. Nahin explains the background wonderfully, and really helps the reader to understand the gradual comprehension of i's nature by the 17th and 18th century mathematical communities.
In addition to the history, about half of the book is devoted various application areas where imaginary and complex numbers are employed. In these carefully-crafted but densely technical chapters, Prof. Nahin is obviously trying to convey his own delight at the subtle and powerful roles that i plays in 19th and 20th century math, science, and engineering. He succeeds to some extent, but mathematical enchantment is a very elusive emotion. One of the most successful such excursions is Prof. Nahin's discussion of the near-magic of Euler's identity, .
To really appreciate this book, the reader absolutely must have some math background. The discussions in the history sections require a good memory of high-school algebra and trigonometry. The application discussions require algebra and calculus skills normally taught (at least in the US) to college sophomores. Unlike some other books reviewed in these web pages, An Imaginary Tale is not going to be very accessible to readers that aren't already mathematically inclined.
Reader with the right background, and an interest in the history of mathematics, will find this well-written book to be a real treat.
Conclusion: Recommended for math enthusiasts only
Books intended for children do not generally make good reading for adults, but there a few exceptions. This book is about as exceptional as they get. In the tradition of classics like Charlotte's Web and The Phantom Tollbooth, J.K. Rowley's young Harry Potter will delight teenagers and adults at several levels.
The plot is simple, almost like a fairy-tale. The baby Harry Potter survives an attack by an evil wizard that kills his parents, is sent to live with his neglectful non-magical relatives, but eventually comes into his heritage and enrolls at England's most prestigious school of magic.
One of the cutest aspects of the book is mixture of
magic and fantasy with the stereotyped British
private school (Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry).
Like any private school pupil, Harry has to buy school supplies
(1 pewter cauldron, standard size 2),
attend classes (Potions, Transfiguration, Spells, etc.), and
wear the school uniform (black robes). He and his best friend
Ron Weasley get into trouble. Best of all, Harry learns to
play the wizard's sport, Quidditch, played with
four different balls and all fourteen players on flying broomsticks.
The other characters in the book are painted in less detail than Harry, but they're not the flat simplified caricatures usually found in children's books. The school's giant groundskeeper, Hagrid, is friendly and sympathetic to Harry, but reveals all-too-human weaknesses for drink and pets. Harry's friend Hermione is clever and studious, but also insecure and a little bossy. Harry's relatives, with whom he lives before going to school, are certainly dreadful, but Uncle Vernon Dursley is portrayed with a least a little sensitivity.
The cover art, and the simple drawings at the front of each chapter, are just wonderful. All three books of the Harry Potter series (this is the first) are attractive and well-produced, in constrast to the mediocre production values of many books for the young reader market.
Of course, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has already won several awards, and gotten many glowing reviews. If you haven't read it yet, set aside a few hours to enjoy the most charming little book to come round in many years.
Conclusion: Highly Recommended
Biologists and naturalists have been wrestling with the mechanisms and implications of evolution since before Charles Darwin broke open the field in the mid-1800s. In his extensive new book, Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes, and the Emergence of Species, Prof. Schwartz examines the deep conceptual foundations of evolution. His goal, according to the preface, is to get the reader thinking about how species emerge and change.
The book covers an fairly broad set of topics, all of them necessary to understanding the central controversy of the emergence of species. Genetics, natural selection, paleontology, embyrology, and systematics all receive attention. The chapters about genetics are particularly well-organized and instructive. In each section, Prof. Schwartz takes a great deal of care to explain all of the ideas in their historical context, with detailed tracing of ideas and conflicts among the scientists involved.
For example, the chapter titled "Development, Inheritance, and Evolutionary Change" features an excellent review of Mendel's discovery of basic genetics. The subsequent chapters trace the influence of Mendel's work on the plant biologist William Bateson, on the embryologist Thomas Hunt Morgan, and on the biometrician R.A. Fisher. The related materials on horticulture and population genetics are detailed and well-crafted.
One fascinating aspects the of history presented in Sudden Origins is the variety of different mechanisms invented to explain how different species come about. While Darwin identified some central ideas of natural selection and evolution, later discoveries in genetics and in the fossil record invalidated the details of Darwin's model of speciation. Over the late 1800s and early 1900s, various scientists published their models, all of them supported by one area or another biology. Prof. Schwartz explains each one, its contributions and flaws. Sometimes the narrative approaches a historiography of seminal writings on evolution. Some very powerful figures, like Ernst Mayr, are given scant attention. Others that contributed powerful ideas to our understanding of evolution, like Richard Goldschmidt and Theodosius Dobzhansky, receive detailed coverage.
Ultimately, Sudden Origins succeeds in tracing the history of key ideas in evolution and the emergence of species, but fails to make the explanations really accessible or engaging for the lay reader. The problem, paradoxically, is not lack of detail or insightful description, but the abundance of them. This book could be wonderful reading for a student of evolution and biology trying to expand their knowledge of the history of the field. It is not well suited for introducing the topics of evolution and speciation, a reader without extensive background will get lost in the epistlatory minutia.
Conclusion: Not Recommended for general readership
All reviews (c) 1999, Neal Ziring. Reviews may be reproduced in whole or
in part as long as authorship credit is preserved.
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All reviews (c) 1999, Neal Ziring. Reviews may be reproduced in whole or in part as long as authorship credit is preserved.
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This page written by Neal Ziring, last modified 12/3/99.