THE CALCULATING STARS, by Mary Robinette Kowal

A Short Review

A Lady Astronaut Novel

I highly recommend reading or listening to this novel. Below are 4 reasons why I loved it…

  1. Lots of dynamic female characters, told in first person by a female pilot/mathematician
  2. Well-written prose, making it easy to read and enjoy
  3. The characters are well drawn and realistic, despite the fact that they’re intellectual superstars
  4. It portrays a healthy marital relationship (for once!). Sometimes, you just want the husband to not be a jerk, and in this novel, that is absolutely the case. *Elma and her husband also enjoy a dynamic sex life, which is why I give the book a PG-13 rating. Nothing terribly graphic, but there are a few heated encounters between husband and wife.

THE CALCULATING STARS is a part of the Lady Astronaut Series, by Kowal, which includes a short story, The Lady Astronaut of Mars and another novel, The Fated Sky.

These stories emerge in an alternative history of Earth, focusing on the US Space program after a meteor plunges into the ocean off the coast of Maryland. The disaster strikes on March 3, 1952 and kills nearly all of the inhabitants of the Eastern Seaboard, including DC and most US government officials.

Kowal quickly frames the narrative from here. A meteorite of this magnitude will change the climate of the Earth forever. It is a matter of time (5-10 years) before the Earth becomes uninhabitable. Nations must work together to relocate to another planet and on this front, women have to be trained alongside men, don’t they? That is the question around which the book pivots. This is the 1950s and not only does racism rear its head in the space program, so does sexism.

The main character, Elma York narrates the story in first person, and I liked her as narrator. She is ambitious and brilliant, but flawed enough to give the story tension.

Elma is not only a renowned mathematician, she is also an experienced pilot, having flown for the WASPs in WWII. Her husband becomes the lead engineer of the new space program. Elma is recruited as one of the computers, seemingly an acceptable “role” for women in the new space venture (think Hidden Figures), but her real hope is to convince the NACA bosses that women are just as able to fly into space as men.

THE CALCULATING STARS won the 2019 Nebula for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Scifi Novel, the 2019 Hugo for Best Novel and the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.  

Click here to purchase THE CALCULATING STARS

 

John Mayberry

I am excited about this post, a first guest post for allscifiallthetime.com, written by a PhD and a math nerd at that…

It is my pleasure to introduce fellow SciFi fan, Dr. John Mayberry, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. Dr. Mayberry teaches a wide range of courses in applied math and statistics. He first became interested in science fiction and fantasy after reading Susan Cooper’s the Dark is Rising in fifth grade and found it such a welcome and imaginative escape from the real world that he has been hooked on the genre ever since. He is married with three kids and has enjoyed sharing this love with them through bedtime stories and weekend movie nights.

Here is Dr. Mayberry’s review of THE EXPANSE:

The Expanse made the news last year after its cancellation on the SyFy channel led to massive protests and rallies from fans who wanted more. Their pleas were so convincing that Amazon picked up the show, released it on Prime, and started work on Season 4. Comparisons between the Expanse and Firefly, one of my personal all-time favorite space operas, coupled with its newfound accessibility to us non-cable folks encouraged me to give it a shot. I was not disappointed. In fact, after watching all three currently available seasons in just a few weeks (no small feat for a parent of three little ones), I believe that The Expanse has surpassed Firefly and even (dare I say it?) Battlestar Galactica in the pantheon of epic SyFy channel originals.

The Expanse takes place three hundred years from now in a future where humankind has populated the far reaches of our solar system, thanks to a series of technological breakthroughs in “high-g” space travel. The United Nations controls Earth and “Luna” while Mars is under the governance of an independent military coalition. The outer reaches of the system (referred to as “the Belt”) consists of a series of asteroids and space stations operating on artificial spin gravity. The Earth and Mars depend on the Belt for resources while “Belters” are treated as second-class citizens by the “inners”. Season 1 centers around three distinct storylines that respectively follow a cop in one of the largest belt stations, the crew of a deep space ice freighter, and a high-ranking Earth diplomat as they independently discover evidence of an unfathomable plot to destroy the solar system’s fragile peace. It turns out to run so much deeper than any of them could have possibly imagined.

The show accelerates you into a “high-g burn” from the start of episode one and never really lays off the juice thereafter. BSG, for all its glorious moments, suffered from some pretty lame episodes and character inconsistencies (like Lee’s sudden “you never let me fulfill my dream of being a lawyer, dad” moment), but no episode of The Expanse is wasted on such side plots and trivialities. Everything builds towards major epiphanies that aren’t dragged out indefinitely (like in Lost), but instead brought to fruition within the scope of seasons or even half seasons and then turn into bigger questions and realizations which keep you coming back for more. In fact, at the end of Season 3, my wife and I felt like the whole first three seasons, for all they accomplished, played like a prologue leading up to an even greater space adventure in the seasons to follow.

Underlying the compelling storyline is a charismatic and well-cast group of actors whose chemistry on screen is reminiscent of the Firefly cast at times. The Tarantino-esque convergent storylines woven throughout the show merge in extremely satisfying fashion throughout the series. New characters are introduced with purpose and have important roles to play in driving the overarching plot towards its objectives. Even for sci-fi skeptics (like my wife), the characters and political backdrop of the Earth-Mars-Belter coalition will draw you in and force you to imagine what the future could be like…and whether it is the future we want to build towards or not.

 

Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

ANNIHILATION, Review of the novel

By Jeff VanderMeer

“When you see beauty in desolation it changes something in you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”

The above observation comes to the reader early in ANNIHILATION and is a good representation of the reflective narration of this creepy science fiction novel, a book I highly recommend to the scifi lover.

Here’s the short review on why I recommend the novel. If you want to read the longer review…it follows immediately after the list.

To buy this book, click here.

  1. This is an all-female cast for a change
  2. Eloquent narrator/main character. Gorgeous writing overall.
  3. Very creepy vibe and tension all the way through to keep you reading
  4. Short and sweet, but not too short. (Plus, if you love it, there are two novels that follow. See The Southern Reach Trilogy).

ANNIHILATION tells the story of an all-female expedition into an alien eco-system that has planted itself on a stretch of coastal Northeastern US. The reader learns quickly that most of the people within previous expeditions have disappeared into this anomaly, a place labeled by the government as Area X. Only a few have returned, including the protagonist’s husband, who was on the 11th expedition and died from cancer soon after his return.

The primary narrator, also the protagonist of the story, writes the account in her journal. She is the biologist and is never named. None of the primary characters are named, but exist in the story via their function. We see all of Area X through the biologist’s eyes. In addition to her, this 12th expedition into Area X is made up of a psychologist, a surveyor (former military) and an anthropologist. The story opens with the expedition already underway. The four women are hiking to a basecamp that had been established by previous expeditions.

There are two prominent story-lines woven together artfully by author, Jeff VanderMeer.

One is the slow-building and always tense journey into the center of Area X, where a tunnel (or as our protagonist insists on calling it, a tower) and a lighthouse need to be explored. Discoveries are made about both, as well as the environment which is filled with strange hybrid vegetation and creatures. Those discoveries deepen the mystery.

The second storyline, which gave me much pleasure, was the unveiling of the main character. As a narrator, the biologist’s observations are keen, and her attempt to understand what happened to her husband lends itself to a natural telling of her backstory. There is a love tale here, subtle, but steady. It progresses with the first storyline, marching toward the climax and a revelation on par with a religious epiphany.

In writing this review, I did want to understand the word itself, Annihilation. In part I kept looking it up because I was always misspelling it. (I was forgetting that second “n”).

Annihilate comes from two Latin roots: an and nihil, annihilare means: to bring to nothing. In Middle English and later within the church, you find the same roots in the word annulment. An annulment was a legal/religious term that ended a marriage (in essence, turned the marriage into nothing, as if it never existed).

However, the coolest definition of the word is found in physics. Annihilation is the reaction in which a particle and its antiparticle collide and disappear. Energy is then released. I’m not a physicist, so when I started reading articles on annihilation and saw the terms Higgs Boson and Quarks…I realized I was out of my league. However, it would be safe to say…that when the process of annihilation takes place there is destruction and creation. I’m assuming VanderMeer, the author of ANNIHILATION, knows exactly how this definition frames the narrative.

 

by Cixin Liu

Worthy of a Physics/Calculus Teacher’s Attention particularly high school and particularly for AP or IB Physics students

ALSO instructive for discussions in philosophy and ethics (see bottom paragraph)

High school physics instructors or calculus instructors…this novel would make a great summer reading assignment before your class begins in the Fall. One, the story is entertaining. Two, the story portrays historically some of the greatest physicists to walk planet Earth. Three, The Three Body Problem itself, the actual physics problem, this engages the physicist’s and the mathematician’s mind, Newtonian physics and all that jazz…Not that I understand it all, but I believe these the guys who write on the website: askamathematician.com. The excerpt below is from their website

The Three Body Problem is to exactly solve for the motions of three (or more) bodies interacting through an inverse square force (which includes gravitational and electrical attraction).

The problem with the 3-body problem is that it can’t be done, except in a very small set of frankly goofy scenarios (like identical planets following identical orbits).

The unsolvability of the 3-body problem, rather than being an embarrassing hole in physics, an obvious but unsolved problem, is actually the norm. In physics, the number of not-baby-simple, exactly solvable problems can be counted on the fingers of one hand (that’s missing some fingers), and that includes the 2-body problem.

The dynamics of one body is pretty straight forward, in as much as it travels straight forward.

The dynamics of two bodies, while not trivial, can be reduced by pretending that one body is sitting still, and then restricting all of your attention to the other body.  Using that technique, you find (or, at least, Newton found) that the motion of a body under gravity is an ellipse. The same idea can be applied to the quantum mechanics of electrons and protons to find the exact structure of the electron shells in hydrogen (1 proton + 1 electron = 2 bodies). In that case you’re not talking about actual orbits, but the idea is similar.

But, for three bodies, there doesn’t seem to be a fancy trick for finding solutions. As a result, the exact behavior of 3 or more bodies can’t be written down. The exact energy levels and orbital shell shapes in anything other than hydrogen is impossible to find.  Even deuterium (hydrogen with one extra neutron)! Can’t be done.

Despite that, we do alright, and happily, reality doesn’t concern itself with doing math, it just kinda “does”. For example, quantum field theory, despite being the most accurate theory that ever there was, never involves exactly solving anything. Once a physicist gets a hold of all the appropriate equations and a big computer, they can start approximating things. With enough computing power and time, these approximations can be made amazingly good. Computer simulation and approximation is a whole science unto itself.

The main actors in THE THREE BODY PROBLEM are almost all physicists and/or mathematicians and they’re nerdy, but not dweebs. Read chapter 5, A Game of Pool if you want a taste of what the novel offers. Then, there is the virtual reality, which unfolds as a puzzle/game and is played often by nanotechnology researcher, Wang Miao. Wang is compelled to understand the mystery introduced in the early chapters of the novel and realizes that the game is key to the revelation he seeks. In the game world, Wang walks through the history of physics with virtual characters like Confucius (our earliest physicists were primarily philosophers…a helpful connection for students to make), Newton and Einstein. Trisolara happens to be grappling with the three body problem. It is a planet in a solar system where there are three suns. The game players, along with the philosophers and physicists throughout history try again and again, in a systematic way, to solve the problem of the planet’s impending destruction. To go through each game level, Wang encounters physicists who have furthered the thinking regarding the problem. It’s like taking a course called The Intro to Physics…all this learning while the reader hurtles toward the big reveal at the end of the novel. Ah…to be entertained while learning…tis a wonderful thing. At the very least, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM ought to raise the curiosity level of your students and give them a glimpse of the relevance of physics and math to their everyday lives.

For the ethicist/philosopher, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM raises interesting issues about elites thinking they know best for all. The Cultural Revolution in China drives the narrative in the early chapters. Many elites are driven out of their positions of authority, killed or exiled by the communist party as it takes power. The author calls this a madness. (Chapter 1’s title is: The Madness Years). However, within the communist party, a new breed of elites rise to the top. Later, toward the final chapters of the novel, a group of environmental activists, along with men and women Liu specifies as elites across the globe, use their power to set in motion what they hope will be Earth’s salvation (knowing that saving the planet may come at the expense of most or all human lives). This small group of people have become judge, jury and executioner for humanity. Moreover, their hope for saving the Earth might not evolve the way they imagine. The stage is set for a discussion about power, elitism, environmental degradation and what might be ways to stem our self-destructive/planet-destroying tendencies.

To read a No-Spoiler review of this novel, click THREE BODY PROBLEM, Book Review

To buy THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, click here.

three body problem

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem
By Cixin Liu, Translated by Ken Liu

Last month, my science fiction book group tackled THE THREE BODY PROBLEM. We used our 1.5 hours of group time discussing story-telling and physics. (We’re lucky to have a physics PhD in our midst. We’re luckier still that he makes a mean brew and brings us amazing pints of his beer creations each month.) Next time we meet, I’ll post a photo.

Short Review…

5 Reasons To Read THE THREE BODY PROBLEM

  1. Fascinating view into 20th century Chinese history
  2. Interesting and well-drawn characters
  3. A story with tension
  4. Physics, math problems, a virtual reality problem-solving game (nerd meter is tapped here!)
  5. A chance to read a Non-Western narrative

What ought I say about this epic tale? THE THREE BODY PROBLEM portrays a number of characters, most of them well-drawn. The story unfolds with tension, there is a mystery to be solved and the complicated physics concepts embedded in the tale are true science. A virtual reality in the form of a game played by one of the main characters, becomes a key to solving the mystery. The world the game introduces is imaginative and entertaining.

The characters do not look like white westerners, nor do they think like white westerners. I see that as a plus for the western reader. The characters are primarily Chinese Nationals, with a handful of others thrown into the story stew. (See the handy List of Characters page at the beginning of the book and refer to it when needed).

This novel is originally written in Mandarin Chinese, which means (unless you’re a fluent reader of Mandarin) you will read a translation of the original. Welcome to the 21st century, where story-telling centered around the English language will likely diminish, but not to our detriment. As story consumers, we’re living in the best of times.

And, in case you wonder about this tale’s place in the science fiction universe, THE THREE BODY PROBLEM won the Hugo Award in 2015. Moreover, Amazon has recently purchased the rights for adapting this novel for the screen (and the two that follow it) for 1 BILLION dollars. Yes…you heard me, 1 BILLION dollars and yes, this is the first of a trilogy (so far). Here is the link that tells the tale of the Amazon deal for those of you interested.

According to various entertainment news sites, Amazon is looking for the next Stranger Things or Game of Thrones that will add them to the mix of superior content providers. They are competing with Netflix, Hulu, HBO and now Disney Plus et al. for content. THE THREE BODY PROBLEM and its subsequent novels define superior content. Moreover, the trilogy so far (maybe it will expand as GOT did?) maintains a devoted fan following in China and across the globe, many, many millions of potential viewers who might become Amazon Prime members. You can begin to see the appeal to Amazon’s dealmakers.

So…with all that hype…what is my review of this story?

The Storytelling and Teasing out Who is the Main Character:

First, I will say that most of the members in our book group loved the novel overall. Some liked the story-telling, others did not like the style. The narrator is omniscient in a way that is sometimes disorienting, at least for the western reader. There are jump around moments when the point of view shifts somewhat abruptly from one character to another, from one time period to another, even to one solar system to another…I consumed the book on audio while on a road trip, so it’s possible I was more disoriented than if I had had the book in hand. The chapters often mark the dramatic scene/world/time changes. I was hearing them and not seeing them. There is something stark about viewing the blank page and a chapter heading. It triggers the eye, therefore the brain to prepare for the change. In the free-flow of audio, I don’t think my brain was always cluing in. I hope to write a post about audio books and their rise in our book consumption in the coming days.

Here is an example of the point of view shifts that will take place in this story. At the end of chapter 12, the reader moves from Red Coast Project site 1970s to chapter 13, where a series of selected documents are flatly divulged to the reader at a time in the future, as if the story-teller is showing us files, giving information about Red Coast Project, previously top secret…then, back to chapter 14, present day novel time, when a main character Wang Miao interacts with Professor Winjie, someone who worked for many years at Red Coast Project.

Wang Miao, a nano-tech researcher, is caught up in the mystery and trying to understand a complicated tangle of events taking place in the scientific community around him, including a number of prominent physicists committing suicide. He interfaces often with Ye Winjie throughout the novel, a retired physics professor, whose daughter is one of the physicists who has committed suicide. Ye and Miao are both primary characters. Miao is the most relatable character. He is trying to solve the mystery. I won’t call him THE main character only because from a story standpoint I understood Professor Ye Winjie to be the main character. The book begins and ends with scenes that involve her and/or her family, but Wang Miao is central to the unfurling of the mystery. He performs many acts that are crucial to the plot development, including, he plays the virtual reality game. The reader sees the game world and game characters through his eyes. So, who is the main character? It’s debatable…but between these two, I think it is Ye Winjie.

The main actors in THE THREE BODY PROBLEM are almost all physicists and/or mathematicians and they’re nerdy, but not dweebs. Read chapter 5, A Game of Pool if you want a taste of what the novel offers. The virtual reality world and the three body problem puzzle played often by Wang Miao make known the game planet of Trisolara. In the game, the reader walks through the history of physics because Trisolara has three suns and has to solve that problem or else, face destruction (which happens a number of times as Miao plays the game). The game players, along with physicists throughout history try again and again, in a systematic way, to solve the problem. Regarding the game and how it serves the story, I will leave that for your discovery.

Another aspect of storytelling that might disorient or bother the reader is the information dump that seems to happen periodically, like in chapter 13 as I mentioned above…also in chapter 25. An interrogation of professor Ye in this portion of the narrative ends up explaining a whole lot of back story. It’s not an awful dramatization, but so much information is divulged in one convenient scene, it would likely be deemed sloppy writing by many authors/literary critics…but hey, the question is…will you quit reading because of the way the information is delivered to you? I’m guessing the answer is no, you won’t quit. These info dumps happen throughout the novel and answer pieces of the mystery. The style of writing is probably not enough to stop the average reader, though one may be tempted to skim these sections.

Overall, THREE BODY PROBLEM is an entertaining and important read for the science fiction consumer, with a few new twists on an old scifi story that surprises and deepens the global tome that tries to envision humanity’s future.

For ideas on how to use this novel in class with students of math, science, philosophy or ethics, see my post: THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, For Educators or click here.

To buy THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, click here.

To buy the second book in the trilogy: THE DARK FOREST, Remembrance of Earth, click here.

To buy the third book in the trilogy: DEATH’S END, click here.

To buy the paperback boxed trilogy, click here.

To save yourself a bundle of dollars and shelf space, buy the trilogy on Kindle here.