Archive | February, 2014

Mini-Pile #6 on Neil Shubin’s Fish and Rocks

26 Feb

This post is an anomaly, in that it features two books, albeit by the same author in the same post.

Your Inner Fish: a journey into the 3.5 billion-year history of the human body / Neil Shubin. NY: Pantheon Books. 2008. ix, 229p ill. : Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

and

The Universe Within: discovering the common history of rocks, planets, and people / Neil Shubin. NY: Pantheon Books. 2013. x, 213p ill. : Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

This pair of books, published five years apart by Neil Shubin, associate dean at the University of Chicago, paleontologist who specializes in the evolution of fish (paleoichthyology),  and a lecturer in human anatomy for the medical school makes a combined argument about the shared history of the human body -it’s  organs, tissues, and molecules- not just with all over animal life, but indeed stretching to encompass the planet, sun, solar system.

As  works of general science (biology, evolutionary biology, paleontology, geology, astronomy) they provide tantalizing hints and explanations for the existence and origins of our bodies relatively free of bio-technobabble  in a compact package.  Easily readable by anyone in High School. He places notes, references, and suggestions for further reading together at the back for each volume, and sprinkles photographs, figures, and charts throughout the text.

Definitely not a primary source for research (or even a proper secondary source for anything beyond a undergraduate introductory course in Biology), Shubin nonetheless shows himself to be a good and patient teacher. He fills the page with personal examples from his own fossil-collecting expeditions, as well as the results of research from other scientists to make his points.

I feel almost foolish for adding this, but the books are accessible even for those who reject the notion of  evolution as an unguided,  non-directional  and non-progressive, natural (and sexual) selection process that just happens to have budded a self-conscious twig from the vast tree of life, and prefer or accept instead either a 6-Day Creation (with or without a young earth component) or the notion of  evolution as a guided process by intelligent design as providing the best explanation of our origins, and who are at least willing to read arguments in opposition so they will have an educated appreciation of the same.

A more detailed summation and critique for each separate volume will (eventually) reside at The Strange Affair of the Evolutionary Creationist blog

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Mini-Pile #5 “Igniting the Reaches” by David Drake

24 Feb

Igniting the reaches / David Drake. New York:  Ace Books. 1994. 262 p.

Igniting the Reaches is the initial volume in a short (three volume) series about buccaneer style trade and diplomacy at the point of a sword (or in this case the laser rifle-barrel), set in the far future after the “Collapse” -the sudden decline and fall of the last great human empire a thousand years before the story opens.  The story follows the mercantile exploits of two men from the planet Venus: Piet Ricimer a young deep-space sailor and Stephen Gregg, scion of a merchant family, in their attempt to restore  Venus and Venerian trade to the stars  while making their fortunes. They  do this in a small spacecraft  named “Peaches”  with a ragtag crew that even includes a genetically-engineered former alien slave.  The book  ends up being a set of conflicts between the Venerians and the other two primary human political entities: the  Earth based North American Federation and the Southern Cross, along with other independent traders/privateers or “pirates” (depending on your point of view).

Drake is good at writing combat, but I found it hard to get excited by either the characters, or the plot -even knowing  it’s historical basis in the writings and exploits of  Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Hakluyt in the Age of Discovery as explained by the author.  In fact, I nearly had to drag myself to finish the book.  It doesn’t flow as smoothly as the RCN series (Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy), nor does it have the punch of “Hammer’s Slammers”, or the character engagement of the Belisarius series (I can’t speak to how it compares to his fantasy works such as “Lord of the Isles” as I haven’t read any of them yet). My other ‘plaint, as the Publishers Weekly review (1994, as excerpted on Amazon.com) points out, is the characters’  lack of concern for, and even a moral disengagement about, the consequences of their actions other than  those that lead to the success of their own mission: they take it for granted that life should be this way. This though seems par for the course for Drake’s characters and is not unique to the “Reaches” series.

This last bit, though is partially explained by Drake himself:  in an author’s afterward, he gives a philosophical justification for his writing style and treatment of characters. Commenting that the truth that each person holds in his head is unique to that person and “can’t really be expressed to anyone else,” he yet tries to write his fiction from the standpoint of  this truth, and admits: “One of the ways I achieve that end is to use historical events as the paradigm for my fiction”.  For the “Reaches” series  this involves reading of the exploits of  the 16th and 17th century explorers and  the writings of Richard Hakluyt, and projecting these real life events into a far future setting.

I can’t bring myself to recommend this book to anyone. At the same time, I wouldn’t say don’t read it; that is to say Igniting the Reaches failed to ignite my interest in the characters and not a story I would read again, so becoming one of the “Indifferent” books that will inevitably litter the posts of my blog.