Category Archives: Books

Ahsoka – E.K. Johnston

When Ahsoka opened her hands, she was not surprised to find that two lightsabers, rough and unfinished, were waiting. They would need more work, but they were hers. When she turned them on, they shone the brightest white.

Ahsoka is a novel in the Star Wars universe, presenting a few episodes of Ashoka Tano’s life a few years after the birth of the Empire. We can see how she transforms from a hesitating young refugee to a responsible and cunning operative.

The story follows Ashoka running from the Imperials, from planet to planet, trying to keep her disguise. After a time, she realizes that running cannot continue anymore. There is evil that she cannot tolerate and must use her Jedi abilities to save people, meaning that her presence is known and she is hunted. This is a danger for both her and the people she tries to save.

The development of the protagonist is well constructed and the reader understands her struggle and decisions. The story is well constructed and compelling The phrases flow nicely and the events are well-paced. However, the vocabulary is rather poor and the storytelling could could have been more entertaining. The book is rather a story than a novel.

Nevertheless, it is an entertaining reading for the Star Wars fans and rather one of the better books from the universe.

The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality and Our Destiny Beyond Earth – Michio Kaku

The deep space transport uses a new type of propulsion system to send astronauts through space, called solar electric propulsion. The huge solar panels capture sunlight and convert it to electricity. This is used to strip away the electrons from a gas (like xenon), creating ions. An electric field then shoots these charged ions out one end of the engine, creating thrust. Unlike chemical engines, which can only fire for a few minutes, ion engines can slowly accelerate for months or even years.

The Future of Humanity is one of the best books on science and astrophysics published in English language. It is now already considered a classical book on futurism and cosmology.

The book starts imagining how humans may solve some of the technical challenges in exploring space. Transport, propulsion, habitats, the economics of trying to finance the space exploration, robots are discussed, using the latest scientific discoveries. A lesson in astrophysics is offered, explaining our sun system, galaxy and the universe at large. Towards the end of the book, the latest theories proposed to explain the universe as wee see it are described.

Michio Kaku is professor of theoretical physics in the City College of New York and a proponent of the string theory (theory in which the point-like particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings). He wrote several well-received books on futurism and physics.

It is an awe-inspiring call to try and reach the starts. The message of the book is to not forget the long term: expand beyond our native planet, otherwise the nature will overwhelm us. I am making an exception and will add another quote from this author, which I find revealing:

Looking back at those dark days, I am sometimes reminded of what happened to the great Chinese imperial fleet in the fifteenth century. Back then, the Chinese were the undisputed leaders in science and exploration. They invented gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press. They were unparalleled in military power and technology. Meanwhile, medieval Europe was wracked by religious wars and mired in inquisitions, witch trials, and superstition, and great scientists and visionaries like Giordano Bruno and Galileo were often either burned alive or placed under house arrest, their works banned. Europe, at the time, was a net importer of technology, not a source of innovation.

I devoured the book in about three days. It is easy to read, the concepts from physics are easy to follow, despite their complexity, and the ideas proposed feel innovative and optimistic. A great book, particularly for young adults, searching for a meaning in life.

Energy and Civilization: A History – Vaclav Smil

Despite many differences in agronomic practices and in cultivated crops, all traditional agricultures shared the same energetic foundation. They were powered by the photosynthetic conversion of solar radiation, producing food for people, feed for animals, recycled wastes for the replenishment of soil fertility, and fuels for smelting the metals needed to make simple farm tools.

The books from Vaclav Smil are a trove of knowledge on energy evolution. This book discusses the evolution of human energy advances over time, from agriculture to weapons.

The book reads more as an academic article, with a plethora of references and sources. One sixth of the book is just references. Very dense in knowledge and explanations, it overwhelms the reader with the sheer depth of analysis.

Smil tries to use largely a single energy unit, joules, to measure everything, from the various techniques to harness animals to work to the different ways to pass water through the watermills. The purpose is to quantify the evolution of human energy efficiency over time.

The book is encyclopedic in its depth and range, truly a history. The book dryness of writing and data is broken by very informative and engaging boxes, explaining various facts and developments.

The only downside is the grammar errors found here and there sometimes.

I was impressed by the precision and correct analysis of energy sources and transformations, missed by many pundits.

Also impressive is the general neutral tone regarding various sources that the author manages to impose.

Overall, an incredible book, THE book on energy history.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – Edward R. Tufte

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

This book is a classic of how to design a good graphic. It contains some of the most inspirational graphics ever seen and Tufte puts the basis of what makes informational design beautiful and practical.

The content is mostly graphs and charts from the 1970s (even though the second edition is from 2001), which contain the main ideas of a good or a bad chart, but more contemporary design would have been more entertaining.

Undoubtedly, the book is useful in teaching to avoid bad graphic design pitfalls, but it often looks at it would need an update.

The designs presented are elegant and powerful, but sometimes forget about the new displays of space, fonts, colours, images, movement.

I was impressed by the simplicity and power of some charts made in the 18th and 19th century, by pencil and rule. They expressed ideas so strongly, only using good use of images, numbers and space.

A good design cannot supplement bad information, but a good design can made good information, memorable.

The Last Wish (The Witcher) – Andrzej Sapkowski (Translator Danusia Stok)

I don’t believe in Melitele, don’t believe in the existence of other gods either, but I respect your choice, your sacrifice. Your belief. Because your faith and sacrifice, the price you’re paying for your silence, will make you better, a greater being. Or, at least, it could. But my faithlessness can do nothing. It’s powerless.

The Witcher is a series that you either know or you don’t. It was widely popularized by the TV games and the Netflix series. The story follows a demon-hunter, Geralt of Rivia, in his quest to basically make the world a better place, without attracting too much attention. The adventures take place in a fantasy world, with elves, mages and dwarves, similar to a pre-gunpowder, medieval world.

The appealing of the book is in the main character and the universe created. His choices are real and well-motivated. He is hated for being different, basically a mutant, and his helped sought only in dire need. Geralt wants to help and make a better world. Yet, he needs to make a living and he asks for money for his exploits. This gives him a great emotional burden, as too much involvement would get him in trouble, as any wrong move could mean a death verdict by a mayor or a king. Our hero wants to help, but most often then not, he is chased away, despite his best intentions.

The beauty of the story is that the protagonist, despite being often despise, chased away and confronting mortal danger, does not give up of his humanity and keeps seeking the light. It is truly a beautiful story.

The Last Wish is built as a series of short stories, introducing our main character and his friend, the troubadour Dandelion (Jeskier in original Polish manuscript). The love interest is Yennifer of Vengerberg, but, as Dandelion, she is much more than a support character.

Dandelion understands human character on a profound level. He is a good person, a superb artist and a practical guy who marries his genuine desire to help the Witcher with building his own fame. What the Witcher needs is basically some solid public relations and Dandelion provides that by composing and singing songs about the Witcher tales, making him known to people and, so, approachable.

Yennifer is the love interest of the main character, but she is not a damsel in distress. She is powerful woman, smart and independent, thinking with her own head. Her character is developed later in other books of the series, The Last Wish only introducing her as a powerful sorceress, way stronger than Geralt.

There is no doubt that the stories are well-thought and nicely built. The conundrum is real and there is no easy way out. Despite a world of magic, the solutions are very real and sometimes painful. The reader is engaged and wants to know more about the protagonist. The author does this in a craftily way, not by cutting a story and leave it for later, but by creating interest in the world and the Witcher.

The pace of stories is absolutely perfect, you never feel that the descriptions are too long or details are missing. The vocabulary is rather mediocre, but hard to say if that is because of the author or of the translator.

To sum up, the Polish author Andrej Sapkowski created one of the best characters in the fantasy world, Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher.

Death’s End – Liu Cixin (Translator Ken Liu)

Some call them doomsday ships. These lightspeed ships have no destination at all. They turn their curvature engines to maximum and accelerate like crazy, infinitely approaching the speed of light. Their goal is to leap across time using relativity until they reach the heat death of the universe. By their calculations, ten years within their frame of reference would equal fifty billion years in ours. As a matter of fact, you don’t even need to plan for it. If some malfunction occurs after a ship has accelerated to lightspeed, preventing the ship from decelerating, then you’d also reach the end of the universe within your lifetime.

By many accounts, this is one of the best science fiction books ever written. The volume is the third in the Three-Body Problem trilogy and the best of all three. The story follows the development of humanity after the encounter with the aliens and finding the precarious balance. Many eras pass by, each one bringing amazing concepts and developments, surprising the reader. The protagonist is this time Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer, who is not a driver, but an anchor for the narrative. She is placed in the middle of all important decisions, from Swordhandler to speedlight ships development. However, her decisions are only a consequence of being chosen as such by humanity.

Trisolarians become at the end allies in an ending universe, gargantuan, dark and soulless. The Dark Forest remains a grim fact of the universe for the author, following the same rule less world perception developed by Thomas Hobbes: Homo homini lupus, but on a cosmos scale.

The boundless imagination of presenting new eras, technologies and aliens is mindblowing. The author manages to give the right length of description with unprecedented precision: enough to give the essence of an era, summarizing the relevant developments.

The logical tightness of the tale is astonishing, managing to captivate the imagination of the reader and make him wonder of what could it be beyond the stars. The concepts brought forward: dark forest, deterrence, civilization development, dimensions of a universe, galactic distances, human choices in face of critical situations, human society evolution having different stimuli, alien courses of action, make the book and the trilogy on par with the best of scifi writers.

These volumes of hard scifi are stunningly well-research as well, replying to practical, physics questions that arise in the wave of civilization and technology development with plausible, well-thought solutions.

No doubt, this is one of the best hard scifi books written so far, bringing enthusiasm for humanity to look at starts and see what lies beyond our planet. This is despite the fact that, ultimately, the story is one of fatalism, where humans, societies and civilizations, are at the mercy of cosmic events.

[Feature image: Yayoi Kusama – Infinity Room]

The Dark Forest – Liu Cixin, (Translator Joel Martinsen)

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

This is the second book of the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy by Liu Cixin. The book continues the story in the Three-Body Problem and explores the decisions humanity makes finding that an alien civilization heads for Earth, bent on destruction, in 400 years.

The story is followed through the eyes of Luo Ji, a lackadaisical astronomer and sociologist, who is named one of the four Wallfacers, the humanity project to hide its intentions from the Tri-solarian aliens. The anchor of the book remains Luo Ji’s quiet protector, the detective and policeman Shi Qiang.

Years and generations pass and humanity oscillates from the height of optimism and arrogant self-confidence to the depths of despair, when its fleet is easily taken out by a single alien droplet.

The questions addressed and the hard science put into the plot makes the novel a fascinating read. Weaker than the first book, this volume gives less space to the aliens and more to the personal story of Luo Ji.

The book is not a hero’s story, struggling for humanity, but of an unambitious fellow put, sometimes inexplicably, in positions of decision with grave effects for humankind. The book has no real protagonist, as Luo Ji is not sufficiently explored to understand all his decisions.

The alien motivations and the world building are beautifully exposed and are logically impeccable, while humanity’s response is lackluster, even disappointing. Few raise to the task, including our main personage.

The volume is of excellent writing quality and the story is well followed and expanded from the first book. A less exhilarating experience than The Three-Body problem, but, nonetheless, a great book to read.