Category Archives: Books

And Then I Read: STARSWARM by Jerry Pournelle

Cover illustration by Vincent di Fate.

Kip lives on a science research station on a planet whose official name is Paradise, but most people call it Purgatory. The planet has many life forms, most of them highly dangerous, but as Kip grew, he learned from his Uncle Mike how to deal with the dangers, helped by the station service dogs, and helped even more by a voice that speaks in his head, a female voice he knows as Gwen. Gwen gives him help and information, but has cautioned Kip to keep her existence completely secret, even from Uncle Mike, and he’s done so. Kip’s schoolmates sometimes wonder how he knows so much, and why he gets that faraway look before answering questions, but no one has guessed his secret.

Kip’s parents died when he was an infant under mysterious circumstances. Uncle Mike knows, but won’t tell him. Gwen also seems to know, but says she’s not allowed to tell him until he reaches a certain age. Paradise is essentially owned by a giant Earth corporation, and Starswarm Station is their nod to science and the environment. The scientists primarily study the giant plants known as Starswarms like the one near the station. Others are in the sea and elsewhere. When corporate shenanigans bring threats to the station’s Starswarm, Kip and his friends try to protect it, and before long are deep in trouble that forces them to hide out in the wild areas outside the station. Gwen is, at last, able to tell Kip more about what’s really going on, but things keep escalating, and it seems Kip himself is somehow at the center of a massive secret power struggle he doesn’t understand. Will his friends and new allies among the creatures of Paradise be enough to save him?

In his introduction, Pournelle makes it clear that this book is an homage to the novels for young readers of Robert Heinlein, and I’d say it’s a satisfying example of just that. It starts a bit slow, but the pace of the story accelerates steadily, and soon I was finding it hard to put down. Pournelle has some more modern scientific ideas to work with than Heinlein, and he handles them well, but the characters and the story itself are the real draw.

Highly recommended.

And Then I Read: OFF ON A COMET by Jules Verne

Image found online, I read a digital version. “Hector Servadac” is the original French title.

I think rather than getting into the storyline, I have to say up front that this is by far my least favorite of the Verne novels I’ve read. The concept is based on ideas that were not scientifically believable even at the time it was written: that a comet could strike Earth a grazing blow, scoop off part of the Mediterranean Sea and a few islands and bits of coastline, with about sixty human inhabitants, as well as atmosphere, and go on its way without Earth even noticing or causing much damage at all to the removed parts. Once that is past, it takes the comet passengers half the book to figure out what has happened, even though they are clearly in a much different orbit, first roastingly close to the sun, then eventually in a deep freeze as far out as the orbit of Saturn, not to mention the much lighter gravity and odd appearance of the rest of the land, nearly all metal. When they at last contact an astronomer also scooped off, things become clear, and they survive the cold passage inside an active volcano. The end of the story is even less believable, and in fact comes off more like magic than science. (Verne’s original ending was nixed by his publisher as too grim.)

What really made this book difficult to read, though, was the mean-spirited depiction of a German Jewish merchant, who Verne gives every possible negative stereotype. This comes off as pure anti-Semitism, and I see no reason for it. Verne needed a contrary character to move the story along, but there was no reason it had to be so constantly hateful. The astronomer is also contrary, but is handled in a much more positive light, and there are other national stereotypes which are much more balanced.

Previously, I only knew the outlines of the story from the Classic Comics version, which of course dodges the stereotype issue. I enjoyed reading that as a child. I should have stopped there.

Vehemently not recommended.

Rereading: DR. DOLITTLE AND THE GREEN CANARY by Hugh Lofting


Image found online, my copy is a much newer paperback.

This is the last of the Dolittle novels, not quite finished at the time of Lofting’s death, completed by his sister-in-law Olga Michael. Despite that, it’s one of the best, in my opinion.

Pippinella, half canary and half greenfinch, was introduced in “Doctor Dolittle’s Caravan,” where the Doctor found and bought her in a pet shop, and was so astounded by her singing voice (despite the fact that it’s usually the male canaries who sing), that he made her the star of an all-bird opera. The book begins with Pippinella telling her life story, and an amazing one it is. She begins her adult life as a popular attraction at a coaching inn, then is purchased by a Marquis for his wife. The Marquis and his family are forced to flee from rioting workers from his mines. She is then taken by soldiers, and becomes the mascot of the troop, and later stolen again to become a “canary in a coal mine,” present to let the miners know if there is any dangerous coal gas around. And that’s only the beginning.

Pippinella’s favorite owner was a window-cleaner who was actually a writer living in a lonely windmill. When she has told her life story to the Doctor and his animal family, he agrees to try to track down that man, and the second half of the book is a cracking good detective story in which several of Dolittle’s animal friends get starring roles of their own.

One more Dolittle book to reread, the Doctor’s “Puddleby Adventures,” a short story collection, and I could also reread “Gub-Gub’s Book,” in which Dolittle’s pig takes center stage, but it’s largely about vegetables, as I recall. There’s one other non-Dolittle Lofting novel for children I plan to reread, “The Twilight of Magic.”

This one is definitely recommended.

And Then I Read: THE JOURNALS OF LAVINIA R. DAVIS

Here’s a book that will interest almost no one, but it’s of great interest to me. Lavinia R. Davis is a favorite author of books for children, and I particularly love her novels about children and animals beginning with “Hobby Horse Hill” in 1939. Her books are mostly long out of print and she is largely forgotten. This book, privately published by her family in 1964 about three years after her death, is composed of excerpts from her journals. Often the subject is the author’s continuing struggles to be a better writer, but many entries focus on her family, children, and extended family, animals, the places she lived and visited, friends, nature, the seasons, and anything that interested her. References to specific books of hers are few, but the writing is appealing and the life described is worth reading about for me, and I suspect for any other fans of her work. There is little information to be found about her elsewhere. It was edited by her nephew Samuel Sloan Walker Jr., and contains a fine photo of the author at the beginning, the best one I’ve seen:

At the end is a complete list of her books, including some titles I haven’t seen (A few were written under the pen name Wendell Farmer.) I thought I’d list them here for others, like me, in search of more Lavinia R. Davis books, though many of these definitely do not interest me as much as my favorites. See end of list for key to symbols.

A Biography of the Writings of Edith Wharton  1933

The Keys to the City  1936«

Skyscraper Mystery  1937^

Adventures in Steel  1938«

Americans Every One  1938«

Hobby Horse Hill  1939*

We All Go Away  1940^

Buttonwood Island  1941*

Grab Bag (co-editor and contributor)  1941«

Pony Jungle  1941*

We All Go To School  1942^

Plow Penny Mystery  1943*

The Surprise Mystery  1943^  (by Wendell Farmer)

Stand Fast and Reply  1943‡

Round Robin  1943^

Spinney & Spike and the B-29^  1944

Bicycle Commandoes  1944^  (by Wendell Farmer)

Evidence Unseen  1945†

A Sea Between  1945‡

Fish Hook Island Mystery  1945^  (by Wendell Farmer)

Barren Heritage  1946†

Taste of Vengeance  1946†

Roger and the Fox  1947**

Melody, Mutton Bone and Sam  1947*

Threat of Dragons  1948†

Wild Birthday Cake  1949**

Reference to Death  1950†

Peppermint Pond  1950^  (by Wendell Farmer)

Sandy’s Spurs  1951*

Summer is Fun  1951**

Secret of Donkey Island  1952*

Danny’s Luck  1953**

Hearts in Trim  1954‡

Donkey Detectives 1955*

Janey’s Fortune  1957*‡

It Happened On A Holiday  1958«

Come Be My Love  1959‡

Clown Dog  1961**

Island City: Adventures in Old New York  1961« (This may be a reprint of “Keys to the City” from 1936.)

* Novels about children and animals (my favorites)

**Picture books for young readers

^Non-animal-focused stories for children

†Adult murder mysteries

‡Teen romance novels

«Short story collection

 

And Then I Read: AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson

When I started reading science fiction in my teens, I gravitated toward the easy to find novels by the big three: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Kim Stanley Robinson seems to be in that same mold of epic storytelling encompassing many years and many lives, building a story on a grand scale. I enjoyed his Mars trilogy, and like this one just as much. It’s the story of a “generations” star-colonizing ship sent from Earth to the star system of Tau Ceti, 12 light-years away. The ship is a large double-torus around a central drive shaft with each torus containing 12 bio-zones inhabited by plants, animals and people from different parts of Earth. It left Earth in the year 2545 and attained a speed of one-tenth light year. At that speed, the ship would arrive after about 170 years, and several generations of inhabitants.

We pick up the story with the ship beginning deceleration into the Tau Ceti system, with years still to go to arrival, but getting close. The trip has not always gone well. There was a population revolt early on against some restrictive birth policies, a mutiny that caused much destruction. Peace returned after some bloodshed, and repairs were made, but the ship is aging and some elements hard to recycle are in short supply. Delicate balances in many systems are difficult to maintain, viruses and bacteria have evolved much more quickly than humans, creating more problems. Keeping the ship going falls largely on the shoulders of Devi, the ship’s best problem solver and the woman most often in touch with the ship’s quantum computer, which is its brain. Devi’s life is very difficult. Her partner Badim and her daughter Freya try to help, but only Devi has the education and intellect to do what she does. When Devi becomes ill, who will take her place?

Freya becomes the main character of the story as the ship nears the moon Aurora in the Tau Ceti system, the prime choice for their settlement. Freya has spent a lot of time in all the 24 environments of the ship getting to know a large percentage of the voyagers. While she doesn’t have her mother’s scientific knowledge and talent, she understands people, and helps keep them united. When Devi passes, and the colonization of Aurora begins, Devi is seen as their leader…until an unexpected menace turns their new colony into a death trap. What course will be taken next is a subject that deeply divides the people of the ship and the colony, and even Freya can’t keep them together.

Like the Mars trilogy, this is a long book, 468 pages, but it kept my interest throughout and I enjoyed it. If you like hard science epics, this is a good one. Recommended.