Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

The Quantum Labyrinth

The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality - Paul Halpern

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

 

This is somewhat a strange book, hovering between a biography and physics book, through the lives of Richard Feynman and John Wheeler, and it seems to me it has both the good sides and shortcomings of both. Shortcomings, as in, it can’t go really in depth in the lives of the two scientists, and at the same time, the physics aspect is sometimes too complex, and sometimes too simple, which makes for an unbalanced read. But good sides, too, for linking the characters and their work, and giving an insight into said work, and overall making me want to read more about, well, everything in there. Probably in favour of Wheeler, since I already know quite a few things about Feynman (although I don’t seem to tire of him anyway).

 

I wouldn’t recommend it as a complete introduction to quantum and particle physics, though, since some of its contents are just too painful to follow without some basic knowledge of the topic.

 

I do recommend it for a global coverage of what Feynman and Wheeler worked on in their lifetime, to get pointers about specific topics worth researching more in depth later.

 

Style-wise, the book reads well enough in general, but more than once, some analogies were weird and fell flat for me.

MunMun

Munmun - Jesse Andrews

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I admit I skim-read the last 25%; I tried to read more carefully, but at this point, either I skimmed or I DNFed, and I don’t like DNFing.

It is not without good ideas and potential, and it delivers good criticism of a society based on money: in this case, money literally defines your weight in the world, since the poorest people are tiny and get squished by just about anything and anyone, while the richest ones are so big that they tower over everyone and take a lot of space. The plight of the characters, too—the way they have to fight, the desperate schemes they come up with, are (unfortunately, realistically) close to reality, in that when you don’t have much, no matter how you try, your attempts are conditioned by the little means you have. (I do agree that “you have to make efforts to achieve your dreams”, but let’s be honest, it’s very easy to give lessons about how you managed to buy the house of your dreams when you got a nifty inheritance from your grandparents. Prayer’s plan to find herself a husband, as harebrained as it is, does reflect a desperate attempt at doing something with nothing.)

However, I couldn’t really connect with the characters, nor get into the writing style, which tends to combine words together. I get it, I get why it’s done, but for me, it’s jarring (took me a bit of time to realise that the “munmun” of the title is money, although that was because I wasn’t pronouncing it, only reading it at first). It’s like all those cutesy words like ‘preloved’ and ‘choccy’ and all that stuff which, for some reason, is considered as witty, but just falls flat as far as I’m concerned. After a while, I lose interest.

More like 1.5 stars for me, however, I do acknowledge that there are good ideas in here.

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media  - P.W. Singer, Emerson Brooking

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A very interesting, though worrying study about the influence of social media in areas that we don’t necessarily consider ‘social’, such as the political world, or even as warfare. The past few years especially (but not only) have led to quite important changes in how people use internet in general and social media in particular, with the advent of giants such as Facebook, and other easy access platforms like Twitter.

As much as I stand for a ‘free’ Internet (I’m a child of the 90s, after all, and my first experiences of the web have forever influenced my views of it, for better and for worse), the authors make up for valid points when it comes to listing abuses and excesses. The use of internet as a tool for war is not new, as evidenced by the examples of the Zapatistas in 1994, or the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011; but the latter quickly turned sour, as some governments, quick to respond, turned the same weapons of freedom into tools of control and oppression. These are the same tools and the same internet we know, but with a much different outcome.

The 2016 US elections are, of course, one of the other examples in this book, one that shows how social media, through sock-puppet accounts, can be used to influence people. The hopeful part in me keeps thinking that ‘people can’t be so stupid’, but the realistic part does acknowledge that, here too, the authors make very valid points. The rational seldom becomes viral, and what gets shared time and again is all the provoking matter (not in a good meaning of this word), the one that calls to base emotions and quick response (again, not in a good way). I kept remembering what I try to practice: “if tempted to post a scathing comment on internet, stop and wait to see if you still want to do that later” (usually, the answer is ‘no’). And so we should also be careful of how we react to what we see on social networks.

Conclusion: 4.5 stars. Kind of alarmist in parts, but in a cold-headed way, one that could have a chance of making people think and reflect on online behaviours, and perhaps, just perhaps, remain cold-headed in the future as well
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XX

XX - Angela Chadwick

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A provoking and interesting read, not so far removed (in fact, not far removed at all) from current political and scientific controversies when it comes to embryo research, LGBTQ+ rights, and rising intolerance.

Juliet and Rosie apply to a newly approved research program that will allow them to conceive a child “ovum to ovum”. The point: having THEIR child, of course, and not needing to rely on a stranger’s sperm. Huge uproar ensues throughout the UK and the rest of the world, led, it seems, not so much by fears for the children thus conceived (although some characters do voice concerns about potential genetic flaws), but by the fear of men being made redundant. Which didn’t surprise me at all, and was, I think, spot on: should such research be developed in our world, I bet that we’d face this very kind of arguments. (It’s like all that rage against abortions, really: so many anti-choicers are all about Saving The Embryos, but you don’t see them holding out helping hands to take care of the unwanted babies once they’re born. Anyway.)

Most of the opposition to the main characters and their unborn baby also comes from sources that don’t surprise me, including a politician who’s riding the wave of Family Values because that will garner votes. It doesn’t help that the incriminated research has been unveiled by a woman, because this adds fuel to the fire, in a “feminist agenda to get rid of men” way. So we can see that from the start, the whole research and its outcome is not going to get only friends.

I did enjoy the characters’ evolution, when faced with certain choices that forced them to question their own values. On top of the obvious scientific, political and social angle, the story also raises valid questions about conceiving vs. adopting, about what it means to want a child, and why one would love (or not) said child.

I had a little trouble to get into the story at first (also because, silly me, I grabbed too many books from the library at the same time, and had to read before they expired, so it’s not just the story’s fault). I think that was because of the somewhat dry narrative style and a repetitive feeling, with Jules (the narrator) doubting her motives, then trying to convince herself that it would pass, rinse and repeat. Things picked up after a while, though, and made this book in general a worthwhile read.

The other thing that I didn’t like here was, well, the negativity. On the one hand, as mentioned previously, it didn’t surprise me, and I would totally expect harsh reactions to such research in reality. On the other hand, it also felt like 99% of the world was against Becca, Scott, Jules, Rosie, and the other people involved in this. And it made me wonder, would there be -no- support at all for something like this? It was like every newspaper, every magazine, every website only had criticism to share, and there was no blogger out there encouraging these women, approving of the research. So, it was “realistic”, but I would’ve have appreciated seeing more support for Jules and Rosie, for lesbian couples trying to have a child, etc. Seeing a story where LGBTQ+ people get nice things, too, and not mostly negative ones. (In contrast, too, when some things went well, they did so all at once, without that many consequences, which felt strange, and lacking a proper middle ground.)

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. A slow beginning, with a pace that fortunately picked up, and a tackling of issues that was both very realistic but a little too pessimistic to my liking, too.

The Science of Science Fiction

The Science of Science Fiction: The Influence of Film and Fiction on the Science and Culture of Our Times  - Marc Brake

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A fast-paced and interesting read, although it is more an introduction than a book going deep into details. If you’re looking for an entrance door into this kind of topic (= how movies, series, and science fiction in general relate to science, either by bouncing from discoveries or by even coming first), it will be great. If this isn’t your first book about this, if you’ve already dived deeper into the exact science behind fiction ideas and concepts, you’ll probably feel that it’s too light. It’s not meant to teach you science through SF, if you get my drift.

The book is divided into short chapters, each exploring a specific theme and relating it to works of science fiction, like human cloning, cyborgs, aliens, and so on. It is a gold mine for movies you may want to see or more books to read (I’ve definitely noted down a few names!), and it introduces the science in those in a very easy way: you don’t need to be a scientist to approach these, and whether you want to then research them on your own or leave it at that, it’ll be fine.

The questions it raises are also valid, and here, too, they easily give pointers as to what topic one may want to research more afterwards, such as whether the singularity is going to spell our doom, or what our lives and psyches would be like if we could upload ourselves into new “meat bags” when the previous one dies.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Not the deeply science-oriented book I thought it’d be at first, and nevertheless interesting and pleasant in other ways
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Sleepyhead

Sleepyhead: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night  - Henry Nicholls

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

There’s a wealth of information in this book, sometimes in the text, and sometimes through the references it offers—I’ve picked in those a couple of books I’ll need to read at some point.

“Sleepyhead” is probably more interesting if one is already suffering from sleep-related troubles, maybe not as bad as narcolepsy, but even temporary troubles, such as acute insomnia caused by stress. It goes through a certain amount of factors that trigger narcolepsy and other “X-somnias”, providing details about how misdiagnosed those used to be historically, and helping understand what they entail. For instance, I always thought that narcolepsy was about people falling asleep at any time of the day, but it had never occurred to me that their sleep at night was highly disturbed, and not the peaceful slumber one would imagine from that very basic description. I’m glad I know more about it now.

The book was also interesting for its insights about sleep in general, though the focus remains on the dysfunctional parts: it seems that over the centuries, lots of superstitions (like “incubi”) were in fact descriptions of parasomnia-induced symptoms, such as night terrors. I also didn’t know about the two-time sleep people seemed to have had before artificial lights: sleeping early for a few hours, then being awake for 1-2 hours in the dead of night, then sleeping again for a few more hours.

While note a bona fide scientific book, “Sleepyhead” is useful no matter what: for the journey it describes (Henry Nicholls went to meet and interview many people while researching), and for the information it provides. It could be beneficial for people who suffer from such troubles, sleep apnea for instance, if only to alert them in a “hey, that sounds exactly what -I- am going through!” way.

Not That Bad

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture  -  Roxane Gay

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

This collection of essays is a very enlightening one: about people who were raped and/or sexually assaulted, about those who work with them, about the rape culture that permeates so many places and societies.

The latter especially is worth mentioning, because little gestures, little ‘jokes’, everyday sexism and attitudes and ‘if you wear those clothes then You’re Asking For It’ sayings are the foundations of something deeper, something that leads to rape, and make it so that no matter what, the victims are still the ones who have to justify themselves. Justify the amount of times they said ‘no’; or whether they said it clearly enough (apparently, for many people, a woman who says no actually means yes… and they never question it, and therefore make a decision based on what they want to hear). Justify and quantify their pain: if it was ‘so bad’, shouldn’t they be dead? And, since they aren't, shouldn’t they be grateful that ‘at least they’re not dead’ (as if that could erase and negate what was done to them)? As if this was but a trifle, something that you just can, and have to, get over with, because mentioning it will Make Other People Uncomfortable.

I guess I should be grateful that the ‘only’ aggression I had to go through dealt with random guys deciding that fondling my thigh in the train was something they had a God-given right to do. Or grateful that they ‘only’ flashed their dick in front of my face. It wasn’t ‘that bad’, right? Well, screw that. At the root of it, our stupid, crappy society is still stuck on Man Sees, Man Takes (sometimes women do that, too, but it’s nevertheless much more often the other way ‘round, because Boys Will Be Boys, and all that rubbish we dump into boys’ heads when they’re still so little). And as long as we don’t wake up and grow up for a change, this won’t go away.

The styles are varied, by various authors (female, male, trans), including even an essay in comics format, while being close enough to clearly resonate as a whole. They read quickly and easily in terms of grammar/vocabulary, and yet remain powerful and hard to stomach as well, due to the theme they explore and the pain they deal with, whether they are actually depressing or carrying some form of hope.

These essays are definitely worth reading: as an eye opener for some, as a reminder in general of what is at stake, of the day to day attitudes towards sexual harassment, of all the tiny ways well-meaning people can and will say/do the wrong things.

She Wants It

She Wants It - Jill Soloway

[I received a copy of this book through the First To Read program, in exchange for an honest review.]

I had only watched the first season of “Transparent” before, but I guess I knew enough then to recognise the author’s name, and be interested in the book’s premise. As a word of warning, though, if you’re in the same case… uh, the book contains spoilers as to the next seasons. I wasn’t too happy about that, especially since I had been able to avoid them so far. Or maybe it was just unavoidable for starters?

It’s also different from what I had expected, that is to say, more of a memoir, and not exactly “essays” or more structured writing about feminism, being non-binary, questioning, and so on. As such, while it remained interesting, spoilers notwithstanding, it felt kind of disjointed in places, and at the end, I felt like it hadn’t gone in depth into anything.

The last part about Me Too and people coming out about Tambor was also… well, it played straight into the unfortunately usual “she came out about this and now the actor/the show is going to be ruined, we should’ve talked about this among ourselves only and seen where to go from there”. Soloway does acknowledge that it’s wrong, but it still felt like there was much more to say here, and it was brushed over. It’s not on the same level as powerful men paying women they have abused so that they keep silent, but the feeling remains somewhat similar nonetheless, like an afterthought, like something that was mentioned at the end only so that people wouldn’t dwell on it too much. I didn’t like that.

Sadie

Sadie - Courtney Summers

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

This was quite a gripping story, that for once I felt like reading more slowly than I usually do, perhaps because I kept dreading the next “Sadie” chapter, not knowing where it would take me… or, rather, suspecting where it would, and not wanting to see whether I was right or not. Why I do that to myself, I have no idea.

The mixed format, alternating between Sadie’s first point of view and the script of a podcast about her and her sister Mattie, worked pretty well for me. I’m usually a good enough audience for those novels that play with different formats, and this one wasn’t of the kind that tries too hard or think it’s so much more clever than it really is. “The Girls” is reminiscent of a true crime narration, and Sadie’s parallel narration puts everything back into perspective every time, adding heart to the more neutral tone of the podcast (although West McCray, the podcast’s “narrator”, is fairly involved—in fact, I’d say his involvement is similar to what I was feeling: he, too, wants and doesn’t want to know what he’s going to find).

Sadie’s story is both touching and sad. Here’s a girl who doesn’t have much—her mother’s an addict, she stutters and people make fun of her because of that, she doesn’t have friends, or money, or prospects… the kind of person that, too often, no one would really care about, because she’s not important enough, or was “looking for it”, or whatever similar tripe. She has a fierce love for her younger sister Mattie, and what happens to the latter devastates her to the point of taking her to the road in search of the truth.

In a way, the double narration is part of her life, too: while West keeps searching, there’s always that feeling that he’s not doing enough, not going fast enough, not digging deep enough, and you want to tell him “hurry up, we’re nearing the end of the book, find her before…”. After the abuse she’s suffered, you want someone to take care of her, not the way her surrogate grandmother did (Mae was her support as she was growing up), but as support in what she’s doing now, in her current odyssey as a girl become an adult much too soon, and who’s trying to right a wrong (and save other people) even if it means suffering so much herself. Because Sadie could’ve given up any time, turned back any time, and she doesn’t: it’s not only about Mattie, but about the others, too.

Conclusion: A slow read for me, as it was kind of painful and I kept dreading turning the page… but that’s also what made it a good book. Scary, creepy, horrifying, for the worst monsters are the ones who look human… but definitely a good book.

Confessions of the Fox

Confessions of the Fox - Jordy Rosenberg

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Mmm, I really had a hard time staying focused on this one. The premise of a Jack Sheppard actually being a trans man (well, probably an intersex person for starters, considering the genitalia alluded to here and there when he’s concerned) was definitely good, since I would like to see this kind of character more often in general. Not to mention my soft spot for rogue-type protagonists, and the 18th seedy London depicted throughout the novel.

The relationship between Bess and Jack was interesting in many ways: Bess’s childhood, Jack’s indenture, both characters having been victims of men in authority and now finding freedom and power with and in each other… The novel explores acceptance in a way that I like, not as something that comes to be, but as something that is : there is no “period of adaptation” during which Bess learns to love Jack the way he is: she loves him, it’s natural, they’re two human beings attracted to each other. No need for that condescending “acceptance” that too often is, in fact, patronising and not so accepting when you think about it. “He’s always been there,” indeed, and then they find each other. Just like Voth has always been there, and many other people that tend to get ignored because it’s more “convenient” that way.

However, I found the academic-sounding footnotes rather disrupting, and to be honest, I wasn’t really interested in the running commentary when it diverged from Voth’s own personal life (probably because I haven’t read the works mentioned in said footnotes, so whatever clever ‘a-ha!’ moments there were to catch, I completely missed them). I guess it takes quite a lot of focus to read this story, and it’s not something I’ve had much this summer. Perhaps I should’ve read it at another time.

Another problem I had was how Jack’s story felt more about concepts than about actual characters—developing some events more, showing more of his ties with Aurie for instance, or more moments when he learnt his trade, would’ve helped flesh him. This would’ve been a good way of highlighting the message “we’ve always been here”: as human and not simply literary beings.

So, my 2 stars are mostly because I know I wasn’t the right audience for this book at the moment, not because I think this novel is “bad”.

Coding Projects in Python

Coding Projects in Python  - DK Publishing

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]

Actually, I finished reading this book quite a while ago, as a quick read, and was planning on going through it a second time at a different pace in order to fully use it—namely, to teach myself Python. I thought (and I still think I was right) that I’d then be able to review it properly. Unfortunately, between work and studying for both network certifications and uni, I don’t really have enough time to add programming to my timetable, so this will have to wait.

I made it to 25% of the book, in terms of following its teachings. From what I’ve experienced here, while I wouldn’t recommend it to younger children, it looks to me like it’d be an appropriate place to start for kids around 10-12. And older kids as well, of course. Or even adults. Because we’re ‘adults’ doesn’t mean that the colourful pictures will magically alter our ability to follow instructions to develop programs in Python.

The lessons were easy to understand and to put in practice. There were a few typos, but since I had an advanced copy, hopefully they’re gone from the printed version. (I could find my way around them, it was a matter of logics, but I’m not sure if a child would? Or maybe they would, who knows! Also, it’s good training in debugging, and this is never a waste.)

I wish I could give a deeper review. Maybe at a later time, once I can pick it up again.

If Cats Disappeared from the World

If Cats Disappeared from the World  - Eric Selland, Genki Kawamura

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

An enjoyable read with an important message about the value we give to life, what we do with our lives, and what we’d be ready to sacrifice to extend them. Confronted to the prospect of dying very soon, in the next few months if not the next few days, the narrator is offered a bargain by the Devil itself, and a tempting one at that: for each thing he erases from the world, he gets to live one more day. Which quickly raises a lot of questions and conundrums, because if it’s worth earning more life time, it has to be a sacrifice… but if we sacrifice too much, is it worth keeping on living?

The chapter with the talking cat was well done, too: first because of the cat’s voice, second because he was very… feline (those bipeds never understand anything to cats, do they?), and third due to his selective memory, something that was sad, but also a reminder that we don’t know how animals think, and what we take for granted may not be what is important to them.

I did find the story too predictable, though, in that the message was obvious from the beginning, and completely expected considering the type of stories it usually goes with. There’s no real twist, nothing I didn’t see coming, and no ‘revelation’ either, if this makes sense—other novels on a similar theme already did it, and this one doesn’t go far enough with the associated tropes to rise above them all. (I also think that the Devil imposing choices about what to make disappear removed the possibility of things going awry because of the narrator: ‘he made me do it, so it’s not my fault’. I prefer when my protagonists make their own mistakes, and then atone for / learn from them.)

3.5 stars.

Strategy Strikes Back

Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict  - Max Brooks

[I received a copy of this book through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.]

A collection of essays relating real-world strategies to examples from the ‘Star Wars’ franchise. As usual with this kind of book, some were good, and some not so good, and there were a few that didn’t do much for me, and/or seemed to repeat themselves (as well as be repeats of others). Still, I found it interesting, and a good starting point for more reading, since many of the essays don’t only rely on Star Wars, but also on actual strategy theories (Clausewitz, modern strategy-related articles, and so on).

Having only watched the movies, and not the animated Clone Wars series (and not having laid my hands on more than a couple of books from the former SW extended universe), I can’t speak for the accuracy (or not) of the essays discussing, well, other aspects of SW. From what I know, though, these essays are fairly accurate in their interpretation and depiction of the chosen excerpts from the movies.

Rating: 3.5 stars. Apart from the couple of points I made above (mostly the redundancy), I think it’s more interesting in terms of Star Wars than in-depth military strategy, and I’d have appreciated seeing more examples of real-world situations contrasted with the SW ones.

Killing It

Killing It - Asia Mackay

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A fairly entertaining novel, although it didn’t keep me enthralled.

I couldn’t decide if ultimately, the whole spy organisation was believable or not; some aspects felt far-fetched, where I had expected something more on the… ‘realistic’ side? Not that I know much about actual MI6 operations are conducted, that is: it was more a feeling than anything truly objective. Some parts I found amusing and inventive, in a sort of parodic way that I could only envision in a novel or a game (such as conducting interrogations in disused Tube parts, so that nobody would hear the cries over the din of trains or wonder about ‘that drunk, stumbling friend I’m dragging with me at 1 am is absolutely not a suspect I’ve just finished torturing’). I’d say this works if you’re looking for the kind of caricatural spy network, and works probably less well otherwise. As far as I’m concerned, I’m on the fence with it.

As a result, the plot was a little unconvincing, and I couldn’t really connect with Lex as a character: I liked her snarky comments in general, but found it difficult to reconcile her callous take on offing and torturing people with the double standard of ‘I do it on a regular basis to other people, but no one dare touch my daughter’. While wanting to protect one’s family is totally normal, there’s an underlying hypocrisy here that doesn’t sit too well with me, probably because I usually have a strong reaction to ‘do what I say, not as I do’ people.

On the other hand, the novel raises interesting, if not unexpected points about age-old attitudes in the workplace regarding women, and especially mothers. In that, ‘Killing It’ is close to a lot of things we can still see nowadays, where in spit of feminist progress and workplaces generally opening up, a woman’s position is still subjected to ‘having to prove herself twice as much as the men’. (There’s been a lot of progress IRL, and I sure won’t deny this, but I’ve been in enough interviews with barely concealed sexist questions to know that the way to full equality is still long.) Basically, Lex’s struggle with coming back to work after her maternity leave felt real and relevant: some of her colleagues, and especially her boss, kept on questioning her ability to do her job and not ‘giving in to hormones’ and all manners of crap arguments. Here, too, some things were caricatural and laid out too heavily (like Bennie’s attempts at putting Lex down)—and, of course, Lex’s job is not just any office job, and is much more dangerous—but it doesn’t change the fact that many people (other women included) still assume too often that as soon as one becomes a mother, one becomes ‘weaker/less smart/less able/whatever’ and have to prove herself all over again… while nobody bats an eyelid at a man becoming a father.

Conclusion: The humour didn’t always work for me, and some things were definitely hammered in too much. Still, as a light novel that doesn’t demand too much focus, it worked.

Give People Money

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World  - Annie Lowrey

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

This is more an introduction to the topic, I think, than a fully-developed treaty on how exactly a UBI (Universal Basic Income), but it remains an interesting book no matter what. While heavily focused on the USA, it also considers other countries, so it’s definitely not just US-centric with no mentioning the rest of the world (examples from Finland and India, for instance, are included).

The idea itself (giving a basic sum of money to everyone, every month, so that their basic needs are ensured) is not new. Lots of people will tell you “money can’t buy happiness”, but let’s be honest: when you don’t have to worry about when (when, not if) power will go out in your home because you can’t pay your electricity bills, when you know you can give your children the food they need, it makes life better all around—and also allows you to focus on finding a job and other needs, or simply help you not getting sick all the time, or any other issues one faces that lack of money can cause.

Of course, it clearly opens the way to many disagreements, including fear that “if people have money, they’ll become lazy and complacent”. Which is, 1) I guess, very specific to “work hard, thrift societies”, 2) not necessarily true, 3) why should the “American way” (that false assumption that if you only work hard, you will be successful no matter what) be the only valid one? Most people want a job, especially since our world in general values a human life according to whether it’s “productive” or not—another issue we’ll need to address sooner than later, since automation and incoming AI are very likely to make us redundant when it comes to jobs, and we’ll need to rethink ourselves in other terms.

Is it doable? Possibly, I think… provided governments think about it the right way, and provided people don’t consider it in terms of “something that should only go to a certain class of people”, or “welfare queens will abuse it”, or “those people will only buy drugs with it”, or “it’s good if it’s for us, but we don’t want immigrants to have it” (apparently, the more diverse a society, the more this question reveals rampant racism: “we want it for US, not for THE OTHER”—and sadly, I wouldn’t even be surprised if that was a wide-spread opinion).

The book considers these questions, as well as others and what they really entail, such as giving supplies, clothes etc. to people rather than money: it’s all well and all, but we don’t think about all it implies. One of the examples involves giving shoes to people in a poor village, with two unwelcome effects: what they need is not necessarily shoes, but, for instance, clean water; and doing this also deprives the local shoe-making economy of customers. If those people were given money instead, they could help that economy (by buying shoes, by buying a cow and starting their own farm/business...) AND get the water they need, too. To me, it makes sense.

On the other hand, the way the book is currently laid out doesn’t show references well enough. And while the ideas developed here are definitely food for thought, I believe they stand better as an introduction, as stepping stones for more in-depth research and reading, rather than as sturdy research. I wouldn’t call that an issue, because it does pave the way to opening up to the idea of a UBI, and to really thinking about it, about what’s trickling down from it and how current demographics may influence it (in a good or a bad way). I simply wouldn’t take the book as THE work of reference about it.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. Clearly a good starting point if you’re getting interested about this subject, and aren’t sure how to approach it.

Stars Uncharted

Stars Uncharted - S. K. Dunstall

[I received a copy of this book through Penguin’s “First To Read” program, in exchange for an honest review.]

I have a soft spot for sci-fi stories with rag-tag crews and old spaceships; unsurprisingly, this is the kind of story that will get my attention.

The story revolves around two main female characters: Nika, a body modder on the run from her abusive-slash-mafioso boyfriend, and Josune, undercover engineer on board a ship known as “The Road” (these aren’t spoilers: you learn about it in the very first chapters). As they both have to face their own brand of trouble, their paths converge towards The Road, always underlined by the shadow of a man named Goberling, who almost a century ago came back from an expedition with precious metals… but never revealed where he had found them.

This is space opera through and through, with a dash of transhumanism. It’s a world where humanity obviously colonised many worlds, and where people regularly reinvent themselves through body modding—which offers pleznty of possibilities, too, considering how many characters in the book aren’t who they claim to be. It’s also a world of commercial ships, of big corporations that no one dares to cross, and of exploration and legends: The Road’s full name is “The Road to the Goberlings”, and another ship, the Hassim, is renowned through the whole galaxy as an exploration ship whose crew has dedicated itself to finding Goberling’s lost world.

In general, I quite liked the characters, and the relationships developing between them. They’re all their own kind of badass, even the ones, like Nika, who’re not crew that learnt to fight on a ship. There’s a slight dash of hinted romance, but never enough to interfere with the story. The budding friendship between Nika and Josune never veers towards that annoying trope of “female friendships always tinged with interest for A Man”. The Road’s crew sticks together, bound with a loyalty that keeps growing with each trip. And the regular quibbles between Nika and Snow (another modder), was overall fun enough, also because you can feel the nascent respect underneath.

Other things I liked less, though. First, the pacing was sometimes weird, carried in places by short sentences and paragraphs that felt too abrupt; the characters are constantly on the run, and at times it felt that not much happened, that everything was mainly their running away, with bits of story in between.

Another problematic aspect was Nika’s obsession with modding. I enjoyed the more technical side of it (I wish we had such machines, hah!), but she too often went about imagining how she’d reinvent the people around her, from their hair to judging them too fat, which was definitely obnoxious (and motivated much more by aesthetic judgements than by health reasons). For a character who prides herself on being a trend-setter, her trends were somewhat quite… conservative, a.k.a. everybody has to be slim and trim. Somehow, I’m not convinced that if our future does hold such body modding in store, everyone will want the same.

Finally, I wasn’t fully on board (look what I did there) with some of the plot twists, because they were too easy to guess, and I could see them coming a parsec away, to the point that I couldn’t understand how the characters didn’t see it sooner. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it was made too obvious, too soon? I don’t know. And we don’t get to learn that much about Snow, which is a shame, because I suspect he also has his closet full.

Conclusion: 3 to 3.5 stars. In the end, some parts I had trouble with, others kept me hooked, so while it wasn’t the best book I read this year, it was nonetheless very entertaining, and set in a world that I wouldn’t mind revisiting, because a single book can’t possibly reveal all there is to know about it.