Friday, September 30, 2022

Short Book Reviews: The Wrong School

Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire (Tordotcom)

Every Heart a Doorway introduced a delighted readership to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, a school for children who fall through doors to imaginary worlds and then fall back out again. Such children often cannot adapt to the normal world again, they are so changed—for good or ill—by their time in other worlds. Many are tormented by nightmares or dreams of longing. The Home for Wayward Children offers them a place of understanding where they can slowly reconcile with what has happened to them and what they have lost.

But it cannot help all of them.

Cora is one such child. She’s spent too much time as a mermaid, a hero, to be able to accept a world in which her physical body makes her a target for unending teasing. When she hears about The Whitethorn School, she jumps at the chance to transfer. From the moment she enters the new premises, she realizes how different this new school is. The barred windows. The terrified, pathologically obedient students. The autocratic matrons. The Stepford teachers. The sinister headmaster. She finds herself a prisoner, subjected to daily brainwashing, with no hope of escape.

Until one of her friends from the Home for Wayward Children comes to rescue her and becomes the Whitethorn’s latest victim.

Like its predecessors, Where the Drowned Girls Go is filled with glorious inventions, friendships, compassion, and page-turning action.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Tending a Sleeping Star

The Unbalancing
, by R.B. Lemberg (Tachyon)

R. B. Lemberg’s The Unbalancing is an exquisite marriage of imaginative world-building, insightful relationships, and compelling story. Here stars are sentient, ghosts speak to their descendants, both sexuality and gender are accepted as fluid, and people work magic through their “deepnames.” It’s also a sweet love story between a reclusive poet and the brash new starkeeper who’s tasked with the care of a restless, unhappy, submerged star.

The story is rich in unexpected yet consistent details. Through the dual viewpoints, Lemberg guides the reader through the complexities of a world that is just like enough to our own to feel familiar and yet challenging at every turn. Its differences invite us to re-examine our assumptions about people, their nature, and their relationships. What would it be like if every person figured out for themselves if they belonged to a single gender, and if so which one, a combination, or an entirely new one? How does this affect political power? How is physical intimacy negotiated? Lemberg’s characters exemplify  consent (“Is this good?” “Do you want me to go on?” “What would you like?”) as a normal, natural part of courtship, one the modern human world could emulate.

As with Lemberg’s previous novella, The Four Profound Weaves, The Unbalancing is a tale of emotional power and superbly handled prose that often approaches poetry in its nuance and poise. Highly recommended, with the suggestion that it be read slowly and savored.



Monday, September 19, 2022

Multivitamins and the Mind of Older Folks

I was a participant in the COSMOS trial (it was fun!) examining possible benefits for older folks from cocoa flavonoids and an ordinary multivitamin (they used Centrum Silver). While the cocoa extract had no effect on cognition, the multivitamin did--it actually improved cognition! (Cardiovascular events and cancer results are reported elsewhere). Here's the summary:

Vitamins, minerals, and other bioactives in foods are important for normal brain function, and deficiencies in older adults may increase risk for cognitive decline. Dietary supplements are often recommended for cognitive protection, but supporting evidence is mixed. COSMOS investigators partnered with colleagues at Wake Forest University to test whether daily use of cocoa extract or a multivitamin for 3 years can reduce the risk of cognitive decline. The COSMOS-Mind sub-study enrolled 2,262 COSMOS participants aged 65 and older who completed annual telephone interviews to assess memory and thinking abilities. The investigators found that cocoa extract did not affect cognition. On the other hand, daily multivitamin use improved cognitive function. That is, participants assigned to the multivitamin group had higher cognitive test scores after 3 years than the participants assigned to the multivitamin-placebo group. The investigators estimated that taking the daily multivitamin slowed cognitive aging by approximately 60%, or the equivalent of 1.8 years over the 3 years of the study, but this finding requires confirmation in future research. “COSMOS-Mind provides the first evidence from a large randomized trial to show that regular use of a typical daily multivitamin may improve memory and thinking abilities in older adults,” noted COSMOS Co-Director Dr. Howard Sesso, who leads COSMOS with Dr. JoAnn Manson. However, the story continues to unfold as other investigators complete separate studies in COSMOS that dig more deeply into the effects of both cocoa extract and a multivitamin on different aspects of cognition and other aging-related outcomes.

The whole study is here.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Short Book Reviews: Alastair Reynolds A Master of Space Opera

 Inhibitor Phase, by Alastair Reynolds (Orbit)

I’m an unabashed fan of Alastair Reynolds’s science fiction. I love how he combines fascinating hard-science worldbuilding, pitch-perfect control of pacing, and characters who hold my interest even when, let’s face it, they’re downright weird. Inhibitor Phase is no exception. Not only that, but it’s readily accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with the previous books set in the Revelation Space universe.

The background is this: The Inhibitors, a ruthless, infinitely patient cybernetic entity, have all but wiped out humankind. Remnants survive by staying hidden and very, very quiet.

When a lone human ship blunders into the Michaelmas system, it’s only a matter of time before the Inhibitors take notice. For thirty years a tiny band of humans has been sheltering in the caverns of an airless, crater-pocked world. Their leader, Miguel de Ruyter, takes one of their few spacecraft to intercept the intruder ship and prevent this catastrophe. Floating in space, he encounters a refugee from the ship—an enigmatic woman who calls herself Glass—and embarks upon a near-suicidal, against-all-odds quest for a weapon against the Inhibitors.

Reynolds writes very, very good space opera, and this book is no exception. It’s longer than some of his other work, with more sprawling action and a ton of inventive details. Many of the entities de Ruyter (not his real name: hint!) encounters are weird, unpredictable, and deliciously alien.

Monday, September 5, 2022

What's New With Voyager 1?

 Voyager 1 is no Longer Sending Home Garbled Data!

This aging and still-valuable spacecraft has been exploring the outer parts of the solar system since its launch in 1977, along with its twin sibling, Voyager 2. They each traveled slightly different trajectories. Both went past Jupiter and Saturn, but Voyager 2 continued on to Uranus and Neptune. They’re both now outside the solar system, sending back data about the regions of space they’re exploring.

Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter in March 1979, and Saturn in November 1980. After its close approaches to those two gas giants, it started a trajectory out of the solar system and entered interstellar space in 2013. That’s when it ceased to detect the solar wind and scientists began to see an increase in particles consistent with those in interstellar space.

These days, Voyager 1 is more than 157.3 astronomical units from Earth and moving out at well over 61,000 km/hour. It’s busy collecting data about the interstellar medium and radiation from distant objects. If all goes well, the spacecraft should continue sending back data for nearly a decade. After that, it should fall silent as it travels beyond the Oort Cloud and out to the stars.

Earlier this year, however, the teams attached to the Voyager 1 mission noticed that the spacecraft was sending weird readouts about its attitude articulation and control system (called AACS, for short). Essentially, the AACS was sending telemetry data all right, but it was routing it to the wrong computer, one that had failed years ago. This corrupted the data, which led to the strangely garbled messages the ground-based crew received.

Once the engineers figured out that the old, dead computer might have been part of the problem, they had a way forward. They simply told the AACS to switch over sending to the correct computer system. The good news was that it didn’t affect science data-gathering and transmission. The best news came this week: team engineers have fixed the issue with the AACS and the data are flowing normally again.

The ongoing issue with AACS didn’t set off any fault protection systems onboard the spacecraft. If it had, Voyager 1 would have gone into “safe mode” while engineers tried to figure out what happened. During the period of garbled signals, AACS continued working, which indicated that the problem was either upstream or downstream of the unit. The fact that data were garbled provided a good clue to related computer issues.

This adapted article appeared in Universe Today. Click through for the full thing.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Short Book Reviews: A YA Regency Comedy, With Dragons

Scales and Sensibility
(Regency Dragons Book 1), by Stephanie Burgis (Five Fathoms Press)

About 15 years ago, Jane Austen mashups were the hot new thing. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith came out in 2009, followed by a glut of similar parodies and even a film or two. The fad didn’t last, especially as the stories got more derivative and less creative. Stephanie Burgis’s Scales and Sensibility opens with an homage to Austen: “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” Other than an occasional textual reference to Austen’s prose, it has nothing in common with the earlier, vapid parodies. Instead, it takes off in its own whimsical and engaging direction. The protagonist is named Elinor, like the heroine of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and she is indeed sensible, but there the resemblance ends. She is an orphaned cousin, not the eldest daughter, and her counterpart is not her romantic, good-hearted sister but her wealthy, narcissistic cousin, Penelope. When witnessing Penelope’s abuse of her fashionable miniature dragon becomes intolerable, Elinor kidnaps the tiny creature and runs away. Little does she know the dragon’s secret or guess the adventures the two will embark upon.

This novel rests comfortably in the intersection between Young Adult fantasy, Regency romance, and romantic comedy. It’s an engaging, quick read with enough schemes and mistaken identities to satisfy the reader.