Mathematics, Its Contents, Methods and Meaning – A Book Review

Back in the times before the Great Flood, I was a lowly undergraduate student in a public university.  I started out as a chemistry major but credits back then were very cheap, almost free, so I ended up taking an enormous number of credits in mathematics too.  When I reached my senior year, I had taken all the requisite chemistry courses for the BS degree but I also had discovered that I found the lab work extremely tedious.  What was a nerd to do?  Well, I took a few more math courses and got my degree in mathematics instead.  Since I was planning on raising an expensive family with Camera Girl, I decided to get a job as an actuary at one of the many fine insurance companies in Manhattan.  Imagine my embarrassment to find that compared to being an actuary a lab chemist was like being James Bond.  These insurance actuaries were the most boring human beings that walked this green earth.  With two strikes against me I had to be careful what I did next.  I talked to some smart guys and they asked me what I thought of chemical engineering.  I asked them, “What is chemical engineering?”  Well, these wise men told me that it was the golden road to wealth, fame and happiness.  Since I’ve always been gullible, I believed them.  Where things went from there is a story for a long winter evening but suffice it to say that I abandoned science for the greener pastures of the engineering world.  In other words, I sold my soul to the devil.  But I earned enough to raise a family.

But I always hankered for the chance to take more math classes.  While I was taking my engineering courses I had the chance to speak to an old math professor of mine and described my regret that I’d be too busy for the next thirty years or so to take anymore math classes and wondered whether he could recommend a self-study text that covered all the fields of mathematics that I might be interested in.  I knew that this guy was something of a bibliophile and luckily for me he said he had the very thing.  He told me it was a Soviet Russian three volume set published in translation by the MIT Press.  It wasn’t too pricey so I bought it and stuck it in a corner of my bookshelf and there it sat mostly unread for thirty years.

About ten years ago I finally got my last kid out of college and paid off the house and I was looking at cleaning out all the junk I had accumulated over the years when I rediscovered this set of books.  On a lark I started thumbing through it and opened up the section on topology.  And quickly discovered that I still enjoyed mathematics.  Now you may think that engineering was a field where mathematics abounds.  But after almost thirty years in the field the mathematical content of what I did on a daily basis had degenerated from differential equations into spreadsheets to figure out equipment depreciation and maybe the odd pressure drop or heat transfer calculation.  I had become a lapsed mathematician.  So, it was with great pleasure that I scanned the various sections of the set.  Non-Euclidean Geometry, Topology, Prime Numbers and other equally useless but interesting things.  Now whenever I have time I delve into the books and lose myself for a few hours and enjoy the guilty pleasure of contemplating the whichness of what.  Today I was reading what these long dead Russians had to say about the relevance of Non-Euclidean Geometry when considering the details of our actual universe.  When a ray of light can be bent by gravity what exactly is the validity of the concept of the parallel postulate?  With our current understanding of particle/wave duality what exactly can we consider empty space?  These esteemed commies made a statement from what they call dialectic materialism and define space as the form of existence of matter.  Now what the hell does that mean?  From what I read they are saying that the concept of space only has meaning in the contest of matter.  Well does that mean there is no such thing as empty space?

This is great stuff.  It makes me feel young again and inspires me to want to write a science fiction story where everything in the universe is adjacent to everything else and therefore problems like faster than light travel are merely a matter of having the correct mental picture when attempting to go from your leather recliner to, let us say, a planet in the Andromeda galaxy.

Anyway, if you’re ever in need of a general reference on mathematics that might spark your gray matter, I highly recommend Mathematics, Its Contents, Methods and Meaning by A. D. Aleksandrov, A. N. Kolmogorov and M. A. Lavrent’ev.

Peace Talks – A Novel of The Dresden Files – by Jim Butcher – An SF&F Book Review

Back in 2018 I did a review of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files urban fantasy series.  In that review I enthusiastically recommended the series but noted that the last installment was released back in 2014.  This year Butcher published the sixteenth and seventeenth volumes in the series, “Peace Talks” and “Battle Ground.”  Somewhat unusually these two books comprise a single story.  So that means that the ending of Peace Talks is a great big “to be continued” notice.  Normally that would be extremely annoying but because the two books were released back to back it’s tolerable.  Another unusual situation is the fact that I haven’t read a Dresden Files book in several years.  For that reason, I’m having trouble deciding if the “voice” of Harry in the book is the same as it used to be.  I’m going to say that it isn’t the same.  Part of this may have to do with the changes in Harry’s status since his last story.  Now he is the “Knight” for Mab the dangerous Winter Queen and also the father of a young girl, Maggie.  I’ll have to go back to the previous book but I believe they have tamed down Harry quite a bit.

If you haven’t read the earlier books then you don’t want to jump into the series at volume sixteen.  Read my review of the series and decide if you want to start up with this very long but very good urban fantasy series.  If you have read the earlier volumes then I’ll report that the series is shaping up to be just as chaotic and crazy as ever.  As is Butcher’s way, the story starts out with an existential crisis developing in Harry’s life and then blossoms into the apocalypse.  Whenever something really bad happens the scramble to avoid catastrophe leads to a crisis that is orders of magnitude worse.  I will say that the pacing of the initial crisis seemed a little slow in spots based on my memory of how Butcher did these things.  And maybe that has to do with this being a two-book story.  But by the end of the book things were falling apart very nicely and Harry was right in his sweet spot, trying to save the world without any reasonable hope of even saving himself.  All his enemies were his only possible allies and all of his friends were alienated and hostile.  I won’t throw in any spoilers.  All the old characters are back and we see some of the damage done in the last book is still haunting the characters here.  Murph is seriously injured in a leg and arm.  She is no longer with Chicago PD and is awaiting additional surgeries and rehab to partially recover from her injuries.  Molly Carpenter is now the Winter Lady, Mab’s lieutenant and she has used her connections to provide Harry and his daughter with a home.  It is an apartment that is contained within a sort of embassy building owned and run by the Svartalves (dark elves) who are very serious about security.  This was necessary because in the last book the Red House Vampires finally burned Harry’s crummy home to the ground.  And his Volkswagen Bug was also finished off.  Now he’s driving a reconditioned and ancient hearse that he calls the Munstermobile.

I will say that the annoyance of having the book end in the middle of the story is acceptable because having Harry back is worth it.  I expect really good things from Battle Ground and if you’re a Dresden Files fan you have no choice but to jump in and enjoy the wreckage that Harry drags in his wake.  Highly recommended.

Horror Then and Now

My longtime readers know that I indulge myself in the run-up to Halloween with book and movie reviews that concur with my preferences for that holiday.  A couple of years ago I wrote reviews for all the Universal Classic Monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s.  I usually take the season as an excuse to reread Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and watch the movie for good measure.

But last year I reviewed Psycho and this year I intend to review the Thomas Harris novels that include the character Hannibal Lecter.  Many years ago, a friend gave me his copy of Red Dragon and I found it to be one of the most unsettling things I had ever read.  And although the violence and insanity were pretty extreme by the standards of that happier time, the thing about the book that truly frightened me was the plausibility of the killer’s method for stalking his victims and the impossibility of protecting your family from someone who was determined to kill in that fashion.  I guess it was the fact that I had a young family at that time and the idea that I might be powerless to save them that horrified me.  And that is when I first became aware that true horror always has a human face.  It won’t be a normal human but it will look out of a face that is attached to a driver’s license and a cellphone and a bank account.

So, there is a difference between the good old days and the bad new days.  We stopped trying to gently scare children and now we horrify adults by showing them what’s really out there.  I’ll be the first to admit that watching Frankenstein or Dracula doesn’t actually involve any fear for anyone over the age of ten.  It was natural that movie makers and writers would escalate the violence and cart out the gore to tempt adult thrill-seekers, mostly in their teenage years, to spend their entertainment dollars on the latest fright fest.  Back in the 1970s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the poster child for exploitation movies aimed at frightening audiences out of their seats.  Since then every year has upped the ante until lately the content has gotten so bad that the real name for what this represents has been designated.  These movies are portraying torture through grisly dismemberment.

I consider that a distinction can be made between these gore fests that are almost bereft of meaningful characters and plot and crime drama like “Silence of the Lambs” which while it does include the description of horrible violence and depravity is not focused on flinging gore across the screen to delight the demented.  It tells the story of people.  This includes the victims, the police and even the murderer.  We supposedly learn a little about what drives some of these characters to become monsters.

I’m not a devotee of crime drama or fiction.  As I said I was given the Red Dragon book long ago and because of it I went to see the Silence of the Lambs when it came out.  Out of a sense of curiosity I read the rest of the Lecter books and saw the movies and tv series.  I don’t think the later books were as good as the first two but I will review them all for general interest purposes.

But I have all the Universal Monster movies on DVD and I intend to watch them all with my younger grandsons as soon as the lockdown ends.  They’re the correct age and they’ll get a kick out of them.  And truth be told, so will I.

Warbound – Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles – by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction-Fantasy Book Review

Warbound is the third and the (currently) final volume of Larry Correia’s Grimnoir series.  And as such it ties together the threads from the earlier volumes, Hard Magic and Spellbound and provides the resolution of the story lines for the main characters Jake Sullivan and Faye Vierra.  These two are powerful “actives,” possessors of magic abilities in one or several categories working for the Grimnoir Society.  Jake is a Gravity Spiker with the ability to alter gravity at will while Faye is a Traveler, someone who can teleport from one location to another.  Both have been tested during the crises in the earlier books when they faced off first against the Iron Guard actives of the Japanese Imperium and afterward against rogue actives in the US intelligence agencies that were attempting to blame the Grimnoir Society for magical attacks by other forces.

But now the whole planet is threatened by an alien creature that preys on the entity that produces the magic.  The knowledge of what is at stake produces some strange alliances that alter the dynamic that the earlier books portrayed.  And despite the war footing that the book details Correia is able to mix just enough humor and other character driven interest to allow the pleasant juggling of a large number of characters.  One of the features of this historical fantasy world is the introduction of historical figures often possessing magic themselves.  Blackjack Pershing, J. Edgar Hoover, Buckminster Fuller, even FDR make longer or shorter appearances in the books.

I won’t go into a detailed plot summary because I don’t want to spoil the story.  Suffice it to say I’m giving it a very good rating.  And I’ll finish off by saying a few things about Correia’s story writing.  Without a doubt Correia is one of the best sf&f authors around today.  Going beyond that I’ll say he compares well with the older authors back in the heyday of the genres.  He writes good heroes and good villains.  He has a good ear for dialog and he can even inject humor into the story in a natural way.  One of his favorite types is a variant of the competent man but instead of Heinlein’s omnicompetent type Correia’s hero is usually a working- or middle-class guy who is good with his fists and guns and adheres to a code of conventional morality.  And as an added bonus his heroes are actually likable.  Even his villains are interesting.

And there’s one final bonus with Correia that is refreshing to see in today’s social justice infused entertainment industry.  There won’t be a single character thrown in just to earn intersectional social justice brownie points from the pink science fiction crowd.  Just regular people with super powers fighting super villains without having to worry if any of them is being oppressed by the really evil cis-het white man.

So far, I’ve read all Correia’s Monster Hunter books and now the Grimmoir books.  I’ve also enjoyed his comical Tom Stranger audiobooks and I follow his website for his take on the latest outrages by the pink science fiction scolds.  Next, I’ll start his epic fantasy series “Saga of the Forgotten Warrior” without bothering to check reviews because I’m already sure it’ll be excellent.  And in today’s science fiction and fantasy environment that’s pretty rare.

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem – A Science Fiction Book Review

Many years ago, I read some short stories by the Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem.  I remember they had futuristic elements like interstellar travel but they also included a certain amount of communist doublespeak about socialist this and soviet that.  And that seemed really odd.

But recently War Dog mentioned favorably the “The Cyberiad” collection of stories and its mathematical love poem so I decided to give Lem another whirl.

The stories in this book are the adventures of two robot inventors, or as they are called in their world Constructors, named Trurl and Klapaucius.  And when I say robot inventors I mean to say that they are inventors who are themselves robots.  They are friends and rivals and from time to time enemies.  They go on assignments together or separately taking on contracts to build just about anything imaginable.  And sometimes they build things for themselves that don’t always seem to be very sensible.  For instance, one- time Trurl constructed a machine that could create anything starting with the letter n.  It could make needles, negligees, nepenthe, narcotics, nimbuses, noodles, nuclei, neutrons, naphtha, noses, nymphs, naiads but not natrium.  And why not?  Because natrium is Latin for sodium and in English sodium starts with s!  Later on, being told to make nothing almost puts an end to the universe but luckily Trurl stops the machine just in time.

So as you can see this is comic science fiction. It’s something sort of in the same vein as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” but what it also reminds me of is Lewis Carroll and his Wonderland stories.  There is an enormous amount of wordplay and punning going on in the stories.  The interesting thing is that a lot of the word play is specific to English and these stories were written in Polish which makes me wonder if the translator had to find English equivalents for Polish puns.

The Constructors become involved in adventures that take them all through the cosmos fulfilling contracts for kings and emperors and pirates and sometimes for common people who just really need help.  They build monsters and demons and story telling machines and even machines that know everything about the whole universe.  Interestingly it seems most of the universe is populated by robots and other cybernetic beings.  Organic beings exist and seem to be pretty generally looked down upon by the robots.  But the robots are very human in their foibles and behavior and none more so than our heroes Trurl and Klapaucius.

Mixed in with the zaniness of each of their adventures is a good dose of irony about the human condition.  The selfishness and cruelty of many of their employers and the vanity and greed of the Constructors themselves is often the point of the stories and the fantasy setting is there to add humor and interest to the tale.  And also Lem is enjoying the poetic aspect of the words.  Sure, we can’t hear the Polish words to know it’s poetical but based on the English words you can see that Stanislaw Lem is like a “drunken lord of language” always using twenty words for effect where one is needed for meaning.  Here’s an example:

“Multitudinous are you?”

“We are!”  they shouted, bursting with pride.  “We are innumerable.”

And others cried:

“We are like fish in the sea.”

“Like pebbles on the beach.”

“Like stars in the sky.  Like atoms!”

You get the idea.  Lem is a poet.  And his stories are parables.  And because of this I find that it needs to be broken up and digested in small chunks.  Each of the chapters is a separate story and should be approached as such.  With all of the word play and digressions you can lose track of the nub of the story if you’re tired and not paying attention so I wouldn’t suggest reading them at night before going to bed.  This happened to me once or twice and I realized this wasn’t the kind of material that can be enjoyed at high speed like an adventure novel.  But if you give each story some time and attention it will reward you with a smile and a chuckle.  I’m glad now I was made aware of The Cyberiad.  I will enjoy returning to the adventures of the two intrepid Constructors Trurl and Klapaucius on some cold night in January when my world needs something lighthearted and clever to get me through the short days and long nights of winter.  But if you don’t like an airy, poetical style of writing this might not be for you.

Spellbound – Book II of the Grimnoir Chronicles – by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction-Fantasy Book Review

“Spellbound” is the second book in this series.  Obviously since I am reviewing this second volume, I enjoyed the first installment “Hard Magic” (see my review of it here).

In this story the main characters Jake Sullivan and Faye Vierra are once again swept along in the cataclysmic ricochets of real magic altering the world of the early 20th century.  It’s 1933 and FDR is coming into office and one of his priorities is dealing with the ‘Actives.”  This is the term for humans that have major magical powers.  This includes “Brutes” who are inhumanly strong, “Travelers” who can teleport, “Healers” who can cure almost any disease or injury and numerous other special types.  In the first book we learned how the Japanese had harnessed Actives as a spearpoint for their war machine in Asia.  And we met Jake and Faye.  Now they are veteran “knights” in the Grimnoir Society, sworn to use their powers to protect the innocent and destroy those using magic for evil.

But forces within the United States government are conspiring to discredit the Grimnoir and turn the American public against the Actives through a series of false flag operations.  This book is the story of the Grimnoir fighting against that operation.  But it also builds on the conflict with the Japanese Iron Guard, (enhanced military Actives) from the first book and then clarifies the nature of the forces that had originally unleashed magic into the world and how that will threaten the whole world in the very near future.

Okay, so that’s the setup.  Larry Correia is a very good story teller.  He paints a very rich picture with his characters and the action of the plot.  Even the villains are well written and the story is peppered with historical personages like J Edgar Hoover and Buckminster Fuller who are adapted to fill their roles in this alternate universe.  Each chapter begins with a quote from some person, mostly historical, saying something that illustrates how real magic has impacted the alternate universe of the story.

I find this alternate world very entertaining.  The Jake Sullivan character is one of Correia’s competent man heroes.  He is a brawler who has been treated badly by the world but refuses to abandon the good.  Even his enemies have learned to respect his abilities and this allows him to form alliances that otherwise would be impossible.  Faye is a powerfully gifted “Traveler” who possess abilities that far exceed what other Actives can do.  She is also a very young woman from a sheltered small-town environment who is still trying to figure out how she fits into this strange world she finds herself in.

These two characters are the twin focuses around which the other characters and the plot revolve.  The whole story is a straight forward action adventure.  There are plenty of good guys, bad guys and even some good bad guys and bad good guys.  It’s a combination of Buck Rodgers, The Untouchables and H. P. Lovecraft with some film noir thrown in for good measure.  If that sounds like something you might like then pick up the first book Hard Magic and start at the beginning.  If you’ve already read it then know that the series is still getting better in book two, Spellbound.

Hard Magic – by Larry Correia – A Fantasy Book Review

Larry Correia is the author of the Monster Hunter urban fantasy book series.  I’ve enjoyed these books for years and also enjoy his comical Tom Stranger audiobook series.  So recently I looked around and decided I should check out some of his other writing.

Back in 2011 Correia wrote an urban fantasy, alternate history book called Hard Magic – Book I of the Grimnoir Chronicles.  In this alternate reality magic starts appearing on Earth in the 19th century and by the time of the story, the 1930s, there are various magical powers that have become part of everyday life and corporate policy.  For instance, dirigibles and blimps do not disappear from the airs because magical practitioners called “Torches” have the ability to prevent fires from destroying the explosive hydrogen filled balloons with their powers.

There are humans called “Healers” with the power to heal disease and injury by a laying on of hands.  And alternatively, there can be an individual called a “Pale Horse” who has the power to cause disease and even horribly painful death with just a touch of his hand.  And there are dozens of other powers out there.  “Brutes” are able to increase their strength tremendously and toughen themselves to withstand enormous punishment.  Some can walk through walls, some teleport from place to place and some can control gravity and density and even the weather.

The outlines of history are similar to the actual history.  World War One occurred and the rise of the Japanese Empire is happening but each of these things included large-scale use of magical power.  Historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Black Jack Pershing exist but they are involved in the magical events.  Nikola Tesla is a “Cog” which is an individual whose intellect has a magical quality to it and in this world, he invents magical doomsday devices such as the Geo-Tel which can destroy everything within a thousand-mile radius at the push of a button.

The book has a couple of main characters.  Faye Vierra is a teenager living on her adoptive grandfather’s dairy ranch.  She is a “Traveller.”  Grandpa was able to teach her how to safely use her power because he also is a “Traveller.”  What she doesn’t know is that he is a retired member of the Grimnoir Society, an order of magically gifted individuals who pledge to use their power to protect society from the misuse of magic.  When evil men show up Grandpa sends Faye off with a dangerous device that he tells her to give to Black Jack Pershing.

The other main character is Jake Sullivan.  Jake is a Gravity Spiker.  He can change the force of gravity.  He can make it stronger of weaker and even change its direction.  Jake is getting out of prison for a justifiable homicide that was declared murder.  Jake has agreed to a parole condition under which he will assist the FBI and local law enforcement with super strong magical individuals like brutes in exchange for a shortened sentence.  But during one of these operations he finds out that there are magical agents working outside the law but not against it.  And it leads back to Pershing.

The story knits together a cast of characters inside the Grimnoir Society that are working to prevent the capture by the Japanese Imperium of a Geo-Tel device.  A shadowy leader, the Chairman, is a powerful, almost godlike leader whose forces are bent on world domination and the destruction of the United States.

Correia crafts an enjoyable narrative with a full range of engaging characters moving across the country and the world pursuing their varying interests and racing against time to retrieve the pieces of the Geo-Tel before the Imperium can unleash Armageddon.  I highly recommend the book and am looking forward to the arrival of the sequel Spellbound.

Galaxy’s Edge – Takeover – A Science Fiction Book Review

Takeover is listed as the first book of “Galaxy’s Edge Season Two.”  This signifies the end of the first story arc that pitted the corrupt House of Reason against the imperial designs of Goth Sullus with the Legion trapped in the middle.  With the end of that chapter we begin this season in the aftermath of that struggle with the Legion reorganizing the Galactic Republic after the defeat of the Goth Sullus and the dissolution of the House of Reason.

All of this change has left almost everything and everyone throughout the galaxy in flux.  This is the story of one of those places, Kublar, a world with its own indigenous race now heavily controlled by a government installed from outside by the now defunct House of Reason and also heavily colonized by an aggressive and hostile outside race called the zhee.

An outside force arrives in the form of a private army of mercenaries hired by a man called Arkaddy Nilo.  Nilo has a plan to alter the imperial methods of the Galactic Republic and restore freedom to the many worlds that chafe under the rule of the Republic.  Takeover is the story of how that plan is implemented by Nilo and of the two primary weapons that Nilo uses.  One is a former legionnaire named Carter who leads a platoon of combat soldiers that provide the skills needed to aid the koobs (nickname given to the natives of Kublar) in their fight to take back their planet.  The second is a former Republic Navy spy named Bowie who performs clandestine operations for Nilo meant to destabilize the coalition of the House of Reason government, the zhee and a local group of koobs who benefit from selling out the interests of the rest of their people in return for special treatment.

Anyone who has read any of my earlier reviews of the Galaxy’s Edge books knows I’m an enthusiastic fan of the series.  The authors Jason Anspach and Nick Cole have created an exciting and inventive universe full of military science fiction fun.  Takeover continues this legacy with a new cast and fresh storylines that provide a different direction from last season.  The opportunities for expanding the scope of the story are very apparent in Takeover and back story about the nature of the invaders from the “Savage Wars” era is sprinkled in the story line that Bowie inhabits.

The battle scenes are exciting and well-drawn.  The characters are interesting and include good guys to cheer and plenty of bad guys to snuff out.  And as opposed to season one there are plenty of opportunities for the good guys to actually win the day without sacrificing the whole cast.

Okay, so this is a no-brainer.  I highly recommend Anspach and Cole’s Galaxy’s Edge series and I am happy to announce that the first book of Season Two, Takeover, continues the proud tradition of Season One in providing quality military science fiction that you can enjoy.  And you can even applaud as the social justice losers in the government imposed by the House of Reason are thwarted and routed by the good guys.  What could be better than that?

Vox Day Has a Very Interesting Essay on Human Society

The purpose of the article is a book review of Rutger Bregman’s  “Humankind. A Hopeful History” by an anthropologist named  CR Hallpike.  But in refuting Bregman’s theory on how different types of human societies interact he points out the fact that regardless of whether you look at primitive hunter gatherers or modern western populations people distinguish between in group behavior and out group, us versus them.

Vox is touting Dr. Hallpike’s latest book, Darwinism, Dogma, and Cultural Evolution, which I think will be published by Vox Day’s Castalia House imprint.  Seems like an interesting read.  I may pick it up.  Anyway, the essay is long but highly interesting to a non-anthropologist such as myself.