BOOK REVIEW: The Contact Paradox, by Keith Cooper

BOOK REVIEW: The Contact Paradox, by Keith CooperTitle: The Contact Paradox: Challenging our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Keith Cooper
Published by Bloomsbury SIGMA
Published: January 21st 2020
Genres: Science
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Inside the difficult questions about humanity's search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
What will happen if humanity makes contact with another civilization on a different planet? In The Contact Paradox, space journalist Keith Cooper tackles some of the myths and assumptions that underlie SETI--the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
In 1974 a message was beamed towards the stars by the giant Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, a brief blast of radio waves designed to alert extraterrestrial civilizations to our existence. Of course, we don't know if such civilizations really exist. But for the past six decades a small cadre of researchers have been on a quest to find out, as part of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The silence from the stars is prompting some researchers, inspired by the Arecibo transmission, to transmit more messages into space, in an effort to provoke a response from any civilizations out there that might otherwise be staying quiet. However, the act of transmitting raises troubling questions about the process of contact. We look for qualities such as altruism and intelligence in extraterrestrial life, but what do these mean to humankind? Can we learn something about our own history when we explore what happens when two civilizations come into contact? Finally, do the answers tell us that it is safe to transmit, even though we know nothing about extraterrestrial life, or as Stephen Hawking argued, are we placing humanity in jeopardy by doing so?
In The Contact Paradox, author Keith Cooper looks at how far SETI has come since its modest beginnings, and where it is going, by speaking to the leading names in the field and beyond. SETI forces us to confront our nature in a way that we seldom have before--where did we come from, where are we going, and who are we in the cosmic context of things? This book considers the assumptions that we make in our search for extraterrestrial life, and explores how those assumptions can teach us about ourselves.

I am not a science-minded person and a lot of upper-level math boggles my mind, but I do love reading about science, especially space and astrophysics and what lies beyond our atmosphere. When I had the opportunity to read The Contact Paradox by Keith Cooper, I jumped on it, because I love the idea of examining what it means to achieve contact with extraterrestrials.

I really loved how Cooper presented his argument, circled back around to clarify and reiterate, and also used pop culture and science fiction references to illustrate some of the ideas about which he wrote. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is accessible and is not full of unexplained jargon so that a casual science reader like myself could pick it up, understand the concepts about which he wrote, and enjoy it. I think writing about a very specialized, specific field in a way that makes it accessible to people on the other side of the field is a difficult task, and I thoroughly enjoyed this from beginning to end.

Two quotes (taken from an unfinished copy, so they may be different in the final versions) really stuck to me that I ended up writing them down in my notebook illustrate the concept of the Contact Paradox:

… maybe the civilisations that last are the ones that keep their heads down and out of trouble. On the other hand […], maybe what other civilisations are looking for as evidence that we are stepping up and becoming a good galactic civilisation is a willingness to reach out, and maybe there are implications if we choose not to. This is the dichotomy at the heart of the Contact Paradox. It is a maze of assumptions, cherished beliefs and few facts.

SETI [the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] is not just a search for aliens. It’s also a search for ourselves. We project our hopes and fears, our history and our expectations about the future of humanity onto what we think extraterrestrial civilisations might be like. The stars are a mirror and, when we gaze up at them, if we look closely enough, we see our reflection staring back. Study that reflection and we may learn something about ourselves.

The concept of extraterrestrial life is big in science fiction, and when I taught science fiction, I always liked to include bits like this (not so eloquently put, but I wanted to get my students thinking about what extraterrestrial life in fiction meant). Often times, in fiction, when characters go out exploring within the narrative laid out for them, they’re not always just searching for something else or the other. A lot of the times they’re also searching for themselves and their meaning within the greater context of their world, and the struggle in searching for themselves is that to themselves they must find definition. Who am I? Who are we? Who do I want to be? These and similar questions are also faced in the context of what it means to actually seek out or receive communication and visits from other planets and whether or not that’s possible in our lifetimes or any near-future lifetimes. And if it isn’t possible, then what? Then who are we?

Thank you to Bloomsbury for a gifted digital ARC! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess KiddTitle: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Published by Atria Books
Published: February 4, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 373
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.

Bridie Devine—female detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors trading curiosities in this age of discovery.

Winding her way through the labyrinthine, sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing a past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where spectacle is king and nothing is quite what it seems.

Blending darkness and light, history and folklore, Things in Jars is a spellbinding Gothic mystery that collapses the boundary between fact and fairy tale to stunning effect and explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.

Here is time held in suspension. Yesterday pickled. Eternity in a jar.

I love a good disturbing, yet still whimsical, historical fiction mystery. Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars is set in the Victorian era, but right away, you notice that something is different. With elements of fairy tales and the obscure, I felt that this world was both familiar and unfamiliar, and I wanted to know more about it. The novel focuses on Bridie Devine, a detective, who is commissioned to find the whereabouts of a strange young girl named Christobel who is not an ordinary child. With the assistance of her extraordinarily tall lady’s maid Cora and a ghost of a prizefighter Ruby, Bridie goes on a trek through the seedy, dirty parts of London to discover the history and whereabouts of Christobel and to discover more about herself.

The narrative shifts back and forth from Bridie’s current time and Bridie’s past interweaving to give us a glimpse of the person she was and how she became the person she is in her present day. Sometimes these narrative shifts can be jarring, but these were seamless, illuminating the current day’s dilemmas and mysteries with the past’s introspection and revelation. The world building was exquisitely described. There were times I felt like I was right there as invisible eyes watching everything unfold. The characters were so fascinating and multifaceted that I wanted to learn more about them in more books, especially Cora. She was such a fantastic character to me at seven feet tall and truly herself. And I was left completely heartbroken at the end with Ruby and his final words to Bridie. I’m not giving anything away, because it’s such a perfect ending for this story, closing off bits and pieces, and opening up the door to more, making me hope for future installments in this world, however they might come along.

If you’re in the mood for a good, dark, entertaining historical mystery, do look into this one. It was one of my favorite reads in January!

Thank you to Atria Books for a gifted ARC! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Guinevere Deception, by Kiersten White

BOOK REVIEW: The Guinevere Deception, by Kiersten WhiteTitle: The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White
Series: Camelot Rising #1
Published by Delacorte Press
Published: November 5th 2019
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

There is nothing in the world as magical and terrifying as a girl.

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom's borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution -- send in Guinevere to be Arthur's wife... and his protector from those who want to see the young king's idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere's real name -- and her true identity -- is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old -- including Arthur's own family -- demand things continue as they have been, and the new -- those drawn by the dream of Camelot -- fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land. Arthur's knights believe they are strong enough to face any threat, but Guinevere knows it will take more than swords to keep Camelot free.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

From New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White comes a new fantasy series reimagining the Arthurian legend, set in the magical world of Camelot.

I’ve always loved King Arthur, it’s mythologies, and all of the various takes on the lore, but Kiersten White’s The Guinevere Deception blew me away. It had been so long since I’ve read anything King Arthur, and I was really excited when I got approved for this ARC from Netgalley.

The story opens with Guinevere arriving to Camelot before her marriage, unsure of herself and her future position in King Arthur’s court, and it’s soon revealed that Guinevere is not who she seems, not even to herself. She has been sent to protect King Arthur rather than merely be a bride sent from a royal family. Throughout the course of the story, Guinevere balances learning about her past and her realities while also getting to know the court in which she lives and the people with whom she is surrounded.

I absolutely love the duality of Guinevere’s character and thought that the struggles she faced while in the midst of all sorts of discovery were true to herself. The supporting case of characters were well-developed, had incredible range and depth, and delighted and surprised me at every turn. The first part of the book did feel a little slow, but since this is the set-up to what I hope is at least a trilogy, I did find it necessary. There’s a lot of ground to cover when reinventing a familiar story, and by the last half of the book, I was completely hooked and didn’t want this to end. I don’t want to spoil anything, but of all the supporting characters, I think Lancelot is my favorite and I’m so excited to see what White does with this character in the context of the familiar stories.

This is one of my favorite reads of the year, and not just YA reads, just because it was so much fun and so inventive on so many levels. I’ve never read White before, but I’ve had the physical ARC for her Frankenstein retelling and the first of another series on my kindle for a while, so I’m definitely bumping those up on my TBR because I enjoyed this so much.

Read this if you enjoy fantasy and/or King Arthur revisits, because this checked off so many boxes for me and I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it since I read it.

Thank you to Netgalley and Delacorte for the review copy! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The English Wife, by Lauren Willig

BOOK REVIEW: The English Wife, by Lauren WilligTitle: The English Wife by Lauren Willig
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: January 9th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 376
Format: Hardcover, ARC
Source: Purchased, Netgalley
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Willig, comes this scandalous New York Gilded Age novel full of family secrets, affairs, and even murder.

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

I was looking through my Netgalley queue deciding on my next read, and Lauren Willig’s The English Wife caught my eye. It was one of those I started reading a long time ago, set it aside for whatever reason, and ended up purchasing a copy of the book for myself because look at that cover? It’s gorgeous. So with it being October and with me being in the mood for some historical fiction, I decided to pick this up again. This took a little bit of time to get into, but by the time I got through the first quarter of the book, I was hooked and I needed to know how the story got to its end. There’s nothing entirely new about the plot or the types of characters and once I was clued into a certain character’s behaviors, I did begin to put together the pieces of the narrative and very nearly guess whodunit, and that’s completely fine. It felt both familiar and new, I was entertained, and I loved the insights to and development of each of the four main characters.

One of the things I loved the most about The English Wife was the Gilded Age setting. I’m such a sucker for it, especially when it’s done well, and this novel felt incredibly atmospheric in just the right ways. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Willig before, but this certainly makes me want to go back and see what I’ve missed! After being in a reading slump for a while, Willig’s novel was exactly what I needed. Something a little familiar, something a little new, something that reminded me how fun reading could be. I absolutely devoured this within a twenty-four hour period, and it felt like it had been a while since a book was able to captivate me like that from the get-go.

This was a perfect mid-October read, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. If you like historical fiction with a heavier lean on romance, do look into this!

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for the digital galley! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The New Voices of Science Fiction, edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Wiseman

BOOK REVIEW: The New Voices of Science Fiction, edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob WisemanTitle: The New Voices of Science Fiction by Hannu Rajaniemi, Jacob Weisman, Kelly Robson, Alice Sola Kim, Rich Larson, Sam J. Miller, Suzanne Palmer, Sarah Pinkser, E. Lily Yu, Rebecca Roanhorse, Alexander Weinstein, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, S. Qiouyi Lu, Nino Cipri, Jamie Wahls, Darcie Little Badger, Samantha Mills, David Erik Nelson, Jason Sanford, Amman Sabet, Lettie Prell, Amal El-Mohtar
Published by Tachyon Publications
Published: November 5th 2019
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 432
Format: ARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

What would you do if your collective of tiny bots suddenly decide to mutiny? Would you find bioprinted steak delicious, even after it was signed by the artist? Is an 11 second attention-span long enough to bond with a cryogenically-revived tourist? Would you sell your native language to send your daughter to college?

The avant garde of science fiction has appeared, arriving via time machines and portals that may (or may not) work properly. In this space-age sequel to award-winning anthology, The New Voices of Fantasy, The New Voices of Science Fiction has launched the rising stars of the last five years of science fiction, including Rebecca Roanhorse, Amal El-Mohtar, Alice Sola Kim, Sam J. Miller, E. Lily Yu, Rich Larson, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker, Darcie Little Badger, S. Qiouyi Lu, Kelly Robson, Suzanne Palmer, Nino Cipri, and more. Their wide-ranging tales were hand-selected by cutting-edge author Hannu Rajaniemi (The Quantum Thief) and genre expert Jacob Weisman (Invaders).

So go ahead, join the starship revolution. The new kids hotwired the AI.

The New Voices of Science Fiction is an excellent companion to The New Voices of Fantasy published by Tachyon in 2017. So often genre is lumped together, especially science fiction and fantasy, but, just like me, if you enjoyed The New Voices of Fantasy, you will almost certainly enjoy The New Voices of Science Fiction. All of the stories included in this anthology were originally published or written within the last five or so years? Some of the names are unfamiliar to me, but a lot of these names have come to critical acclaim within those last five years, so it’s an excellent introduction if you’re also wondering where to begin with the genre. Yes, the entire SF genre. A lot of the older “classic” science fiction feels dated in tone, terminology, and technology and can at times feel intimidating for someone who may be unfamiliar with the genre, and this anthology elevates the newer voices we should be paying attention to. And yes, there are foundational genre works that act as cornerstones, but sometimes we have to smash the past and build something new.

My favorite stories in this anthology were Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,” Amal El-Mohtar’s “Madeleine,” and Suzanne Palmer’s “Madeleine,” but all of them have something to consider and were all enjoyable to read. One of the things I loved most about this was that the writers included in this collection are so diverse, elevating a lot of different cultures, ideas, ways of looking at the world, and storytelling styles, and that is exactly what I hope for when I read any anthology, and this one ticked all of the boxes for me. This collection also made me want to go read the longer works by the authors included, and I realized I’ve had several books on my shelves already!

Thank you to Tachyon Publications and Netgalley for a complimentary review copy! All opinions are my own.