Wednesday, October 8, 2008

This Week at the Library (7/10)

Books this Update

I continued in the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove, which sees an alien invasion of Earth in 1942 -- thus interrupting the second world war and creating an alternative history and science fiction scenario. Last week I read the first in the series and enjoyed it, so I’m continuing. Humanity continues exhibiting a distressing ability to innovate, much to the alien invaders’ -- the Race’s -- distress. The Race is slow to adapt to change, which is fortunate for humanity. The human governments realize that the only way they can win this war is to continue destroying the Race’s finite supply of equipment and by gaining atomic weapons. To do this they must cooperate with one another, which is difficult for the Nazis and Soviets, being ideological enemies.

We see growing technological progress: both the Nazis and Brits employ jet aircraft. Jet technology was known in the ‘real’ war, but didn’t see any real consequential use. People continue to innovate new ways to fight the lizards, although it is difficult to see at this point a light at the end of the tunnel. As I read I couldn’t help but wonder how elections were going to be handled in the United States: Germany and Russia are both being lead by dictatorships, and Britain’s system doesn’t mandate scheduled elections. In the United States, however, presidential elections happen every four years -- period. How, I wondered, is that political system going to work when much of the country is controlled by the Race and the parts of it that are still free have been disconnected from transportation and utility networks? Will the elections go on as scheduled -- somehow -- or will FDR simply suspend the Constitution and maintain the incumbent administration? Also, I wonder if the stress is going to lead to FDR’s early demise. It’s a safe bet that April 1944 -- when FDR dies -- will not see the Allies or humanity on the precipice of victory in this timeline. If in the (likely, to my thinking) event that elections are done away with, and FDR dies, what kind of president will the third-term vice president Henry Wallace become? Yet another issue is the question of how much of a boot technology will receive from this war -- from both necessity being the mother of invention and efforts at reverse-engineering Race technology.

After Tilting the Balance, I read Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Prelude is written as a -- well, prelude -- to the Foundation series, but in the afterword of Foundation’s Edge, Asimov says that it’s a good idea to read Prelude and the books that chronologically precede it after reading Edge and Foundation and Earth. The Foundation series begins with the realization by a psychohistorian named Hari Seldon that the Galactic Empire is decaying. Psychohistory is a fictional science that involves using computers and complex mathematical formulas to predict what large groups of human beings will do. Using this psychohistory, Seldon seeks to instigate a series of events that will bring galactic peace and harmony -- and he begins by establishing two Foundations.

Prelude to Foundation takes us “back” in history to when Hari Seldon was a young man who had just started creating psychohistory. While sight-seeing in the imperial capital of Trantor (the inspiration for George Lucas’ Coruscant), Seldon presents a paper on the theory of psychohistory, and catches the eye of various political individuals who want to use his predictive power to further their own success. Seldon maintains that his theory has no practical applications, but is forced on the run anyway. Prelude to Foundation concerns itself with what happens to Seldon during his fugitive period, and hints at the events that unfold in Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth.

I continue to utterly enjoy Asimov’s series. The story moves quickly, is very interesting, and provides a background for the rest of the series. The book won’t displace Foundation or Foundation’s Edge as being my favorites in the series, but it is quite good.

Lastly I finished reading Parasite Rex. From the book’s rear cover:

Imagine a world where parasites control the minds of their hosts, sending them to their destruction.

Imagine a world where parasites are masters of chemical warfare and camouflage, able to cloak themselves with their hosts' own molecules.

Imagine a world where parasites steer the course of evolution, where the majority of species are parasites.

Welcome to earth.

This book is a recommendation from a fellow student of science, and as you can probably deduce, it’s about the wild weird world of parasites. The parasites in the book do not include bacteria and viruses, but are limited to larger organisms -- ranging from microscopic worms that swim in blood to wasps to animals that chew away fish tongues and take their place. I’ve been asked, “Why on Earth are you reading about that?”. The book’s front cover does attract stares, and the question was generally asked of me while eating in my university’s dining hall, as I will read there if I can’t find anyone to eat with. Considering the setting, I can almost understand their disgust.

Parasite Rex would be interesting if it were only about the life cycles of various parasites. This is a subject I find interesting for whatever reason -- I have a strong interest in science and even if I didn’t, the world of parasites is so bizarre that it would capture my attention. It did back when I was in high school, a fundamentalist Pentecostal, and as incurious as enthusiastic Bill’O’heads. I went to a youth service where the designated screamer roared about parasites -- and he had slides. One of the parasites he spoke about was one that gets into ants, then gets them to crawl up blades of grass -- where the sun fries them and where they are eaten by cows, who then serve as a dandy new host for the parasite. The book mentions these, and it also mentions that if ants spot warning signs in an infected ant, they will haul it far away from their colony’s territory. Ants are such fascinating creatures.

Zimmer also writes about the importance of parasites to ecosystems and writes about the ways their evolution has driven the evolution of other life -- including human beings. He concludes with ways we might coexist with parasites for mutual benefit. I don’t say much about the book -- although I enjoyed it -- because frankly, if you don’t like thinking about parasites you aren’t going to want to read the book. But for those who are like me morbidly interested in the bizarre and horrifying world of parasites -- give it a go.

Pick of the Week: Prelude to Foundation, Isaac Asimov.
Next Week:
  • Forward the Foundation, Isaac Asimov
  • The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, Roy Porter
  • The Story of the Titanic, as Told by its Survivors
  • Trial By Error, Mark A. Garland

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