Book Review: The Return by Joseph Helmreich


The Return is the first novel by journalist and screenwriter Joseph Helmreich—a sci-fi thriller with a fresh take on an old trope: Alien Abduction. After years of conspiracy theories, physicist Andrew Leland unwittingly proves the absolute existence of aliens when he is abducted on live television. Seven years later, he is found mysteriously wandering in the desert with no memory of the event. What follows is a tangled web of alien schemes, the obligatory shadowy government organizations, and a determined physics student who doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone.

This was one of those books that I read cold, and honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed. It was generally enjoyable, but it I didn’t think it lived up to its premise. The plot felt disjointed, and it wasn’t clear to me why some things were happening. The central conflict of the humans and the aliens fighting over their mysterious (and somehow unique and irreplaceable) cold fusion source to try to destroy each other was generally fuzzy, and the ending was rushed and just seemed unsatisfying to me. I get the impression that Helmreich was going for the Inscrutable Aliens angle, but it didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the plot.

The government conspiracy angle didn’t help either. I can understand the secret government conspiracy existing, but when a twenty-first century western country starts kidnapping and murdering its own citizens to maintain that conspiracy, it strains credulity.

Overall, I was entertained by The Return, but I can’t honestly say that it’s up to the standards of the truly great books out there.

My rating: 3 out of 5.

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Happy Amerigo Vespucci Day

Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci.jpg

Today is the birthday of Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), an Italian navigator who explored the newly-discovered Americas, got his name attached to them, and arguably deserves his own holiday more than that other Italian navigator you might be thinking of.

Columbus Day has become highly controversial in recent years among the Native American community and others, and beyond his personal flaws (which are many), people argue that you can’t really discover a place where people already live. Now, as for the second point, the fact that the Europeans didn’t know there was a continent here in 1491 and this event being such an important part of world history, means it’s perfectly plausible to have a holiday for it if you want. But I agree that Columbus himself does not deserve it. Columbus wasn’t exactly a genocidal monster (if there was ever any plausible way to prevent smallpox from wiping out most of the Americas, I don’t see it), but he was most definitely a jerk. And more to the point, he certainly was not the paragon of perseverance in the face of ridicule that he’s been made out to be.

Some people suggest Leif Erikson Day (October 9) should replace Columbus Day. And while it’s true that Leif Erikson was the first (confirmed) European to reach America, the fact that the rest of Europe forgot all about it suggests that maybe he wasn’t notable enough to serve the role.

Amerigo Vespucci, however, presents a good case. He made four voyages to the Americas between 1497 and 1504, and he actually knew what he was doing. Vespucci was the first explorer to prove that the Americas were not East Asia, as Columbus said. Meanwhile Columbus insisted till the day he died, in the face of mounting evidence, that he’d discovered a new route to Asia. Vespucci was also the man who coined the phrase “the New World” (“Mundus Novus”) in a letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1504. As a result when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller created a new world map in 1507, he didn’t name it Columbia after Columbus; he named it America after Amerigo.

Unfortunately, in the years following his Vespucci’s death, Columbus’s supporters disparaged him for undermining Columbus’s legacy. Later, in the 1700s, the United States appropriated Columbia as the female personification of itself (much like how we use Lady Liberty today), and Columbus became such a part of the American mythos that he got his own holiday—one that also became tied up with the desire of Italian-Americans to celebrate their heritage. Maybe it’s time for a change. (And Vespucci was also Italian.)

Just as a disclaimer, there is definitely dispute about the veracity of Vespucci’s exploits. However, at least one of his voyages, the third, is considered unassailable, and the America name dates from within his lifetime, so it’s a valid point. Besides, people think Columbus was the Only Sane Man who believed the world was round when in fact he was the clueless one*, so I’m not too worried about honest uncertainty here.

So happy Amerigo Vespucci Day to all!

* People knew the Earth was round and how large it was since Eratosthenes first measured it in 240 BC. Columbus believed due to various errors that it was about 25% smaller, and that what would have been an impossibly long voyage to Asia would have been plausible. Washington Irving invented the “flat Earth” myth around Columbus from whole cloth in his “biography” of the man in 1828.

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Movie Review: Black Panther

Black Panther is being hyped as the movie of the year, and it’s certainly making an impact. It’s opening weekend was the fifth-largest of all time and it’s breaking lots of box office records. But how does this Africa-set superhero movie stack up? Pretty well, it turns out.

I have to say, I don’t think Black Panther was as transcendentally brilliant as the media hype says. It’s in the top tier of Marvel movies, for sure, and that puts it in a lot of good company. But at the same time, it puts it up against a lot of stiff competition if you want to rank them, especially since Marvel has really hit its stride in the past year and a half. I don’t think Black Panther stands out head and shoulders above its peers, and if I had to choose, I’d probably still put Avengers 1 on top. But it’s an excellent movie all the same.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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Falcon Heavy Blasts Off

SpaceX successfully completed the maiden flight of its new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, earlier today. This new heavy lifter can launch 63.8 metric tons to low Earth orbit, compared with 22.8 metric tons for the Falcon 9, making it officially the most powerful rocket in the world today—twice as powerful as the runner-up, the Delta IV Heavy. In doing so, it puts itself in the same club as the Saturn V, the Space Shuttle, and the Soviet space shuttle knock-off, Buran, as the only larger rockets to successfully launch.

And it launched a Tesla Roadster into space.


The Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9’s strapped together, which as any rocketeer knows, means more than three times as many things that can go wrong. As it happens, the launch wasn’t completely successful. The first stage center core failed to land on the drone ship in the Atlantic due to an engine failure in a rare miss for the usually successful SpaceX. Nonetheless, they did successfully land the two boosters on adjacent launch pads within seconds of each other, which is pretty cool by itself.

What impressed me the most about this launch was how smooth it was. I remember seeing Space Shuttle launches back in the day, and they were an ordeal to sit through—stopping the countdown clock at 20 minutes and again at 9 minutes and ever more if anything went wrong. Maybe SpaceX will be slower when they actually start launching people (hopefully later this year), but at least they keep the clock running and let 20 minutes actually mean 20 minutes.

But it really goes further than that. Think about it. Elon Musk just launched a car into space on the most powerful rocket in the world just because he could. In doing so, SpaceX orchestrated its most complex launch yet including a twin booster landing where major governments use parachutes and fish them out of the ocean, and despite the failure of the third landing, they made it look easy.

NASA wants a new heavy lifter that’s twice as powerful as the Falcon Heavy. But I’ve been thinking this to myself since about 2011, and I’m going on record: SLS is going to be cancelled, and SpaceX (or maybe a competitor) will take over for it before it ever gets a crewed flight. I’m far more optimistic about SpaceX than I am about NASA (at least on the human spaceflight side), and I hope to see more milestones from them very soon.

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Book Review: Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel


Waking Gods is the sequel to Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel, Sleeping Giants, which I reviewed previously. In Sleeping Giants, a giant alien robot, Themis, is discovered buried in pieces all over the world. Predictably, the governments of the world and one shadowy conspiracy-type person cause a lot of trouble trying to use Themis to their own ends. Now, in Waking Gods, the aliens have noticed Themis, and everything just got much, much worse.

All in all, this is a pretty good book, though not as good as the first installment. If you read Sleeping Giants, though, I would definitely recommend it.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

I had the same problem with Waking Gods as I did with Sleeping Giants: namely, that I disagreed with the direction Mr. Neuvel took the story. This isn’t as big a criticism as it sounds because both books were very entertaining. However, where Sleeping Giants resolves these plot threads so brilliantly at the end that I took back all of my criticisms of the book, the final resolution of Waking Gods, while equally complete, feels uncomfortable and unsatisfying to me.

I don’t really want to give away the ending because I still think this is a very good book and worth reading, especially after reading the first one. It’s just that the plot twists were weirder and less believable this time around, and I had a problem with the aliens at the end that left a sour taste in my mouth. But even with that, it’s not remotely enough to turn me off the series. Book 3, Only Human, ships in May, and I am still excited to read it, so I hope you’ll check it out.

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Podcast Review: We’ve Got Worm and We’ve Got Ward

Alexandria Lunchbox by lonsheep

We’ve Got Worm cover art by lonsheep.

I have a second review to make about Wildbow’s Worm and Ward, but this one isn’t about the story. This is about a podcast about the story. It’s called We’ve Got Worm, followed, of course, by We’ve Got Ward, and it’s produced by Scott Daly and Matt Freeman of The Daly Planet, a more general podcast where they review and analyze lots of books, TV shows, movies, and more. Worm is so big that they decided it needed its own podcast, and thus, We’ve Got Worm was born.

You can listen to We’ve Got Worm on the Daly Planet’s website, but I find it easier to listen on YouTube. The original podcast involved Scott, a newcomer to Worm reading one Arc per week and then talking about it with Matt, a “Worm expert” on the show. Now that Ward has started, both Scott and Matt are reading in real time, with shorter episodes on the two or three chapters Wildbow releases each week. I’d recommend you start at the beginning, though. The podcast is a great companion to go along with your reading of Worm whether it’s your first time or a reread.

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts, but this is one of the best I’ve seen, and better than other review-type podcasts I’ve listened to. This is not a fluff podcast just to praise Wildbow, despite the number of times Scott says, “I love this!” Nor is it a boring, beat-by-beat summary of the story like some I’ve seen. This is serious literary analysis, but at the same time, this isn’t your high school English class. In fact, if high school English class were more like We’ve Got Worm, the world would be a slightly, but measurably better place.

I think the highest praise I can give this podcast is that I really enjoyed it, and it’s made me a better writer. The analysis goes down to the line-by-line level, showing how a single sentence can do a huge amount of work at characterization, among other things. It goes up to the overall structural level, exploring the whole scope of the story and the vastness of Wildbow’s worldbuilding. And it has everything in between: proper use of the Rule of Three, how to build up tension and set up reveals in a satisfying way, how the failure to communicate or withholding of information can be done well, and when it isn’t, and so on. To keep with the English class comparison, instead of the shallow “themes” and “symbols” you get in easy books like Lord of the Flies (and nothing against Lord of the Flies), this is a much deeper look into dramatic parallels, character arcs, psychology, sociology, “writing the other” both with other humans and non-human perspectives, and much more.

And above all it’s a lot of fun. My rating: 5 out of 5.

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Web Serial Review: Worm and Ward

Skitter by NeoWorm

Fear Skitter. Credit to NeoWorm.

Okay, it’s taken me a while to get around to this one. I just had a lot of other posts I wanted to get through, and it’s hard to keep up sometimes. I’m going to try to do this spoiler-free because you really need to experience this for yourself.

Worm is an epic web serial written by Wildbow, also known as John C. McCrae, set in a world of superheroes and supervillains, known as “parahumans.” It’s basically a series of 31 short web novels, or “Arcs,” telling one massive story. It’s hard to get your arms around everything Worm entails. The main character is Taylor Hebert, a fifteen-year-old girl who wants to be a superhero despite her not very publicity-friendly power of controlling bugs. On her first night, she gets mistaken for a supervillain, and things spiral out of control from there.

Worm was completed in 2013, and it now has a sequel, Ward, which is currently in progress. And above all, it’s incredibly well-written. Definitely worth reading, at least through Arc 3, if nothing else.

My rating: 5 out of 5, easy.

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