Steal across the sky by Nancy Kress (Tor, 2009)
This science fiction story has a unique premise which I won’t reveal. You should read it for yourself. I will say that 21 humans are selected by an alien race to visit several planets and “witness” a situation that they are expected to bring back news about to the Earth. The book takes place in a near future (nearer now than it was in 2009) early 2020’s that is not much different from the present. It tells the story of several young people who are selected for space travel, interact with the people on the other planets, and come back changed. In fact more than half of the story is what happens when they come back. This is the sort of book you will have to read to the end before you can go to sleep.
The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine by Miko Peled (Just World Books, 2012)
I recently heard Miko Peled speak at a conference, and after his speech I immediately bought his book. His story is very eye-opening for someone like me who has been consuming “mainstream media” coverage of Israel all my life. Peled is the son of a famous Israeli general who distinguished himself in both the 1948 and 1967 conflicts. But his father Matti Peled went on to become a peace activist, and Miko followed in his footsteps despite the way this stance put him at odds with his fellow Israelis. As a young man, Miko Peled moved to southern California, opened a karate studio, and started a family. Then in 1997, after his 13-year-old niece was killed in a random bombing in Jerusalem, he joined a group of Palestinian peace activists in California. He started making several trips to Israel every year to get to know the Palestinian situation and try to help them (for example with medical supplies).
Over time Peled came to champion the Palestinian cause. He believes that a “two-state” solution is unfair (since Israel has taken nearly all of the Palestinian’s land) and the only real solution is a secular democracy where both peoples have equal rights. I have always thought the same thing myself and wondered why no else supported the idea. However I naively thought Palestinians were allowed to live anywhere in Israel and were only deprived of their religious rights, when in fact they are crammed into two small areas (Gaza and West Bank) and not allowed to travel or live anywhere else in the country. In this book Peled makes his point by relating many horrifying stories about how Israelis abuses and kills Palestinians, some of which he personally witnessed. It is also pretty clear that the police abuse of American citizens we have been seeing here in the last few years has its origins in the way American and Israeli soldiers in the Middle East behave.
Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century by Daniel B. Botkin (Oxford University Press, 1990).
A friend gave me this used book, knowing of my interest in environmental science, and it made a good companion for a cross-country airplane trip. Although it was published 27 years ago, it certainly belongs on the bookshelf of all environmentalists. Dr. Botkin was one of the pioneers in the field of ecological research in the U.S., and developed some of the first computer models. However, this is not an academic treatise; it is an attempt (and I think a successful one) to explain ecology to the general public. Botkin begins by exploring various ways of thinking about nature and our Earth – as a divine creation, as a machine, or as an organic being. He then explains how the idea of nature as a constant, steady-state system is scientifically false, because the historical data shows so much change of an essentially random nature. This understanding leads to some key consequences for the management of natural resources, which he illustrates through discussions of specific ecological niches which he has personally studied. Botkin clearly knows his environmental science, because in this book he predicted the climate change we have experienced since 1990.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)
This novel fleshes out the stories of the Old Testament about David, king of Israel. Brooks does a good job of showing all sides (good and bad) of David’s character, from the point of view of his prophet Nathan. Women are not neglected in this tale. Although overall they are treated very badly by the male characters, their stories are told as fully human beings living in a time when they are not respected. Unfortunately (male or female) in this book everyone’s life is full of violence, blood, and death, which is (as far as we know) how things really were. It’s hard to believe that the psalms that we still sing today came from this man, out of this time period.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel (Viking, 2016)
Acclaimed writer Dava Sobel (Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter) has written another fascinating book that brings science to life, this time with the help of historical photos and letters. This book, like the recent movie Hidden Figures, is about women “computers.” Several of the women whose history is told in The Glass Universe are among the few well-known woman scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, Cecilia Payne). Initially women were only allowed to serve as underpaid staff at Harvard Observatory who carried out tedious but very important calculations on photographs of stars taken on glass plates. Sobel notes that Harvard’s collection of half a million glass plates that captured the sky on each night between 1885 and 1992 is irreplaceable. As time went on these women astronomers were able to publish papers, present at international conferences, and hold professional titles. They were responsible for key discoveries in optical astronomy, such as the classification of stars and the relationship between brightness and period in variable stars.
Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt (Penguin Group, 2009)
On the cover of this novel, Jack DeVitt was described as the successor to sci-fi greats Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and I can see why. His style screams “20th century middle-aged male.” Asimov and Clarke were very popular, intelligent, forward-thinking writers, but they had a very male-oriented perspective. That being said, the book is well written and hard to put down. But McDevitt’s time travelers follow much looser rules than those set by other science fiction authors (such as Connie Willis). It’s perfectly acceptable for a time traveler to exist twice in the same time period, for instance. The men in this story visit times from ancient Greece to the present (and even the future) with very little concern for their impact. They’re not completely selfish though – they bring back a whole collection of ancient Greek plays that had been lost to us.