Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book Reviews: Hear No Evil, Citizen Science, and The Grey Star

A sort of rapid-fire round of book reviews this week, thanks to Christmas reading!

1. Be the Change: Saving the World Through Citizen Science by Chanda Clarke

Though short (33 PDF pages), this was very readable and informative--it's designed to teach the principles of citizen science/crowdsourced science to people who have never heard of it before. Now, I'd heard the term before and had vaguely positive associations, but couldn't explain it to you if you asked me. When I saw this ebook offered in a LibraryThing giveaway I pounced, because hey, KNOWLEDGE.

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Citizen science consists of research, data-crunching, information gathering, processing, analysis, and funding that is crowdsourced among volunteers, many of whom aren't any sort of expert. Willingness is key. Fittingly, Be the Change is written with an enthusiastic, persuasive tone--sometimes a bit too much so. I felt like I was reading a pamphlet at times, and I suspect one of the major goals of this book is to get people to check out Clarke's website Citizen Science Center.

But it did succeed in making me feel more knowledgeable and more interested in citizen science. This is not only because of my minor obsession with crowdfunding, but possibly because I'm a science fiction fan, or at least so Clarke theorizes when she suggests the popularity of sci-fi shows, movies, books, and games reflects a greater interest in science proper among audiences. I think for me the relationship is more vice-versa--I enjoy the science fiction and fantasy aesthetic, and my interest in science is secondary and meant to help me better hone that enjoyment. It may be a chicken-and-egg problem.

In order of volunteer effort required, Clarke breaks down a number of projects and methods for supporting them, including crowdfunding, distributed computing, web-based science, and apps. Some of this reminds me of Mechanical Turk's "hits" or microtasks--small jobs that require human intelligence (so they can't be automated or computerized), but don't demand much in the way of expertise, and would frankly be a drain on the productivity of a qualified scientist. Enter your ordinary citizen/science fan. To keep people motivated, many of these projects are "gamified," using point systems to provide psychological rewards.

And some of these projects just seem like cool things to be involved with. The Baby Laughter project, which collects "field reports" of babies giggling in the wild to refine scientist's understanding of cognitive development, sounds adorable. And the Human Memone project, which collects information about health and memes, is both fascinating and kind of punny. Although I can't quite determine what their working definition of "meme" is, and if I have to fill out a survey of every meme I've ever seen on Tumblr or my Facebook feed I'd be very old before I finished.

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2. Hear No Evil by Terry Persun
A prize from the LibraryThing early reviewer's program, one I'm ridiculously late in reviewing. It's just that I don't feel like I have much to say.

Hear No Evil

After the ship they're piloting over a newly colonized planet explodes, Brandon and Palmer find out they're part of a broader conspiracy to take over the planet.  Along with the native colonists, and with the dubious assistance of a mysterious alien race aliens, they decide to fight back.

This is a story I feel like I should have loved: space opera with an element of mystery, a genuinely interesting alien race (telepaths who appear deceptively, disturbingly human--a psychological Uncanny Valley), a love subplot that isn't strained and includes a well-rounded female character. The problems surrounding a struggling space colony, especially one on a planet already inhabited by an intelligent species, have a lot of potential. But in the end, I could never really get into it. The politics were perplexing and overlooked in favor of lots of action interspersed by occasional dialogue scenes that never seemed to clear anything up. Sometimes I caught myself skimming for pages on end. I perked up whenever the aliens appeared, but their plotline also didn't feel very strong. I can't even recall how it concluded.

I finally wrote up these halfhearted paragraphs for fear that if I delayed them any longer, I'd forget the plot of the book entirely. It would probably benefit from a rereading, and I might do that now that I have an ereader (reading on a computer screen may have encouraged me to skim, but I've written thousands of words reviewing other ebooks read on a computer before now). But I guess "it just didn't grip me" is a review, too.



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3. The Grey Star by James Bartholomeusz

One last prize from a LibraryThing giveaway. I entered on a whim, because the title seemed interesting and also the author's last name had a Z in it. Put that way, I sound awfully flippant, but the fact is I knew absolutely nothing about this book going in. There was barely any description on the LibraryThing page. The advanced review copy's back cover informed me it was a Young Adult Trade Paperback, 316 pages, release date December 2013, and part of the Seven Stars Trilogy.

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In fact, it is the third book in the genrebusting Seven Starts Trilogy (as I learned upon seeing the title page for "Part V"). But once I started reading, I was lost no longer--plenty of background info is filled in the first few chapters, enough that I was confident of being able to follow. A cosmic war between the Apollonians and Dionysians, a chosen Ubermensch leading a plucky band of young teenagers on their quest to collect 7 shards of the Risa Star. The opening chapter, though, managed to be evocative while resisting the urge to infodump too much, instead offering us an enticing conversation between a fox with "only" two tails, and a hooded figure coping with the fallout of his Face-Heel Turn.

Actually, a number of characters in this story underwent a Face-Heel turn. The revelation of what happened to Ubermensch Jake's best friend Alex was fairly predictable. But then came the revelation of the true nature of the many-tailed fox Inari and the true nature of the Risa Star Shards themselves. That was a delightfully unpleasant surprise and added an air of cosmic horror to what had been a fairly standard, though entertaining, quest fantasy. Of course, given the obvious Neichschze references, plus quotes of Yeat's The Second Coming, maybe I should have had my suspicions.

I do wonder what readers of the first two books will feel about this. Betrayed? Did they already have hints strewn before them? This may be a trilogy whose third book is kindest to readers who dive in media res! In any case, I really enjoyed the twist, and finished the book rapidly with a new sense of suspense for the characters and their worlds.

My favorite parts: Alex (despite the fact that both revelations about him failed to completely surprise me. As for the latter, I'd like to compare with other readers to see if I was actually picking up hints, or my tendency to read certain characters as LGBT struck upon a lucky coincidence this time), the Grey Sage (although having the nickname "Sage" myself made me do a double-take a number of times), and Lucy's plotline, which is a great deconstruction of the aftermath of your average portal fantasy. Of course, this entire story is something of a deconstruction. Yet it reconstructs, too, and comes out in the end as something more complex than a war of good against evil, yet is still true to its roots, and left at least this reader highly satisfied.

Because it's an advanced review copy I can't really say much about prose & typos, although "to be" gets overused (yes, after a while you can notice this even in pleasure reading)--but on the other hand, there is a great splash page around the story climax, which was cool to see in a mostly-prose, yet highly visual, story.


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