2015 TBR Pile Challenge: March/April Reads (Or: All the Science!)

May 01, 2015

As the title of this post makes painfully clear, it's been a while since I've posted anything about the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam over at Roof Beam Reader.

It's not that I haven't been reading; on the contrary, I have been doing a ton of reading but not nearly as much reviewing. And this is how we've come to the start of May, and I'm only just ready to talk about a book I read over a month ago.

On to the books!

In March, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, probably better known by its movie adaptation, Blade Runner. My boyfriend made me watch Blade Runner with him once, but I fell asleep, so I really can't compare the two stories. I'll get back to you once I watch it again. See: above GIF.

The year is 2021. Earth has been plunged into the radioactive dust of World War Terminus; humans can control their emotions via a "mood organ" and use an "empathy box" to feel connected to each other. (I find that last note is especially interesting in the age of social media.) To own a single animal is to be a success in this world; those who can't succeed go for electric replicas.

Here we have the story of Rick Deckard, an "assassin" whose assignment is to hunt down humanoid androids and "retire" them. Assassin and retire get scare quotes because an ever-present theme of this book is what exactly it means to be human and why we're so desperate to destroy anything that is "other."

Here, Rick speaks with Phil, a fellow bounty hunter to whom he's going to administer his android test:
"'I'll give you my laser tube now. So you won't have to worry about my reaction to the test. In terms of your own personal safety.' He held out the tube and Rick accepted it.
'How'll you kill yourself without it?' Rick asked. "If you fail on the test?"
'I'll hold my breath.'
'Chrissake,' Rick said. 'It can't be done.'
'There's no automatic cut-in of the vague nerve,' Phil Resch said, 'in an android. As there is in a human. Weren't you taught that when they trained you? I got taught that years ago.'
'But to die that way,' Rick protested.
'There's no pain. What's the matter with it?'
'It's—' He gestured. Unable to find the right words." —pg. 121, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The prose is spare and serious, mirroring the quiet desperation of life in the ruins of San Francisco. Two hundred sixteen pages flesh out this crumbling atmosphere, peppered with futuristic technology, and infuse it with age-old philosophy. What does distinguish a human from other creatures? Is it our DNA, our empathy, or could it be something much more basic? How can any of us really know it about ourselves?

I wasn't initially thrilled by the story, but it's grown more impressive to me over time. Any diehard sci-fi fans and/or armchair philosophers would do well to pick this one up.

Just a couple days ago, I finished Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. I originally intended it to be my February read for the challenge, but it took me much longer than expected to get through. This isn't to knock Bryson—he's a fantastic writer and an even better researcher—but man, this guy can pack a lot of information in a paragraph.

In just under 500 pages, Bryson tackles, well, everything: the tiniest parts of atoms, the forces that cause the earth to quake and spew lava, and all phenomena in between get their own chapters. He even ventures from our atmosphere to discuss supernovae, the shape of space, and the moons of Pluto (still a planet at the time this book was published!).

Bryson treats each of his topics with equal care, and he makes a concerted effort to bring the scientists he cites to life; this includes both those long-dead and those he met while researching his book. Here he describes the famed Isaac Newton:
"Newton was a decidedly odd figure—brilliant beyond measure, but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted (upon swinging his feet out of bed in the morning he would reportedly sometimes sit for hours, immobilized by the sudden rush of thoughts to his head), and capable of the most riveting strangeness." —pg. 46, A Short History of Nearly Everything
And, here, a population geneticist he interviewed:
"[Rosalind] Harding is a small and chirpy Australian, from Brisbane originally, with the rare knack for being amused and earnest at the same time." —pg. 464, ibid.
I don't know about you, but I can totally imagine both of them.

There were parts that dragged, particularly the sections that discussed the classification of living things (hominids, animals, plants, etc.), but I really think mileage will vary depending on the scientific topics the reader finds most engaging. He also has a tendency toward gloom and doom—most of the sections on natural disasters seemed to edge toward doomsday predictions eventually—but perhaps this is a natural result from learning a hell of a lot about the planet we inhabit.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to learn a little bit about most things and who doesn't mind taking a couple of months to do it.

Whew, all caught up! It's been a science-y couple of months.

Are you participating in the TBR Pile Challenge? What have you read lately?

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