Monthly Archives: February 2014

More than Meets the Eye

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 1Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 1 by James Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is it. All your best friends from childhood getting on a spaceship and heading out who-knows-where to have adventures. The main characters you’re tired of are out of the way. The second-stringers you always wanted to get more development are getting exactly that. With a real story. And humor. And fantastic artwork. This makes all the badness that was the live action movies go away. You can even ignore the disappointing Dreamwave reboot. I haven’t had so much fun with a comic since Titan Books reissued the original Simon Furman Marvel run, and if I’m completely honest– this is better.

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 2 (Transformers (Idw))Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 2 (Transformers by James Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read more Transformers comics than I would readily admit, always trying to get back to the wonder that was the finale of the original Marvel series scripted by Simon Furman. I’ve always been disappointed, until this series came along. I purchased the first volume for my son for Christmas and sat down to preview it. I quickly realized that a) this was not a comic for kids and b) it was amazing.

The second volume just gets better. Finally, someone actually building characters and writing stories that explore what it might be like to be a mechanical life-form involved in a six-million-year-old war. There are three “episodes” in this volume. The first involves Rachet solving a medical mystery on an Autobot outpost devastated by plague and actually uses the fact that Transformers transform as a pivotal plot point. The second involves the ship’s psychiatrist and a damaged patient, and– impossibly– makes you start to like Whirl. And the third– which shifts the focus from the primary players– surprises by taking some of the misfit Decepticons that usually sat forlorn in the bottom of your toy chest and making real characters out of them.

I still read more Transformers comics than I would readily admit, but now it’s usually the volumes from this series, which repay a careful re-reading.

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 4Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 4 by James Roberts

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have been following this latest (and by far best) comic incarnation of the Transformers since it began, and with each volume I have been more impressed. Finally real story-telling and fantastic artwork combined to bring my favorite characters to life once again. This volume though was the first that disappointed. It was still quite good, and I liked it even better on the second read, but I have some major complaints:

1. The artwork. Not up to the standards of the previous volumes. Milne’s name was on the spine, but so were a few others, and it made me realize how much the previous storytelling has been married to the artwork. There are some things you just can’t do well without the art to back it up. The final scene of the “guys night out” issue, for instance, with Cyclonus teaching Tailgate ancient Cybertronian ballads at a table in an empty bar. It just doesn’t work if the art isn’t strong enough to carry it, and it wasn’t.

2. The resolution of the Overlord story arch. This had been building for a while, and the issue leading up to the final confrontation built it even more (and was perhaps the most effective issue in this volume). But then, when he finally faced off against the crew, it was over so quickly, and a good part of the action happened off panel. I felt we were entitled to more here. There were deaths, but it was that of a minor character that I found the most effective. Later, the ship dropped five coffins, but we never even really learned who.

3. The drama. I know all these characters have been together on a ship for quite a while now, but the drama is starting to get old. If you’re going to hang so much on the relationship between Chromedome and Rewind (which, to be fair, is quite well done), then ease back on everyone else. Magnus opening up to Swerve. Tailgate’s attachment to Cyclonus. Rodimus’s not growing up. Ratchet and Drift’s love-hate thing. I love it that these characters are being developed, but this volume in particular just seemed to be laying it on a bit thick.

None of this, of course, will stop me from scooping up Volume 5 as soon as possible.

The Sun Kings

The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy BeganThe Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began by Stuart Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t get to read a lot of popularizations in the course of my research on nineteenth-century astronomy, so when this one came across my desk I was on the one hand excited about a change of pace (“captivating, fast-paced” says Dava Sobel on the cover) and on the other figuring I’d be skimming much of it and rolling my eyes a lot. I tend to do this with books that have long and overly-dramatic subtitles like “The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began.”

I was half right. I did indeed do a lot of skimming, but I also did much less eye-rolling than I anticipated. Clark weaves a compelling tale, even if you don’t consider an understanding of the dynamic Earth-Sun relationship (think SOHO and Spaceweather.com) to be the beginning of modern astronomy. (I don’t.) The book is a bit less than the subtitle makes it out to be, as I’m still not  sure what Carrington’s “unexpected tragedy” was or how it relates to the scientific quest to understand the Sun’s interaction with the Earth, but it was a quite enjoyable romp through the world of Victorian astronomy.

Because it’s such an interesting place, Victorian astronomy, you almost can’t help to tell a compelling story if you go into it with some historical grounding and a flair for narrative. Clark treats one aspect of what was happening during this period: the development of solar astronomy. At the beginning of the 1800s, no one had any idea what the structure of the Sun was or how it generated its energy. One prevailing theory was that it was composed of a solid (and possibly inhabited!) core surrounded by a luminous atmosphere. Sunspots were rifts in this solar atmosphere. Clarke recounts how a series of dedicated astronomers– both professional and amateur– deduced a link between sunspots, the solar cycle, and effects on the Earth such as magnetic disturbances and auroral activity. Carrington is simply one of a cast that includes many important astronomers from this period, though Carrington’s drive and complex personal life, as well as his final demise (and this is likely the tragedy referred to in the subtitle, though seemingly unrelated to solar physics) make him an especially compelling figure.

Even if you’re not interested in the ins and outs of the interaction between the Sun and the Earth’s magnetic field or the advances in spectroscopy and photography that made the discoveries documented in this book possible, it’s the historical characters like Carrington who make studies in Victorian science so readable. Carrington was one of many amateur astronomers during this period who made their fortune in business (in Carrington’s case a brewery) and then used this wealth to build elaborate personal observatories where they could pursue astronomy as a hobby. Carrington devoted himself to solar astronomy and became a recognized authority on the subject. Besides him though, the pages are filled with other characters equally interesting: Airy, the Astronomer Royal and the story’s villain, storming about at Greenwich pursuing mathematical accuracy and largely dismissive of the new physical astronomy; de la Rue laboring in Spain to photograph the Sun’s atmosphere for the first time during a solar eclipse; Maunder taking up Carrington’s work after Carrington’s death and marrying the young mathematician hired to aid his calculations. Interesting characters pursuing interesting work. Maybe exaggerated or characatured just a bit, but they all come in and out of the story so quickly and in such succession that Clark can’t be blamed much for emphasizing their most interesting features.

It was an exciting time in astronomy, and Clark captures this. I’ll keep it on the shelf, because it would be ideal book report material for an undergraduate astronomy course. A historian will find Clark’s lack of careful documentation maddening and his rhetoric at times excessive or overblown, but a student (or reader) with a passing interest in the history of astronomy might find it a door to a truly remarkable period in history.

Dioptrice

dioptrice

One of the largest and longest-running projects I’ve been working on as part of my research fellowship at Notre Dame and the Adler Planetarium has been Dioptrice, a database of surviving pre-1775 refracting telescopes. The brainchild of the former chief curator at the Adler, Dioptrice is the first step toward a richer history of the telescope: its origins, evolution, and diffusion as well as popular perceptions of the instrument in works of art and early books and manuscripts. The principle investigators of the project, which is funded by NSF and NEH grants, travel the world looking for early telescopes in museums and private collections. They analyze and photograph them and then send the data to me, where I add it to the database. I also scour catalogues and websites, initiate contact with additional collections, and search the rare book collection at the Adler for early telescope images. All of this goes into the database, which has been slowly building for the past few years.

Now it’s ready to go public. Information on hundreds of telescopes, fully searchable by year, type, maker, country of origin, and just about every other category you can think of. All hosted online in a sleek website designed by Parallactic Consulting but curated by yours truly. If you’re interested in the history of the telescope as art, artifact, or instrument, feel free to look around. If you know of telescopes that should be hosted here, let me know.

Have fun: www.dioptrice.com.

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Update: I presented a poster on Dioptrice at the AAAS meeting in Chicago yesterday. ScienceNOW, the online AAAS science magazine, just published an article on the database, and I was featured as part of the #scienceWOW video series talking about William Herschel. (You can see all the videos, including one by Alan Alda, here.)

Earthsea vol. 1 and 2

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The blurb on the book said Le Guin was to be ranked among Lewis and Tolkien, which was probably why the tattered paperback had survived through so many shelf purges even though I had never yet read it. I finally did, and I think the blurb was correct. There’s a richness, a thickness to the prose coupled with a simplicity in the telling. It’s a simple story, lacking the complexities and mechanics of much of contemporary fantasy, but it’s better for it. It’s about growing up, friendship, learning wisdom, learning to take responsibility for one’s choices. It is also about magic and the wonder of a new world. I think the magic here might be one of the most compelling aspects, because again, it’s simple and somehow true without a bunch of trappings. Magic is about knowing things, about naming things truly. That seems right. I read it, and I should have read it when I was twelve, so I immediately passed it along to a bright twelve-year-old I know.

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do you remember the scene in The Horse and His Boy where Shasta has to spend the night at the tombs outside the city of Tashbaan and how creepy it was and how Lewis never really explained the tombs but you knew they were old and foreboding and had entire dark stories of their own? The Tombs of Atuan, the setting for the second book of the Earthsea trilogy of the same title, have that same feel, but we as readers spend the greater portion of the book exploring their secrets. The book focuses on Arha, the Eaten One, the high (and only) priestess of the Nameless Ones who live in the Tombs. Taken from her family at a young age, the only life she knows is that of service to these gods almost forgotten by all outside the desert shrine that houses the Tombs.

The book starts slowly. Coming on the heels of the first volume, it almost lost me in the first two chapters. The main character of the previous novel, Ged, does not make his appearance until almost halfway through the book. But soon the mystery of the tombs themselves makes itself felt, and you’re drawn into Arha’s world and the Gormenghast-like rituals of the tombs and the labyrinth beneath. When Ged finally does show up, the sense of incongruity he represents as a foreigner and stranger to this dark world is effective and dramatic. From there, the plot unfolds quickly (though somewhat predictably).

Where was LeGuin when I was a kid looking for “Christian” fantasy? According to Family Christian Stores, this genre extended to pretty much Lewis, Stephen R. Lawhead, and Frank Peretti. Why wasn’t LeGuin there, bringing some literary depth to these shelves? If the theme of the previous volume, A Wizard of Earthsea, was growing into wisdom and true friendship, this one is redemption. Consider what Ged tells Arha upon leaving the Tombs: “You were the vessel of evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives its light.”

Highly recommended, especially if you know a young person looking for some quality fantasy that speaks wisdom and goodness without beating you over the head with an explicitly Christian metaphor or allusion every other page.