Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Rope

Nevada Barr

The Rope is the eighteenth book in Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series of crime novels. As has become the norm in crime fiction, the reader is invited to become involved in the life of Anna Pigeon through this series of books. The gimmick, if I may use that word, is that Anna Pigeon is a National Parks police officer and each book is set in a different park. Anna Pigeon novels are a guided tour of the National Park system.

This book is a bit different. It is a flashback to the beginning of Pigeon's career in the Park Service. It gives the reader a lot of background, filling in Anna's history. It's like the birth of the Lone Ranger episode that used to air once a year, which every child waited for with anticipation.

The setting is Glen Canyon National Park and whiffs of Edward Abbey are in the air. Lake Powell laps at the beautiful, stark sandstone sculptures carved, by the wind and the Colorado River over millions of years. Human waste and toilet paper blossoms dot the small beaches found far up side canyons, where houseboaters stop for a night of two of partying. Silt slowly piles up in the bottom of the lake.

Anna Pigeon is introduced as a seasonal park employee assisting a more senior seasonal, in cleaning up the mess left by the partying boaters. Of course there is murder and mayhem. Anna is right in the thick of it, not as an investigator, but as a potential victim. Through grit and determination she manages to survive. What she doesn't do is solve the crime, which is left up to the surprising perpetrator's own mistakes. Nevertheless, there are plenty of clues thrown out and misdirection to keep you guessing.  There is even a kind of Alfred Hitchcock moment when you want to shake Anna and tell her to run, as she cluelessly walks into a trap that is obvious to the reader but not to her.

In the end Anna decides that she wants to become a full time Parks employee - in law enforcement. Better to be the cop than the victim. She says that more women should think of themselves as dangerous. I thought everyone knew that women were dangerous.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Space Chronicles

Facing the Ultimate Frontier

Neil deGrasse Tyson: edited by Avis Lang

Space Chronicles is a collection of Tyson's most recent writing cleverly assembled by Avis Lang into a coherent book with one central theme. Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go back to the Moon. He wants to go to Mars. He wants to visit asteroids and he wants to do these things with Astronauts, not just unmanned robotic probes. Why? " . . . the sheer joy of exploration and discovery," for one thing, but also survival: survival of the human species in the event of another, eventually inevitable, extinction level asteroid collision with the Earth, and the survival of the United States of America as a technological, political and economic world leader.

Tyson takes ancient China as an example of decline.

" . . . in the late 1400s, China turned insular. It stopped looking beyond it's shores. It stopped exploring beyond it's then-current state of knowledge. And the entire enterprise of creativity stopped. That's why you don't people saying "here's a modern Chinese answer to that problem." Instead they're talking about ancient Chinese remedies. There's a cost when you stop innovating and stop investing and stop exploring. That cost is severe. And it worries me deeply, because if you don't explore, you recede into irrelevance as other nations figure out the value of exploration."

China, incidentally, is back in the game now. China has a manned space program aimed at putting a Chinese man on the Moon. The solar panels your neighbor put on his roof were probably built in China.Pretty soon a modern Chinese solution to any knotty problem may be the best, cheapest way to go.

Why a manned space program? It's way more expensive to send people into space than machines. The Mars rovers were a spectacular success. The Hubble Space Telescope was an absolute triumph. Tyson's answer is inspiration. The Apollo program inspired many young people, including Tyson himself, to pursue science as a career. This meant studying the hard math and science curricula in school. It meant building a telescope and staying up late nights looking at the stars from a rooftop in the Bronx. It meant having two technologically literate generations of Americans to give us the kind of lifestyle we take for granted now, at the beginning of the twenty first century. Tyson believes that a manned Moon/Mars program will revitalize that inspiration. Oh, and then there's spinoff technologies that nobody has though of yet, which will create the new economy of the twenty first century.

Or we can just buy stuff from China until the money runs out.