Friday, June 22, 2012

Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is a wonderful novelist and one of my favourite science fiction writers. When I open up one of his books I expect to read an intriguing story chock-full of brilliant ideas. This high standard explains why I was disappointed with this novel.

Like much of his previous work, this tale tackles a fascinating concept and – at least at the beginning – is a page-turner. Describing the story of Webmind, a vast consciousness that emerges from the complex network of the World Wide Web, Sawyer presents an intriguing plot line that is half-AI speculative fiction, half-action novel. For amidst the birth of this new sentient being is a top Pentagon military official by the name of Colonel Hume who becomes convinced that Webmind is a threat to the world. To counter this danger, he begins to search through the hacker underground for computer experts that can shut down this new intelligence. Meanwhile, a blind 16-year-old teenage girl named Caitlin Decter who first discovers Webmind aims to protect her "friend" from the forces that want to destroy it.

So far so good. Then, about a third of the way into the book, the story starts to break down. Instead of advancing the plot with his usual skill, Sawyer begins to use his characters as mere excuses to present his ideas on artificial intelligence. As the book progresses, the story and characters become less and less important, until the reader is left wondering what the purpose of the novel is, i.e. to tell a story or to express ideas.

Science fiction writing cannot forget its dual parts. The "science" (which this book does very well) is meant to capture the readers’ attention with far-reaching and thought provoking concepts. The "fiction" element is meant to present these ideas in an interesting literary form. This book (to my surprise) sacrificed the story at the altar of the scientific idea. The result is that characters that were initially interesting devolved into plot robots with little personality of their own.

1 1/2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt

Feeling that he has failed as a mathematician, Isaac Swift retreats to his apartment to wallow in his sorrow. Alone in his study, he begins to work on Beauregard’s Wild Number Problem, a puzzle that has stumped mathematicians for centuries. As he slowly searches for a solution, his intellectual quest drives him to the brink of madness until (to his complete shock) he writes a proof.

After overcoming his initial disbelief of what he has done, Isaac approaches his university colleague, and world renowned math genius, Dimitri to review his work. With painstaking detail, Dimitri reviews the proof step-by-step, until concluding that his fellow professor has found the secret to one of the world’s most important problems. Lost amid the joy of this discovery, however, are the deranged fantasies of a mature student named Mr. Vale, who accuses Isaac of plagiarizing his solution to the Wild Number Problem. Quick to maintain his innocence, Isaac must deal with Mr. Vale’s erratic threats, while also maintaining in check his own descent into lunacy.

This book is a captivating read that highlights the fine line between genius and madness, success and failure. Though heavily focused on mathematics, the story is accessible to all readers, and can capture the imagination of a wide audience. As well, while the writing does sound wooden at times, the story has an excellent pace that captivates to the end. It also handles a difficult subject matter in an entertaining an accessible way, and also leaves the reader thinking about whether poor Isaac has truly gone mad.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, June 17, 2012

An Invisible Sign Of My Own by Aimee Bender

Mona Gray is a 20-year-old, Grade 2 math teacher with curious habits: a compulsive need to knock on things, whether trees, walls or desks; a desire to quit everything that she is good at (except for math); and a knack of noticing strange things, like the unusual practice of Mr. Jones (her former school math teacher and now owner of the town hardware store), who wears wax necklaces of individual numbers that switch daily to indicate his changing moods.

In the background to this offbeat life, is the shadow of Mona’s father who has been sick for years with an unspecified illness. He hovers over Mona’s thoughts and feelings, and is omnipresent when she interacts with her seven-year-old students and other teachers, especially Mr. Smith, the new science teacher who is bound to be fired in no time.

This book is spectacular. Despite being only her second novel, the writing comes across as the work of a master. The literary flow in this book is so good that you sometimes forget that you are reading a story and start to imagine that you are peeking into the mind of a peculiar woman, who comes across as both brilliant and simple, insightful and hopefully naïve. Without a doubt this is a gem and a delight to read. An excellent work that is in a class of its own.

5 out of 5 stars            

Coyote Moon by John A. Miller

After watching his brilliant and close friend Arthur Hodges die, (a world renowned thinker who held an endowed chair of mathematics at MIT), quantum physicist Benny Rhodes has an epiphany: He must quit his job as a university professor and divorce his wife. In what seems like a flash instant, he leaves Boston and travels across the country where he meets a woman who is more than 30 years younger in the parking lot of a drugstore in Oklahoma after their cars collide. The new couple soon find themselves in a trailer park in the Mojave desert, where they meet a strange German couple who believe (or at least the husband does) that they have all come together for a special, perhaps even mystical, reason.

Meanwhile, in Scottsdale, Arizona, a mysterious young man just out of the army, and who has never played formal organized baseball in his life, shows up at the training camp of the Oakland A’s. First dismissed as a nonentity, the player is told flat out that he has no chance of making the team. But when his playing ability reveals him to be a bona fide superstar (some are so shocked by his skill that they wonder if he made a pack with the devil) he is quickly offered a professional contract. Even weirder than his raw talent, however, is his bizarre mathematical ability, and his knowledge of advanced physics. When the player finds himself in the trailer park in the Mojave desert, a debate ensues about whether he is the reincarnation of a scientific genius.

This wonderfully original book was a pure joy to read. With amazing literary skill and a wonderful imagination, John Miller has written a book that is worthy of extensive praise. If this novel were a symphony, it would receive a standing ovation for several minutes from an adoring audience.

5 out of 5 stars

The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen

Three math professors in three different U.S. states are found dead. At first glance, none of the cases appear related, except for the odd fact that all three were experts of fractal geometry. Convinced that this link is not a mere coincidence, math professor Jayne Smyers from Boulder, Colorado, hires private detective (and former Marine JAG) Pepper Keane to investigate.

In the ensuing search, Pepper finds himself travelling to several states, taking a road trip with his best friend, and unravelling a mathematical secret that was designed to beat the stock market. As he gets closer to the truth about the three dead professors, he finds himself falling in love with the affable Prof. Smyers, all the while working through the fascinating (but poorly written!) philosophical classic Being and Time from the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

This fast-paced novel is a fun read that will appeal to mystery fans and lovers of math / philosophy alike. A good, fun book that is worth picking up.

3 out of 5 stars