The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack





How Science Shapes Science Fiction by Charles L. Adler

I really enjoy reading books that connect books, or movies, or shows I have seen with the science theories that underlie them. What’s especially nice about this one is that Adler takes the time to address a great number of series which not only offers him the chance to teach a little science, but also lets him introduce the reader to a number of very interesting sounding sf movies, books, and television shows. My favorite was about the ecology of Frank Herbert’s, Dune, but there are many, many more great chapters. Dr. Who, Ursula Le Guin, Star Wars, the Martian, all appear, and I’m just scratching the surface here. This book isn’t groundbreaking, but it is definitely interesting.

Why Economies Rise or Fall by Peter Rodriguez

Peter Rodriguez manages to talk about global economies without getting bogged down in all the “isms” like capitalism and socialism. He looks at the major economic events of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and explores both success (the Japanese Miracle, the Asian Tigers, China, India, etc.) and failures (Japan, China, Latin America, etc.) (And yes, I realize some of those nations are in both lists.) It’s a fascinating exploration of various successful roads to the top and why the same models didn’t work for everyone else. There’s also some warning about how economies can take a tumble.

In Alpha Order by Author

The Monsters Know What They’re Doing by Keith Ammann

This is a revolutionary book about the creatures encountered in the game Dungeons and Dragons and it will appeal to two kinds of people. The first—that includes myself—are people who have years of playing the game under their belt (for many of us mostly in the distant pass) and enjoy nostalgically wandering through key events (like the creatures of the game). For those people, the audiobook may be the ideal method of absorbing the information.

The other group are active Dungeon Masters trying to improve their games by making their monsters more interesting. They are going to want a paper or electronic copy as this volume will serve as a valuable resource to them in planning their next adventures.

What Ammann has done here is analyze key groups of monsters and created rational tactics for them given their strengths, weaknesses, and known proclivities. It makes for fascinating reading. I was shocked by how many times he suggests the creatures would break and flee after taking a certain amount of damage. When I was gaming, monsters rarely ran, which was convenient as they take their experience and treasure with them when they depart.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting into the mindset of creatures as disparate as a bugbear, a displacer beast, a dragon, and a common bandit. The book is conveniently organized by type of creature and just fascinating to read. D&D games are going to get a lot better if Dungeon Masters take advantage of this valuable resource.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte

Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? I’ve been reading about them off and on for my entire life and so it was with quite a bit of anticipation that I started this audiobook. It did not disappoint! In addition to walking me through the current state of the field of dinosaur studies, Brusatte has packed this monograph full of engaging stories about the men and women—historical and current—who have figured out what life was like for these creatures some 60 million years ago. If you’ve any interest at all in the subject, this book is for you.

The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman

I’ve been picking up relationship guides for a few decades now, starting with the classic, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. As a writer, I find it fascinating and instructive to gain understanding of how other people understand human interactions. The books, like The 5 Love Languages, tend to focus on romance and marriage, but the lessons they teach are just as important for understanding how other people relate to you.

5 Love Languages was more sophisticated than many of these books. It’s details five different ways of interpreting that people care about each other: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. It’s fascinating to find yourself and your spouse in these categories, but also interesting to identify other people you care about. Ultimately, this is a book about making people understand you truly care about them and everyone has something they can learn here.

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

I read this book the first time shortly after it was published and thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of decades later it was just as good. On the surface, this is a strange idea. It’s an attempt to describe a horrifically powerful storm that struck the Atlantic off the northeast coast and sank a fishing boat, killing its crew. In reality it’s a window into the highly dangerous world of deep-sea fishing with in-depth analysis of the dangers the men and women in the trade encounter. Along the way it throws in a history of the industry, descriptions of the lives of the fishers, and a lot of information on storms and the coast guard rescue operations. This is a very interesting book.

The Science of SciFi by Erin Macdonald

I enjoyed this Great Courses book which focuses on how many popular sf programs try to utilize our ever-growing understanding of the universe to craft better shows. It’s a nice light way to get introduced or reintroduced to everything from Newtonian physics, to relativity, to string theory. It’s also quite short, which actually aids understanding because there is not time to go into any great depth on the individual topics.

Emperors of the Deep by William McKeever

If everything you know about sharks comes from reading (or watching) Jaws, then you should treat yourself to this very different perspective on the apex predators of the oceans. It was a fascinating and educational read. I certainly won’t look at sharks the same way again, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to go swimming with them either.

Oceanology by DK Publishing

This book feels like it was designed to be an oversized coffee table book with beautiful glossy photographs dominating each page. As an audiobook, it doesn’t quite work, covering at lightning speed a dizzying array of sea creatures and natural formations. It’s still interesting, but...dizzying as the narrator flies through micro chapter after micro chapter.

Searching for Extraterrestrial Life by Sarah Rugheimer

I got this Great Courses book solely because of the title and imagined reading about Area 51 and other popular stories about secret contact. What I got was much better. Sarah Rugheimer walks us through what we know about the possibilities of life in the universe and how our scientists are trying to discover if it actually exists. I was absolutely fascinated. It’s never bad for a fan of science fiction to indulge in a little genuine science—especially when it’s conveyed by someone as capable as Dr. Rugheimer.

The Boiling River by Andre Ruzo

At its heart, this is a story about a scientist’s efforts to discover if a legend his father told him as a young boy about a boiling river in the Amazon could possibly be true. It’s also a tale of the mysteries still waiting to be discovered in our world, the beauty of the Amazon rain forest, and the great peril that that that forest faces. This is a very quick read and well worth your time.

Capitalism vs Socialism by Edward F. Stuart

This was not the rather polemic diatribe in favor of Capitalism or Socialism that I feared it could devolve into. Instead, Edward Stuart provides a nuanced, thoughtful, exploration of the choices that modern economies have made in choosing how to handle many problems related to the economy and the physical welfare of their citizens. In doing so, he explores with great even handedness the origins of capitalist and socialist theories and how those theories have been applied in a remarkable number of countries around the world, using issues like health care to show the different approaches countries have tried and laying out the benefits and problems that resulted in each of the cases. Capitalism and Socialism are terms that get thrown around a lot. You’ll have a much finer understanding of how they actually play into modern economic and political debates after reading this book.

How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

Despite the title, this Great Courses work was really an entertaining and informative history of science fiction starting with its debatable origins (Wolfe convinced me that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deserves the designation of first science fiction novel), then walking us through the many of the great early writers (Wells, Verne and Poe) before spending the rest of the lectures discussing icons of the genre (the spaceship, the planet, the robot, etc.) or movements within the field (the Golden Age, Cyberpunk, etc.), and later influential editors and authors (Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, Butler, etc.). Overall I consider it to be a great overview of the field and I very much enjoyed listening to it.

I do have a couple of—“complaints” seems too strong a word so perhaps we should call them constructive suggestions. I recognize that some works have had tremendous influence, but part of why I listen to a series of lectures like this is to be introduced to as large a variety of great texts as possible. Therefore, I would have preferred that Wolfe minimize the number of times he referred to the same book across lectures. I also wish someone would fix the table of contents in the audible version as many chapter titles are connected to the wrong lectures (i.e. lecture 10 actually links to lecture 21) which makes it hard to review a lecture after you have passed it.

I’d like to end on a more positive note. One of the great delights of listening to a series like this is hearing about books and authors I know and have read. So I appreciated greatly the many times that Wolfe would say things like, “Of course there are many more feminist science fiction writers than I have time to explore here. Authors like…” and he would rattle off ten names. I enjoyed seeing where authors whose works I love fit into the larger schema of science fiction. And that, in summation, is really what this lecture series is about—showing how the authors in the field have influenced each other and caused science fiction to grow and diversify into the genre it is today.

Earth’s Changing Science by Richard Wolfson

Most of my life I’ve been hearing about changes in the earth’s climate. It started out with fears of a new ice age which transformed into global warming which transformed to climate change. When I started studying history—especially the ancient and medieval worlds—I learned that the earth’s climate has been changing quite regularly for all of its history. There are a lot of cycles interacting with each other creating the Little Ice Age and the Roman Warming Period and many, many, others. As reports about modern changes to the climate became more prevalent in the press I would look for any recognition that this happens as part of nature and looked for reports that help to identify what parts of what is happening are caused by human activity. Such assistance was rare.

Richard Wolfson’s course finally answered those questions for me in a way that felt grounded in reason and science and not in a new—take it on faith—religion. If you’re a skeptic, this will give you some reasons to credit the global warming narrative. If you’re a true believer, this will help you to understand some of those handy phrases that activists throw around. I strongly recommend it for anyone striving to understand why warming trends are troubling and how we know that these trends are different than those that have gone before. I wish I had discovered this book much earlier.

How the Earth Works by Michael Wysession

I liked Earth Science when I studied it in elementary school and I enjoyed it again when my son studied it, so I approached this Great Courses book with great enthusiasm and I wasn’t disappointed. Wysession provides 48 very clear lectures walking the listener through the creation of the planet and the various geological “life cycles”. There were times when the book slowed down (for example endlessly discussing the different kinds of erosion) but over all it kept my attention and truly captivated me when discussing the various kinds of climate change the planet is experiencing and has experienced since creation. This was Wysession at his best—optimistic, noticing where the challenges are, but also noting the progress that we’ve made as we mature as a species and as different countries. If you are interested in Earth Science this is a great introduction to the topic.