Tag Archives: Katherine

Science and History with Conan the Barbarian!


Pulp fiction – real pulp fiction – has a reputation for being brainless fluff. I’m talking here about Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Zorro, and Tarzan. These stories, now generally bound as collections in books, were originally published in weekly magazines printed on very cheap wood pulp paper. This is popcorn reading: predictable, lurid, and exploitative – calculated to shock and play into the prejudices of their readers. However, like an iceberg, most of the substance is deep under the surface.

Pulp fiction is the domain of early detective stories, the entire Noir genre, the primordial soup out of which rose comic books, fertile ground for science fiction and modern horror writing. Most of our entertainment today – the themes of our hit movies, television shows, video games, books – owes a great deal to these cheap pulp stories. These tales grew out of the social environment of the 1920s and 1930s, and, while there’s plenty of sexism and racism to go around, there’s also a stunning amount of science history embedded in the fabric of the stories and the worlds they are set in.


Let’s look into some science history with Robert E. Howard’s Conan (featuring H. P. Lovecraft):

Hyborea isn’t quite a fantasy universe.

(NOTE: All of the following uses Robert E. Howard’s posthumously published essay on the setting of the Conan stories, The Hyborean Age. Free eBook here at Project Gutenberg.)

Conan the Cimmerian’s world is actually our world, in our own distant past, one we remember only through garbled mythology. The fact that continents move was just coming into acceptance at the time these stories were being written in the 1930s – plate tectonics as we know it found acceptance in the 1950s and 1960s, with the discovery of seafloor rift zones. The actual rate of this movement was not yet known, allowing Howard’s world to have a different shape than our own, including hypothetical “lost continents” such as Lemuria and Atlantis – popular with occultists and mystics at the time.

Human history, too, it was becoming clear, was much longer than once thought, allowing the fictional Hyborean Age plenty of temporal elbow room for lost empires and forgotten gods: these stories take place in the bronze age, on the cusp of the adoption of iron. The people of Conan’s world, similarly, derive from projecting backwards in time from theories of race current in the 1930s (now discredited). According to Howard, Conan’s own people, the Cimmerians, would eventually become the Celts. Both the geography and the population of the Conan stories owe a lot to cutting-edge geology and archaeology of the first few decades of the 20th Century. Although these stories are fiction, they were founded, as much as possible, on the most current science available, and even though we’ve advanced our understanding of the world since, they still present a snapshot of the state of science and corresponding social anxieties in the first part of the 20th Century.

Howard and H. P. Lovecraft kept up a correspondence, and both authors’ bodies of work are interrelated. The stories of Conan interlock with the early human history of Lovecraft’s fiction, and share some of the same place names and even background characters. Lovecraft based much of the horror in his own writing on a new understanding in science in the 1920s that the universe was far larger than previously thought.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” — The Call of Cthulhu (excerpt) by H.P. Lovecraft

That is not the outlook of fiction with a sense of security in humanity’s central place in the universe. Howard’s evil gods and abyssal horrors share this template, and even some of the literary and conceptual background, especially the new scientific outlook that made it possible. From cosmology to geology, and even anthropology and history, the Conan stories may be pulp fiction, but, like their protagonist, they’re definitely far more intelligent than they look.

Cover art for The Best of Robert E. Howard: Crimson Shadows

A very nice compilation, to get you started on Howard’s pulp fiction in general – it even includes some Kull stories, which fit into the distant past of the Conan narratives.

Or, if comic books are more your speed…

Cover art for Conan: the God in the Bowl and Other Stories

Kurt Busiek is one of my favorite comic book writers, creator of the incomparable Astro City series. This adaptation is fantastic! Cary Nord ’s art fits the world and characters well, with primal rage fairly rippling off the page.

Related Science Resources:


Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type), Graphic Novel

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes


Hedy Lamarr is best known today for being a gorgeous movie starlet. However, her most lasting contributions to history may well be her skill as an inventor, rather than her stunning looks on the silver screen. Richard Rhodes draws on a range of historical sources – military and show biz – to detail how Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil developed and patented spread-spectrum radio technology to make radio-directed torpedoes un-jammable – ultimately the seed of today’s digital wireless communications networks, from cell phones to wifi Internet.

Richard Rhodes is best known for winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Here, he writes well out of his usual history-epic comfort zone, and, in some respects, it shows. This book is terse, and more “dishy” in tone, attempting to emulate a movie industry gossip rag, equal parts frothy biography and dense technological history. Ultimately, whether you will enjoy this book depends on whether you like either or both of these genres, and can tolerate the other.

If you like this:

Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in “Let’s Live a Little” (1948)

You better like this with it, too:

USS Wahoo

USS Wahoo SS-238: one of the most successful US submarines of WW II. Lost with all hands in 1943.

If you do like your Hollywood gossip biographies with a hefty helping of technological wartime bureaucratic drama, or the reverse, then this is the ideal book for you.

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), e-Book, Audiobook (CD and Downloadable)

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Something for Everyone in Five Comics Books

Whether you have always loved comics or you never picked one up in your life, if you want to read about cape-and-tights heroes or curl up with something trendy and artsy, then this list has something for you.

The Arrival – Shaun Tan

The Arrival is proof that a good story doesn’t even need words. A stunning narrative of an immigrant’s experience in a new and alien land, it’s like having someone play solos about hope and isolation on your heartstrings.

Barbarian Lord – Matt Smith

This is the comic book that Vikings would have written if Vikings wrote comic books. Sure, there are other comic books that try to capture the age, or even just borrow the aesthetic, but Barbarian Lord reads like a deadly-serious re-telling of one of the Icelandic Sagas.

Marvel Illustrated: The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde; Roy Thomas; Sebastian Fiumara.

It’s a hard task to adapt a longer book to graphic format, but Marvel does a fantastic job with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Taking a dark, psychological, Gothic novel and adapting it successfully to graphic format – that’s nothing short of a miracle.

Astro City: Confession– Kurt Busiek; Alex Ross; Brent Anderson.

If you never read comics because you felt superheroes were flat characters and the world they are set in simplistic, Confession will change your mind. Smart, sensitive, and nuanced.  The storytelling will keep you glued to the page.

Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others – Mike Mignola

Although the third in the Hellboy series, this volume of short stories speaks to the soul of the series: respect for the source material. If you like gritty, pitch-perfect renditions of folklore and mythology, and a bit of dry humor on the side, this is the book for you.

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Originally posted on LFPL’s Teen Blog at http://blogs.lfpl.org/teen/2015/01/07/something-for-everyone-in-5-comic-books/

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea


Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is Canadian animator Guy Delisle‘s cartoon diary of his stay in North Korea while working in an animation studio. While other books focus on North Korea’s history, leadership, or place in international politics, this one examines with dry humor and sharp wit the day to day experience of living as a foreign guest worker in Pyongyang, and the tension between what is there, what visitors are allowed to see, and what everyone is allowed to say. The huge fake smiles plastered on the faces of the accordion girls – the illustration chosen for the cover – mirrors the ongoing theme of this bizarre masquerade.

Delisle’s style is classic cartoon, with clean line art and caricature, and he uses it to best effect, telling his story – presented as a series of vignettes – directly, effectively, and with great clarity and force. While other presentations of the same material could come off as heavy-handed or unrelievedly grim, Delisle manages the mood with a keen eye for the absurd, and pitch-black humor.

This often-surreal travelogue benefits from the distance of the author’s outside perspective, a remove that allows for humor and wit. Despite this, Pyongyang remains good-natured and compassionate, as well as insightful and entertaining. If you’re looking for a short but incisive and genuinely funny perspective on life in North Korea (at least the parts foreigners are allowed to see) this is the book for you.

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs


I confess a deep, lifelong love of dinosaurs. I had a stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex as a kid, instead of a bear, and it still sits on my dresser. I read just about everything I can find on them, from bird identification guides, to blog posts and papers by paleontologists. I am very, very picky about dinosaur books. There’s a system, you see.

Katherine’s Guide to Evaluating Dinosaur Books:

1.  Accuracy. If it’s a non-fiction book, it had better be well researched by people who know what they’re doing. No excuses for using shoddy or old research or perpetuating outright falsehoods. For dinosaur books, there is one special consideration:  

It should at least know what a dinosaur is. This might seem obvious, but, when I hit the shelves, I’m always surprised at the number of “dinosaur” books that call the wrong things dinosaurs.

What is a dinosaur? Dinosaurs are all of the descendants of the single common ancestor of modern birds and Triceratops. They are archosaurs (all the relatives of themselves and crocodiles) with hips that fit upright legs. A chicken’s legs don’t sprawl like an alligator’s. Dimetrodon, Pteranodon, Icthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus – these are not dinosaurs.

A Black-Capped Chickadee is a dinosaur:


“Black-capped Chickadee” by Brendan Lally – Own work.  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black-capped_Chickadee_1.jpg

(It’s all in those scaly little legs: they fall straight from the hip socket. Note also adorably teensy claws.)

2.  Illustrations. There is no substitute for a scientific illustrator. Shoddy computer graphics abound in dinosaur books for children and adults, yet good, clear, hand-drawn illustrations do the job far better, and bring out details that are easily botched by cheap computer graphics, such as feathers. This is definitely one case in which a picture is worth a thousand words.

3.  Focus. A clear, tight focus can really help a book, especially one that covers a topic as expansive as dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were around for a really, incredibly long time. To put the Mesozoic – the “Age of Dinosaurs” – in perspective, it ended 65 million years ago. The Cretaceous alone, the last of the three periods of the Mesozoic, lasted 80 million years, longer than everything that has happened since. It’s easy for a book to lose sense of this perspective, or for information to get muddled without a well-defined focus.

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs definitely knows what a dinosaur is. The book knows what several hundred dinosaur species are. It is exactly as it says in the title – a field guide – with detailed, accurate, informative illustrations on every page, thorough introductions to each group, and information for every species introduced, including size, estimated weight, characteristics, distribution and habitat, and notes.

Even better, it’s by a scientific illustrator who is also a dinosaur researcher. Every page is crammed with line drawings and silhouettes of skeletons, beautiful muscle studies, and sensitive life restorations. The author – Gregory S. Paul – helped lead the charge for changing the visual interpretation of dinosaurs, from tail-dragging, cold-blooded, saggy-skinned mega-lizards, to the warm-blooded, and much more alert and dynamic creatures that populate today’s research and even motion pictures, in accord with advances in scientific knowledge. Especially striking in The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is the restoration given for the chicken-sized Anchiornis huxleyi – the coloration of which has been determined: it was gray, with black and white banded arm and leg feathers, and a reddish crest on its head. On the other side of the coin, Gregory S. Paul uses a robust, informed imagination in the life restorations to suggest possibilities for dinosaurs that dry bones cannot. The zebra-striped feather crest and cassowary-like wattles on Dryosaurus altus bring the animal to vibrant life.

Organized by phylogeny, with species notes that indicate possible relationships, or insufficient data, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs is easy to browse or use for reference – never losing its clear focus as a reference for the general public. Keeping an eye to context, the book opens with an introductory section that details the history or dinosaur research, changes in the field, dinosaur natural history, and even an overview of details such as diseases or injuries known from dinosaur fossils.

Whether your six-year-old has dinosaur fever, or the six-year-old in you does, a great dinosaur book like this one is indispensable.

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson


In 1854, an outbreak of cholera struck the Soho district of London, killing over 600 people. Steven Johnson ’s The Ghost Map paints a vivid and engaging portrait of a community struck by a disease it does not understand and cannot control, and the struggle to develop the knowledge and means to stem the tide of mortality. Even if non-fiction is usually not to your taste, this account of Dr. John Snow’s investigation of the outbreak and the struggles of families and individuals gripped by the disease is engagingly written and well worth a read.

Dr. Snow’s investigation of the cholera epidemic of 1854 became the seed for modern epidemiology. While the story of his plotting cholera cases on a map of the district and targeting a public water pump as the source of the outbreak – ultimately resulting in the removal of the handle of the pump – is well known, it’s not the complete story, and Johnson does an admirable job bringing the sights – and smells of mid-19th Century London to life.


Dramatized narratives of Soho residents’ lives during the outbreak serve for more than background nuance and flavor. Small details – a splash of gin added to water unwittingly killing the bacteria – hint at the much larger developments that the 1854 outbreak led to. Dr. Snow’s struggle to find the focus of the epidemic and then convey his ideas about the pump as the common source to authorities convinced that disease was spread by foul smells, not by water, foreshadows the use of maps and charts to illustrate data and convince the public and policy setters. The use of the map was at the cutting edge of the time: Florence Nightingale used charts and maps to push for the need for sanitation. The field of data visualization, then in its infancy, is an important part of scientific research and public service.

Given the impact of the 1854 Soho cholera epidemic on today’s world, and how the concerns of infectious disease and public health are still with us, the central dramas of The Ghost Map are well worth thinking about. In the final chapters, the author attempts to integrate the lessons of the epidemic with more modern concerns, and although some of his points are worthwhile, others seem like over-reaching attempts at relevancy, when the story of the outbreak, and the impact epidemiology has on our lives is a gripping story in itself. Some of this poorly-integrated theorizing feels like it belongs to another book, and isn’t given enough time for a good, mature argument.

All in all, however, despite the problems of the last chapters, The Ghost Map is a must-read for history buffs, or even fans of historical fiction, to get a feel for the urban atmosphere of the time. At his best describing the Soho outbreak, Johnson strikes a fine balance between exploring the scientific and historical significance of the events and the very human drama of families and individuals in the grip of a deadly disease.

Formats Available:  Book, eBook

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Vagabond by Inoue Takehiko

Author’s Note:  For consistency, all Japanese names in this review will be in traditional order – surname first, and given second.




Inoue Takehiko has created a masterpiece in Vagabond – not just for the breathtaking artwork, but for the story as well. A loose retelling of Yoshikawa Eiji’s 1935 novel Musashi, in turn loosely based on history, this manga series follows Miyamoto Musashi as he follows the way of the sword, testing his skill in mortal combat, ultimately transforming him through introspection into a more whole and compassionate human being. Yet, despite the action-heavy premise, characters drive the plot and interest.


Slam Dunk


The author’s previous experience with the high school basketball saga Slam Dunk informs the fight scenes with the crackle of tension and physical struggle, yet the characters and their development through slow growth and sudden insight hold just as much interest, if not more, as duels to the death. Tightly plotted encounters and fleshed-out characters illustrate facets of the journey to enlightenment in the way of the sword. What to do with pain and rage or even kindness in an unfair and often violent world – this question, and the success different characters have in answering it, lies at the heart of the story. Is it possible to run away forever, from pain and responsibility, as Matahachi tries to do? What if rage grows unchecked, as it does for Gion Toji? Grief, love, and death stand as open and complex questions underpinning the plot. Despite characters’ places in the story as questions or foils, they each grow, or fail to, thrive, or die, in a vivid and electrically realistic way.

Inoue has taken liberties with the original novel, but even those update and refresh aspects that would not be as relatable to a modern audience. The character Otsu, for example, while a blank, rather flat archetype of a love interest in the original novel – is a much more developed, complex person in Vagabond, struggling to transcend her own abandonment and rejection, first by her birth parents, then by her fiancée, and even her own adopted mother.


It takes a lot of guts for an author to adapt a classic and acclaimed work of literature from the past for the present. In addition to the pitfalls inherent in re-telling a well-known story (how to keep it fresh?), every decision the author makes comes under microscopic scrutiny (what to change, what to keep?). Even more challenging, then, is an adaptation across media, such as turning a Shakespeare play into a film. Adapting a beloved work of the modern literary canon for a comic book, however, is audacious, bordering on career suicide. Yet, Inoue Takehiko has done just this, and triumphed. Whether you love manga already, or if you have never tried the medium, Vagabond is a thrill to read – intelligent, sophisticated, and driven by the sensitive depiction of its characters.


Editor’s Note:  If you are new to the Japanese format of manga (or its sister format anime), check out the author’s FAQ (which is also available on the Reader’s Corner’s Comics and Manga page).

Formats Available:  Manga

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch