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A thriller set on Jupiter, plus a look back before Bill Nye’s in Austin

An expedition to one of Jupiter’s moons leads to contact with an alien species that may be plotting a takeover of Earth in Lance Erlick’s sci-fi novel, “Xenogeneic: First Contact.”

Dr. Elena Sweetwater Pyetrov is excited to continue her father Alexander’s work on Europa, where his ship disappeared nearly two decades earlier. But when her shuttle inexplicably passes by a necessary pit stop on Earth’s moon, her on-again, off-again fiance, Capt. Marc Carlisle, tells her that something’s pulling them toward Jupiter. After they survive a crash landing on what appears to be Europa, Elena encounters an older man: her father, accompanied by his 13-year-old daughter, Thelma.

He tells Elena of an alien race, the Knoonk, that provided him with food and a communications link to Earth — but as he talks to her, his finger taps out a secret Morse code message: “e-v-i-l.” Soon Elena and Marc find others from their ship and realize that the Knoonk are pushing humans to mate with the promise of sustenance and shelter. It turns out that there are many other captive Earthlings who eventually wage war against one another, while pregnant women and children mysteriously vanish. All the while, the Knoonk are scouring Earth for their Royal Couple, who are hiding there in human form.

Erlick quickly drops readers into the story, getting the characters to Jupiter by the second chapter. Much of the rest of the novel adopts a more leisurely pace as it tells a tale of captive humans resisting oppressive aliens. It’s a potent concept, although it’s occasionally undersold: the frightening notion of some humans worshiping the Knoonk, for example, doesn’t quite offset descriptions that comically downplay the aliens, such as, “The Knoonk had destroyed their food to get them to hook up.” The dynamic between the sisters, however, is quite engaging; Elena overcomes Thelma’s indecipherable speech— which consists of seemingly random rhymes — with Morse code, bonding by using their father’s method of communication. There are quite a few twists as well, including revelations of the Knoonk’s origins and some of the things they’ve done to the humans, as well as a few intriguing developments back on Earth. Overall, it’s a fine launch for a potential series.

An interplanetary tale with effectively slow build that leads to a solid climax.

Bill Nye at SXSW

A sweeping tour of the mechanics of evolution from the Science Guy in “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation” by Bill Nye (released in November 2014; Nye will be at BookPeople from 11 a.m. to noon Sunday to sign bookplates for his new book, “Everything All At Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem,” scheduled for release in July. Vouchers for the new book are $26.99.)

“Science is the way we know nature and our place within it,” writes Nye, who is open-minded and curious but also someone who likes the best explanations devised by the human project: “In science, a hypothesis should not only explain the evidence we have found,” he writes, “it should also make predictions about things not yet discovered. … Science is inherently work in progress.”

What kind of evidence do we have about evolution; what kind of dynamic thinking, informed by all we have experienced, can we bring to its understanding? What method of inquiry allows us to advance our understanding? Nye neatly deconstructs the arguments against evolution, from basic mistakes of biology and physics to more cosmological concerns — that the naysayers “avoid the exploration of evolution because it reminds us all that humankind may not be that special in nature’s scheme. What happens to other species also happens to us” — and he takes very seriously the problems posed by introducing creationism to school curriculums around the country.

While he has no trouble sinking his teeth into the creationists and anti-evolution activists, Nye really takes flight when he is trying to puzzle out how we get here from there or considering the strangeness of sexual selection (“Consider the peacock, the epitome of costly signaling”). In addition to Darwin, the author examines the contributions of a host of scientists from a variety of disciplines, including biology, geology and genetics. With the smoothness and encouragement that mark his writing, Nye suggests that “(t)he only way to get the answers is to keep looking at living things and learning more about the process by which we all came to be.”

Proof positive that evolutionary theory can be popular and inviting.

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