Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I was going to spend the evening drawing…

October 29th, 2008 by Reinder

... but Terry Pratchett's Nation happened to me. Damn you, Terry Pratchett! Damn you to hell!

Seriously, after the disappointment that was Making Money and the news of his being diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it's a big relief to see that he still has a book this good in him. The book does go off the rails a bit towards the end, with the "Island-of-Science" dénouement never quite gelling. Naturally, all the old Pratchett themes are there in spades: the Plato's Cave references, the never-resolved ponderings on religion and atheism, the naive protagonists in a culture clash, and so on. It's a good execution of the formula, benefitting from not being Yet Another Discworld Novel, but it's formulaic nonetheless.

John Brunner – The Shockwave Rider

October 26th, 2008 by Reinder

The Shockwave Rider has been listed among Brunner's great novels along with Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up, and it has been written up as a novel that anticipated the emergence of the internet and coined the term worm for a self-replicating, malicious computer program. Wikipedia article on The Shockwave Rider. So is it?

Not quite. On reading it, I found it weaker than the other three "great" Brunner novels. It's simpler and more linear and while it had some of the kaleidoscopic trappings of the other novels, it didn't quite take them as far as the other three did. It also felt very much like a repeat exercise. Stylistically, it didn't gel for me either, though on the plus side, it did have an engaging female character in Kate Lilleberg.

As for it anticipating the internet, it was a bit late for that, having been published in 1975 when DARPANET had been around for a few years. The use of the term "worm" does seem to be original though what Brunner speaks of is "tapeworms" and his description of them suggests that he conceptualizes them as being essentially worm-like in structure as well as behaviour. In other words, the lead character's descriptions of his worms suggests that they are segmented creatures and that this is part of the reason why they are called that.

Of course, those are mere technological details. What makes Brunner's most ambitious work interesting is his broad-brush depiction of entire social systems. In The Shockwave Rider, what Brunner puts under the microscope is the influence of extensive data registration and manipulation on society as a whole and the well-being of its individuals, and what happens when corporations and governments try to control and suppress their data while still having access to that of individual consumers and citizens. And in its handling of these concepts, The Shockwave Rider does not disappoint. Some choice quotes:

At Tarnover they explained it all so reasonably! Of course everybody had to e given a personal code! How else could the government do right by its citizens, keep track of the desires, tastes, preferences, purchases, commitments and above all location of a continentful of mobile, free individuals?
Granted, there was an alternative approach. But would you want to see it adopted here? Would you like to find your range of choice restricted to the point where the population became predictable in its collective behavior?

Chilling, huh? And (in character):

The behaviorists reduced the principle of the carrot and the stick to the same kind of 'scientific' basis as the Nazis used for their so-called racial science. It's not surprising they became the darlings of the establishment. Governments rely on threat and trauma to survive. The easiest populace to rule is weak, poor, superstitious, preferably terrified of what tomorrow may bring, and constantly being reminded that the man in the street must step into the gutter when his superiors deign to pass him by. Behaviorist techniques offered a meanst to maintain this situation despite the unprecedented wealth, literacy and ostensible liberty of twenty-first-century North America.

Unlike The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider ends more or less happily, with the "good guys" dealing some serious blows to the (as always mostly anonymous) powers-that-be. It's well worth reading if you've already read the other classic Brunner novels and are hungry for more.

Edited to add: one impressive feat of technical prescience that hasn't been mentioned as much in criticism of The Shockwave Rider is that the novel anticipated the rise of the mobile phone: ubiquitous phones tied to a person rather than a place, which are used, among other things, as data devices.

The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner

October 22nd, 2008 by Reinder

I've had John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up by my bedside for months, but hadn't had the energy to finish it. Actually, I have several books that have been partially read over the past few months, and during my latest plane trip too Tennessee I finally got around to finishing some of them. The Sheep Look Up, one of Brunner's sprawling dystopian novels from the late 1960s, early 1970s, has a huge underground reputation as a classic tale of ecological catastrophe, and it lives up to it almost completely. Like his better known Stand on Zanzibar, it has a huge cast and a caleidoscopic structure in which future press cuttings, parodies of old poetry, anecdotes, TV commercial and some present-day information get mixed up with the interlocking storylines. Unlike SoZ, though, it is almost unrelentingly grim, with every member of the huge cast falling sick, and dying either from that or through violence. As usual with the Brunner dystopias, there are some moments of uncanny prescience, such as the portrayal-through-soundbites of a buffoonish US president who goes by the name of Prexy and serves no purpose at all but to distract the population through one-liners, a credit crisis, creeping socialism introduced by a conservative government for the benefit of its patrons, "organic" food that isn't, climate change resulting from the wasteful lifestyles of the developed populace and much more. One particularly chilling aspect is the set-up in which there is one smart, well-informed activist character who offers insight into the problems and even some solutions, who is already marginalised at the start of the novel. As he disappears from public life, extremists take up his mantle and resort to terrorism, which serves to taint that character, Austin Train, even further. Meanwhile, throughout the novel, a thoughtful, reasonable, not-at-all-activist thinker is patiently working with computer models to come to a thoughtful, reasonable solution. A silver bullet that will solve everything without having to listen to the Luddites. What this thoughtful, reasonable person comes up with at the end, as the problems have multiplied and the United States are collapsing into fascism and anarchy simultaneously? "Eliminate the most wasteful 200 million people from the population".

The Sheep Looks Up is not quite as good as Stand on Zanzibar - the characterisation, particularly of female characters, doesn't always work, the technological forecasts are dated (Brunner famously anticipated the Internet, but that was in another novel - here, he has completely missed out on the increase in computing power that would happen in the real world, and while a seasoned science fiction reader can ignore that most of the time, it still detracts from the verisimilitude of the rest of the novel) and there are some dull bits towards the end. But it is very, very good and speaks to many concerns that I for one have today.

(Personal note 1: I am writing this from sunny Tennessee where I'm staying with Aggie. No work is getting done, and blog posting will be light for a while. Also, I can't be bothered right now to polish up this review like I would if I was posting from home.)

(Personal note 2: I will be reading that other novel, The Shockwave Rider on my trip home. I do need a writer of Brunner's caliber to distract me from the fact that I won't be seeing my girlfriend for two months after that).

Pop-sci meme: what books have you read?

August 29th, 2008 by Reinder

Via PZ "I bought you a sacred host but I trasheded it" Myers comes this book meme: from the list of popular science books below, highlight which ones you've read. It's making me feel like an ignoramus; even with the expanded list suggested by PZ, I don't get very far at all:

1. Micrographia, Robert Hooke
2. The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin
3. Never at Rest, Richard Westfall
4. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman
5. Tesla: Man Out of Time, Margaret Cheney
6. The Devil's Doctor, Philip Ball
7. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
8. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye
9. Physics for Entertainment, Yakov Perelman
10. 1-2-3 Infinity, George Gamow
11. The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene
12. Warmth Disperses, Time Passes, Hans Christian von Bayer
13. Alice in Quantumland, Robert Gilmore
14. Where Does the Weirdness Go? David Lindley
15. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
16. A Force of Nature, Richard Rhodes
17. Black Holes and Time Warps, Kip Thorne
18. A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
19. Universal Foam, Sidney Perkowitz
20. Vermeer's Camera, Philip Steadman
21. The Code Book, Simon Singh
22. The Elements of Murder, John Emsley
23. Soul Made Flesh, Carl Zimmer
24. Time's Arrow, Martin Amis
25. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, George Johnson
26. Einstein's Dreams, Alan Lightman
27. Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter
28. The Curious Life of Robert Hooke, Lisa Jardine
29. A Matter of Degrees, Gino Segre
30. The Physics of Star Trek, Lawrence Krauss
31. E=mc2, David Bodanis
32. Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, Charles Seife
33. Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold, Tom Shachtman
34. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, Janna Levin
35. Warped Passages, Lisa Randall
36. Apollo's Fire, Michael Sims
37. Flatland, Edward Abbott
38. Fermat's Last Theorem, Amir Aczel
39. Stiff, Mary Roach
40. Astroturf, M.G. Lord
41. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
42. Longitude, Dava Sobel
43. The First Three Minutes, Steven Weinberg
44. The Mummy Congress, Heather Pringle
45. The Accelerating Universe, Mario Livio
46. Math and the Mona Lisa, Bulent Atalay
47. This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin
48. The Executioner's Current, Richard Moran
49. Krakatoa, Simon Winchester
50. Pythagorus' Trousers, Margaret Wertheim
51. Neuromancer, William Gibson
52. The Physics of Superheroes, James Kakalios
53. The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump, Sandra Hempel
54. Another Day in the Frontal Lobe, Katrina Firlik
55. Einstein's Clocks and Poincare's Maps, Peter Galison
56. The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan
57. The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins
58. The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker
59. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
60. Consilience, E.O. Wilson
61. Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould
62. Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard
63. Fire in the Brain, Ronald K. Siegel
64. The Life of a Cell, Lewis Thomas
65. Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris
66. Storm World, Chris Mooney
67. The Carbon Age, Eric Roston
68. The Black Hole Wars, Leonard Susskind
69. Copenhagen, Michael Frayn
70. From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne
71. Gut Symmetries, Jeanette Winterson
72. Chaos, James Gleick
73. Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos
74. The Physics of NASCAR, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky
75. Subtle is the Lord, Abraham Pais

76. Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski
77. Basin and Range, John McPhee
78. Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner
79. Chance and Necessity, Jacques Monod
80. Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation, Olivia Judson
81. Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Sean Carroll
82. Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Carl Zimmer
83. Genome, Matt Ridley
84. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
85. It Ain't Necessarily So, Richard Lewontin
86. On Growth and Form, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson
87. Phantoms in the Brain, VS Ramachandran
88. The Ancestor's Tale, Richard Dawkins
89. The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, Elisabeth Lloyd
90. The Eighth Day of Creation, Horace Freeland Judson
91. The Great Devonian Controversy, Martin Rudwick
92. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Oliver Sacks
93. The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould
94. The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment, Richard Lewontin
95. Time, Love, Memory, Jonathan Weiner
96. Voyaging and The Power of Place, Janet Browne
97. Woman: An Intimate Geography, Natalie Angier

I have read several of the books suggested in the comment thread, though, including Steve Jones' Darwin's Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated and several other Dawkins books. Still, this makes me feel like I should work harder on this reading thing.

Michael Pollan, my time sink of the past 24 hours.

August 24th, 2008 by Reinder

I've spent far too much time in thepast day reading the website of journalist Michael Pollan, writer of In Defense of Food and a range of books, essays and journalism about the food (mostly) Americans eat. I particularly recommend his piece on Animal rights, which despite the obnoxious provocation at the top is one of the best-written pieces on the issue I've read.

I've added In Defense of Food to my Amazon Wish List in case any of my readers here want to give me something nice for my birthday on Sep. 14. Pollan's website has the introduction online for free.

Books not to buy: Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools.

October 6th, 2007 by Adam Cuerden

Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools is an awful thing to realise you spent six quid on.

At first, I thought it was a Musicians of Bremen plot, which seemed interesting. You know, a group of people who set off to make their fortunes, then get sidetracked into something better and settle down together happily.

The dialogue and characterisation was weak, and there's occassional Drawings from the Uncanny Valley, but I kept reading because I thought this was just a consequence of the fairy tale plot.

I was, of course, wrong. It quickly took a sharp right turn into cliché. They meet a spoiled princess, who reforms in .3 seconds. She has an evil uncle, who even thinks about how fun it is to be evil, who is trying to kill her. The heroes get blamed for her absence, she's sold into slavery, they rescue her, she gives a speech, rallying the commonfolk, and takes things back.

More about the heroes in a moment. Let's first talk about enemies By legal requirement in Philip Caveney's world, anyone evil must be described as being big and having a beard. The beard is best described every single sentence. For example:

There was a long silence while the men appraised each other. Then the bearded man stepped forwards, his sword raised. Cornelius waited, his expression calm. The man launched an attack, and Cornelius performed that lazy, almost imperceptable flick of the wrist. His opponent took a couple more steps forward, his eyes staring straight ahead, a bright pool of blood blossoming on his chest. Then he missed a step and went tumbling down the staircase.

Another, surprisingly similar one:
There were shouts of encouragement from Red Beard's companions and he looked around them for moral support, before shrugging his shoulders, hefting his huge double-handed sword, and stepping forward to meet Cornelius... The manling gave an almost imperceptable flick of his wrist, the silver blade blurred into motion and the big man grunted in surprise, clutching at his stomach.

And a third:

The bearded man and Cornelius stood in the dimly lit barn staring at each other.... The bearded man lunged forward, his sword raised to strike, but Cornelius parried the blow with his own blade and then performed a quick somersault up onto the tabletop... he intercepted a second blow and ran the bearded man through.

The heroes, meanwhile? A hairless dwarf with a baby-like features. A half-elf jester (OMG hated because of his half-breed status!) with empathetic powers to see the truth about people's character that strangely only ever kicks in when plot convenient, and otherwise fails. A talking buffalope (Why, why did I read past that word?). And a spoiled princess who becomes unspoiled in three pages, then is unable to do anything else but have the narrator preach at her for the rest of the book. Because, you know, the reader might not realise slavery is wrong, or that, um... alright, I'm not quite sure what lesson she learns from seeing people squabbling over bread while she thinks of the dinners back at the palace she didn't eat, and which in a working palace would have been happily eaten by the servants. But I suppose that the author had a child who wouldn't eat his vegetables, and needed a way of lecturing him.

In the end, the princess rejects the jester so that she can make a diplomatic alliance by marriage (people still do that plot?) and there's a deus ex machina map found. Both are awful writing to allow a sequel on the high seas. I'm sure there will be lots of Cornelius making almost imperceptible flicks of his wrist which kill bearded bearded bearded pirates. However, funnily enough, I won't be reading it

Avoid this book at all costs.

Starship Stormtroopers

August 29th, 2007 by Reinder

Starship Stormtroopers, an eminently readable essay, or perhaps a transcripted speech, by Michael Moorcock from 1977, about authoritarianism in Science Fiction and Fantasy literature:

There are still a few things which bring a naive sense of shocked astonishment to me whenever I experience them -- a church service in which the rituals of Dark Age superstition are performed without any apparent sense of incongruity in the participants -- a fat Soviet bureaucrat pontificating about bourgeois decadence -- a radical singing the praises of Robert Heinlein. If I were sitting in a tube train and all the people opposite me were reading Mein Kampf with obvious enjoyment and approval it probably wouldn't disturb me much more than if they were reading Heinlein, Tolkien or Richard Adams. All this visionary fiction seems to me to have a great deal in common. Utopian fiction has been predominantly reactionary in one form or another (as well as being predominantly dull) since it began. Most of it warns the world of 'decadence' in its contemporaries and the alternatives are usually authoritarian and sweeping -- not to say simple-minded. A look at the books on sale to Cienfuegos customers shows the same old list of Lovecraft and Rand, Heinlein and Niven, beloved of so many people who would be horrified to be accused of subscribing to the Daily Telegraph or belonging to the Monday Club and yet are reading with every sign of satisfaction views by writers who would make Telegraph editorials look like the work of Bakunin and Monday Club members sound like spokesmen for the Paris Commune.

Some years ago I remember reading an article by John Pilgrim in Anarchy in which he claimed Robert Heinlein as a revolutionary leftist writer. As a result of this article I could not for years bring myself to buy another issue. I'd been confused in the past by listening to hardline Communists offering views that were somewhat at odds with their anti-authoritarian claims, but I'd never expected to hear similar things from anarchists. My experience of science fiction fans at the conventions which are held annually in a number of countries (mainly the US and England) had taught me that those who attended were reactionary (claiming to be 'apolitical' but somehow always happy to vote Tory and believe Colin Jordan to 'have a point'). I always assumed these were for one reason or another the exceptions among sf enthusiasts. Then the underground papers began to emerge and I found myself in sympathy with most of their attitudes -- but once again I saw the old arguments aired: Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and the rest, bourgeois reactionaries to a man, Christian apologists, crypto-Stalinists, were being praised in IT, Frendz and Oz and everywhere else by people whose general political ideals I thought I shared. I started writing about what I thought was the implicit authoritarianism of these authors and as often as not found myself accused of being reactionary, elitist or at very best a spoilsport who couldn't enjoy good sf for its own sake. But here I am again at Stuart Christie's request, to present arguments which I have presented more than once before.

Read on and take notes. And get yerself some John Brunner novels. They're good. (via)

Note: misspelling of "Tolkien" in the quoted section corrected because I'll have no part in spreading it around.

Rilstone on Harry

August 7th, 2007 by Reinder

On August 2, Andrew Rilstone asked Is J.K. Rowling actually any good? and answered "No". Now*) he's written the review to back it up, and it's one of those reviews that made me nod in agreement even though I really like the series as a whole and the latest installment in particular. This is how it's done, would-be reviewers (warning: the quoted section is merely a sample of the whole and should not be taken as a substitute for it):

Harry Potter and the Qualified Recantation: ....
I thought that Rowling had cleverly dusted off the old and slightly reactionary genre of the school story and given us permission to enjoy it again. I thought that it was a witty conceit to set such a story in a world which functions, like Alice in Wonderland, according to a kind of dream-like illogical logic. That's very much how the adult world can appear to a child. (That was Lewis Caroll's point as well, obviously.) Snape asks Harry questions that he knows perfectly well that Harry can't possibly answer. Harry is sometimes late for lessons because one of the staircases in the school moved while he wasn't looking. The Headmaster makes strict and sometimes rather arbitrary rules but is just as likely to praise Harry as punish him when he breaks them. That's how school feels to a child. "I don't know how this works, I can't avoid getting into trouble because I simply don't know what these irrational adult-things expect of me." When I was eight, it was obvious that the class bully was a member of a secret order bent on world domination and that Miss Beale was a wicked witch in disguise. At Hogwarts, that's actually true.
The problem sets in around volume 4, when Rowling ceases to treat Hogwarts as a literary device and starts treating it as if it was a real educational establishment. The whimsical "Billy Bunter with a magic wand" adventures become subordinate to a painfully derivative fantasy quest story in which Harry is the Chosen One who can defeat the Dark Lord. This creates massive inconsistencies in tone. In the fifth volume, evil Blairite Dolores Umbridge starts to physically torture misbehaving pupils. Are we to read this as comic violence or react to it as a realistic depiction of quite serious child abuse? If the latter, are we entitled to ask whether there are social workers or schools inspectors in the wizarding world? If Harry is now the Hero With a Thousand Faces are we really supposed to care (or imagine that he cares) about his wizarding exams or who wins the Quidditch tournament?

I also like his use of style parodies to bring home his point, though neither that gimmick nor his use of the question-and-answer format midway through the review are strictly necessary. It's another fine example of the reviewer's craft, from a man who, unlike most bloggers, including, on most days, yours truly, actually thinks and organises his thoughts before posting. Read the whole thing.

*) Strictly in the non-journalistic sense of the word, i.e. after previously.

Harry Potter and the Botherers of God

July 29th, 2007 by Reinder

While we're on the subject of Harry Potter (and I suspect we will be for a little longer), Sara Robinson at Orcinus wrote a good piece on why fundamentalists are so bothered by myth-and-magic stories in general and Harry Potter in particular:

The common thread that runs through all of these is magic. And that, I think, is the real burr that gets under fundamentalist saddles. In fundieland, magic is the most frightening and legitimate of all the competing myth systems -- the Devil's own preferred alternative to prayer and submission. Other belief systems (Buddhism, Hinduism, the Greek myths) are viewed as sad and rather pathetically delusional; but anything that smacks of magic is feared as actively Satanic.

Why is magic such a hot button? The reasons go to the heart of fundamentalist theology. At their core, fundamentalists believe that humans are wretched creatures who aren't really even human unless touched by God's grace. (And, yes, this does mean that those of us who are unsaved can rightly be considered subhuman.) We cannot do anything right; we do not deserve to have control over our own affairs; and any notion that we have intrinsic power to achieve good in the world (or even the authority to define "good" or "bad" on our own terms) is a diabolical delusion. Left to our own devices, we will not only screw it up for ourselves; we will ultimately ensure the Devil his victory over the world -- including them -- as well.

Implicit in this is the idea that all authority is necessarily, rightfully external. The fate of the entire world depends on how completely we can give up our desire to control our destinies, and submit to God and his appointed earthly overseers. This obsession with the need for external authority is, in a nutshell, is why fundamentalism is a form of religious authoritarianism.

Stories about magic openly defy this whole belief system. Magic-using characters like Harry usurp the supernatural power and prerogatives of God -- a sufficient heresy in its own right. But it's worse than that: they're also exercising their own internal authority, and acting out of their own agency. And that's the last thing fundamentalists want their children -- or anyone else -- learning how to do.

That's why we're hearing all the shrieking hysterics from the fundie side.

Read the rest, and read the comments, as Orcinus is one of those sites where the quality of commentary is usually high.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows spoiler-free capsule review

July 28th, 2007 by Reinder

(Note: When I say "Spoiler-free", this should be taken as a statement of intent. I can't second-guess what other people will consider spoilers, and even minor revelations about the content of Deathly Hallows can be used to piece together the puzzle of what happens in the book, who dies, who wins, etcetera, before actually reading it. So while I go out of my way to avoid spoilers in this review, it still goes below the adcut (I removed the ad in an attempt to figure out what's breaking the template when the cut is used) in the blog, and under an LJ cut for those reading it through the Livejournal feed)