Monday, December 28, 2015

Book Review: Ivory Vikings

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
Nancy Marie Brown
Art, archaeology

This is a frustrating book about the Lewis Chessmen. It has some really good good parts, and it has some really disappointing not-so-good parts.





Brown wants to assert that a woman known as Margaret the Adroit ("the most skilled carver in Iceland", according to an Icelandic family saga) created the Lewis chessmen for the 12th-century bishop Pall Jonsson. To get there, however, she has to make a series of assumptions, many of which are unstated. To detail only the grossest level: if the chessmen came from Iceland, and if they would have been considered a work of unusual skill, and if they were made for Bishop Pall, then it is plausible that Margaret made them. That's a lot of ifs for a person whose entire documented existence consists of a sentence or two. Some of the reasoning is decidedly dodgy, along the lines of what historical person X "would have said" or "would have thought". I can't help but suspect that Brown started with the conclusion, and then worked backward.

(Also: an author who chooses to put as her biographical blurb the facts that she speaks Icelandic and lives in Vermont with four Icelandic horses does nothing to dispel my impression of a deep and perhaps non-dispassionate connection to the subject. I freely admit that this is blatant stereotyping and unjustifiable speculation on my part.)

Then, too, Brown is not a master of factual organization. She has a clever approach--each chapter is named for a chess piece, and she uses that piece to explore the social history and position of both the piece and its real-world counterpart. Unfortunately, in doing this, she is forced away from a chronological approach. That's not necessarily bad, but Brown doesn't pull it off; she darts back and forward in time, with similarly-named actors doing similar things in different chapters, and loses the thread repeatedly.

On the other hand, the Icelandic-origin theory seems (at least according to Ivory Vikings) to have been unfairly pooh-poohed by scholars. The competing origin fables--Norway is the most popular--are also highly speculative. More importantly, Iceland wasn't some provincial backwater, but a wealthy and flourishing (if hard and remote) society. So Brown at least deserves credit for establishing that "plausible" thing.

But where she truly excels is in evoking the lost, strange, brutal, evocative, beautiful Northern world. And it truly was a world--an economic and cultural continuum spanning from Greenland into Russia, not long past the paganism of Thor and Odin, where trading and raiding coexisted for centuries: a place in the medieval European orbit, but fully not of it. There are stories here to conjure with, and names as well: Erlang Skew-Neck, King Magnus III Barelegs, Unn the Deep-Minded, Harold Hard-ruler, Ketil Flat-Nose. There are intrepid venturers in "white gold", walrus ivory. There are feuds and betrayals and ironic humor. In the best parts of Ivory Vikings, Braun dives deep into both the facts and the stories of the North, with particularly good scholarship on the Icelandic sagas.

I don't know that I'd be in a rush to read another non-fiction book by Nancy Marie Brown. On the other hand, if she ever publishes any translations of those sagas, I'm there.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

Spoiler-Free Notes on The Force Awakens

Yes, I saw the movie on its opening weekend. (Mainly because I don't want to have to leave the room while all my friends discuss it.) I may have some much more detailed spoiler-heavy analysis later. Here, however, are my first thoughts.
  1. It was, overall, pretty OK. (John Scalzi, as often happens, has a good analogy.) I went in with absolutely neutral expectations. I was not surprised either pleasantly or unpleasantly. I am not sorry to have seen it. I would not spend money to see it again.
  2. I specifically had no expectation of seeing anything that would have the kind of impact that the original had. It's not just that I'm REDACTED years older. When Star Wars came out in 1977, literally nobody had ever seen anything like it. What we think of as the SFX Blockbuster Movie Genre did not exist. Science fiction on the screen was still a niche, and not a respectable one either. The number of SF movies that were both critical and popular successes was one (the overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey).
  3. As a movie, it was vastly better than The Phantom Menace, which is the only one of the prequels I've seen. It was better than Return of the Jedi, which again is not the highest bar--I'm looking at you, Ewoks. I have a much more critical opinion of The Empire Strikes Back than most people seem to; I'd put this one not too far below it, or even on a level.
  4. As an exercise in nostalgia and fan-service, it was great! Look, sound, feel, and music all said Star Wars. If you want all your boxes checked off, The Force Awakens will check them. The cost of this, however, is that it's profoundly unimaginative and unoriginal--I'd even call it "derivative", verging on "rehash". To be clear, I'm not talking about the return of the original characters; I'm talking about the plot. There were some twists, but I'd guessed most of them (with, I admit, partial accuracy) weeks ago.
  5. The biggest script weakness is that there's nobody whose desires actually drive the story forward, which means that there's no real conflict--only characters running away and/or reacting to stuff. Compare to the original, where Luke is the protagonist, and the film revolves around his goals:
    1. When we meet him, he wants to get the hell off of Tattooine. But there is a conflict, because he also feels responsible to his aunt and uncle, and anyway it all seems impossible.
    2. After his family is killed, he wants to be a Jedi like his father and deliver R2-D2. But there is a conflict, because the Empire is hunting R2-D2 and, by extension, him.
    3. Once he gets to the Death Star, he wants to rescue the princess. But there is a conflict, because duh.
    4. In the climax, he wants to destroy the Death Star. But there is a conflict, because lasers and Tie fighters and the attack run and Darth Vader all disagree. (Notice, also, that the conflict between Vader's wants and Luke's wants gets more and more direct through the film.)
    I couldn't make the same sort of analysis of The Force Awakens. There are 2.5 main characters; the .5 doesn't do much, and the other two spend most of the movie trying to avoid conflict. The result is a series of scenes rather than a story. I will stipulate that many of the scenes are pretty good.
  6. The plot holes are moderately enormous. While watching the movie I could ignore them, and they didn't reduce my enjoyment substantially, which is the minimum that I ask.
A really good screenwriter could have made a much better movie out of this basic material. It wouldn't have made any more money, however, and The Force Awakens is at least a recovery from the depths of the prequels. I hope that the sequels will bring a real storyteller into the process; I'm not anticipating it, though.

Friday, December 18, 2015

OMG!

Great Scott! I said this almost a year ago, and I have not done anything. Fortunately the Internet seems to have staggered along somehow, no doubt because others have stepped up in my absence. However, just in case ...


Note position of foot relative to head. 

This is the reason you shouldn't play Twister with cats. Well, one reason, anyway.
"What?"

There. If that doesn't send my blog hits through the roof, nothing will.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: The White Road

The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal
Biography, art

A couple of years ago a ceramic artist named Edward de Waal wrote a book called The Hare With Amber Eyes. In it he used the titular netsuke figurine as a framing device for an evocative and moving history of his family. It's an absorbing book about loss and recovery, the ephemeral and the permanent.




The White Road is less successful. De Waal doesn't seem to understand what the book is about. Is it a single-subject history of porcelain? Is it a personal memoir? Is it a poetic meditation on Art? Is it a travelogue? It partakes of all of these things, but not fully enough to be any of them. It fails as a history of the substance, to pick on the first aspect, by not providing enough facts about what porcelain is, how it differs chemically and physically from other forms of pottery, what the full history of it encompasses, etc. etc. etc.


That would be a very Enlightenment sort of book, by the way. De Waal's preoccupations seem to be more Romantic. In the first third of the book, he seems to be trying to share with the reader the subjective, inner experience of what it means to truly love this beautiful material--a quintessentially Romantic concern. It's not an unworthy ambition, but De Waal doesn't pull it off. He tries to be profound, but too often he's merely precious. (Pro tip: littering your text with one-sentence paragraphs robs the device of any force that it might have had.) Among other things, he's annoyingly fond to the pathetic fallacy.

The White Road is by no means a complete failure. There are eloquent passages, there are interesting biographical anecdotes, there are informative facts. It's just that there aren't enough of any one of them to make a whole book out of. 



Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Review/Essay: The Fellowship

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams
Philip and Carol Zaleski
Literature, biography

The Fellowship is a readable, detailed, and sympathetic biography by a pair of Smith College professors. It's nice to see the Inklings get some scholarly attention, even if it's only a fraction of the attention that's been given to contemporaries such as the Bloomsbury Group. It's not, perhaps, for the casual reader; if your interest starts and ends with Middle-Earth and Narnia, you might want to work your way up to this one.

Inevitably, the coverage of the Inklings is uneven. Lewis and Tolkien get roughly equal time, with Lewis emerging as the driving force of the group. Williams and Barfield share a second tier. The remainder of the group, aside from Lewis's brother Warnie, gets only token attention. 

To be honest, that's fine by me. I've read some Charles Williams, but in general I find him obscure and unengaging. I have read nothing by Barfield, and based on this account I'm unlikely to do so; each of us would consider the other as spouting tendentious gibberish. No doubt both men were genuinely deep and original thinkers, but they wrote for an audience of which I'm not a member.

If anything, that points out the genius of Lewis and Tolkien. Both of them were first-rate intellectuals (critical snobbery aside), and far more deeply versed in theology, literature, and philosophy than I will ever be. They put that depth into their writings; and yet both men--especially Tolkien--can be read for pure, unadulterated pleasure. 

This, I think, is one of the two major divides between JRRT and the vast legions of schlock artists who've followed in his footsteps. You might not see the genuine depth of The Lord of the Rings, but you can still feel it. The sense of mingled loss and consolation, for example, that pervades the book isn't an accident; it's fundamental to Tolkien's Christian, Catholic, and Boethian philosophy.

The other (and related) major divide is that all the Inklings were fascinated by myths: how they work, why they work, and what they're good for. Commercial fantasy writers focus on the mere trappings of myth (swords, magic spells, divine power, etc.) without having the least idea of why. The result is a kind of literary placebo, which dulls the imagination rather than stimulating it. It is to the genuine stuff what Nabisco's "Chips Ahoy!" is to home-made chocolate cookies.

Confession: I've read my fair share of this writing. I hope never to do so again. Life's too short to spend it killing your own brain cells.

Humphrey Carpenter's J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography is a good starting point for the curious. Lewis has had a good many studies of his life and work, but they've mostly taken a rather academic slant.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Russian Spambot Overlords.


I've been discovered.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review: Digital Gold

Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money
Nathaniel Popper
Economics, computers

Some people have a stereotypical idea of what constitutes a Bitcoin zealot in their minds. Some people, indeed, probably imagine:
  • Technical brilliance combined with Asperger's syndrome or the like
  • Thin, worryingly intense men with beady eyes
  • Parents' basements
  • Orthodox Libertarians waving their copies of Mao's Little Red Book Atlas Shrugged in quasi-religious fervor
  • Scammers, fast-talkers, Machiavellians, suck-ups, and narcissists generally
Some people are, broadly speaking, correct. No one person in Digital Gold incorporates all of the stereotype, but even so a certain ... composite portrait ... emerges. (Two other facts are worth noting: 100% of the actors are male, and 98% of them seem to be jerks. One of the few exceptions lives in my home town, for what that's worth.)

Also, there are a lot of them. That's one of Digital Gold's main weaknesses. There are just too many characters, and they tend to drift into and out of the story, making it hard to remember who's who. A cast of characters, right up-front, would have been helpful; a timeline would not have come amiss. As it is, the book is a bit herky-jerky. The pieces are fine, and might stand on their own as newspaper articles, but as a whole it's a bit slice-of-life-ish.

This is, in part, because Nathaniel Popper chose to concentrate on the people rather than on the technology. I understand why.  I imagine that there are relatively few readers who will abandon the book because it's short on eye-watering engineering detail. That doesn't mean I don't miss it, though. There's only a short and shallow technical appendix, which isn't nearly enough.

Still, it's a pretty enjoyable read. The conclusion is a bit of a downer: the idealists go up against the System, and the System wins. But, as with the large and shifting cast, that's real life for you.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review: The Theater of War

The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today
Brian Doerries
Literature, psychology

Brian Doerries sees things in the classical tragedies that the authors never intended, and he ignores things that they would have thought crucial. That's not a knock on Doerries, much less on the playwrights. If anything, it's a compliment. Great literature is great, in part, because it transcends its original time and place.

Having said that, The Theater of War is a rather shallow book. It's interesting on the level of memoir, but it provides little in the way of either analysis or synthesis. Doerries is doing good work by presenting Greek tragedies to, among others, PTSD-vulnerable vets; surely there's something to say that surpasses the magazine-article level.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Book Review: Metatropolis

Metatropolis
John Scalzi (editor)
Science fiction

A quintet of linked novelettes around the general idea of the post-urban city, if that makes any sense. Scalzi's contribution is readable enough in a Scalzi-y way. Karl Schroeder's is pretty good. The other three authors should have more time doing research and less time thinking about how much better the world would be if only everybody did it their way.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Book Review: The Ways of the World

The Ways of the World: A James Maxted Thriller
Robert Goddard (no, not that one)
Thriller

I wonder what the editors at "Transworld Publishers, a division of the Random House Group," do with all their free time. They're clearly not spending it editing books. If they had been, The Ways of the World would have been about four pages long.

For starters, it's just plain badly written. There are enormous chunks of text telling us how the characters feel. There are random intrusions of dialog embedded in long descriptive paragraphs. The prose is juvenile ("Morahan reckoned he could guess. And he always backed his own guesses.") And there is a truly phenomenal amount of padding. Paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and characters could have been excised with no loss of anything save word count.

(At the end of one chapter, one character asks another: "What do you reckon that [chapter] accomplished?" Apparently the characters are more aware of the problem than the author.)

But the insurmountable problem is that it is considered good form for a thriller--this is one; I know, because it says so in the subtitle--to actually, at some point, thrill. Here The Ways of the World is completely at sea. The pacing is utterly glacial. Our nominal hero's function is to have people talk to him, which they do with monotonous regularity. Other than that, he:
  • Runs away once.
  • Gets shot once.
  • Gets hit over the head (by the police!).
  • Ends up manacled to his own bed.
From none of these situations does he extricate himself by his own abilities; he has to be rescued every time. Oh, and he has a plucky sidekick, whose sole contribution is to be given knockout drops. He gets rescued, too.

I could go on. The nominal plot, for example, manages to be simultaneously confusing (who the hell is working for whom, and why?), inconsequential (nothing in particular is at stake), and boring. Really, though, why bother? If you want padding, read the book.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Review: Big Science

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex
Michael Hiltzik
Science, History 

Big Science is a sound but slightly frustrating piece of work. There's nothing actually wrong with it. It's just that it's not exactly about anything. It's not a biography of Lawrence, since it makes no attempt at completeness regarding his outside-the-lab existence. It's not particularly deep either on the engineering of cyclotrons or on their underlying physics. It's almost but not quite a biography of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It certainly doesn't fully live up to its title; there are occasional forays into "small" science, Big Science, and the transition between them, but it's nowhere near being a strong theme.


Also, it is in no way clear that the cyclotron was "the" invention that launched the military-industrial complex. That whole World War II thing probably had something to do with it. If anything, Big Science is over-weighted towards military episodes--the atomic bomb and post-war developments--towards which Lawrence's contribution was measurable but hardly pivotal.

The really frustrating part is that, reading between the lines, you can see where the story would have been. It reads as though Michael Hiltzik had too much material to choose from, and ultimately lost control of the narrative.

One of the better scientific biographies I've read is A Force of Nature: TheScientific Genius of Ernest Rutherford (Richard Reeves), which showcases the other great Ernest's "small-science" approach. The standard work on the Manhattan Project is Richard Rhodes's Pulitzer-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Book Review: Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact
Steven Kotler
Engineering
A collection of gee-whiz magazine articles stuck together in a book. The final third, which deals generally with reengineering ourselves, is the most interesting. Unfortunately it also brings the book's most glaring weakness to the fore: a total lack of skepticism, balance, fact-checking, or analysis. It also would have been a better work if Kotler had taken his subtitle seriously.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Book Review: The Road Not Taken

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong
David Orr
Literature

I once got into an argument about "The Road Not Taken". (As Frost himself observed, "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem--very tricky.") Is the poem, as it seems on the surface, an ode to rugged individuality? Or is it, as the oh-so-sophisticated would have it, ironically subverting that idea, by suggesting that the choices we make ultimately don't much matter?


As I recall, I made myself irritating to all sides by insisting that the correct answer was: it's both. Poetry is supposed to be interpreted. Why bother with poetry if you want to clearly and unambiguously communicate one single meaning? That's what prose is for.

I am happy to report that David Orr, perspicacious man that he is, agrees with me. "The Road Not Taken" is about the act of choosing, not the choice, and it gives the reader the freedom to choose either road--either interpretation. For us, as for the speaker in the poem, the choice lies in the eye of the beholder: the two roads are "really about the same", but one of them seems less taken.

That's one of the things (in Orr's interpretation, anyway) that make it a peculiarly American poem. We make something of a fetish of choice. To deprive a person of free choice seems somehow un-American; witness many recent political debates. Whether the choices are consequential, or whether having them is a good thing, is different question.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book Review: The Art of the Con

The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World
Anthony M. Amore
Crime, art

It's tempting to call art forging the perfect victimless crime. Nobody is forced to buy paintings, and most of the victims have more money than is good for them anyway. Nor can you argue, in one sense, that you're not getting what you pay for. The painting looks, after all, the same regardless of who painted it. If you're buying it because you like it, that should be enough. And if you're buying it as an investment, and you don't do your homework, it's nobody's fault but yours if it turns out to be bogus. 


Finally, most art forgers concentrate on faking modern art--because it's dead easy; you don't need any skill--so who cares? (Thought question: if nobody can tell a "priceless" Mark Rothko original from a replica slapped together by an underpaid Chinese immigrant working in a warehouse in Queens, what does that say about the art?)


On the other hand, the art forgers themselves seem to be genuinely awful people. The word "sociopath" is overused these days, but the character portraits in The Art of the Con show narcissists and Machiavellian personalities run amok. These are not twinkly-eyed rogues, although they're sometimes portrayed that way. These are people who, quite clearly, genuinely feel that the only crime is to get caught.


So much for musings. As to the book itself, it's zippily written, not especially deep, good on quick character portraits, weak on the art itself, and without pretenses to completeness or analysis. If you think the subject matter sounds interesting, you'll probably enjoy this book.


The Man Who Made Vermeers, by Jonathan Lopez, is an excellent book on the forger Han van Meegeren, who definitely fit the narcissist profile.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: The Shepherd's Crown

The Shepherd's Crown
Terry Pratchett
YA fantasy

This is the late, great, Sir Terry Pratchett's last novel. It's better than his final adult novel, Raising Steam--it's a connected story, at least--but that's not saying much. Basically, it reads like a set of outtakes and Post-It notes and cribs from other novels, strung together in rough order. Much of the substance borrows from, and to some extent undermines, the far superior Lords and Ladies.


For the rest, there are too many disparate elements for it to work. A few of the elements show bits of the old Pratchett genius. If you're both a Pratchett fanatic and a completist (ahem), the book may be worth your while on that basis, or as an homage to Pratchett's memory. As a story, sadly, it's not really worthwhile.

If by some criminal mischance you've never read Terry Pratchett, I'd recommend starting with Guards! Guards! and then proceeding to its two immediate sequels, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Short Story Teaser: "Leviathan"

My favorite book of 2014 was Andy Weir's The Martian. Sean and Mike concur.

Years ago, as it happens, I wrote a short story that has detectable similarities to Andy Weir's The Martian. And since Andy Weir started out by publishing The Martian on his website and ended up being wealthy and famous ... Let's just say that what's good enough for Andy Weir and The Martian is good enough for me.

(Some of you are probably thinking that the only reason I keep mentioning Andy Weir and The Martian is to attract people who are Googling for the book. This is untrue: I also want to attract people who are Googling for the movie The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir Andy Weir Andy Weir .)

So here's the first part of the story. It's not funny like The Martian (by Andy Weir)--in fact, it's kinda grim--but I'm still reasonably satisfied with how it came out. If you want to read the rest of it, leave me a comment and I'll send it to you. And if you want to give me the same kind of deal that Andy Weir (author of The Martian) got, I'm amenable.

P.S. for search engines indexing this page: it's about Andy Weir's novel The Martian.

Leviathan

     After we killed the passengers, we put the bodies in one of the low-pressure, unheated storage compartments.  Some people had wanted to have some kind of solemn burial-in-space thing; that was too ghoulish for most of us, though.  Mostly the ones we killed had been okay, but a few had to be forced.  I had had to kill one of them.
     I met Jenny Fenton in the lounge.  She’s a tall black girl, an able spacer, real smart.  I’d thought we might end up getting something together, but at the time we were just friends.  She bought me a beer.
     “Rough?” she said.
     “Yeah.”  I didn’t want to talk about it.  “I just hope it does some good.”
     She ignored my implied question.  “Come on, Vas, you know there was no other way.  The lottery was fair, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
     “I wasn’t thinking at all, actually.”
     “So what else is new?”  Gordon Yamaguchi sat down, which didn’t please me a lot.  Ordinarily I liked him okay--not great, just okay--but he was good at being flip and sarcastic, and I wasn’t in the mood for it.
     “Stow it, Gord,” said Jenny.
     Gordon shrugged.  “When you gotta go, you gotta go.  Hell, half of them were triage cases anyway.”
     “Lots of them would have made it to Minerva,” I said.
     “Yeah, dead, like the rest of us.”  Gordon ordered a double Scotch, which made me think maybe he wasn’t as cool as he pretended to be.
     I finished the beer.  “Look, Jenny, what’s the deal?  Are we going to have to do a second round?”
     Jenny shook her head.  “Sorry, Vas, I don’t know.  They’re looking at the life support now, what’s left of it I mean, and trying to figure how much time we lost getting back on course.”  She lowered her voice.  “I probably shouldn’t tell you guys this, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to get our commo and detection gear back anytime soon.”
     “Jesus,” said Gordon.  “How are we navigating?”
     “The old fashioned way,” said Jenny.  “Drop out of hype, look at some stars, measure some angles, crunch some numbers.  That’s why it’s taking so long.”
     I went back to my quarters, but I couldn’t sleep.  The face of the passenger I had killed, had had to kill, kept coming back to me.  That sounds corny, but it’s true--what Doc called a “flashbulb memory.”  This passenger was an ordinary guy, about forty-five, graying hair, a little pot belly.  I’d seen him, I think, but I never knew his name.  He wasn’t the type you’d have expected to make trouble, but at the last minute he jumped me, screaming.
     We didn’t have guns--who takes guns on a passenger liner?--so all I had was a big wooden billy club, made from an ornamental lamp that had been in the first-class lounge.  And a kitchen knife, for what little that was worth.  Anyway, what scared me, thinking about it in my berth, was that I hadn’t hesitated.  Not even a little.  I don’t know what I had been thinking, if I was thinking at all.  I clearly remember what I did, but it’s like my brain was a total blank.  I whipped that lamp around as hard as I could and got him smack on the temple.  It sounded like someone crushing plastic.  He crumpled up, kind of sideways, and I hit him again, and again.  I could smell his blood.  If I had drawn a different lot, it could have been me.
     I got up and wandered the corridors for a while.  The lighting was way down to save power, not that that was the worst of our worries.  Some of the corridors had been sealed off so as not to waste air, though.  I was in second class, and the corridors were functional, like motel hallways--bland carpets, painted walls.  Up in first class they were softly lit and paneled with wood; down in steerage they were bare, with pipes and conduits and exposed lights.  That was where most of the colonists were, and where most of the civilian casualties had come.
     I had been walking when the meteor hit us.  The lights kind of wobbled, and the ship rang, like a gigantic bell.  Nobody knew what had happened, but it didn’t seem like anything to worry about.  We joked about it as we steadied ourselves.  I remember someone saying something about the Captain getting nailed for DUI.  We should have thought a little: the ship was a whale, an enormous thing; anything that could make the whole thing quiver was something to worry about.
     I looked up and realized that I had made my way to sickbay.  I pushed the door chime.
     “Come on in,” said Doc.
     Doc Li looked like a video doctor, and he had the manners, too: a little white haired guy, who wore old-fashioned glasses and fussed a bit.  He had made a big stink about crew being exempt from the lottery, and had tried to put his name in.  I liked him a lot.
     “Well, Vassily,” he said, “what brings you here?”
     “Eh.  Couldn’t sleep.”
     “You want a pill?  In your case it might be a good idea.”
     “Nah.”
     He didn’t say anything, just puttered around his office tidying things.
     “Doc,” I said, “why did you make such a thing about the crew not being in the lottery?”
     He looked at me over the tops of his glasses.  “Bad precedent.”
     “Isn’t it true what the Captain said, about having had heavy crew casualties in the explosion and fires and needing every spacer to keep the ship running?”
     “Oh, I don’t know.  Probably.”  He sat down on the edge of the bed.  “But that’s not the point.”
     “Well,” I said, “what is the point?”
     “The point is,” Doc said, “it was handed down as a dogma.  Not ‘people we need will be exempt,’ but ‘crew are by definition exempt.’”
     I didn’t see what he was driving at, and my expression must have shown it.
     “Look,” he said.  “It went pretty smoothly today, right?”
     “I had to kill a guy.”
     “I know,” said Doc.  “I’m sorry about that, Vas.  God knows, every time I think about my medical supplies being used for--that, I get sick.  You know, they wanted me to do the injections.  I refused, said it would violate the Hippocratic Oath.  Which it would.”
     “Anyway, what were you saying?”  I still didn’t want to talk about it.  “I guess it went pretty smooth.  I mean, there was a little trouble, but not much.”
     “Sure,” said Doc.  “People knew that there wasn’t much choice.  A lot of them were critically injured, some volunteered.  But what happens if we find out--say, that we’re still short oxygen, or water, or something?”
     “Well,” I said, “I guess we’ll have--we’ll have to have another lottery.”
     “It won’t be as smooth,” said Doc.  “And if we need a third or, God help us, more rounds--”
     “Hell,” I said, “that won’t happen!  I mean, if worst comes to worst and we do need to, um, do it again, they’ll be able to figure out how many need to go.”
     “A minimum number, maybe.”  Doc polished his glasses on his lab coat.  “But we’re going to be making continual course corrections by dead reckoning.  Which will slow us down, depending on how much fuel we use and how far off course we go.  Anything that could happen, I mean anything unexpected, would be bad.  Anything at all that breaks--the air, the water, the engines--will make it worse.”
     “Jesus,” I said.
     “Or whoever,” said Doc.  “That’s why I think the crew should be in the lottery.  Even if it’s just a token.  Otherwise, it’ll make it an us-against-them thing later on.”
     “Thanks a lot, Doc,” I said.
     He looked at me with his old blue eyes, and I thought he looked sad.  “Vas,” he said, “you’re a big, strong young man.  If there’s another round, if you’re not picked, you’re going to be tapped for enforcer again.”
     “I think I’d better take that sleeping pill,” I said.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Rain

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History
Cynthia Barnett
Sociology, culture

In the beginning there was Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky. And the readers and the reviewers looked upon it and saw that it was good. And in its wake there came a steady tide of books whose titles were single nouns. So Salt begat Coal, and Ice, and The Potato, and Spice, and Banana, and Thames, and Rust, and divers others. I expect that right now someone, somewhere is toiling away at Zinc Oxide: A Global Biography.


And now there's Rain. It's not bad. The actual writing achieves a pleasingly lyrical flow, suitable to its subject. Nonetheless, Rain suffers from a not-uncommon affliction of this genre: a compulsion to flit about from one thing to another, including short squibs on every damn thing the author can somehow relate to to the title.

So Rain goes trippingly from Mars to umbrellas to weather forecasting to rain gods to floods to the shape of raindrops to (of course) global warming to Japanese traditional umbrellas to Indian perfume, seldom bothering to tie any two chapters together. Barnett likes fine-sounding phrases, but she doesn't like to substantiate them. Thus, for example, we are at various times informed that "some scientists predict" X, or "many historians believe" Y, or such-like generalizations. Well, who are these "some scientists"? How many of them are there? Is this a mainstream opinion, a minority opinion, a speculation, or a bunch of flakes?

The pity of it is that there's one section that really does hold together. When Barnett stops globe-trotting and settles down for four chapters in the U.S., she produces a really knockout short narrative of Americans' stormy (har!) relationship with rain. From Thomas Jefferson (who was obsessed with the stuff), through the sodbusters who lived and died by it, and on into the eccentricities of weather control, this is good stuff.

Sadly, it doesn't last. The next section goes off into ... I don't remember where. Some lyrical but ultimately disjointed tangent, I suppose.

Don't get me wrong. I like these books. Why else would I have read so many of them? So I sort of liked Rain. But it could have been better.

Salt truly is excellent, as is Rust. I also really liked Hannah Holmes's The Secret Life of Dust, even though it has more than one word in the title.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book Review: Born Bad

Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World
James Boyce
Philosophy, theology, intellectual history

Consider the following argument.

The classic Warner Brothers "Road Runner" cartoon series is fundamentally shaped by the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. The Coyote could end his suffering at any time by ceasing to pursue his carnal desires--but he is fundamentally incapable of doing so. He places his reliance on the products of human ingenuity, in the form of an unending series of Acme gadgets; yet these gadgets inevitably fail, causing the Coyote further pain. 
The point is driven home by the fact that the Coyote is not even named: he is instead given a pseudo-Latin label ("Carnivorous Vulgaris", "Famishus Famishus", etc.--Latin, of course, being the language of the Church), which refers to his animal nature and his insatiable appetites. He is not an individual with the power to change his fate. He is a prisoner of his nature. Appetite is not for him a choice; it's part of his definition.
The Road-Runner, then, represents the unattainable state of grace. The Coyote's devices are earthbound, but the Road-Runner defies the laws of physics. He zooms through a tunnel painted on a cliff, while the Coyote bounces off. He can race across thin air in a cloud of dust; the Coyote plummets as soon as he realize that he has stepped off, his feeble faith unable to sustain him.
James Boyce doesn't actually make that analogy, but some of his assertions are hardly less strained. Born Bad is one of those frustrating books where the author, having gotten hold of an interesting idea, proceeds to beat it to death by insisting that it applies everywhere.

Actually, Born Bad is two books. The first half is a history of the idea itself, and of responses to it. This is pretty interesting, and to a non-theist like myself it's also very informative. Boyce argues that original sin is not a Biblical concept per se, but a creation of St. Augustine and his followers. It's a particular inheritance of Western (not Eastern) Christianity. Nor has it ever been uncontroversial; in Boyce's telling, there's always been an intellectual undercurrent eating away at the absolutist position.

In the second half, Boyce starts talking about the doctrine's effect in shaping western non-religious thought. I can see, for example, an intellectual connection with the U.S. Constitution's view of human nature ("If men were angels, no government would be necessary" — James Madison). Similarly, Adam Smith's view of capitalism frankly acknowledges that humans are fundamentally greedy and self-interested. These men were Enlightenment thinkers, and prided themselves on being rational; but Boyce is probably onto something when he detects the influence of the original-sin dogma.

Thereafter, however, Boyce goes off the rails. He starts applying his idea into various areas, such as the physical sciences, where it's prima facie far-fetched. Nor does he ever trouble to substantiate his notion that this mental armament is a specifically Western one. To do so he would have to look at non-Western ideas of human nature and non-Western thinking in general, and he makes no effort to do so. 

Even if he had, I suspect he'd have managed to find what he was looking for. E.g.: Boyce diagnoses "original sin thinking" in the empiricist/materialist philosopher David Hume. And yet: another author can read the same texts and speculate that, rather, Hume was influenced by Buddhism. I would say that humans are by nature subject to confirmation bias, except that Boyce would insist that, in so saying, my thinking was fundamentally shaped by the precepts of, yes, original sin.

No doubt I am a soulless reductionist. Nonetheless, it seems to me that if you're going to make large statements, you should have large evidence supporting them. Otherwise you're simply playing with words.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Review: The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest
Cixin Liu (author), Joel Martin (translator)
Science fiction

Earlier this year I gave a thumbs up to The Three-Body Problem. I wasn't the only person to do so, either. It's not necessarily an effortless read, but it's worth the effort. So I was definitely looking forward to its sequel, The Dark Forest.

I ended up liking this one, too--but it wasn't always easy, and I have more reservations about it. It's a choppier read, for one thing. Maybe it's the author, maybe it's the culture, maybe it's the (different) translator, but I found the prose somewhat harder to swallow in The Dark Forest. There are more large chunks of exposition, more dialogue that sound like monologue, more plot threads that go nowhere, and more jarring shifts of time and content. I also have to say that Cixin Liu has some extremely odd notions about human motivation.

Part of the problem is structural. The Dark Forest has some of the the same problems that Neal Stephenson's Seveneves has: an elongated and somewhat disjointed timeframe, a lot of technical detail, and a looming disaster that nonetheless isn't an immediate plot driver. There's also, in both cases, a lack of focus on a central character. Indeed, in The Dark Forest, I think Liu chose the wrong character as his protagonist.

The end of the book, however, is good enough to tilt me into thumbs-up territory. The central problem is addressed in a way that's both intellectually and emotionally engaging. It's clever, it's perfectly well foreshadowed, and it's even fairly (not perfectly) original. I have a nagging feeling that it could have been done earlier in the internal timeline, but I could argue myself out of that.

As to whether you should read it ... it depends. If you couldn't get into or didn't like The Three-Body Problem, don't bother. If you liked it but don't feel the burning desire to find out more--a pardonable reaction; the first book stands alone quite well--then maybe The Dark Forest isn't for you. On the other hand, I suspect a lot of readers will be more engaged in the large-scale saga of The Three-Body Problem than in the characters and situations. If that's your reaction, you're going to want to find out how it ends.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: Death Ex Machina

Death Ex Machina (An Athenian Mystery)
Gary Corby
Mystery

Murder mystery set in Periclean Athens. This wasn't published as a young-adult novel, but--aside from a small amount of "adult content"--that's about its level. It's competently written, it has a moderate level of period detail, it doesn't go overboard in trying to convey the real alien-ness of ancient society, and the characterization is simple (one character, one adjective).


As a mystery, it's ordinary. If you don't spot the villain and the motive about fifty pages ahead of time, you're not paying attention.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
Ron Chernow
Biography

Alexander Hamilton is on the U.S. $10 bill. I'd be willing to wager a good many of those bills that most Americans have no idea why. He wasn't president. He wasn't Benjamin Franklin. He doesn't even have a big old memorial. What makes this guy important?


Ron Chernow's book will tell you that, for starters, if he hadn't done a brilliant job as the nation's first Treasury secretary, there wouldn't be a U.S. $10 bill. There might not be a United States. Alexander Hamilton is big, it's exhaustive, it's very well-written, it's often insightful--and it makes an well-argued case for Hamilton's genius and his contributions.

If the book has a weakness, it's that--like many other books of its stripe--it gets a little too sympathetic towards its subject. Chernow is not out to do a whitewash job; we get a full view of Hamilton's personal failings and his political missteps; but Chernow invites us to infer that Alexander Hamilton was never wrong on matters of policy.

Perhaps that's inevitable. We do, as has often been pointed out, live in Alexander Hamilton's American rather than Thomas Jefferson's. We're not a loose agglomeration of sturdy, independent yeomen; we're an industrial, mercantile society with a strong central government. Yet I don't think it's wrong to say that we're living with the defects, as well as the virtues, of the Hamiltonian vision. I suspect, for instance, that Jefferson would regard Donald Trump as a perfect exemplar of Homo hamiltonensis: a speculator, a crony capitalist, a would-be autarch, a demagogue, and a moneyed corruptor of public virtue.

That's not a concession that Ron Chernow makes. Jefferson, like the other actors in this book, appears only in so far as he impacted Hamilton; his own views are not brought forward, and reading this book will not give you a sense of their merits (whatever they might be).

Similarly, Hamilton's own views are presented through a slightly rosy lens. His enemies often accused him of being an aristocrat and of favoring a monarchy. Chernow goes to great lengths to counter these charges. And yet ... Hamilton's friend Gouverneur Morris wrote, in his own private diary and in preparation for delivering Hamilton's formal eulogy: "He was on principal opposed to republican and attached to monarchical government." I'm not so sure that we can dismiss this evidence, as Chernow does, by saying that "Morris distorted and exaggerated Hamilton's views no less than his Republican enemies".

On the other hand, Chernow does show just how deep those distortions were, and how baseless. Perhaps his most telling point is that Hamilton's most vicious opponents, the ones who accused him of wanting to establish an American aristocracy, were southern slave-holding landed gentry. How much more aristocratic can you get? It's hard not to agree with Chernow's point that their real objection was that a Hamiltonian aristocracy would be one of earned merit, rather than birth.

I can't in good conscience recommend this book to anyone who isn't at least a bit familiar with revolutionary-era history. It's 722 pages long; it's not suitable as an introduction! However, if you are interested in the subject, Alexander Hamilton is not only a good book, but an important one. Hamilton was as crucial a figure as Washington or Franklin or Jefferson. It's certainly time he got his recognition.

There are so many good histories and biographies of the Founding Fathers that I couldn't possibly list them all. Specifically, however, Chernow's own Washington: A Life, David McCullough's John Adams, and Joseph Ellis's Passionate Sage and American Sphinx shed more light on some of the other dramatis personae.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Review: The Great Sea

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean
David Abulafia
History

Long long ago, in my college days, I read Fernand Braudel's classic book The Mediterranenan and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. I remember thinking that Braudel suffered from a classic academic (and, arguably, specifically French) disease: the need to reduce everything to The Grand Theory. Down with the tyranny of events! Away with the outmoded historiography of great men! Long live the vast socio-meteorological-economic forces that are the true engines of history!


David Abulafia commits the opposite error. He's full of details, but he has no overarching theory. Worse, he has no real narrative structure. As a result, The Great Sea is full of enormous paragraphs explaining that, for example:
... Between 1960 and 1973 the number of annual visitors to Majorca rose precipitously from 600,000 to 3,600,000. By the start of the twenty-first century, tourism accounted for 84 per cent of the Majorcan economoy ... Majorca and Spain (excluding the Canaries) accounted for 25 per cent of British foreign holiday-making in 1964, and 36 per cent in1972, while holidays to Italy fell from 16 per cent to 11 per cent ...
The effect is to bury the reader under a mountain of data, without providing any actual information. From Abulafia's long chapter on the Middle Ages, for instance, I retained basically two items:
  1. Everybody traded with everybody.
  2. Everybody fought with everybody.
There are some colorful threads shot through this fabric, but they don't add up to a pattern. Abulafia sets out to divide Mediterranean history into distinct socio-economic epochs, which is a fine notion, but he loses control of his structure sometime in the Roman period. The rest is just ... data.

Braudel's work, while fascinating, is too academic for most readers. Simon Winchester's Atlantic does a better job with this sort of narrative, albeit for a different ocean (nor is it his best book).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Book Review: Underlands

Underlands: A Journey Through Britain's Lost Landscape
Ted Nield
Geology, memoir

I'm a sucker for personal-theme books.


By "personal-theme books", I mean "books that are a combination of memoir, philosophical investigation, and some factual content into a coherent whole, united by some thread." I've read several this year. Done well, these books tie together the small scale and the large, the personal and the abstract, in a way that sheds light on both.

In Underlands, the unifying thread is ... not history, exactly, but a sense of beginnings, of foundations. Nield weaves together his own family history in the south Wales mining areas with the history of those mines and the geology that produced them, throwing in some social history and some archaeology along the way. An old church is built of a particular rock because it's the only suitable building stone in the region; a layer of sediment goes from seabed, to hillside, to quarry, to abandoned; a mining disaster spares a young Ted Nield because his family has moved. Every is is founded on a succession of was.

It's a quirky book. Like most good "personal-theme" books, it's decidedly meditative in tone and digressive in substance. If you're looking for a straightforward fact-learning exercise, this isn't it. It's more of an invitation to ruminate. As a non-professional but habitual ruminant ruminator, I like that very much.

For poetical geological writing, you can't not read John McPhee. The book that I kept thinking about while reading Underlands, however, is Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air, which--although less memoir-ish--can be read as an extended riff on the theme of "connectedness".

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: The Hog's Back Mystery

The Hog's Back Mystery
Freeman Willis Crofts
Mystery

The most marked effect of The Hog's Back Mystery was to make me realize what a good writer Agatha Christie was.


That is not a conventional literary judgment, by the way. Most critics sneer at Christie for "two-dimensional characters", for a "flat" prose style, for lack of psychological depth, for--a cardinal sin, this--being Just Not Literary. A standard comment is that a Christie novel is nothing but a puzzle, a thought exercise perfunctorily wrapped up in a novel-like package.

These critics--and they are many, including the appalling Edmund Wilson--have clearly never read a mystery that really is a pure puzzle. The Hog's Back Mystery is such a one. As a puzzle, it's quite accomplished. As writing, it's ... well, Crofts was trained as an engineer; he seems to have approached the writing as one of those pointless-but-necessary things that clients require to bridge the gaps between the really interesting bits, such as finite-element analysis or object-functional decomposition diagrams or (in this case) elaborate timetables.

The result is, at best, awkward. Christie, for example, knew how to convey a clue so subtly that the reader never notices. Crofts does things like writing an entire scene in descriptive text--except for three lines of stilted dialogue, which needless to say are A Vital Clue. More generally, he uses narration when he should use speech; he uses speech when he should use narration; he's constantly telling us what the characters feel, rather than showing us; the characters themselves are not even two-dimensional; and there's not a trace either of descriptive writing or of humor. The detective, Inspector French, is positively featureless; I couldn't tell you anything about what he looks like, or how he approaches a case, or his personality.

And then there are lines like this:


Once again French registered a vow that he would not rest till the devil who was guilty of this ghastly crime had paid for it on the scaffold.
Ouch.

Agatha Christie gets no critical love because she used her gifts in ways that are conventionally deemed worthless. It doesn't follow from that that she wasn't gifted, or indeed that her choices truly are worthless. (Also, she was perfectly capable of going outside her usual lines. Think of And Then There Were None.) Freeman Willis Crofts was a careful constructionist and not much else. The difference is striking.

Dorothy Sayers's The Five Red Herrings is clearly Croft-esque, but Sayers was a vastly superior writer (and had a vastly superior central character to work with). If you're looking for an unjustly-overlooked master from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, check out the witty and devilishly clever Cyril Hare.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Don't Boldly Go There

On an airplane last night, I saw that the in-flight video system was offering up (among others) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It had been many years since I'd last seen the film. So I decided to give it a rewatch.

This was a mistake. 

(A full confession is perhaps in order here. I have never been among those who thought that The Wrath of Khan was a top-notch film. In fact, it's not even my favorite Star Trek movie. Still, I was predisposed to, at least, find it a diverting way to spend two hours hurtling across the North Atlantic.)

Put plainly, in a lot of ways, The Wrath of Khan just isn't all that good. It has good bits, but as a whole suffers from a multi-level Idiot Plot. I'm not talking about trivial inconsistencies--seriously, who cares? No, I'm talking major "Chuuuuuwhah?" moments here: places where the movie doesn't make sense even by its own internal premises. For example:
  • Starfleet sends out one of its front-line, newly-upgraded vessels on a training cruise, with a crew consisting of almost 100% cadets. Let me know the next time the U.S. Navy sends out an aircraft carrier crewed exclusively by Annapolis plebes.
  • The cruise is apparently supposed to take place at sub-light speeds, within Earth's solar system. Nonetheless, they are the only vessel in the area when they get a distress call from space station Regula I. Apparently this station, for security and safety reasons, is located in a remote and little-traveled sector very near Earth.
  •  The distress call is clearly being jammed, and it's obvious from the content that something funny is going on, and the hijacked U.S.S. Reliant goes out of its way to approach Our Heroes in an unnecessarily suspicious fashion. Nobody notices.
  • Apparently the Federation relies on clay tablets for record-keeping. Hence, they can enter a solar system without registering that one of its planets has exploded, much less remembering that, oh yeah, this was that place where we dumped that ship-load of highly dangerous genetically-enhanced super-criminals a few years ago. (Also, apparently, they can't count; they land on the fifth planet from the sun, under the impression that it's the exploded sixth planet. It's a wonder they can even find it.)
  • When you have beamed down to a planet, and you realize that you need to escape immediately, do not run outside to investigate the weather. Use the magic words "Two to beam up immediately." Remember that teleportation system that got you here? It works both ways!
  • Oh, noes! The Plot Device is going to blow up, and we're all doomed! Kirk: "We'll beam aboard and stop it." David Marcus: "You can't." (Well, wonder boy, why not? Apparently just ... because.) Missing next line of dialog: "OK, then, let's just photon-torpedo it into its constituent atoms, then phaser the remains."
Trust me, there's much more. There's a good movie lurking somewhere in there--the interpersonal and thematic elements work well, though they could use some expansion. Apparently, however, nobody cared enough about the plot to resolve the gaping holes. I suppose it's only a mercy that they didn't have modern special effects technology.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Review: The Fires of Paratime

The Fires of Paratime
L. E. Modesitt
Science fiction

We have almost 5,000 volumes in our house. I haven't read them all; I married into a bunch of them. So, said I to myself, why not dip into that backlog? I picked L. E. Modesitt for no special reason, except that I hadn't read much of his stuff, and he's been publishing for quite a number of years.

If The Fires of Paratime is a representative example, that latter fact needs some explaining.

This book reads as if it had been assembled from a kit by someone who hadn't read the directions. Characters enter and vanish with no rhyme or reason. Storylines are introduced with considerable fanfare and go nowhere. Dialogues start and end in the middle, without contributing anything in particular to the story. The motivations of the characters--including the first-person narrator--are incoherent. The whole thing is filled with one-sentence paragraphs, disconnected from the paragraphs before and afterwards.

Eventually the main character, for no particular reason, develops unstoppable super-powers and kills everyone. So he wins.

Seriously. What happened here?

Oh, and it's derivative. The basic shtick is reminiscent of Asimov's underrated novel The End of Eternity. And that thing where the Gods are actually off-worlders with advanced technology ... it's been done.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: In Search of Sir Thomas Browne

In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind
Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Literature, science, philosophy

I must admit that, before I read this book, I had never heard of Sir Thomas Browne.


Now I've heard of him, but I'm not terribly clear on why.

"The Seventeenth Century's Most Inquiring Mind" is a very large title for a period that included Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, and Galileo. OK, this is the U.S. title, and presumably the choice wasn't the author's. All the same, it seems to me that this book tells me more about Hugh Aldersey-Williams than it tells me about Sir Thomas. The latter still seems like a minor figure of English letters, in the classic mold of the early-modern gentleman dabbler. His thinking is fairly typical of the proto-Enlightenment--an eclectic melange of modern-seeming attitudes and traditional verities, in much the same way as Newton spent much of his life working on alchemy and Biblical eschatology.

Read as a series of interlinked personal essays inspired by Browne, the book is quirky and personal in a stereotypically English way. I admire Aldersey-Williams's ability to draw out tangible connections across the centuries, I enjoy his digressions, and I applaud him for putting the intellectual roots of humanism on display; but he's too ready to read his own views into Browne's writing, and make of him something that he isn't. His admiration for Browne's highly mannered writing style is lovingly communicated, but I'm not fully in agreement; perhaps I would be if I read more of the original.

In short, this is a book with considerable charm and a pleasing central message, but without a lot of consequential information. I'm not immune to the charm, but I can't help noticing the gaps.

I am reminded somewhat of Steven Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, which likewise imputes to some fairly obscure early-modern literature and biography period an exaggerated importance. In Search of Sir Thomas Browne is more personal. In the spirit of its central character, furthermore, it's both more accurate and less polemical.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Book Review: Spirals in Time

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells
Helen Scales (an excellent name for a marine biologist)
Science

I always try to find something insightful, or at least snarky, to say in these reviews. Sometimes, however, the most honest and informative review I can give is as follows:


If you think the subject matter sounds interesting, you'll probably enjoy this book. [Hereafter to be abbreviated on this blog as "IYTTSMSIYPETB".]

This is such a book. Ten chapters, all interesting, pretty well written, no great thematic or stylistic fireworks, wide range, some good color photographs. 

You won't believe what some of those kinky molluscs get up to with their private parts, though.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: The End of All Things

The End of All Things
John Scalzi
Science fiction

So, speaking of cover quotes, here are the top three from John Scalzi's latest novel. 
"More evidence that Scalzi is a master at creating appealing commercial fiction."
"If anyone stands at the core of the American science fiction tradition at the moment, it is Scalzi."
"Keeps the pages turning ... Scalzi is one of the slickest writers that SF has ever produced."
All three of these are, in fact, spot-on. 

If that sounds like a lead-in to a bad review, disabuse yourself of that notion. Scalzi is one of a very few genre writers whose work I'll buy immediately in hardcover, no questions asked. The phrase "core of the American science fiction tradition" aptly expresses why: John Scalzi is a pure SF writer in the classical John W. Campbell/Isaac Asimov tradition. He takes an interesting idea and uses it as a springboard for a ripping good yarn. He's not trying to be post-postmodern or self-aware or edgy or literary or transgressive or Blade-Runnerish or dystopian or anything-punk or anything-core.

He's writing science fiction, period. I wish there were more like him.

However.

It always seems to me that John Scalzi is a five-star writer who produces four-star books. That is, he has great ideas, and he writes great stories, but the story doesn't always fully flesh out the idea. His recent Lock-In is a case in point. It's a cracking science-fiction thriller with an intriguing premise, and the denouement is a logical consequence of that premise--but not a surprising consequence, not a radical consequence, not an eye-opening or a thought-provoking or an open-ended consequence; it's arguably something of a gimmick consequence. It's as if, say, Larry Niven had created the Ringworld, then used it to tell a story that could have been set on any standard alien planet.

Look: being compared to Ringworld is not an insult. I think John Scalzi has a Ringworld in him. The End of All Things isn't it. As for what it is, it's a straight sequel to The Human Division. If you liked that, you'll like this. If you haven't read The Human Division, do yourself a favor and read that first; if you have, rereading it wouldn't hurt. And if you haven't read anything of the Old Man's War sequence, do start with Old Man's War itself.

The specific strengths of The End of All Things are pure Scalzi, and include:

  • Opening sentence: "So, I'm supposed to tell you how I became a brain in a box."
  • Space pirates!
  • Politics.
  • Snappy dialogue.
  • A resolution to several ongoing story arcs.
The specific weaknesses are also pure Scalzi:

  • All the characters, even the aliens, sound the same. In fact, they all talk (judging by his website) rather like ... John Scalzi.
  • The ending is a touch of an anticlimax, given that it's something that everyone could have agreed to do on page 1.
OK, you know what you're getting. If you like "pure drop" science fiction, go read some John Scalzi. And if you don't ... why not?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Book Review: The Weather Experiment

The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future
Peter Moore
Science, biography

An interesting and very well-structured book on the 19th-century researchers who invented the idea of predicting the weather. I don't mean that the put the notion on a scientific basis; if Peter Moore is correct, the idea that weather could be predicted at all was a novel invention. (One fellow was laughed at in Parliament for saying, in the 1850s, that it might be possible to forecast London's weather a full day in advance.)


Moore wisely keeps his cast of characters down to a manageable size, focusing particularly on Robert FitzRoy. FitzRoy is usually remembered, in the unlikely event that he is remembered at all, as the captain who brought Charles Darwin on board HMS Beagle, and who later denounced natural selection as atheistic. It turns out that there's a great deal more to his story than that. It doesn't hurt that many of the other actors were equally colorful and interesting personalities.

My only substantive complaints are:

1. I would have liked a little more actual scientific nitty-gritty. That, I presume, would not be to everyone's taste.

2. There's a substantial portion of an early chapter devoted to one of my favorite painters, John Constable--specifically, to how he painted his wonderful cloudscapes.
(Image hosted at Wikimedia)
It's a great aside, but still, it's an aside. It interrupts the narrative to no special purpose. It could have either been left out, or made into a book of its own!

An obvious crossover read is Richard Holmes's terrific The Age of Wonder. More tightly focused in subject matter is Tracks in the Sea, by Chester Hearn.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: The Fold

The Fold
Peter Clines
Science fiction

I violated one of my own rules when I checked this book out of the library.

The adage that "you can't judge a book by its cover" may have been true once, when all covers were more-or-less interchangeable. It is not true now. By looking at the artwork, the blurb, and the presentation, you can get a pretty good idea of the kind of reader that the publisher wants to attract. And by looking at the quotes, you can usually get a sense for how good it is.

That's because publishers want to make money. Given a selection of book reviews, a publisher will obviously print only laudatory excerpts. Furthermore, within that set, the publisher will prefer quotes from the most prestigious, influential, or high-profile sources. That is, they'll rank their potential sources in order of prestige, and take the top 3-5 from that list. If the topmost quote comes from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, you know that the book didn't get a good review (if any) from the New York Times. If the topmost quote comes from the Tulsa Herald, then you know it didn't get a good review from the Cleveland Plain Dealer

And if the topmost quote comes from an Internet comment or Website--except this one, naturally!--scream and run away.

For The Fold, all the quotes come from authors. This is better than J. Random Netizen, but not much; it's like having your school's alumni office calling you instead of a telemarketer. I was suckered because the top quote is from Andy Weir, whose book The Martian was the most enjoyable SF novel of 2014. How bad could it be? I thought.

Well. 

In truth, The Fold isn't epic-level bad; it's not interesting or ambitious enough to be epic-level anything. The first half is a stab at a straight-SF "what's going on?" kind of story. The gimmick is an ancient and hoary one, and at the best of times any reader with a measurable IQ would figure it out pretty quickly. In this case, however, there's a pointless prequel chapter which blatantly gives the game away ... on page 9. After which we spend the next 193 pages getting to the SHOCKING REVELATION that, yep, it's exactly what you thought it was.

The second half of the book takes a 180-degree plunge into action-adventure territory. It reads as though it's based on the movie Aliens, only with Marines who've gotten their gear and their tactics from the Imperial Stormtrooper Academy.

Oh, and one of those author quotes gives away the plot here too.

In his acknowledgements, Peter Clines thanks his editor. I'm tempted to ask "for what?", except that I think I know: this book could well be popular. It's got a standard-issue Smartest Guy in the Room protagonist, which we nerds always like. It's got the jargon of real science fiction, without any hard bits. It's got self-conscious nods to geek pop culture. It's utterly mediocre, without a single original idea or arresting concept, which means that many readers will enjoy it--much as I (at age 15) enjoyed The Sword of Shannara. In other words, the editor knew what he wanted, and got it.