Saturday, February 28, 2015

Things I Learned from Commander Spock

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy.

It's tempting and poetic to say that I learned the following lessons from watching Star Trek. In fact, I learned these things in many different ways, some of them much less enjoyable than watching Star Trek. But Leonard Nimoy's Spock was one of them.

It's good to be smart.

Some people will not like you if you're different. That's their problem, not yours.

You may not be able to control what you feel, but you can control what you do.

Fake friends like you if you're who they want you to be. Real friends like you for who you are.

The proper response to the Unknown is neither to fear it, nor to bow in awe before it, but to try to understand it.

And, of course, this.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Review: Way Station

Way Station
Clifford Simak
Science fiction (reread)

I mentioned this in my last review, so of course I had to go reread it. It's an old favorite, a book I first read in high school. Examining it with a mature eye, my reaction is: if you haven't read it, go read it; if you have, go read it again. It's that good.

There are no rocket ships, no ray guns, no scientific minutiae--none of the landmarks that are often associated with genre SF. Yet genre SF it certainly is; it could hardly be anything else. It's written in a haunting, elegiac tone that powerfully reinforces the central themes of loneliness and belonging, what it means to be human and what it means to be inhuman. It's a little bit hopeful, and a little bit heartbreaking. If you imagine that science fiction means exploding spaceships and/or technobabble, this book should convince you otherwise.

Way Station won a Hugo award in 1964, the year I was born. I have a feeling that the book and its author have faded slowly away from most readers' radar. That's their loss. Don't be among them.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Battle for the Stars

Battle for the Stars
Edmond Hamilton
Science fiction

It came from the Shlock Pile, also known as the to-be-read shelves.

I picked Battle for the Stars up because I didn't have another book handy. I didn't entirely expect to finish it, much less review it. Come on, it's a derivative title on a cheap paperback from a not-much-remembered author published in 1961.

But then I got to pondering about it. (If that surprises you, or sounds like massive overthinking, reread the blog description.)

Battle for the Stars wasn't state-of-the-art even for 1961. (For context, that same year saw the publication of Stranger in a Strange Land.) It takes for granted that:

  • Strong-jawed men are starship commanders, secret agents, and world leaders.
  • Women do things like stamp their feet and look decorative.
  • The galaxy is full of "aliens" who look like mildly exotic humans (and interbreed freely).
  • Small-town folk in upstate New York in the future are exactly like small-town folk in upstate New York c. 1961, with robotic tractors.
Which is to say, its "future" is the then-present, gussied up with rocket ships and ray guns. That describes a great deal of science fiction, including a good chunk that's now considered classic.

Exercise for the reader: Star Trek made its debut in 1964. In what ways is it beholden to this "consensus future," and in what ways does it deliberately react against it? Discuss.

The thing is, though, the story's not bad. Not great, not groundbreaking, not deeply moving, but also not repellent, not incoherent, not without plot. The writing is somewhat cliched in the space scenes, but in the planetary scenes it achieves an unexpected level of near-poetry (in a fashion strongly reminiscent of Clifford Simak's wonderful Way Station--published in 1963, by the way). There's a reasonably satisfying resolution which depends, not on what the protagonist can do, but on what he will do.

Battle for the Stars wouldn't be publishable today; it's naive, and science fiction has gone along way from that naivete. Unfortunately, that often means jettisoning those old hoary standbys such as "plot" and "conflict" and "protagonist". I'm not going to uphold Battle for the Stars as a neglected classic, but I will say that I've read a good deal of recent stuff that was slickly put-together, sophisticated, and basically crap.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: Everything And More

Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity
David Foster Wallace

DISCLAIMER: David Foster Wallace graduated 
from Amherst College a year before me. As far as I know, our paths never crossed.

It's hard to assess Everything and More. It's probably too consciously literary for most mathematicians, and it's certainly too mathematical for most humanists. David Foster Wallace set out to write a book about advanced mathematics that would be reasonably accurate, stylishly written, and demanding of no more than high-school math. It's no surprise that he didn't fully succeed; the wonder is that he succeeded at all.

The book starts zippily enough. If you're not actually math-phobic, you can probably get through the first 100-150 pages pretty easily, particularly if you're willing to skim some bits (which I was not, but never mind). By the time we get to EMERGENCY GLOSSARY II, that's not really an option. If you want to profit from this book, you won't need to do differential equations, but you will need slow down and seriously think through some stuff.

If you're willing to do that, your reward will be a not-totally-rigorous-but-mathematically-informed understanding of some deep concepts, such as:
  • Why some infinities are larger than other infinities
  • Zeno's Paradoxes
  • What set theory really is, and what it's good for, and why it matters
  • Some mathematical proofs that are both brilliant and quite simple
So that's half the challenge. The other half is that Wallace is absolutely writing to impress. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I much prefer his literary pyrotechnics to the turgid Academic-ese that often clogs the arteries of intellectually-challenging books. On the other hand, Wallace's consciously literary register--I'm tempted to say "postmodern", except that I'm never sure that "postmodern" means anything--is equally disconcerting if you're expecting the straight, pellucid prose of (say) John Allen Paulos, or even the New Yorkerly eloquence of a John McPhee. Everything and More brims with interpolations, with irony, and with a certain self-aware hipness. You Have Been Warned.

To bracket the target audience, then, I'll give two comparisons. 
  • Subject-matter-wise, there's a pretty good overlap with Douglas Hofstadter's classic Gödel, Escher, Bach. Some of the same actors, and some of the same math concepts, pop up in each.
  • Stylistically, it pairs well with Neal Stephenson, most particularly his excellent philosophical geek-heroic science fiction adventure (yes, really) Anathem. By no coincidence, Stephenson provides the introduction to the 2010 edition of the present opus.
E&M (to be a little Wallaceish about it) is their love child. If and only if you can read that sentence and think "Hmm ... what a great idea!", this book is for you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: Information Doesn't Want to Be Free

Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age
Cory Doctorow
Intellectual property

This is an if-you're-not-outraged-you're-not-paying-attention manifesto. Doctorow's thesis is that current copyright law is (a) ill-suited to digital content, (b) designed to protect middlemen, rather than creators, and (c) EVIL EVIL EVIL.

It's a good read--full of blood-pressure-raising anecdotes, forceful analogies, sharply-argued case studies, and general get-off-my-lawn crankiness. A representative and very apposite quote: "Obscurity is a bigger problem for authors than piracy". As the proprietor of this here extremely-obscure blog (see description above), I entirely agree. Content consumers--so Doctorow proposes--are happy to pay content creators directly, given the opportunity, which is why distributors and merchandisers are furiously running around passing ever-more-intrusive, ever-less-enforceable laws to restrict the possibility. Those of us who labor in wholly-unmerited anonymity have more to gain than to lose.

Well, maybe so. I'm no fan of the heavy-handed way that major corporations have gutted, subverted, and generally bought out what was originally a fairly equitable U.S. copyright system. I'm nonetheless skeptical that Doctorow's prospective infotopia will necessarily usher in a magical golden age of sparkly happy unicorns and file sharing. What does seem evident is that things will change ... and people--creators, investors, distributors, and consumers--will adapt.

Also, if anyone out there is itching to rescue me from obscurity in exchange for large sums of money, I'm ready to talk.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Book Review: Lying

Sam Harris

Almost everyone agrees that lying is wrong, and almost everyone does it all the time. Lying is an elegant little book about that paradox.

For obvious reasons, Sam Harris doesn't spend much ink on malicious lies; they're not ethically controversial. His argument, in a nutshell, is that even "white" lies are usually harmful. They're gateway lies that tempt us to other lies. They can be exposed, which destroys trust. They obfuscate information, even when that information can be enlightening. They're often self-serving.

I'm not 100% sold on the conclusion, although as a practicing curmudgeon I consciously attempt to be truthful even when it's not polite. Even so, there are matters whereof I have no particular desire to know the truth. Harris would probably say that in those matters, it's my responsibility not to ask--and I don't! Alas, there are those out there who ask such questions anyway. I won't fib to spare my feelings, but I might do so in order to ... let's say "elide" ... information that the asker doesn't actually want. Harris acknowledges this as a gray area, but his suggested approaches sound mealy-mouthed.

So I don't really live up to Sam Harris's ethical standards. It's a neat book, though. There are lot of challenging ideas, and Harris does a really good job in facing the genuine issues that honesty brings up. I'll look for more of his work.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: Space Chronicles

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Space travel, science

If you've watched the recent re-launch of the TV series Cosmos, you know who Neil DeGrasse Tyson. If you haven't, you ought to.

Space Chronicles presents Tyson in very much the same role, and with the same voice, that he uses on the series. Namely: an articulate, genial, folksy, non-mathematical enthusiast for all scientific things great and small. Here, he's specifically talking about the rationale for exploring space. It's a pretty good book, particularly for someone with some interest but not much background knowledge.

There are some caveats. The essays were originally assembled from a disparate collection of articles, op-ed pieces, interviews, and speeches, so they're a little jumbled in their overall effect. Tyson is also a better speaker than an essayist; these pieces tend to jump around a little. rather than latching onto a central thread and pulling on it.

Some overarching themes do emerge, and the collection is the stronger for it. For instance, Tyson repeatedly hammers home the relative smallness of NASA's budget (roughly 0.5 cents of every federal dollar). He's at his most passionate and engaging when he talks about the importance of sheer, unadulterated wonder--the wonder that inspires young people to be curious, to ask unanswerable questions, to find a feverish ambition to know more. (I speak from experience.) This is his answer to the perennial "why-spend-money-in-space-when-we-could-spend-it-here" shibboleth. Spending money on Earth may fill bellies; spending money on wonder opens minds.

Space Chronicles is less technical than Isaac Asimov's many popular-science essays, and less consciously literary than Stephen Jay Gould, but it's likely to appeal to fans of those authors (and vice-versa).

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Review: Song of Wrath

Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins
J. E. Lendon

One of the pleasures of being an eclectic reader is discovering that one book throws an unexpected light on another.

Song of Wrath is not a simple newspaper-style account of the Peloponnesian War. Rather, it's an attempt to explain why the war began, why it progressed the way it did, and what it meant to those who fought it. Lendon makes a pretty good case that the war between Athens and Sparta was triggered by values and ideas that were as familiar to the ancient Greeks as they are foreign to us. Sparta had long been the leading Greek city by virtue of superior timē--a hard-to-translate and impossible-to-measure concept that combines historical/mythological glory, victory in battle, prestige, and honor. The rising city of Athens became less and less inclined to defer to the Spartans, more and more inclined to consider themselves equal in timē. And the war came: not (in its first ten years, at least) a war for material power, or a war for resources, or a war of democracy against absolutism, but a war for esteem.

In Lendon's narrative, understanding the war as a contest for timē--a kind of currency, in that it could be transferred, spent, and accumulated--makes sense of both the causes and the strategies of the two sides. The Spartans ravaged Athenian lands to assert their superior rank; the Athenians ravaged Sparta's coasts to assert that they were unintimidated and equal in dignity. A straight-out battle transferred timē from the loser to the winner. But so did a superior display of mētis--cunning.

It's a fine book on its own merits--readable, vivid, and well-argued. Lendon deliberately tries for an archaic, even poetic style. He writes about people and places as the ancient Greeks would have thought of them. He doesn't speak of modern ethnographic or linguistic research, but of the wanderings of the Sons of Herakles, the patrimony of Agamemnon, the place where Apollo slew the great serpent Python. It wouldn't work for a book about Hoboken, but I generally liked it here. 

Really, the only flaw I'd single out is that Lendon occasionally gets imbrangled in trying to make sense the impossibly convoluted feuds, alliances, betrayals, humiliations, skirmishes, sieges, sulks, revolts, and general soap opera of far to many city-states. It's too much for any one mind to make sense of without some kind of chart, probably four-dimensional. 

Which leads me back to The Sleepwalkers--another ambitiously complex attempt to explain a war that sometimes seems inexplicable. World War I fools us, because the Atlantic world of 1914 was modern in all of its essentials. We half-consciously assume that the governments and statesmen of that era were modern in their thinking as well. But these men lived in a world where Germany could feel itself slighted because it had fewer overseas colonies than France or Britain; where France could feel itself honor-bound to avenge its territorial losses, much as Sparta and Argos sparred repeatedly over the strip of land called Thyrea that lay between them; where, if Austria-Hungary took over an insignificant pile of rocks in the Balkans, France would feel compelled to lay claim to an equally insignificant pile of rocks somewhere in the Aegean, or else feel the shame that Athens felt when she lost her little ally Plataea.

No doubt the Spartans would have understood.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Book Review: Jupiter

Ben Bova
Science fiction

Ben Bova got the science right in this one, but he got the story wrong. Guess which one is more important?

Let's just go down the list.

  1. "The main character is unhappy" is not the same thing as "conflict".
  2. This is doubly true if your main character doesn't do anything. In Jupiter, there's one viewpoint character, Grant Archer. At no point in the story does he ever make a consequential decision, or take any initiative, or show any insight.
  3. That "conflict" thing also benefits if you decide who or what the antagonist is. There are man-vs.-man stories. There are man-vs.-nature stories. There are man-vs.-society stories. There are man-vs.-himself stories. Pick one. Be leery of picking more than one. Do not try bits of all four.
  4. Dangling plots are not your friend. If you spend precious words describing how Grant Archer is getting the hots for one of his co-workers, or interacting with a semi-intelligent gorilla, or doing Sciency Stuff, then you kinda want that to actually have some effect during the last third of the book.
  5. Page 316: "'My God', said Grant, 'they are intelligent." As a chapter ending, this is something less than a shocking revelation, since we readers have known this fact since page 74.
  6. The deus ex machina is no less a contrivance if the deus is a super-powered alien creature instead of a god.
  7. The cliche of Good Scientists/Bad Religious Fanatics is done now.
There's more, but I think my point is made.

By the way, Jupiter has a more-than-trivial resemblance to Arthur C. Clarke's fine novella A Meeting With Medusa. Bova acknowledges the connection with a couple of textual bows, which is honorable him, but the comparison is not in Jupiter's favor.