Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Book Review: Falling More Slowly

Falling More Slowly
Peter Helton

A police procedural with a little extra cleverness set in Bristol, England. I give it:

  • A- for pacing and plot generally. There were some nice twists. The main character, Liam McLusky, could have had more to do with them, though.
  • B for characterization; McLusky stays just on the right side of the "quirky" / "irritating fuck-up" line, which makes him interesting. The character is otherwise a recognizable type.
  • B- for atmosphere. It's standard Urban Grit enhanced by a decent sense of place.
  • C- for writing, in the words-and-sentences sense. There are a good many fragmentary or run-on sentences, viewpoint characters popping into and out of frame, telling rather than showing what the characters are feeling, and poorly-constructed paragraphs.
There's really no more to say about this sort of book. I found it an enjoyable enough way to spend a couple of hours. It leaves me with neither the desire to read more by Peter Helton, nor the desire to avoid him--the kind of author I'd look for in an airport, in other words.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Review: Ministers at War

Ministers at War: Winston Churchill and His War Cabinet
Jonathan Scheer
History, biography, politics

Jonathan Scheer more or less admits that he wanted Ministers at War to be Team of Rivals, but for Winston Churchill. He didn't quite make it. Team of Rivals is a book that I'd recommend to literally any intelligent reader, and Ministers at War isn't at that level. 

However, I can't blame Scheer for aiming high. For anyone with a modest interest in the subject matter, this is a good, clear, blow-by-blow account of the politics--rather than the military history--of Britain in World War II. It's readable, it combines narrative drive with a certain amount of analytically, and (crucially!) it begins with a series of one-paragraph biographies of the main actors.

It has, also, a point to make. Mythologizing aside, Churchill's War Cabinet was no more a bunch of steely-eyed selfless heroes than Lincoln's was. Politics in a democracy never stops, even for an existential crisis; we should celebrate, rather than dismiss, the skills of the political leader who can understand and harness that process.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Review: Seveneves

Neal Stephenson
Science fiction

Every so often, a science fiction novel comes along that transcends science fiction. A novel that, while clearly genre fiction, can be read with pleasure by any intelligent reader. A novel that is not aimed only at those of us who grew up with Asimov and Heinlein and Niven.

Seveneves is not that novel.

Actually, Seveneves is sort of three novels, none of which are that novel. The first two are tightly coupled; the third is not. All the parts have large quantities of technical detail--don't even think about reading Seveneves if you didn't like Apollo 13 and The Martian. The first two-thirds contain large infodumps about orbital mechanics, while the last third is heavy on the details of Stephenson's imagined future society. 

Stephenson being Stephenson, i.e. a superb writer, all those infodumps are very interesting. This stuff is like intellectual crack for the right sort of reader, which I am. There are elements of serious classical Hard SF here: I see traces of Ringworld and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars et seq. (which last I actually thought were awful, but that critique does not apply here). I don't mean to imply that there is no characterization or plot or theme: the book is 867 pages long, which leaves plenty of room for everything. But the Big Ideas, and the precisely-worked-out Big Engineering details, are not the least of its pleasures.

Seveneves as a whole is very good, for those of us who are within the bull's-eye of its target audience. I think, though, that it would have been better as two books, for what that's worth. The first two parts are one story--a mixture of space story, disaster epic, and political thriller, with a lot of narrative tension. The third portion is a completely different story, and a completely different kind of story. In fact, for much of it, it's not quite clear what that story is; it comes near to being overwhelmed by the descriptive text. If you are among those who feel that Neal Stephenson's weakness is in coming up with good endings, Seveneyes will not change your mind.

I liked it very much. Whether you'll like it depends, more than anything else, on what sort of reader you are.

If you haven't read any Neal Stephenson before now, I wouldn't start with Seveneyes. Give Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash a try.  Be warned: Stephenson has many different authorial voices, and the one he uses in those two books is quite distinctive (and often very funny).

If, on the other hand, you'd rather read the novel that Seveneves isn't--the SF novel that isn't aimed at SF junkies--try this one.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: The Story of the Human Body

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
Daniel E. Lieberman
Anthropology, health

A very interesting and generally readable argument for the idea that many modern diseases--including some surprising ones--are the result of mismatches between our physical evolution and our cultural evolution.

Lieberman spends the first part of the book giving a nice, concise summary of current anthropological thinking about our evolutionary heritage. The twist is that he's not simply recounting facts, but putting them in context. His aim is to show how the anthropological progression works as an evolutionary narrative. I.e.: what forces were at work? How did human bodies respond? What can our existing adaptations show about our ancestors? What can the bones of our ancestors tell us about our biology today?

The second part of the book is a discussion of mismatches. Lieberman's fundamental argument is that the recent explosive speed of cultural evolution has led to a whole host of places where our physical anatomy doesn't match how we behave. The meta-mismatch--which Lieberman doesn't make explicitly, quite--is that we are not evolved (mentally, physically, or psychologically) to favor the long term view of what's good for us. Lazing around eating Marshmallow Swudge Frooty Blergs is great in the short term; it saves energy that you might need later, and provides a nice caloric cushion for your next mammoth hunt, thus giving you a shot at having more lazy, Frooty Blerg-eating children. So we feel, and so we act ... and then we spend a lot of time and money fixing our flat feet, diabetes, heart disease, coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, autoimmune disorders, etc. etc. etc.

Some of his points are kind of obvious, but they're well made. In a few cases (such as his discussion of cancer) I think he goes overboard, and starts sounding like an evangelist, in the everything-looks-like-a-nail mode. In general, though, nicely done and thought-provoking.

This book will appeal strongly to people who liked Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire, and vice-versa.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

An Observation

This blog's readership, for some curious reason, is very low on the days when this blog's friends are all at its house, playing its boardgames.

P.S. Blogging may be light for the next few days. My workplace is busy with a transition between stages three and four of the software development lifecycle.

P.P.S. Update, July 21: regularly scheduled blogging will resume shortly, even if there's nobody left to read it.