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)

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.


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.


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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Review: The Thing Itself

The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity
Richard Todd
Philosophy, culture

[DISCLAIMER: I have never met Richard Todd, but we have acquaintances in common. He's taught at my alma mater, and in consequence has spent a good deal of time in my home town and its surrounds.]

In some previous reviews dealing with books about art, I've taken the authors to task for not really engaging with a central question. Namely: why does it make a difference--if it does--to know whether a picture is an "authentic" Raphael or Rembrandt or da Vinci? The picture is the same in either case. It doesn't become more or less beautiful depending on who actually painted it.

And yet there is, at least, an immense practical significance, measured in the grossest of uncompromising terms: money. Change the attribution from "Renoir" to "School of Renoir," and you've cost the owner of the painting millions of dollars--if, that is, your attribution itself is believed to be authentic.

In The Thing Itself, Richard Todd meditates on this and similar questions. What does it mean, for example, to "be true to yourself"? Is it even sensible to accuse someone of not being true to herself? Most of us have the sense, to take another example, that celebrities' lives are in some sense not real ... whatever that means. Similarly, some places are genuine places; some are genuine imitations or evocations of places (think of Plimoth Plantation, or Colonial Williamsburg); some are so obviously fake as to constitute a different kind of realness (Las Vegas, Disneyland); and some are just not truly places at all (Nashua, New Hampshire, where I now reside).

This is interesting territory to explore. By the middle of The Thing Itself, it becomes clear that Todd has no other intention than to explore it for exploration's sake, meandering musingly up whatever byways take his fancy. The book itself is authentic in after the fashion of an old farmhouse, built by many hands: here an ell of memoir, there a wing of cultural criticism, upstairs a long hallway lined with philosophico-literary references (only a few of which I've read). Todd certainly doesn't have any interest in coming to anything so plebeian, so reductionist, as a conclusion.

This course is undeniably self-indulgent. What saves it from bathos is that Richard Todd is a really, really good writer--not high-falutin', but eloquent, and sometimes funny, and always terribly honest. (And occasionally pretentious, but even Homer nods.) As non-fiction prose, this book is worth comparison with Tracy Kidder (with whom Todd co-wrote an outstanding book) or John McPhee. It differs, I think, in that it's very much in the humanist literary tradition--I'm thinking particularly of Montaigne's Essays. Unlike Kidder or McPhee, you will not learn a great many facts in The Thing Itself; instead, to read it is to be exposed to Richard Todd's thoughts.

It pleases me, then, to be able to say that I bought The Thing Itself in a place that Todd probably knows, and hopefully approves of. The Montague Book Mill rejoices in the wholly accurate motto "Books you don't need in a place you can't find." It inveigles itself across two floors of an 1842 grist mill, along a riverbank in rural Massachusetts. At any given time you can go there and find people sitting in the comfortable mismatched chairs, reading. It is undeniably authentic.

The only book that comes to mind as a companion to The Thing Itself is Jeremy Campbell's The Liar's Tale, which I read several years ago. However, some of the books Richard Todd refers to sound pretty intriguing. Who knew, for example, that there is a book by Deborah Cohen entitled The British and Their Possessions?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Book Review: The Annihilation Score

The Annihilation Score
Charles Stross

This is the latest in the "Laundry Files" series. In case you're not familiar with it, Charles Stross had the clever idea of combining the two most paranoid genres in fiction--cosmic horror and espionage--and setting them in a realistic government agency (the eponymous Laundry). That is, the spies don't swan around Monaco in tuxes; they trudge around Whitehall filing expense reports and undergoing team-building exercises.

It is, as I said, a clever notion. Stross has used it to play with various genres and genre combinations, with an odd but winning combo of horror, humor, and genuine characterization. In this case, a marriage breaks down; a new government agency springs into being; and Britain suffers from an outbreak of superheroes. 

To be honest, I think Charles Stross missed a trick here. He sets up the book as a departure from his oeuvre, in two ways:

  1. In previous books, the Laundry has done its work invisibly, with any little incidents being explained away. In The Annihilation Score, the truth comes out with a bang. There's no longer any pretense that this could be a secret history of our world.
  2. Our usual protagonist, Bob Howard--former IT guy turned computational demonologist--is largely off-stage. The protagonist is Bob's wife Mo.
However, this setup doesn't actually change anything. Mo's narrative voice is largely indistinguishable from Bob's, and the plot and resolution are largely similar to several other books in the series. Don't get me wrong: The Annihilation Score is a fun read. It's just that the setup led me to expect more, and there is no more here.

If you liked the other "Laundry Files" books, you'll probably like The Annihilation Score. If you haven't tried them, don't start here; go back to the beginning.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: Cryptonomicon

Neal Stephenson
Science fiction, thriller, history, cryptography, etc. (reread)

Having thought about this book while reading Seveneves, I had to reread it.

It's something of a stretch calling Cryptonomicon a novel at all, much less assigning it to a category. It breaks every rule in the novel writer's handbook, for one thing.

  • Three major and several minor viewpoint characters
  • Two different time periods
  • Long, often technical digressions on cryptography, software, geek culture, philosophy, etc.
  • A complete lack of clarity on who or what the various protagonists' antagonists is/are.
  • Such plot as exists only becomes clear in the last quarter of the novel.
  • It's 918 pages long (more or less).
Jane Austen it is not.

I loved it when I first read it. I love it even more now. You get your Picaresque Hero (Bobby Shaftoe, USMC) having WWII adventures all over the world, while your historic (Lawrence Waterhouse) and modern (Lawrence's grandson Randy) Nerd Heroes intersect with him in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Those long digressions? Not only essential, but fascinating. The philosophy? Has something in common with the notion of the Apollonian vs. Dionysian dichotomy, with Stephenson firmly on the side of Athena over Ares. 

Also, it's screamingly funny in spots.

I do not recommend Cryptonomicon to everyone. I do recommend it to everyone who is not technology-averse and who really likes to think. (And if you don't ... please double-check the name of the blog.)