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

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)

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
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

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.