I'm the arrogant sort of person who when I rate a book think that there is some objective element to my rating, and that I'm not merely rating how mucI'm the arrogant sort of person who when I rate a book think that there is some objective element to my rating, and that I'm not merely rating how much I personally enjoyed the book, but also on some level how worthy the book is of enjoyment and how much quality was exercised in the crafting of the book from the level of the individual sentence on up to its grand conceptions and story arc. You might say that in rating a book, my expectation is that everyone else will enjoy the book to within +/- a star of what I rated it, depending on how much the material personally appealed to you and how much - for whatever reasons - you were willing to overlook the books evident flaws. Otherwise, if I did not in fact believe this, whatever would be the reason for rating a book, for if my rating was wholly subjective it would do you no good whatsoever.
Mary Roach's book "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War" and similar books challenge those presumptions somewhat, in that I don't think a simple one dimensional rating system can in this case predict how much the book will be enjoyed. While for me the book was largely, "Meh" and parts of it were grating, that's because the book is pitched at a target audience that just falls outside of anything that would be a sweet spot for me.
What's Roach is writing is essentially a primer on basic science and engineering, organized around one of the most interesting fields of basic research in the world today - America's high tech war machine. In an academic world too often focused more on publishing results than doing good work, much less doing anything hard and then managing to repeat it, the Defense Department could care less about how much you publish or where you publish, just so long as you give them tangible solutions. It's research wing DARPA is continually at the forefront of progress. Yet for all this, it's also not just interested in fighting the next war, but also the next and the next, and so very interested in the basic research that may lead to great advances way down the line.
Roach approaches this material from a welcome angle, of looking at the less glamorous less macho programs that aim not to create better means of killing people, but rather solve other equally important basic problems of being human in a battlefield environment. For most of human history, man versus nature was still more lethal and more important on a battlefield than the other tribe with its weapons trying to kill you. Infection, disease, starvation, and exposure to the environment killed more men on most military campaigns than the battles did. Roach puts a lens on the modern Defense department's continuing research into keeping soldiers physically and mentally fit during the hardships and horrors of war, and she does so with a self-deprecating, rapier wit and an outsider's eye for the unusual, the bizarre, and details others might miss.
It could be the making of a book I really enjoy, but the basic problem here is - I already know most of the stuff she covers. For me, the book would have been more interesting had it been taken in one of two directions. Either it would have been more enjoyable for me to focus less on the science, and more on the persons involved in the science and the interesting characters she discovers along the way and the anecdotes about them. This is information I don't have, and some of the biographies she uncovers are interesting in their own right - but she doesn't ever go into these people in any great depth, relying instead on deft caricature to set the stage like a comic book artist or a good Game Master. On the other hand, when she delves into the actual science and engineering, I occasionally discovered something I didn't know before, but then all too quickly she was plowing on to some other topic or providing some basic exposition of another fundamental aspect of the science or engineering problem being discussed. As a result, she never actually went into any one subject with the depth I would have liked.
And all this time she's trying to be a comedian as well, with varying degree of success. Personally, as a near autistic, many of her wry asides just struck me as being mean spirited. She had enough empathy for her audience that I didn't feel like she was treating the reader to a tour through a carnival freak show - "Come see the geeks" - but at times I did feel like she felt her desired audience wouldn't understand her empathy, and she still needed to convince them that she wasn't one of the nerds and that she certainly didn't approve of this whole military thing so that she'll still get invited to parties with the right sort of people in SF. That is to say, some of the humor seemed a bit jarring and out of place, like she was two people - one admiring interviewer and the other hidden one that was laughing at who she was interviewing -and she was better when her asides and jokes were humble.
In short, I'm convinced that for the right sort of person who has never even thought of these sort of things, and who enjoys science even if they don't practice it themselves, or has a narrow field of view and hasn't looked much at the big picture this is a five star book. Mrs. Roach has in effect here done admirable journalism and investigation, and turned obscure but important areas of endeavor into a readable funny work suitable for wide consumption. Despite the three stars, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who doesn't have any interest in the military, or whose interest in either science or the military has been at most casual....more
I wanted to like this. It wasn't taking much of a risk. It's just 120 pages and it feels even shorter. It's like one of those meals that finishes tooI wanted to like this. It wasn't taking much of a risk. It's just 120 pages and it feels even shorter. It's like one of those meals that finishes too soon and you start looking around hopefully for something to actually eat.
Horror I guess is not my thing, but this wasn't scary and it really felt like the author was going out of her way to make sure it wasn't scary. The set up of it being a 'found documentary' presented before each chapter gave the whole story a feeling of watching a horror movie with some obnoxious guy eating popcorn and whispering in your ear, "This part is great. The guy thinks the monster is behind the door, but it's actually going to jump at him through the window." And in the middle of the horrific denouement, she not only decides to play the death of one of the sympathetic character's for laughs, but beclowns her monsters doing it.
I kept waiting for the horror to start, and when I finally got to where I thought the horror would start, the story just ended.
HP Lovecraft is safe. The Deep Ones these are not. They aren't even Jaws.
And the science is just miserably bad and filled with all sorts of fridge logic moments. She would have been better off not trying to pretend there was some sort of science here. Everything about the claim 'Mertesian Mimicry' is wrong, including the ludicrously short amount of time that the species would have to evolve to adopt such mimicry given the short span of time man has been ocean going and the fact that Mertesian Mimicry is defensive not aggressive. Also, consider just how specialized they'd have to be as predators before that was a successful strategy, along with the absolute impossibility that such a specialized predator would still be unknown to science since we'd be there main food source throughout most of human history. What is naturally regulating a super-predator's population such that they aren't everywhere? Arrghhhh... just not worth wasting more neurons on.
When I think about novellas filled with ideas like 'Nightwings' and 'The Emperor's Soul' and how much more meat they had to chew on, I think... why am I stuck on these food metaphors. Point is, if you are going to meme and name drop a bunch of nerd stuff into your novel, at least make the novel good and nerdy. It's not enough to mention gaming conventions or cosplay. You actually have to have well done ideas.
If it's 2am, and I have 120 pages left, and I can read roughly 500 words a minute, do I have any time left to keep reading given that I have to get toIf it's 2am, and I have 120 pages left, and I can read roughly 500 words a minute, do I have any time left to keep reading given that I have to get to work by 8:30am if I don't want to measurably decrease my work performance?
I avoided learning anything at all about this book prior to reading it, because everyone seemed to esteem it so highly and I didn't want to give myself any spoilers. I need not have bothered. The story was nothing like what I've come to expect of a highly acclaimed science fiction story. The story is absolutely predictable. It's as deep as a puddle. It's as dense as a cotton ball. I probably should not have been reading this as a follow up to John C. Wright, because after that hefty multi-course meal, this was made to seem a bit like fast food.
But, it was a lot of fun nonetheless, and I understand completely why this novel has achieved such popularity. Science fiction for the last two decades has basically been lost in a dead end of nihilism, nostalgia, and fantasy redressed in far future tropes. Weir brings back the optimism and adventure and sheer love of science that has been missing from most of science fiction since the early part of the Golden Age.
This will never be one of my favorite science fiction works. On a philosophical level, it's ambitions are small. It's narrator is a highly competent kid who refused to grow up. Most of the book reads somewhere between a 6th grade math word problem and a better than average summer blockbuster. There isn't much reason to revisit the text. But for all that, I can't recommend this work enough, not just to readers of science but most especially to writers of science fiction. For years I've feared that science fiction was a dead genera and that it died sometime around the time the Apollo program. I feared that we as a people would give up entirely on the dream of a bigger future.
Well, someone at least is fighting back.
Most of all what I loved about this book was what was missing from my other favorite book about Mars, KSR's 'Red Mars'. In fact, if somehow you could cram 'The Martian' together with 'Red Mars' you might well have a perfect novel. Each complements the other and is weak where the other is strong. Whereas Robinson's book read like it was written by someone who'd never even been camping and so was unable to imagine life with out lattes much less in a hostile alien environment which was continually trying to kill you, Weir gets that on Mars the real inescapable story is always Man vs. Nature and everything else is always at all times secondary to that. While it's probably stretching it to call this realistic fiction, given its obvious adventure story aspirations, I can give no real complaint against Weir's repeated attempts to kill his protagonist. It's not completely realistic, but it has sufficient verisimilitude of realism that it is the sort of book that instills the spirit and desire to be one of those path-finding, trail-breaking, colonists and face those dangers in a way that 'Red Mars' just utterly fails to manage. Weir may make it too easy at times for the sake of continuing the story, but you can't fault him for making it so easy that one can pretend that the obstacles will be easy to overcome and handwave them away. This is hope not for some imaginable far future were all the hard work as done and we reap the rewards, but a hope for a nearer and more attainable future where the hard work is imaginable and possible.
For that, he gets a star I'd probably not otherwise give the work. Let's see more like it....more
Baggott's text is ultimately an attempt to knock down one sector of the creeping pseudo-science that is increasingly masquerading as actual science inBaggott's text is ultimately an attempt to knock down one sector of the creeping pseudo-science that is increasingly masquerading as actual science in academia and especially in the popular presentation of science to the public. However, the far more satisfying portion of the book is Baggott's layman's overview of the progression of scientific advancement over the first three quarters of the 20th century. While I was aware of many of the aspects and topics he covered, in many cases the exact means by which the findings were experimentally confirmed and the sequence and timing of discoveries were details that weren't known to me. The logical sequence of discoveries and the depth at which he covered them were perfect for the purpose of the material. There was enough depth for someone like myself that is conversant in physics but doesn't actually practice it himself, and yet not so much depth that you hit road blocks in understanding due to pages of mathematics that you have to digest.
The second half of the book where he tackles how we went from empirical study and observation to fantastic leaps of imagination and untestable guesses is important, but ultimately far less interesting. It's much more interesting to point out what we know, than to have to spend many pages explaining why all this crap is largely things we don't know and have no present means of knowing. However, I felt that Baggott pretty thoroughly demolished string theory and everything else built on it. That perception of course is perhaps based on the fact that I fully expected him to do so, and he's in fact preaching to the choir on that point.
Baggott fails to tackle larger problems plaguing science at the moment. The truth is 95% of all papers are crap. Peer review isn't working as advertised. Scientific ethics are at an all time low with data being often manufactured or stolen. Experiment has shown that the vast majority of papers contain no repeatable observations, which anyone who actually looked at most papers out there would be able to guess. Models with dozens of make them up as you need them unknowns are too often substituting for experiments, and too often the creation of a model is treated as a result and not a theorem. Scientists increasingly spend more time creating computer programs and staring at shadows on the wall rather than collecting evidence. Evolutionary research has gotten lost in taxonomy Just So Stories about the distant and unknowable past, with for example 50 different untestable theories about how human upright posture evolved dominating debate. Science in general is increasingly a religious mindset proclaiming its incompatibility with all other religions. Too many scientists are doing backflips trying to justify a particular religious world view rather than actually observing the universe as if answering questions like "Is there a God?" was the reason for science's existence and not a tangential private belief. Sagan style historicism, wild imaginative speculation, quasi-spiritual romanticism and political activism seems to be trumping actual investigation, lab work, or any other rigor, and the public face of science is overwhelmingly controlled by a few religious zealots as if debating whether God was real was the most important use of a scientist's time. It certainly seems to be the most economically rewarding.
And scientists actually wonder why public esteem for science is on the decline as if it was some problem with the public.
But for what he is actually able to notice from his perspective, he seems to be looking at the right stuff and asking the right questions....more
After digesting Stephenson's latest 937 page tome, my response basically boils down to "Meh."
Ok, maybe not, "Meh." exactly. Maybe more like, "Hmmm." IAfter digesting Stephenson's latest 937 page tome, my response basically boils down to "Meh."
Ok, maybe not, "Meh." exactly. Maybe more like, "Hmmm." I wish I could say something more elegant about it, but the problem is that there isn't a lot to say about the book as a whole because the book as a whole isn't really that good or that interesting. The book as a whole is difficult to describe, because so much of the book seems like a digression from even itself that instead of a book, it's more like a lot of separate little works on a unifying theme.
That unifying theme is science, and Stephenson has a lot to say about science. And he says it, almost like he was a heretic espousing some radical concept the orthodoxy would be offended by, in code. Not only just in code, but in the form of a fictional dialogue as if he needs his own voice and opinions to be deniable. Of course, here the problem isn't so much deniability, because I'm not sure Stephenson ultimately says much of anything fresh or radical or likely to get him in trouble with the orthodoxy, as it is convincing people to read his opinions in the first place. You probably couldn't get a lot of people to read a frequently dry 937 page text on the material Stephenson is covering, but you might could if you dressed it up in the form of a science fiction story about an alternate world where the schism between science and religion occurred at the dawn of Western Civilization and both retreated to cloisters to observe their respective discipline.
More than anything, 'Anathem' reminded me of 'The Young Ladies Illustrated Primer' from 'The Diamond Age' (particularly the part where in the narrative where it illustrates fundamental concepts of computer science) only without the illustrations or the interactivity. Far more than it is a science fiction novel, the text is a primer seemingly aimed at young people most of the time, introducing concepts from philosophy, math, and science in what can only be described as a somewhat entertaining and slightly subversive way.
The most salient feature of the text to me turned out not to be the much discussed alternative language, but the fact that Stephenson has chosen to tell the story in the first person - which seemed to me to be a bit of a departure - and employs what struck me as a highly unreliable narrator. Erasmus, our protagonist, is a highly naive, incredibly sheltered, idealistic, impressionable, nineteen year old to which the appellation 'man' would seem to be dubiously applied. He's essentially a physics monk, and yet he serves as our sole window the world of Stephenson's creation which colors the events with all of Erasmus's biases and naivety. I often wondered what things looked like through the eyes of his sib, or his mentor, or any number of other characters.
The second most salient feature of the text is the frequent employment of invented technical jargon - SF bullshyte, if you will - as it is employed by the residents of the world of Arbre, and in particular, the cloistered Mathic world of Arbre. This was disappointing to me, because I went based on reports I'd heard expecting a full blown invented language on par with say the street slang of Burroughs 'Clock Work Orange' or even the elvish languages of Tolkien. Instead, what I got was a really thin 'code' full of in jokes and sly references some of which I got immediately and most of which I didn't feel compelled to track down if I didn't. In most cases, they are just bullshyte (another of his jargon words, if you are wondering) relabeling of famous real world scientists and philosophers or their theorems or philosophical schools. (For example, Thelenes for Socrates; 'Thelenes' = 'The Hellenes' = 'The Greek'.) This might be fun reading if you are in to cracking the code, but I had enough of the gist of it that there seemed to be no need. Besides, Stephenson absolutely spoon feeds the reader with definitions, both in chapter headings and within the text, to the point that not only is it full of annoying exposition, but much of the fun of deciphering the text is immediately lost. Thus, the author ends up gaining very little except where it relates to his twist, such as it is (and which you can see coming three or four hundred pages away). It seems to me that if you are going to pull this sort of thing, you shouldn't talk down to the reader but trust them to understand you. But the whole book seemed a lost opportunity for depth and creativity to me, so that was par for the course.
There is little more to say about the book as a whole except that it is generally anticlimactic at every point along the way. None of the little story arcs have particularly worthwhile payoffs, and whenever you think that the story is about to become interesting it collapses again and simply pitters out.
I probably making this sound worse that it is. Bits and pieces are in isolation really interesting, and I made it through the book easily enough. But Stephenson has raised the bar for himself pretty high in my estimation, and this is I think far from his best work.
Anyway, some other random observations:
Provener: It's a beautiful building, but considering how much time the author lavishes on the details of its layout and construction, you'd think it would play a more central role in the story.
Apert: Just once I'd like some legends introduced into a story that don't turn out to be factual and central to the plot. Of all the story digressions, I'm not sure that there is one that is more frustrating than throwing Erasmus in a cell while the story advances around and without him.
Anathem: The first great crisis, which leads to Erasmus's next two quests - neither of which turn out to be all that important or interesting or even necessary except perhaps to Erasmus's peace of mind.
Voco: Pause for scientific investigation.
Peregrin: After 300 pages of exposition, the story commences in haste, if by 'haste' you mean meanders about for another 600 pages. Still, some of the best lines of the story occur here, if you'll pardon the minor spoilers:
"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor." "Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and peice of string." "That would be great."
I try to avoid spoilers, but for the record, the above lines and the conjectures that they contain turn out to be not strictly true, and even more importantly I think, and ironicly, the point of writing lines like that is somewhat undermined by later events anyway.
Feral: Something must be wrong. We are having an actual adventure here.
Orithena: Don't expect any satisfying answers here.
Inbrase: Pause for scientific debate. This, ultimately, ends up leading to: more debate.
Messal: You know that you've arrived as a successful and respected author, when just as you are reaching the climax of your sci-fi adventure, you can get away with dropping an 80 page conversation into the text and still get your novel published.
Advent: Stephenson finally returns to form. Some more trade mark Stephenson adventure... with a trade mark Stephenson let down when we reach the expected climax. Also, does anyone else find it odd how often in their stories supposed ‘hard’ science fiction authors resort to magic and techno-religions (that is to say, gods, demigods, eternity and/or heaven as brought to reality by mastery of Gnostic sciences)? Talk about putting your Faith in reason.
Reconstitution: How sweet.
Calca: Did anyone else get the impression that these were originally part of the text, and that Stephenson had been forced to put them in the appendix solely because his editor finally showed some backbone and called him on it?
I suppose I should actually discuss some of the issues Stephenson raised, but I can’t manufacture enough excitement to hold a separate Suvinian Dialog (which given a pedagogue like me, ought to tell you something), so if anyone wants my take on a particular idea, they’ll have to do some prompting. ...more
A rather uninteresting and sometimes cheesy science-fiction thriller, most notable for its links to archaeology and its commitment to hard science. ThA rather uninteresting and sometimes cheesy science-fiction thriller, most notable for its links to archaeology and its commitment to hard science. The whole story is ultimately based on an exercise in imaginative particle physics, and while the postulated physical properties are odd the author is careful to avoid explaining everything with handwavium or other magic....more