My first pass through Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer/Claw of the Conciliator was summed up with a status update I made about two-thirds of the waMy first pass through Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer/Claw of the Conciliator was summed up with a status update I made about two-thirds of the way through:
Flashes of brilliance between swaths of tedium.
I did not dislike the book, and I expect to re-read it and enjoy it even more some day; but it did not strike me thus. Not on this first reading.
Reading these books is like trying to watch a foreign movie without subtitles - from two miles away with a crappy set of binoculars, and the audio coming over a fuzzy radio frequency, mixed with three other simultaneous broadcasts. [...] most of the time you're just watching incomprehensible things happening, thinking if you could only see things a little more clearly and understand what the hell people were saying, this might be a really interesting story.
And (and Aerin hints at this, as well) -- there is this tendency to wink-and-nudge your way through a book like this. There's some High Vocabulary, and there is an Intricate Plot, and recognizably Epic Characters. And you know for a fact that Gene Wolfe is no dummy; he is a talented storyteller and a gifted author. And who wants to be left behind? Wolfe is gifted and talented and this is a great and convoluted-and-complex-but-epic story and so... it must be brilliant. Who wants to admit that they're left behind? that they didn't get it? that they were frustrated by it, even as they enjoyed it? (Or at least wanted to enjoy it?)
And that's where I landed with this one. I wanted to enjoy it, and I believe that there is an enjoyable novel in there--but unless you're going to give it the extra effort on the first pass (or unless you're a preternaturally brilliant ascetic), expect to be a little frustrated on that first pass....more
And read them in that order: The Good Parts, Patterns, and then High Performance.
So you're probably wondering then: if you recommend it so highly, why only four stars?
The four stars comes mostly from two niggling points:
(2) And this is super nit-picky but... The book could have taken another quick editorial pass for spelling and grammar. The one that stuck out at me was right in the intro to Chapter 6: "But it's important to keep the end goal in mind--we want to reuse cod;." Indeed.
† : An in-depth overview, but an overview nonetheless.
‡ : Stefanov is careful to "keep the browser out of it" and dedicates only one chapter (Chapter 8: DOM and Browser Patterns) to the subject; though everyone's favorite host environment does creep in a couple of times, in a couple of examples....more
Not to be too much of a self-apologist, but let me preface this review by indicating that my frustration (and hence my lower rating) comes largely froNot to be too much of a self-apologist, but let me preface this review by indicating that my frustration (and hence my lower rating) comes largely from gaps in my own knowledge. But as a result of those gaps, I wasn't able to reap this book's full benefits. So first, what was my impression:
Grails in Action is a fast-paced overview of the Grails platform, with an even quicker overview of the Java-based Groovy language that powers it, and some at-a-glance discussions of some other underlying frameworks and technologies (e.g., Spring, Hibernate, SiteMesh). The book's approach is to take you through the platform in a learn-by-doing approach, walking you through the major language features by building an application in Grails that takes advantage of all (or at least most of) its major features. By building the application alongside the authors' text, you get yourself familiar with those features, their syntax, and the philosophy behind it all.
Sounds great; but, a brief segue on why I didn't reap the full benefits:
So why the disappointment? Grails in Action wasn't really written for front-end developers. I suppose I could have figured this out if I'd taken a look at the pedigrees of either of the authors--there's a lot of Groovy and Java there. But that colors the approach, and when they say "previous experience with Java web development is an advantage"--they mean it. Not knowing Java--and/or not doing much work on the band end--will slow down your understanding.
With that out of the way, what were the good and the bad?
(1) I agree that the "learn by doing" approach is the best way to go. Nothing helps it "stick" quite like getting your hands dirty. That said, this particular learn-by-doing was a strange mix of hand-holding (e.g., "Right, OK that was obvious.") followed by cavalier glossings-over of other aspects (e.g., "Wait--what?--where did that come from?").
(2) Part 1 ("Introducing Grails") and Part 2 ("Core Grails") are fantastic overviews of the core "90% of your time" features in the Grails platforms. There are some outstanding and very clear explanations of those features, the philosophies that guided the implementations of those features, and how best to apply them in a given context. By the end of Chapter 6, you'll be in a decent position to start banging away on your own apps.
(3) The chapters on build systems, writing your own Grails scripts, and plugin development are very informative and show the kind of real power that lives under the Grails covers.
THE BAD: And/or, the critiques both big and small, and a few other things that couldn't be helped:
(1) The Grails community is moving fast, and though I would not call the book "out of date", there were some quirky differences between Grails 1.1 (the current version when they wrote it) and 1.3.5 (the version I had installed during my reading). One example that came up during the first chapter: their exercise on pages 19-20 said to type "new Quote" when what was really needed was the namespaced version ("new qotd.Quote").
(3) There's an awful lot of time given to writing tests and testing. OK, I get it--testing is important and can help you save yourself from yourself. But there were quite a few features of the language that got not-as-much (e.g., "At what point is UrlMappings.groovy parsed? processed? How does that work?") or else not-at-all (e.g., "What's supposed to go in that 'src' directory?") coverage that would have been nice to see instead of that whole chapter on testing.
(4) Plugins, plugins, plugins... Again: "OK, I get it..." As a platform, Grails is all about plugins--it's a conglomeration of plugins to start with, and it has a vibrant community of plugin writers. And that is marvelous. But once plugins are introduced (in (surprise!) the chapter on tests and testing), every chapter after that includes a line that reads "grails install-plugin name-of-plugin". Perhaps that is (shall we say) idiomatic Grails development, and perhaps the implied take-away is "install the plugin and examine its source code", but that time might have been better spent discussing the problem and the "how" of the solution instead of just dropping one in.
I would stand by Grails in Action as an excellent primer on the major features of Grails, and its hands-on approach should help you get comfortable with the key features quickly. But if you're a front-end developer looking to get started with Grails, this probably is not the best introduction. It seems to skip over some aspects of the platform or else give only cursory explanations, but then it spends a lot of time talking about and working with domain classes and the technologies behind them. Again, this is probably fine if you're already a seasoned Java or Groovy programmer on the back-end, or already fancy yourself an adept full-stack developer--but if you've spent most of your time in the browser, you may find it tough to wade through some of what's in here.
For my money, I'm still looking for that good introductory book on Grails. Grails in Action was worth the read, but I think I'll need to give it a second pass after I've found my feet....more
Hawking is probably the most well-known physicist of the 20th/21st century. In many ways he is probably iconic of 20th century science—the shell of aHawking is probably the most well-known physicist of the 20th/21st century. In many ways he is probably iconic of 20th century science—the shell of a man in his motorized wheelchair with his computerized voice, all of it to support an acute and articulate mind. And he generously [*:] gives us this nutshell version of modern physics in an easy-for-the-layman-to-digest format—masterfully articulated (and in some cases illustrated) by one of the science's best minds. (Did I already say that?)
For as brilliant as Hawking may be, and for as accessible as he makes the physics, A Brief History of Time does suffer from at least one obnoxious pitfall: humble though he may be, Hawking does engage in a bit of anecdotal self-aggrandizement; parts of the text read more like a soap opera (if a soap opera were written by science academics).
This turned out to be stop #3 (4 if you count The Tao of Physics [†:]) on my personal Layman's Roadmap to Understanding Physics. In retrospect, I would recommend others to go first with Feynman's Six Easy Pieces (which is accessible but may be biting off more than a mere mortal can chew); then read Hawking's accessible masterpiece A Brief History of Time; and only then will you be properly prepared to defend yourself against Greene's The Elegant Universe.
--- * Well, the generosity is debatable. There's always a touch of authorial vanity in any book; plus a book that goes on the best-seller list is certainly there for profit.
Is this a book about the Internet? Or about neuroplasticity? Is this a gadget-lover's dirge for "his old brain"? Or a sensationalist portrait of a tecIs this a book about the Internet? Or about neuroplasticity? Is this a gadget-lover's dirge for "his old brain"? Or a sensationalist portrait of a technological and cultural paradigm shift that lists strongly toward the catastrophic?
The Shallows is all of these things, and quite a few more--some of which marry well with Carr's thesis, while the kinky red hair of the others show them to be the abandoned-at-the-door-step-children they are. What Carr tells us with the charged and inflammatory rhetoric of his title is that the Internet "as we use it" and/or "as we experience it" may as well be cocaine--something that gives you massive energy and brilliant ideas and feelings of well-being and connectedness while in reality it turns out to be a false promise that is in fact turning you into a zombie and which will quickly alienate and eventually kill you. Toward the end, Carr comes right out and says it: "The price we pay to assume technology's power is alienation."
Throughout the text, there is this repeating suggestion of "swimming in content"--that through the portal of your computer screen, you have immediate and constant access to an information bombardment. The argument starts early and repeats often. Carr focuses on how much information is out there "on the Internet", and how quick and easy it is to gain access to that information. In the earliest portions of the book, he uses this as the set up to introduce all the Internet proponents--the folks that coin phrases like "my outboard brain" or otherwise tell us how we "..."can't yet recognize the superiority of this networked thinking process because we're still measuring it against our old linear thought process."
These are folks like Rhodes scholar Joe O'Shea whom Carr quotes as saying: "I don't read books." So if O'Shea isn't reading books, what is he reading? He and, according to Carr, many others are instead searching online for items (i.e., via Google), alleging to more quickly find those items of interest without having to wade through "whole books". Perform a Google search and within a split-second, there is your passage, or your quote, or your facts-and-figures. But therein lies the rub: if you find a passage or a quote in this way, have you really gotten the complete context? If you lack the context, how do you know that it is actually relevant? And even if it appears to be relevant, how do you know that it is accurate? The implicit critique: that we are headed down a path of breadth-only/depth-never search schemas and that this is "reprogramming" us right down to the neural substrate.
Time out for a moment.
That bit of language right there kept jarring me: that the computer provided Carr's central lexical framework for explaining the brain. To Carr's credit, he is not the only one that does this--many of the neuroscientists, psychologists, and other thinkers that he quotes, cites, and paraphrases also lapse into these convenient modern metaphors. It seems unfair to hold Carr fully accountable for this bit of irony in the text's grammar; academic discourse is overrun with this comparison. Apparently this metaphor largely comes out of psychology's "Cognitive Revolution"--during the 1950s as Skinnerian Behaviorism fell out of favor, a new conceptual framework for the field arose that acknowledged certain unobservable phenomena (e.g., "thought") while still attempting to put "cognition" into a system with rigorous and scientific mechanics. Allegedly, an important milestone in the "Cognitive Revolution" was its earliest discussions at a conference at Dartmouth. This is an interesting coincidence (if it is a coincidence at all) for us as readers of the book because it gives us overlap both chronologically and geographically with a period of meteoric ascendance in the history of computing--a time when folks were marveling over "thinking machines".
Now back to Carr's critique--that we are lapsing into breadth-only/depth-never searches, right down to our neural substrate. As part of this discussion, Carr introduces something I noted as "Doidge's paradox of neuroplasticity": that the brain is highly "plastic", that it is quick to make new neural pathways, to adapt to new situations, to "reshape" itself as new skills are learned or else as it compensates for new damage or other environmental changes; but also that once the brain has assumed some "shape", that it will "try" to stay that way. Any introductory physics class gives us an elementary principle (expressed with a single word) that we may apply here to resolve the paradox. Doidge's observed incongruities aside, the fact remains that all brains, even brains presumably damaged beyond repair have shown a remarkable resilience to long-term damage, or even long-term changes. If there is a paradox with the brain at all, it is that despite constant changes, it manages to function in a way that gives us what we experience as memory.
Perhaps that there is Carr's dreaded Neural Doomsday. In entertaining these popular notions of "the outboard brain" and in digesting the cultural shifts surrounding that, he has come to believe that these changes in the brain--the changes that accompany heavy or long-term computer ("Internet") use--are permanent and irrevocable. Or even if the changes are reversible (given what we know of neuroplasticity), that our overall cultural habits will shape us to give in to the brain's own inertia--that we won't want to "snap out of it", that we won't even see anything wrong with what has become of us. We will all become mentally lazy at a biological level, and we will also come to believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that--and worse, that the cultural gestalt will simply reinforce that mode of thinking.
Carr is not totally unjustified in these fears, but he unfortunately seems reticent when it comes to making concrete speculations on the long-term consequences, or means by which we might combat this (to adopt his attitude) terrible trajectory. At one point, he cites Umberto Eco's assessment of what my notes called "Socrates' lament"--that "memory from marks" (i.e., writing) would over-shadow and in time annihilate men's memories and oratory faculties. According to Eco there is an eternal and intrinsic fear of change, especially when that which changes is something that we deeply value. Socrates valued knowledge; the mechanics and media for his knowledge were strictly mental and oral. Writing down your thoughts, your memories, your debate responses--all of that deeply upset Socrates' applecart. But even Socrates was willing to grant an exception: for writing could serve "as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age". Some 2400 years later, I challenge you to find someone that would agree with or even entertain that notion for anything but a quaint form of provincial paranoia--the first incidence of futureshock. It's almost 2000 years later that Erasmus eloquently rejects the memorization that Socrates held so dearly, citing that it failed value's litmus test for anything but to provide fertile soil in which to plant the seeds of synthesis.
It would not be much of a stretch to believe that Carr is of the same mind as Erasmus here, that memorization has little pure value--that what we (as thinkers, as contributors to the great corpus of knowledge) are really interested in is not regurgitation of knowledge but its digestion and comprehension and ultimately its creation. And this is where I believe Carr plays his text a bit to coyly; in rushing to damn the Internet and Google and perhaps even Tim Berners-Lee, he does not clearly articulate what he believes to be at stake. As the text draws to a close, he draws an analogy that is almost Luddite in its connotations: if a ditchdigger begins to ply his trade with a diesel-powered excavator instead of his shovel, he may find that he can dig deeper and wider and faster but his muscles will ultimately atrophy. Carr lets go of this analogy pretty quickly, moving along and letting it linger only briefly--but the obvious question hangs between you and the page: does the trade-off matter if it is not in conflict with your goals?
In other words, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with your "outboard brain"--but if it makes you lazy, if you stop synthesizing the content that you consume, if you stop having new and original thoughts, then the only thing that you have gained is that you can locate and consume content more quickly. If you choose to remember nothing, then whatever new thoughts you might form are instantly orphaned on the doorstep of ephemera.
Having so closely aligned himself with Marshall McLuhan, Carr might counter that like David Sarnoff before us, we are just blaming the consumer and failing to recognize the powerful and lasting effects of the medium itself. Once set down this path, our brains change--it becomes difficult and then impossible for us to focus or form these new thoughts. That we trap ourselves in this self-rewarding (if ultimately vapid) cycle of Google Suggest results, status updates, one-click shopping, instant messages, and every other distraction that we alt-tab our way through, all the livelong day (and into the night).
But having said that: the counter-argument is a cop-out, and one that is put before us as impermeable, and perhaps even a little self-righteously inviolable. The Internet is here. Using it changes our brains. Quod erat demonstrandum.
If you're like me, it sounds more like Calvinist predestination than it does like a scientific theorem. On the one hand the Internet changes our brains; on the other hand the brain has a remarkable plasticity. Any activity imprints itself upon the brain; and given this suggestion of neural inertia, the more prolonged that activity, the longer-lasting and more far-reaching those changes are. (Did "everything in moderation" come to your mind as well?)
Where I wind up taking issue with Carr's conclusions is (as mentioned above) his reticence in making more concrete speculations, but also in how he glosses over or omits some important qualifiers. He talks about the desire to consume Internet content "so much" and "so quickly", but there was not much discussion of where that desire comes from. Why do we feel so much pressure to consume it? Why do we feel pressured to consume it so quickly? There is also no differentiation of the content we consume--when making his value judgments, Carr appears to give equal footing to instances of in-depth subject-specific factual research as he does to the fleeting and vapid trivia generica. Nor is there much discussion of authoriality nor any discussion of authenticity.
And that last bit is probably the most important to me. Carr touches a few times (albeit obliquely) on the notion of "a new literacy". Over the centuries we have defined and become comfortable in specific scope when we discuss literacy and consider what it means to be literate. But over the past century, we have very quickly created an entirely new climate for content and media. Maybe this is the distortion of my own liberal arts lens, but when we talk about literacy, we too often stop with reading and writing. These are insufficient on their own and this is wholly evident when Carr writes about Joe "I don't read books" O'Shea. Context is king and authenticity, queen; if we accept that our brains are shaped by the Internet-as-medium, then we must also accept that to read is not enough. Carr has a point when he says that we do not "read" on the Internet--that we skim and scan and "F" our way through what amounts to a given page's abstract; and maybe he is even right that this is the inherent mode of consumption for this medium. But perhaps the reason we skim and scan and get distracted is because we are not yet literate in this new medium. We are in the midst of inventing its mechanics, its etiquette, and though we use words and images on the Internet, we are still in the midst of inventing its vocabularies and grammars. Perhaps when we skim and scan, it is because we still have not learned how to make heads-or-tails of what we are seeing, whether it is worthy of being read, whether it passes the right tests for authenticity, and whether it will even be there tomorrow....more
If you're unfamiliar with Murakami: he writes these delightfully weird, surrealist (because I can't bring myself to call it "magical realism") novelsIf you're unfamiliar with Murakami: he writes these delightfully weird, surrealist (because I can't bring myself to call it "magical realism") novels that are somehow simultaneously indecisive yet utterly certain of their subjects. Declaratively ambiguous dreamscapes that are half-hatched out of unimaginable futures.
So with that in mind: Kafka on the Shore is like a bizarrely Oedipal Catcher in the Rye—except that instead of following an introspective pathetic fuck-up (Holden), it follows an introspective tormented wretch (Kafka). And instead of being surrounded by phonies, he's surrounded by a cast of protean, vaguely misanthropic that are all camped out on various fringes.
The novel spends a lot of time at those fringes, side-stepping the easy and burrowing pretty deeply into itself. This is definitely Murakami's take on the classic (classically Western?) coming-of-age novel....more
I owned this book for about 13 years before I cracked the cover. It was a high school graduation gift from my AP European History teacher. Not that thI owned this book for about 13 years before I cracked the cover. It was a high school graduation gift from my AP European History teacher. Not that the book is particularly prurient or salacious, but in retrospect I would not have considered a book with this much innuendo to come from such a source. Why she thought I'd enjoy this is a little bit of a mystery to me in and of itself—while I'm a bit of a gastronome now, I wasn't much of one then (and the "gastronomic mystery" part of the title seems little more than a garnish); it's got some suggestive parts but nothing racy (certainly nothing that would have gotten my motor running during the high school/college era); I'm not a fan of mysteries, nor am I a Francophone.
None of this is to say that the book is... well, it is not bad. But it was just OK. A quick read with some entertaining moments....more
In the realm of technical, programming-related, computer science-type books, The Joy of Clojure is a bit of an oddity. And this is a very good thing.
WIn the realm of technical, programming-related, computer science-type books, The Joy of Clojure is a bit of an oddity. And this is a very good thing.
WHAT THE BOOK IS NOT:The Joy of Clojure is not a beginner's introduction to the language. The Joy of Clojure is not a glorified appendix of methods and syntax. The Joy of Clojure is not a "cookbook" or a "how-to" or an "FAQ". The Joy of Clojure is not an explanation on how to shoe-horn your Java code into (some (graceful [parenthetical syntax:])). The Joy of Clojure is not a dry or sterile technical manual.
WHAT THE BOOK IS:The Joy of Clojure is as much a philosophical text as it is a survey of the language. The Joy of Clojure embraces the language's own flexible nature and describes itself in that way. The Joy of Clojure has a sense of humor. The Joy of Clojure expects a little work from you (but is willing to lend a hand along the way). The Joy of Clojure respects the baggage that you bring from your other programming languages, but expects you to check those bags at the door. The Joy of Clojure wants to make you a better programmer, not a Clojure programmer.
I would absolutely recommend this to anyone I know that had an interest in Clojure and/or functional programming....more
I know what you're thinking... "Why did you read the 4th edition in 2010? It only covers up to Java 1.4 - and it was published 8 years ago." My answerI know what you're thinking... "Why did you read the 4th edition in 2010? It only covers up to Java 1.4 - and it was published 8 years ago." My answer? "It was what my library had. And it covered what I needed to learn."
I suppose I should have known better, considering the O'Reilly "Nutshell" format. A couple hundred pages of "nutshell" overview material to digest some high-level concepts -- but you're wading through generic code samples. Then several hundred more pages of what is basically an index of core API stuff. And so almost all of it makes your eyes glaze over. It isn't bad or badly written; it's that the book has a target audience of which I am not really a member.
A quick read with some funny Twitter-ized parodies of famous books. The parodies are probably funnier if you're familiar with the original stories. MaA quick read with some funny Twitter-ized parodies of famous books. The parodies are probably funnier if you're familiar with the original stories. Maybe turning some of the sexual themes a little too overtly?...more
This is the seed from which Ridley Scott's masterpiece Blade Runner was born. What Scott understood about Dick's Rick Deckard was that he was an archeThis is the seed from which Ridley Scott's masterpiece Blade Runner was born. What Scott understood about Dick's Rick Deckard was that he was an archetypal noir detective; a married man he could not be (though that does lurid-up the bit with Rachael a bit more). The edge that the novel has over the film? Dick's novel explores some themes about fertility/sterility and extinction that are fascinating; Scott missed the mark by effectively abandoning those. That being said, I find it interesting that Scott flipped the setting from San Francisco to Los Angeles—striking me as a bit Chandler to Dick's Hammett....more
While I was reading this, I liked to imagine that I was at university and that Douglas Crockford was the insanely popular genius professor that showed up late for lectures, and then either spoke too fast or else mumbled a lot, and then locked himself in his office refusing to answer the door during office hours while he worked on his Next Big Thing that would make everyone oooh and aaah and validate his brilliance. Meanwhile, in that same imaginary university, Nicholas Zakas was the graduate student that served as the TA to that class—and he happened to be equally brilliant and super-accessible and willing to take the time out to explain it all in a way that was thorough and comprehensible.
It is difficult to say for certain if the five-star review will withstand a second reading--but we won't know that until I subject myself to it that sIt is difficult to say for certain if the five-star review will withstand a second reading--but we won't know that until I subject myself to it that second time. Fortunately for me, it has gone back to its "last in line" position for at least a little while.
First, the obvious stuff: this is the kind of novel that makes "Top N" lists of all kinds (formal and less so) and is widely regarded as a masterpiece among postmodern masterpieces. It's transgressive in a number of different ways--fucking with sexuality; history and modernity and futurism; politics and anarchy; mysticism and science; u.s.w.--all on its celebratory-romping exploration of annihilation on every possible scale. It's surreal and impenetrable and referential and still somehow an engaging read. But as I look back over my notes, I'm struck by a few of my own status updates:
Inappropriate analogies: Pynchon is like Neal Stephenson channelling Kurt Vonnegut doing an impression of George Orwell after having dinner with Philip K. Dick.
Last night I dreamed that Slothrop was at a party with Bobby Shaftoe, both of them hitting on Juliana Frink.
"It's like Neal Stephenson was writing a remix of Dhalgren for a class taught by Kurt Vonnegut?"
Well that last bit read like it was written by a horny college sophomore that just got introduced to absurdism.
And the emergent theme of my own reading experience was definitely an academic or collegient one. The kind of book where an upper-division English class of like 6 or 7 students sits around in a circle wanking over its references and allusions and going on at great length about its influence on other, more recent works. And this isn't necessarily a Bad Thing--this is part of what Gravity's Rainbow Intends to Be. But given how I am so quick to compare it (in my mind at least) to Infinite Jest, therein lies an important difference--Infinite Jest may be surreal and absurd and referential and seemingly impenetrable, but it is also colloquial and demotic in a way that Gravity's Rainbow is not. But this is an unfair comparison.
So then... what's with the five-star review? Because despite its impermeable nature, this novel--however dense, however exclusive--really does seem to accomplish what it sets out to discuss, and from every angle I could think of. And though much of it was lost on me (as a reader's guide was recommended to me, so do I recommend one to you), there is a gripping and tangled enough tale in here to keep one engaged with the prose and its narrative. (A prurient nature helps, too.)
Dark comedy a la George Saunders. Feels like an allegory, but I'm not totally sure of what, exactly. Tyranny? War? Oppression? Failure to act vs. actiDark comedy a la George Saunders. Feels like an allegory, but I'm not totally sure of what, exactly. Tyranny? War? Oppression? Failure to act vs. acting too quickly? Surreal as hell though, that much is for sure.
Also: this is the piece of Saunders' that made me realize that he works (more or less) in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut. At least, in the future, when someone asks me to describe George Saunders, I'll say: "He's like the smartest kid in Kurt Vonnegut's class."...more
"What took you so long to pick it up?" I did not believe the hype.
Before The Windup Girl, my exposure to Bacigalupi's work was through two short stori"What took you so long to pick it up?" I did not believe the hype.
Before The Windup Girl, my exposure to Bacigalupi's work was through two short stories:
(1) "The People of Sand and Slag"—which seemed to pop-upeverywhere for a while; and then (2) "Yellow Card Man"—which was in the same milieu as this novel and which I liked but which I didn't really "get" because I was expecting something more along the lines of "The People of Sand and Slag".
This is not to say that I did not enjoy Bacigalupi's work at least on some level—they were both good stories but neither of them was enough to send me out on a mission looking to read more of his work. Nevertheless, I recognized the name and had this strong flicker of recognition every time yet another review appeared in my RSS reader. The Windup Girl is amazing and a shoe-in for at least one of 2009's big awards and so forth. But I kept thinking about "The People of Sand and Slag".
Turns out that Bacigalupi has the same problem that I ("...would like to think I...") have.
His ideas are big. Too big for some crummy 5000 word short story or some 8500 word novelette. Those ideas are big and they are important and they need room to breathe. Those ideas need a 350+ page apparatus to fully get themselves across. But these big ideas all seem so small and slow at first, and for the first 50-100 pages you find yourself thinking So what? So this is an interesting and immersive milieu but where's the action? Why is everyone ready to have this book's babies? But then it hits you hard and drags you through 250 more stunning pages. But now I'm just gushing?
I loved this book the way that I loved Ian McDonald's River of Gods. There is something very special about the rich tapestry that these guys have created by putting these futuristic settings against the lush and visceral backdrops of these oriental locales with all their poverty and banalia. But whereas McDonald did it with AIs in India, Bacigalupi is doing it with genetically modified human not-quite-clones in Thailand.
But what makes this one so special is that everyone is under indictment and nothing is sacrosanct. None of the stories end the way you would want them to, but you cannot think of any other way that they could end. This is one that will haunt you, and makes a great companion read for Oryx and Crake....more
Every other review of this book that you read will sum this up pretty well: that this book is a briskly-paced, well-executed tale of running, of a "seEvery other review of this book that you read will sum this up pretty well: that this book is a briskly-paced, well-executed tale of running, of a "secret tribe" in Mexico that has basically made an art of ultra-running, of the people world-wide that are truly passionate about putting their bodies into motion and not stopping for hundreds of miles. Also, that your fancy shoes are the reason you're getting plantar fasciitis.
So if you want the details on all that, and if you want to get pumped up about barefoot running (you pervert) then have right at it.
Instead, I want to put out there a serious question about what seems like a pretty big inconsistency in the text that I'm having trouble reconciling:
First -- there is quite a bit in the text where it seems that McDougall is suggesting that a vegetarian diet is the way to go for the elite ultrarunner. Put down your lean meat and go after the beans and pinole. Runner after runner in chapter after chapter, all of them seem to say that they've gone and eschewed meat, that they "eat like a poor person", and they've never felt better, and never run better (nor run longer). And yet...
Second -- there is this section where McDougall starts talking about the evolution of Homo sapiens, and this conjecture that we "defeated" our Neanderthal cousins in the evolutionary arms race because we "ran our prey to death". In other words, our species learned to run so that it could more easily obtain meat, and the improved access to meat was a huge driver behind the survival of our species, behind the further development of our brain.
But this contradiction isn't really explored. Evolution has strong feedback effects built in. So if we're running to get meat, why eschew the meat hundreds of thousands (millions?) of years later? Does the access to the meat simply open the door and once through it we're better off without it? Or is there more to this story?
The "dust jacket description" of this anthology pretty much sums it up... It collects a few different modern takes on the classic science fiction trope: What does it take; what does it mean for a civilization to be interstellar and/or pan-galactic?
My take of Federations, it gets a composite rating of 3.9130 (individual stories below)
• "Mazer in Prison" (Orson Scott Card): ★★★ » About what you'd expect from Card. So it doesn't disappoint but it doesn't exactly thrill, either. • "Carthago Delenda Est" (Genevieve Valentine): ★★★★ • "Life Suspension" (L. E. Modesitt, Jr.): ★★½ • "Terra-Exulta" (S.L. Gilbow): ★★★ » Reminds me a bit of that Stephen King piece that opens Wastelands. The letter-writing format is a tough one to write in and I appreciate the effort here. And I don't dislike this piece but it seems... too short? or just that its hand is tipped too early and that kind of blows the ending a bit? • "Aftermaths" (Lois McMaster Bujold): ★★★★ • "Someone is Stealing the Great Throne Rooms of the Galaxy" (Harry Turtledove): ★★ » Not terribly intriguing, and a little puerile/juvenile. To me... I can see why it was included (for the variety and for the perspective it brings) but it just doesn't do it. Not for me. • "Prisons" (Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason): ★★½ » So much potential, and almost good; but why did I wind up feeling like it needed to be more subversive? (E.g., so many heteronormative relationships!—if the prison revolt leader had been lovers with another man, well now maybe that might have been a little more intriguing.) • "Different Day" (K. Tempest Bradford): ★★★★★ • "Twilight of the Gods" (John C. Wright): ★★★★ » The Tolkien-esque language can be a little off-putting at first but it really starts to make sense after you get about a third of the way in. • "Warship" (George R. R. Martin and George Guthridge): ★★★★★ » I can't imagine why it took so long for Martin to shop this piece—unless Guthridge really brought that much to it. The execution is very spot-on. • "Swanwatch" (Yoon Ha Lee): ★★★★ » I want to like this more. It's beautiful but a bit oblique—and that's fine but somehow it doesn't jump to where it needs to be. • "Spirey and the Queen" (Alastair Reynolds): ★★★★★ » Awesome. Did you like Watts' Blindsight? Did you like Sterling's "Swarm"? A little bit like that. (Only robots.) • "Pardon Our Conquest" (Alan Dean Foster): ★★★½ • "Symbiont" (Robert Silverberg): ★★★★½ » Highly disurbing; more so than I thought it would be. (Just read this one; skip the introduction.) • "The Ship Who Returned" (Anne McCaffrey): ★★★★ • "My She" (Mary Rosenblum): ★★★★½ » Brilliant. Nicely subversive and almost perfect. • "The Shoulders of Giants" (Robert J. Sawyer): ★★½ • "The Culture Archivist" (Jeremiah Tolbert): ★★★★★ » This one is funny in the way that "Someone is Stealing..." (vida supra) could/should have been. • "The Other Side of Jordan" (Allen Steele): ★★★★½ » Serves a little bit as a reminder that one of the things you're going for (when you're going for sci-fi) is the "deep milieu". This has got it. And I love it for it. • "Like They Always Been Free" (Georgina Li): ★★★★ » Very dense; worthwhile. • "Eskhara" (Trent Hergenrader): ★★★★★ » The allegory bits are obvious but rather than detract, they make it all very worth while. • "The One with the Interstellar Group Consciousnesses" (James Alan Gardner): ★★★★ » Cute, and a bit novel, but kind of like an artisan soda: not really bad for you but not really necessary but damn tasty but kind of a cloying aftertaste? * "Golubash, or Wine-War-Blood-Elegy" (Catherynne M. Valente): ★★★★½ » A little on the oblique side but the framing for the story is absolutely killer....more
Similar to how I felt with The Elegant Universe; here was a book that did a good job of giving a survey of "the known physics", a good job of explaiSimilar to how I felt with The Elegant Universe; here was a book that did a good job of giving a survey of "the known physics", a good job of explaining the intractable problems, and then a poor job of explaining "the new way" (while at the same time hedging as much as possible). The comparisons to Eastern mysticism seemed a little conveniently tacked on, and maybe even a bit cherry-picked. I think the real problem I had with this book though wasn't about the theories (which, you know, "you can't blame a guy for trying") but that when a book's popularity catches fire, an authoritative tone can make it that much more convincing to folks (like me) that are not trained in that specific discipline (in this case, high-energy physics)—and so even as the evidence stacks up against the espoused theory (which in this case is the S-matrix theory), there isn't any real serious re-evaluation. (Granted, as that very same lay-person, I'm not sure that I fully understood the S-matrix theory, or the follow-up reading w/r/t/ how it has been mostly discredited.)
This is my response in a nutshell though; I'd really like to put together a little more formal of a response. (In due time?)...more
**spoiler alert** I think it's very easy to have mixed (but very strong) feelings about Dune. Thus follows two reviews in one (with minor spoiler aler**spoiler alert** I think it's very easy to have mixed (but very strong) feelings about Dune. Thus follows two reviews in one (with minor spoiler alerts):
Fawning: ("It's a science fiction classic!") ★★★★★
"Unique... I know of nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings."
Indeed, there seems to be nothing else in the science fiction corpus quite like Dune. An epic in every sense of the word--a scope so vast and a background so rich that Frank Herbert felt it necessary to give us a glossary and a series of appendices. The text is rife with all manner of allusions, riddled with sub-plots and suggestions and intimations of a profound and magnificent history (both real and imagined) of which we will receive only a taste. And through it all, the riveting tale of Paul-Muad'Dib Atreides--the messianic figure whose journey into the echelons of manhood and leadership propels us headlong through this fascinating universe.
And coming into this story for the first time in 2010--some 45 years after its initial publication--you can quickly and easily see how it has influenced so much of what came after it. Reading it, I was struck by how much it reminded me of so many of my favorite science fiction milieus from over the years. The feuding noble houses reminded me instantly of the BattleTech franchise--the Succession Wars and the complex alliances and rivalries (the combatants are even referred to as "Houses"). The demi-medievalism brought to mind images from Star Wars--an empire with all of its pageantry, right down to the glamour of fencing. The ecological concerns suggest the work of Margaret Atwood or Ben Bova--what with all of the world-making and unmaking and the lens that shows how the world makes the men, even as the men make the world. And subtle hints in the galaxy-spanning religiousness that bring to mind Hyperion and A Fire Upon the Deep--the consecrated orders (monastic or merely apparently so) and incantations and mythology and an ear toward histories ancient and unknowable.
And in so many ways, this is the science fiction fan's perfect vision of escapist literature. The rise of a mighty warrior in a legendary high-stakes saga where his will is put to the test by insurmountable foes and yet he emerges triumphant.
But let down: ("Perhaps epic in scope but...") ★★★☆☆
But perhaps that's just it. Even if the novel withstands the test after forty-five years and remains as canon Epic Sci-Fi; and even if you acknowledge the strength of its influence on Everything That Came Afterward; and even if you agree with these points and think favorably of the novel (as I do) you might also find that you'd wished it was more... complex? subtle? nuanced? For all the dramatic tension, there is never any doubt of how things will end. There is never any question--not even from that first chapter--that Paul Atreides will (despite his earliest assertions to the contrary) come to wear the mantle of the Kwisatz Haderach, that he will become the mythical Lisan Al-Gaib. Even when fate is testing him, you can sense that the tragedies are more for your benefit as the reader than they are formative experiences for Paul; there is an armature of a plot with the young hero's arrival, with the tragic events that plummet him into his questing and wandering, and with the climactic reversal that leads to his messianic ascendance. But through all of these trials and tribulations, Paul is always so... confident--there is never a moment's doubt from him. He is a classic übermensch--pre-destined to greatness and he knows it and even when he denies it, he is still wrapped up in the mythology that surrounds him. And as a consequence... Paul is almost boring. Constantly tapping into his latent prescience to tell us what will happen next (and being right); constantly getting embroiled in hand-to-hand combat and winning; constantly inspiring the men and women around him to rally to his cause... Even when there is dissent, the dissent is in his favor--the Fremen challenging him to challenge Stilgar for command of the tribes. (And of course, this too ends just as we would predict.)
And that is just the bits about Paul--that is not even to attempt to dissect what goes on there w/r/t/ the class system, or women and other issues of gender and sexuality.
But... and there's that but again: but it is an enjoyable read and one that is fantastically imaginative and fully-realized. It has earned a lasting place in the science fiction corpus with good reason--and I am actually a little happy that it took me so long to get around to this one.
Crockford's is a short book. It's a bit terse at times but his examples are clear and he supplements these with railroad diagrams[‡:]. That terseness also translates more/less directly into density, like he's running 10:1 compression on his thoughts here. They require some unpacking and digestion.
Of particular note: Crockford dedicates the entire 9th chapter to code-writing style. Why? He argues that it is an essential skill, that good code-writing eliminates ambiguities (see also: Appendices A & B) and makes the code easier to read and therefore easier (and cheaper) to maintain overtime -- doubly so if that code's lifespan exceeds that of its original developer.
This book is a great one to keep next to David Flanagan's "el Rhino diablo". That said, I believe this one should be consulted first to confirm good function and good form before winding back onto something more encyclopedic.
‡ = To be perfectly frank, the railroad diagrams are bewildering at first. If you have never seen them before, they provide a serious "WTF?" moment the first time. When I encountered the second set of railroad diagrams was when I knew that I was going to need to re-read the first quarter of the book just to be safe.
--- 2010 UPDATE: 3rd read. Still good, still relevant. Definitely the kind of book you get a little more out of each time. (For one thing, I slightly flubbed the quote above about the arrays, but not so bad as to retract it.)...more
Imagine for a moment that you go into the up-scale liquor store around the block that is celebrated city-wide for its fabulous wine selection. You'reImagine for a moment that you go into the up-scale liquor store around the block that is celebrated city-wide for its fabulous wine selection. You're a bit of a novice when it comes to wine and are a little embarrassed to be here because your wallet is that ballistic nylon stuff and not something truly exotic like alligator skin and with that in mind you decide not to ask the sommelier for any help. You browse around the store looking for a bottle of something called David Foster Wallace that was recommended to you by your friend with the alligator skin wallet. You manage to find the bottle of DFW and admire the fancy bottle with its fancy label and its curlicues and footnotes and excellent leading. The bottle seems really heavy and big and everyone has told you how excellent it is. So you decide to try it but when you actually get to the counter you discover that you've picked up a bottle of something called George Saunders by mistake. The George Saunders bottle isn't as big or as fancy as the DFW and in fact it looks a little bit like a down-market or off-label knock-off of the vintage DFW but at the same time you believe that there is maybe something authentic and distinct about it anyway. The sommelier gives you a funny look as he rings you up but you don't say anything because you don't want to look stupid in front of him and anyway you're probably just being self-conscious about the whole thing like the time you had a glass of Pynchon at your friend's house and you said that it was a good Vonnegut and everyone laughed and your friend explained that the Vonnegut has a much sharper finish and you'll notice how the Pynchon seems to hang around in your mouth so much longer but he could see how you might make that mistake. And you try to think about that night on your drive home because it's that same friend with the alligator skin wallet that is coming over for dinner tonight with his wife and you remember how he plays golf with your boss and this is an important event to get right. So that night before the main course you pour everyone's glass in the kitchen so that no one will see the bottle and the secret will be safe with you. And your wife brings out the entree and you bring out the wine and everyone digs in and finds it delicious. Your friend with the alligator skin wallet remarks on how delicious the wine is and did you have any trouble finding the David Foster Wallace at the store? And was the sommelier there helpful? And what year did he recommend because this is really really quite good? And you smile and try to decide whether or not to say anything because you know that you'll need to say something but how are you going to make up something plausible on the spot. But then your wife blurts out that it's really a George Saunders and don't you just love it? Because she slurped down her glass of George Saunders and it was her third of the night anyway because she and your friend's wife managed to down a whole bottle of David Sedaris as a warm-up but they both agreed it was too dry for them even though you and your friend think that it's the perfect middle-of-the-week wine. For a moment you're paralyzed with fear because this was your shot, your chance to show off and really shine and display your competence and you blew it because you were too chicken shit to tell the sommelier at the counter that you picked up the wrong bottle by mistake. But instead your friend raises an eyebrow and says that it's wonderful, just delightful, and he'd never tried it before and though maybe it's not as dry as the DFW, does it ever have a great finish and it's just perfect for a dinner party, isn't it?...more
Almost five-stars. For someone like me (i.e., a layperson that has no background in physics whatsoever), this is a great introduction to the mysteriouAlmost five-stars. For someone like me (i.e., a layperson that has no background in physics whatsoever), this is a great introduction to the mysterious world of physics—it is humorous and accessible and makes an effort to be "approximately accurate" about everything (while calling itself out on things that are simplified for the sake of the example or else "unknown or unknowable"). However, to be "approximately accurate about everything" means a bunch of math and other fancy-pants equations that look like this:
|ĥ₁ + ĥ₂|² = |ĥ₁|² + |ĥ₂|² + 2|ĥ₁||ĥ₂| cos δ
...which despite my best efforts remain cloaked in physics' mysterious shroud.
"Easy Pieces", these are not.
However, Feynman explains the subject matter well—and certainly better than most other folks that have tried to write this sort of thing.
Maybe if io9 hadn't pumped up my expectations so much, I would have enjoyed this one more. Not bad—a fun read, in fact—but not one "that will change yMaybe if io9 hadn't pumped up my expectations so much, I would have enjoyed this one more. Not bad—a fun read, in fact—but not one "that will change your life".
Ken MacLeod gives us a fun, rollicking space opera replete with the familiar tropes of faster-than-light ships (bounded by causality laws), wormhole gates (set up as a network for traveling), posthuman minds (bounded by virtual reality prisons), and the fractured competing empires of humankind (in exodus). MacLeod's story borrows a bit from PKD'sUbik—the uncoiling of certain aspects of reality, the way others are called into question, and what is necessary and sufficient to "be real" or "authentic". But it's this big idea which was the most challenging and seemed to unfortunately get lost among the variegation of the space opera. There was some interesting stuff in there, but MacLeod tried to channel the narration (mostly) through Lucinda Carlyle—who could have turned out to be peripheral....more
Among other recommendations, A Fire Upon the Deep appeared on io9's "Twenty Science Fiction Novels that Will Change Your Life" post and after Newton'Among other recommendations, A Fire Upon the Deep appeared on io9's "Twenty Science Fiction Novels that Will Change Your Life" post and after Newton's Wake, I thought it would be a chance for that list to redeem itself a little. Though far from life-changing, this story is strong and plays with a number of interesting tropes in novel and intriguing ways. The notion of an interstellar (intergalactic?) apprenticeship program for librarians/systems administrators is a fascinating one (esp. Vinge's treatment of the commoditized interstellar communications network), but you can also tell that it's just the long-leash to guide the rest of the story.
I take some fractional points off for some minor quibbles I have. (1) For such a lush space opera, sometimes Vinge's prose can be a little wooden. There are some italicized thoughts here and there which—whether they're an acceptable literary convention or not—don't seem to add anything except a break in the rhythm. (2) The Prologue is nearly Baroque in its inflated style, and I rolled my eyes a bit. Thought ceased for a moment as a shadow passed across the nodes they used. The overness was already greater than anything human, greater than anything humans could imagine. *sigh* If you must... (3) Conversely, the climax and denouement seem almost to fall flat. Not quite Stephensonian, but... after all that build-up: that's it? (4) And as with any space opera (and/or epic fantasy)... there's so much tedious traveling.
But what Vinge gets right (i.e., everything else) he seems to really nail. The io9 piece calls A Fire Upon the Deep "quite simply one of the most inventive, astonishing, and humane space operas you'll ever read"—and I'd agree with that. The epic scope, the alienness of the aliens [†], and the willingness to pen such a weird portrait of the imagined universe—it all adds up to a very compelling and rewarding read.
--- † : Though, truth be told: everyone in the universe seems to operate in a pretty narrowly defined and very human economic system. There's nothing alien about mercantilism and venture capitalism....more