**spoiler alert** Quote: ...I think I'd probably tell you that it's easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers t...more**spoiler alert** Quote: ...I think I'd probably tell you that it's easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers than it is to accept the love and loyalty of the people closest to us.
There is an odd surface tension here; some readers may approach Idoru from the wrong bias, through the lens of Neuromancer and the Sprawl trilogy. Those readers will expect the traditional cyberpunk romp of amphetamine-fueled Yakuza battles and twisted violent sex in coffin hotels; those readers will be disappointed and may not be able to penetrate the skin of this charged, deeply emotional book. Idoru is William Gibson's Through the Looking Glass.
In typical Gibson style, the dueling narratives follow two distinctly melancholy characters: there is the starry-eyed teenaged angst of Chia Pet McKenzie and the existential, nearly Phildickian dread of Colin Laney. The novel opens on Laney, recently terminated under dubious circumstances from his "quantitative analyst" position for a tv program called Slitscan; Laney has a rare gift that enables him to tease patterns out of seemingly random data and he is recruited by a Japanese company to come to Tokyo and perform some research on their most valuable asset -- a rock star named Rez. Meanwhile, Chia is sent to Tokyo by her friends in Rez's Seattle-based fan club to discover the truth about The Rumor -- that Rez intends to marry a software construct, an idoru called Rei Toei.
Without a close inspection of the text, the novel might appear energetic but thematically trite. The plot moves along at a brisk pace: trans-Pacific flights whisk our protagonists into a Japanese Wonderland, quick-cut flashbacks fill in their respective histories, malicious and unseen maneuvering keeps every last character on his or her toes. Gibson drops his customary tropes: seedy back-alley deals gone awry, a detailed but ultimately vague send-up of "cyberspace", a mischievous and emergent AI...
But this book has nothing to do with AI or cyberspace or seedy back-alley deals.
At its core, Idoru explores the proposition that intimacy is a function of immersion, of experience, of fully surrendering to the risks of engagement and that knowledge or facts or data by any name and in any quantity cannot bring affinity. The narrative contains a relatively early scene wherein Laney is subject to a monologue by Kathy Torrance (his boss at Slitscan); she goes on at length about "celebrity" as a natural resource, about how media and tabloids like Slitscan have corralled "celebrity" into a commodity that can be controlled and brokered. Taken out of context, the monologue appears to be a provocative and unambiguous statement about celebrity in and of itself. Examining the scene with the novel's thesis in mind, we begin to see what lies at the kernel of Kathy Torrance's soliloquy: how "celebrity" is a focal point for a broad knowledge about a person (or other object of affection/attention) that by definition cannot be fully experienced. "Celebrity" is data presented as intimacy -- the fine-grained details of some person's life presented to you in all their banal urgency, more fantasy than reality, ever out of reach, inevitably unable to satisfy your need to share and experience.
Consider Kathy Torrance's rant about celebrity as a mirror to Alison Shires and Laney's own back-story. As Laney reflects on Alison Shires' suicide, we begin to see these themes take shape. In her original context, Alison is presented to Laney as "all data"; she is little more than some fulcrum of collapsed transactions that swing back onto some celebrity target of Slitscan's. But as her imminent suicide becomes obvious to Laney through his "nodal apprehension", he becomes concerned about, even attached to her; he breaks through his own Fourth Wall and allows himself to become involved, to experience her face-to-face. He is there in her apartment for the shot that kills her. We can hear echoes of his investment, how the experience created an instantly intimate moment which he capsulizes as: "...the whole thing would settle to the sea floor, silting over almost instantly with the world's steady accretion of data." The experience would be lost, buried under the steady stream of celebrity's telemetry, and he wonders how he can live with that outcome.
The novel is peppered with examples to underscore this proposition about intimacy: * Consider that every bar, cafe, restaurant, etc. featured in the text is somehow themed and each theme is just data, each motif is hollow and empty -- the impression of something, its image, a copy or facsimile or interpretation but not the thing itself; * Consider how Chia's story about her Sandbenders computer resonates on this chord, how she descrives the disposable shells of modern electronics as insufficient for people to make a connection with them, and how a "tribe" in Oregon humanized each computer through their artisanal cases; * Consider Masahiko's tales of Walled City and how he continually asserts to Chia that it is "real" and not just a MUD, not just a website; * Consider Blackwell's final affirmation to Laney, that Kathy Torrance will no longer threaten him, how they will "carve out this deep and meaningful and bloody unforgettable episode of mutual face-time", how they will have reached "very personal terms" -- the data, the facts are discarded, meaningless -- only the experience matters.
Throughout the narrative, there is a very keen sense that each character is desperately seeking something "real", something with which he or she can truly and intimately connect. Rez at one point blurts out: "Nothing like it [...] That physical thing." It is on those sentiments that the novel opens and again where it closes. We open on Laney in the aftershocks of just such a "physical thing" and Chia striking out to Tokyo in search of same. And we close on Rez and Rei Toei -- both symbolic of Kathy Torrance's "celebrity", different sides of that same coin -- discovering that their union cannot be completed without it, and daring to forge just such a path.(less)
Though Snow Crash will probably remain my all-time favorite Neal Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon might take the crown as his best.[†:] As I write thi...moreThough Snow Crash will probably remain my all-time favorite Neal Stephenson novel, Cryptonomicon might take the crown as his best.[†:] As I write this review, I wrapping up my third reading of this novel.
BRIEF ASIDE REGARDING THE TIMING OF THIS THIRD READING: It is probably worth noting my mental state when I cracked the spine on this one for the third time. Stephenson's Anathem had just come out and I could not quite bring myself to drop the cash on the hardcover. But I was overwhelmed with the urge to read some Stephenson. Given the the brutalizing that the U.S. economy was taking (according to the news) right about this time, it therefore seemed apropos to read something that involved economics, crypto, currency, libertarianism (and flaws of same), and safety/security.
END OF ASIDE AND RETURN TO REVIEW THAT IS REALLY MORE LIKE A BUNCH OF RANDOM DISCONNECTED OBSERVATIONS:Cryptonomicon manages to do a good job of not feeling terribly dated even nine years after its release. The cutting-edge laptops in the narrative still seem pretty fancy; the issues all continue to feel pertinent and relevant; the only thing that seems to set it in a particular time is an off-hand reference to "the Power Rangers" pretty late in the story.
It holds together well all these years later and is a great exemplar of Stephenson's hyperbolic style and how well he wields that style for explanatory power as well as humor.
What Stephenson does masterfully here is to create an interesting story for nerds (esp. crypto nerds) that has a thinly veiled coming-of-age sub-text lathered onto a character that we (at first) don't think needs any maturation.
I am talking (of course) about Randy.
If you don't figure this out by the time you get to the "Pulse" chapter then you have some explaining to do. We (the readers, the nerds) are thinking that Randy is a grown-up because we (1; as grown-ups) identify with him at the outset and (2) he has all the trappings of a grown-up such as (a) a beard, (b) a girlfriend of 10 years, (c) a business plan, etc. But the Randy we start with is little more than a bearded child running away from his commitments (i.e., his career as a university sysadmin and his relationship with Charlene (though, given the circumstances described in the prose, citing the latter is probably not fair to Randy) to play with his friends (e.g., Avi, Tom Howard) and their toys (e.g., high-tech laptops, GPS receivers). We get the first hint that this late-stage coming-of-age is going on when Randy shaves off his beard to discover a grown-ups face underneath. From there it's a pretty steady sleight-of-hand unfolding through the narrative which is really quite rewarding. (Hence taking the crown as Stephenson's best.)
Granted, there's so much more going on in the novel than just Randy; we could also consider Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, Bobby Shaftoe, Goto Dengo, or Enoch Root[‡:]. But Randy is probably the best place to center.
------ † = At the time of this writing, there is a pretty broad swath of Stephenson unread by Y.T., namely all three in the Baroque Cycle and the brand new Anathem.
‡ = Root in particular fascinates me because (if what I've heard is true an he does in fact appear in Stephenson's Baroque Cycle) he seems to share a few traits in common with Tolkien's Gandalf (doubly interesting because Stephenson's Randy calls Root a "Wizard" in the Tolkien sense), Weis/Hickman's Fizban, Arthur Miller's "Old Jew", etc. I'm thinking that there is a whole taxonomy of characters to explore here of which Root is one.
This book is incredible. It's easy to read and full of useful tips. As a novice gardener, it helped to make the planting/sowing process a lot less int...moreThis book is incredible. It's easy to read and full of useful tips. As a novice gardener, it helped to make the planting/sowing process a lot less intimidating and has helped me to actually yield some fruits. Having shown the book to some more experienced gardeners and getting their feedback as well, this really does seem to be the best overall book for organic gardening.(less)
I have been a fan of Iain Banks' fiction for a few years now. Ever since reading The Wasp Factory, I have been among those that counted him among the...moreI have been a fan of Iain Banks' fiction for a few years now. Ever since reading The Wasp Factory, I have been among those that counted him among the ranks of interesting, inventive, and perhaps even important living novelists.
Prior to The Algebraist, I had not read any of Banks' science fiction. It was then with a great deal of anticipation that I picked this one up at the library. I had enjoyed The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road so much that certainly his "M." branded science fiction must be equally exemplary. Imagine my surprise as my enthusiasm waned and waxed and waned again throughout the reading.
Right away I was struck by how the language seemed... Stilted? Over the top? I knew going into this that the novel was a space opera but ... why so operatic? The style seemed to overwhelm the substance for about the first 100 pages. I had an idea of what was developing but it flipped seemingly at random between times, places, and voices; I had an inkling that the stage was being set but it took me a while to care.
By 25-30% of the way through the story though, it gains some serious traction: the style gets out of the way and lets the story shine through, you feel OK letting yourself get invested in the events, some of the characters start to really pop and come alive. YOU GET TO MEET SOME DWELLERS. And this momentum gets going and stays pretty strong. But you have some nagging worries in the back of your mind: is "The Style" going to come back for revenge? Wasn't there an important-seeming character or two that fell off the radar a while ago? Am I going to remember who he/she is? Will I care? And sure enough, some tedium creeps back in and you find that you feel like you missed the best part because you zoned out.
But then the war starts. And the style gets out of the way again and the pace starts to clip along really fast. And that feels great. And the read gets fun again. But you'll find yourself waiting for a twist that doesn't come. (Or it does but you realize that it came and went already and the only thing you thought was: "That? Duh, that's given away on like page 9...")
Ultimately it's a fun read. A bit tedious at times but still a fun, deep space opera with some interesting hooks and a few compelling sub-texts.(less)
I can definitely see why she gives it such praise. It's a dense, nuanced story that explores the motivations for terrorism, throwing that into sharp contrast against what it means to love another, reciprocating entity. Even if that love becomes cancerously deep and pathological? Of course, the story is also a clear allegory for U.S. involvement in the Middle East (as indicated by the dedication) though it could just as easily refer to any "more advanced" culture dabbling in the interference of some perceived-as-less-advanced culture.
To that latter statement: Banks seems careful not to overly vilify the "Othered" group here. The Chelgrians are not monsters; they are not lawless nor are they barbaric. They are in fact a highly complex, very technologically advanced (certainly by 21st century Earth standards) species with a millennia old cultural tradition that has recently been through some major turmoil. Just by chance they happen to encounter The Culture; and just by chance The Culture's intervention throws the Chelgrian social order wildly out of balance. And in the aftermath of the precipitate Caste War, even The Culture comes forward with some apologetic hand-waving.
If anything, Banks goes out of his way to "properly" paint The Culture as wanton aggressors. The Chelgrians just happened to be the victims. And yet it's not all of Chel that seeks revenge. Just a handful of militant zealots -- apparently with the backing of some more sophisticated parties.
Where Banks takes this for an ending is shrewd and sly and a manifold of tragic. Oh, there's a bright note at the end that attempts to resolve on a hopeful note. But mostly the denouement is a subtle jab that says: "In war, we are all childish."
For those nit-picking over the rating: it was close to 4-stars for me. If I could, I would have given it ★★★½. I found the story a little slow to start and Banks' style a bit exaggerated. I'm not sure if the novel would have worked as well without the narrative being constructed the way it was but sometimes I found the prose got in the way of the story. (On the other hand, the behemothaur sections were perfect.)(less)
Haiku review: How can you expect a happy end in a book where Hitler still reigns?
Review: Though a bit slower to start than I expected, Farthing was (overa...moreHaiku review: How can you expect a happy end in a book where Hitler still reigns?
Review: Though a bit slower to start than I expected, Farthing was (overall) an outstanding allegory on fascism disguised as an alternate history novel disguised as a murder mystery. By the time you're about one-quarter to one-third of the way through it, you will have trouble putting it down. The attention to the language is excellent (though I found myself pining for a bit of Irvine Welsh-style slang and cockney) and author Jo Walton pays peculiar attention to certain banalia like apparel, cooking, and eating.
The narrative structure follows a curious A/B pattern with odd chapters written 1st person (as Lucy Kahn) and even chapters written 3rd person (as Carmichael). It falls into a good rhythm that helps to control the pacing and the various reveals.
Walton's use of the alternate history platform seems to be a device to cast the setting of the murder mystery. The chapters that follow Carmichael have a nod to the classic pulp mysteries (I'm thinking Raymond Chandler) and honor those tropes such as re-hashing the events of the crime and narrating through theories about that crime.
One thing I feel disinclined to comment upon is the plausibility of this alternate history. Walton gives an oblique nod to Philip Roth's novel, The Plot Against America that makes me suspect that if Roth's alternate post-WWII world "works" then the story presented in Farthing could be grafted onto that timeline equally well. My knowledge of the WWII-era politics and military history run a bit thin however and I am hesitant to render an enthusiastic "it could have happened". That said, there is a bit of fearful symmetry between Farthing and the post-9/11 United States; this seems especially the case as you race through those last fifty pages telling yourself that it will be all right, that there is still a chance for a happy ending, even as you turn into the last chapter.(less)
In my mind, Chris Genoa is some experimental plant hybridized in an Army research lab -- a little Warren Ellis pollen sprinkled onto the pistil of the...moreIn my mind, Chris Genoa is some experimental plant hybridized in an Army research lab -- a little Warren Ellis pollen sprinkled onto the pistil of the Christopher Moore blossom. The experiment yields fruit but they're not taking it out of the greenhouse lab quite yet; perhaps further cross-pollinating it with the rare Tom Robbins tree? Time will tell...
As for Foop!: time travel is one of science fiction's oldest and therefore toughest tropes. Choosing to accept this assignment (in a poetical sense here) for his first novel shows some cojones on Genoa's part. And if you can get past the prurient and at times puerile patches of prose, Genoa has given us an interesting, quirky story with a latent sub-text of alienation and despondence. But the exposition for this sub-text seems few and far between and when it does emerge, it lists toward those same prurient/puerile passages. After a while, it just gets gratuitous.
But the novel has a great opening chapter. And Genoa is wise to tip away from strictly happy endings.
ALSO: unrelated to the story itself but a few notes on the physical properties of this book: (1) Could have used a better editor (e.g., "Ok" vs. "OK" (vs. "Okay"?); e.g., "affect" vs. "effect") (2) Typesetting is pretty bad (e.g., inexplicably mixed font sizes; e.g., there's an ordered list that has all kinds of just wrong hanging indents...)
"...but it is also true, if this brings her any consolation, that if, before every action, we were to begin weighing up the consequences, thinking abo...more"...but it is also true, if this brings her any consolation, that if, before every action, we were to begin weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probably, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt."
Never felt myself particularly captivated by this particular novel. Nothing about it grabbed me and aside from the quote above, nothing about it really resonated with me. Perhaps it was the style -- the incredibly long paragraphs full of improbably long sentences, the dialogue interspersed throughout, Like so, different speakers connected by commas, Like so. Not as hyper-extended as Marquez, but that was the rub that I got.(less)
Many reviews (from the dazzling to the dull) have been written about this scifi classic, so I'll keep mine short, sweet, and personal. And that means...moreMany reviews (from the dazzling to the dull) have been written about this scifi classic, so I'll keep mine short, sweet, and personal. And that means I'm writing it for Fogus:
This novel has earned its stripes as a scifi classic, no doubts there. The narrative ages well but it shows its age; that's not to say that it's dated but there is something that feels a bit retro in its construction when viewed from 21st century lenses. PROS: interesting story that moves along at a pretty good pace; a couple of core "big" ideas that make up the core and don't compete with other narrative mechanics (e.g., the Ringworld itself gets a thorough enough treatment vs. FTL travel is a given and taken for granted, the way it should be); though there aren't any big shockers, a few cards are played close enough to the chest as to maintain some of the surprises toward the climax. CONS: some characterization is maybe a bit flat (esp. females?); not all of the "big" ideas are fully realized nor do they all neatly dovetail; the cover on this edition isn't the best.
SIDE NOTES: (1) Now I need to read Shakespeare's "The Tempest" for some compare/contrast action; (2) anytime you join four characters in a setting like this, in a plot like this, I can't help but conjure up parallels to The Wizard of Oz.
A tightly themed, well executed collection: Wastelands captures our apocalypse fears and fantasies equally well and sometimes even simultaneously.
Adam...moreA tightly themed, well executed collection: Wastelands captures our apocalypse fears and fantasies equally well and sometimes even simultaneously.
Adams wisely chooses Stephen King's "The End of the Whole Mess" as an opener and moves into all manner of exciting territory from there. Wastelands is the expected mix of strong (and some average) short stories; most of them have a high re-read score and there is an good mix of diverse ideas and themes that keep within the central focus.
THAT SAID: if you are considering this one, read the introduction before you make the purchase. This isn't about zombie plagues or alien invasions or black holes ripping through our space-time continuum. This is about somewhat more plausible apocalypses. Even when they're totally unexplained.
Most of these stories I enjoyed as much as I expected (e.g., "Speech Sounds") and some less so (e.g., "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth") and some more so (e.g., "Salvage"). I won't enumerate the themes you expect in an apocalypse-themed collection; they're all here and they're all in full force. I will remark on the following, however:
* I was a bit amused by how many of these shorts featured nomads; ** and more so by how often those nomads were of the carny folk variety. * The stories seem to be pretty "current" in their bio-engineered plagues and their genetic fall-out and their post-Peak Oil crises and 9/11-kneejerks; the last star in my review would have been earned by but one thorough and explicit treatment of WW3-ish nuclear winter. * Remember: you brought this on yourself.
Rated Individually: • "The End of the Whole Mess" (Stephen King) ★★★★★ • "Salvage" (Orson Scott Card) ★★★ • "The People of Sand and Slag" (Paolo Bacigalupi) ★★★ • "Bread and Bombs" (M. Rickert) ★★★ • "How We Got In Town and Out Again" (Jonathan Lethem) ★★★★ • "Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels" (George R. R. Martin) ★★★★ • "Waiting for the Zephyr" (Tobias S. Buckell) ★★★ • "Never Despair" (Jack McDevitt) ★★★★ • "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" (Cory Doctorow) ★★★ • "The Last of the O-Forms" (James Van Pelt) ★★★ • "Still Life with Apocalypse" (Richard Kadrey) ★★★★ • "Artie's Angels" (Catherine Wells) ★★★★ • "Judgment Passed" (Jerry Oltion) ★★★ • "Mute" (Gene Wolfe) ★★★★½ • "Inertia" (Nancy Kress) ★★★ • "And the Deep Blue Sea" (Elizabeth Bear) ★★★ • "Speech Sounds" (Octavia Butler) ★★★★ • "Killers" (Carol Emshwiller) ★★★★ • "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" (Neal Barrett Jr.) ★★★ • "The End of the World as We Know It" (Dale Bailey) ★★★★★ • "A Song Before Sunset" (David Grigg) ★★★ • "Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers" (John Langan) ★★★★(less)
I would be willing to say that Max Brooks has given us a "new classic" of zombie literature in World War Z. The nove...more**spoiler alert** Where to begin?
I would be willing to say that Max Brooks has given us a "new classic" of zombie literature in World War Z. The novel is well-structured, is well-paced, and seems so ... plausible.
And when I say "plausible", I mean the Brooks has tried to carefully -- though not necessarily exhaustively -- look at the current geopolitical climate and imagine what a sudden "zombie" outbreak scenario would look like today or in some tenable near-future. Brooks makes what seems to me to be a sincere effort to leave no logistical stone uncovered: how does the plague spread? what are the consequences of a government cover-up? what about the navies and submarines? what about satellites and GPS? how do you "quartermaster" an army that is on foot going up against "the undead"? He tried to cover all the bases in as realistic a way as possible. Considering such an unrealistic scenario. Again: Brooks is not trying to be exhaustive but considering where he puts his focus, he certainly comes across as inventive. He gives us some sadistic twists throughout the narrative; for every up-lifting deus ex machina near-miss (e.g., Col. Eliopolis and "Mets Fan") there is some grim and ironic counterpoint (e.g., the slaughter at Alang's ship breaking yard). Wisely, Brooks tries to keep these stories diverse: military and civilian; American and Chinese; young and old; optimistic and jaded. He does not waste a great deal of energy discussing "Zack"; there is no in depth technical discussion of the virus -- just a few allusions to methods of transmission (those bites) and then we move on to what matters. That is where Brooks keeps the focus: it's on how people -- be they individuals or entire governments -- react to these extreme scenarios. And he does a decent job peeling the peach of the technological modernity while he's catapulting us through this tale.
Two closing points:
(1) Brooks is also graciously humble. He cites George A. Romero in the acknowledgments; can't get far with your zombie mythos without giving the right credit.
(2) This novel had but one thing keeping it from a full five star rating: many of the voices are not really distinct. We are presented with the novel as if it were a historical document -- the transcripts of interviews with survivors from "World War Z". But reading it, you can't help but think that the government official sounds an awful lot like the feral child that sounds a lot like the retired Indian army grunt... But don't let that stop you: there is plenty else in this novel to warrant reading it.
UPDATE: * Almost forgot... Did anyone else catch the thinly veiled Colin Powell/Howard Dean administration in there? I'm like 88% on the thinly veiled Powell and approximately 111% on the thinly veiled Howard Dean.(less)
In Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem gives us science fiction's worthy successor to Raymond Chandler. Though this is the easy take-home mess...moreIn Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem gives us science fiction's worthy successor to Raymond Chandler. Though this is the easy take-home message from nearly every quoted newspaper columnist, book jacket blurb, and miscellaneous reviewer -- they also all happen to be right. Even a cursory familiarity with Chandler's pulp noir will ring through with startling clarity to readers of this novel. The cadence of the narrative, the hard-boiled dialogue, the archetypal characters... Lethem's Conrad Metcalf is a well-executed Philip Marlowe cover song with just a little bit of record scratching thrown into the background for texture.
On the other hand, those same columnist quotes, blurbs, and reviewers all seem to liken Lethem to Philip K. Dick. Personally: not seeing it. It's a bit of a stretch, some optimistic name-dropping to match up Lethem's mystery/noir heritage with some similarly classic science fiction antecedent. The ubiquitous drug use? Sure, okay -- that's a bit Dickian. A Möbius fold of reality unraveling around the narrator in some palpable and thoroughly eldritch fashion? Not so much. More than PKD, the scenes in this novel played out in my imagination as fearfully symmetrical to Cronenberg's take on Burroughs' Naked Lunch -- substitute Jim Henson-esque "evolved" animals for Mugwumps but otherwise that's it, right down to Peter Weller as Conrad Metcalf.
Or maybe Punk's review has got it down: "It's Blade Runner meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
Where was I? Oh right...
A part of me desires to do a chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the text, to get all scholarly about it and run the blockade of Chandler's lineage here. I want to look for the hidden significance of the doctors as urologists, to get semiotic on names like "Catherine Teleprompter" and "Danny Phoneblum". But instead I'll just give a positive nod. It's a fun, noirish scifi romp with all the right moves and delivers slightly better than expectations.
UPDATE: Upon second reading: holy crap I didn't realize just how bleak that ending was, the first time around. Just the way that Metcalf's whole world collapses around (despite his... success?) and how he takes his exit.
In a nutshell? Uttal is arguing that the modern imaging technologies (e.g., fMRI) are toys used by cognitive neuroscientists that are following their...moreIn a nutshell? Uttal is arguing that the modern imaging technologies (e.g., fMRI) are toys used by cognitive neuroscientists that are following their theories and using these subtractive methods to come up with supporting data for what is otherwise intractable. In other words, much of modern cognitive neuroscience is on a fool's errand because we really don't even have a working definition for what "thought" and "mind" are and so how could we possibly hope to match up its specific component parts and processes with specific brain regions?
This is a highly technical text, to be sure. (Example: Uttal will throw out a term like "physiological psychology" in contrast to "cognitive neuroscience" without defining the two for differentiation. You are expected to know.)
The underlying thesis here is not that neural imaging is in any way bad or wrong, it is that many researchers are using these techniques in such a fashion that they have not stopped to adequately define the terms they are using or the questions they are asking. Uttal states repeatedly that there is no hard scientific evidence that the brain can be componentized or modularized; he suggests that these localization attempts are futile. (A striking example he gives is how subtractive fMRI was used to provide "evidence" of a "face recognition center" in the brain but how that same brain area showed the same kinds of activation when "recognizing" cars or birds or pictures of places.) Uttal's arguments can be difficult to parse because of their highly nuanced nature; that there is structural specialization within the brain is well-established for many things -- but those "things" are sensory or motor in nature and have no reflection on "cognition". He asks repeatedly: is "cognition" even something that you can define? And if you can define it, is it something that you can measure experimentally? Is cognition directly observable? Or are we limited to observations of cognition's artifacts? Its descendant behaviors?
The book is rigorous and technical; ultimately rewarding but certainly not something to approach casually. (But then again, it is targeted at scientists.)(less)
If asked to write the foreword to some 20th anniversary commemorative edition, I would say that Max Barry's Jennifer Government is like a bottle of Di...moreIf asked to write the foreword to some 20th anniversary commemorative edition, I would say that Max Barry's Jennifer Government is like a bottle of Diet Neal Stephenson served with a twist of Christopher Moore (or perhaps a dash of Tom Robbins?) There is something uncannily similar between Snow Crash and Jennifer Government: in the comic book pacing; in the hyperbolic and impossible but chillingly familiar geo-political climate that he illustrates; in the characters that reek of auto-erotic caricature and yet are so well-drawn, so believable and sympathetic and damn plausible. You can see Y.T. dropping out of school because of girls like Haley McDonald's. You can see NRA franchises competing against La Cosa Nostra in the burbclaves. You can imagine Hiro Protagonist sub-contracted by Jennifer Government to fend off Violet ExxonMobil. You wonder how the milieus of these novels aren't linked.
But even if you haven't read Snow Crash, even if you aren't making those comparisons, you will find this one wholly enjoyable. It has an immediate start, thrusts you headlong into the story-already-in-progress but makes sure to catch you up just as quickly. And it never loses this momentum. The chapters coming at you fast (each about 3-5 pages) and are fairly dialogue-driven. Before you know it, you'll find you've burned through 100 pages. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING. The narrative draws you in, the prose gets out of the way, and the characters encourage you to get invested.
Borderline 5 star review. There is a whimsy to this tale that draws on a lot of familiar dystopian capitalist tropes (e.g., the libertarian anarchy of free market capitalism run amok); it borders on cliche but doesn't quite cross the frontier into hackneyed territory. That it gets that close, that the prose taps its toes on cliche's fences is where we lose the fifth star in the rating. But that the narrative goes there so unabashedly, in all of its over-the-top banality -- *that* is a beautiful thing.(less)
I would suggest, dear reader, that when considering Consider the Lobster, that you consider it in the same light as David Foster Wallace's collection...moreI would suggest, dear reader, that when considering Consider the Lobster, that you consider it in the same light as David Foster Wallace's collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Use that book as your frame of reference for style and content and you can place this collection firmly into the category of "typical" DFW. That being said, if you thoroughly enjoyed A Supposedly Fun Thing... then you'll likely thoroughly enjoy this one as well; by that same coin, if you're on the fence, you're unlikely to be won over; and if you dislike DFW† then this collection will probably do you no favors.
So in this reviewer's opinion: Consider the Lobster is more of the same. But that's a good thing.
One thing that CtL has over ASFTINDA is that it reads like an essayist's equivalent to a DJ's mixtape. While the essays individually are more than capable of standing on their own (e.g., apart from each other; i.e., in their original printings) they are arranged in such a creative way here that they build upon each other. The essays are vaguely self-referential, perhaps purposefully so; "jokes" from a given essay may rely heavily on you properly "getting" and then retaining the thesis of a preceding essay. I submit as an example: "Authority and American Usage" contains several sections that are slightly humorous in their own respect but can only be truly appreciated as bracingly so when you recall Wallace's thesis on Franz Kafka's humor from the prior article and the accompanying explication of said humor and why it is thoroughly pointless to try and explain any joke anywhere, let alone Kafka's absurdly dark and probably pathological comedy††. In this way, CtL may be Wallace's finest collection to date; the interleaving of the essays, their strength when taken as a whole, an obscurely surreal recursion. It's really all quite expertly done.
Perhaps the highlight of this collection is the maturity that Wallace is showing. Previous collections have his tone and style coming off as a bit of an effete intellectual, a nerdy-but-hip smartest-kid-in-class tone that is simultaneously masterfully humorous and maddening. Like maybe he's just trying to make you feel dumb but then again maybe it's thesaurial sleight-of-hand to play into some particular joke. Which is not at all to suggest that he has discarded this completely. But maybe like he's toned it down a bit†††? His signature style is definitely still there but he seems to have grown into it, it's a better fit. Whereas before it may have felt borderline confrontational (see above), it comes across now as disarming. For example, in the midst of "Authority and American Usage", Wallace comes across (on the one hand) vaguely condescending of SNOOTs†††† and then on the other hand admits to being one; and then he takes a deeper dig on SNOOTs by eviscerating their essays and articles and other writings (e.g., the heavy-handed and jargon-laden "worst ever" publications of Comparative Lit profs) by using the very same over-the-top vocabulary to get to that point†††††. The whole routine can be a little jaw-clenched maddening but is for those same reasons endearing and worthwhile.
It is also seems worth mentioning that Wallace masterfully frames pretty grand subject matter in all kinds of tangential and frankly genius-like-a-mad-scientist ways that it's formidable and a bit frightening. Example: Wallace uses "Authority and American Usage" as a vehicle to discuss linguistic politics and the critical role of socialization, language learning, and regional dialects on individual growth and development††††††. Example: Wallace uses his coverage of McCain2000 in "Up, Simba!" to discuss the political brokerage through media outlets and the bizarre power dynamics at work between journalists, politicians, and their handlers†††††††. Example: how Wallace goes to work on the ethics of food in "Consider the Lobster", working through the logic rather elegantly and then stupefyingly relinquishing it all with the atavistic admission that that simply isn't enough to tear you away from the desire to enjoy something delicious. In light of all this, it's no wonder an aspiring author Such As continues to find himself enthralled and intimidated by this literary Cronus.
Parting shots? I have two: the first regarding my "four of five" rating and the second a mere sidebar.
First: though the tone in CtL shows a refreshing maturity and welcome evolution, and though every essay is engaging and timely and brilliant, there also seem to be moments of tedium. Perhaps this is expected and unavoidable. But an essay on a book on the life and times of Dostoevsky (e.g.) can disappoint. Abandoning the F.N. format for a House of Leaves-esque series of drawn boxes is more distracting than textually informing (even if the essay's content is exhilarating and terrifying). And maybe it's just me but "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" seemed (via the text) a parody of itself as much as it was a parody and/or review of the book in question.
Second: while I don't believe that these kinds of things, should matter, I'm also of the opinion that Wallace should have fired the photographer. Or perhaps chosen a better photo from that particular shoot. I realize that folks may want their book jacket photos to be relatively current, and I realize that our bodies change over time, and all of that is fine; but I also wonder if his publisher could have perhaps insisted that they find a photo that did NOT make him look like a squinty-eyed and slightly slumped Jeffrey Lebowski. Seriously sir, that's your credibility at stake here.
------ † = If you truly and I mean honestly and passionately dislike DFW, well then I suggest some rigorous therapeutic interventions.
†† = Which is totally drained of its humor when you try to offer any kind of explanation. I offer as further evidence for this that (after a protracted bout of laughing) I read aloud (to A.) a passage from "Authority and American Usage" and how it's humor is underscored by the thesis of the Kafka essay to which A. offered scarcely an acknowledging chortle.
††† = Maybe?
†††† = Just read the essay.
††††† = I mean seriously: do you know anyone to drop "solecistic" in casual conversation?
†††††† = Compare/contrast with similar arguments posited in Freakonomics.
††††††† = Let it also be known that this becomes painfully apparent when the essay's title appears in the text. It's a real head-slapping moment with a kind of chilling aftershock.(less)
As a relatively new climber (i.e., as of this writing, I've been climbing about 7 months), I found that this was a good introductory text to keep arou...moreAs a relatively new climber (i.e., as of this writing, I've been climbing about 7 months), I found that this was a good introductory text to keep around. Granted, climbing is not something you really want to read-then-do; think of the reading as a good supplement to your training and climbing.
I enjoyed how Luebben dives right into the material; he keeps the introduction short and then goes immediately into the science and sport of rock climbing. He writes in a colloquial style that is easy to digest and presents the material in a way that makes it seem like a conversation. It's like it's you and him out on the rock, Luebben telling you everything he needs you to know.
While the book's focus is definitely on outdoor climbs, Luebben emphasizes techniques that should easily transfer to indoor rock gyms. Especially early in the text, Luebben writes a lot about body and foot position, how to approach routes and problems, and the mental elements of rock climbing. While these techniques are typically discussed in an outdoor context, the lessons all easily transfer to whatever surface you're climbing.
For a new, mostly indoor climber like myself, there seemed to be a lot of material in this book that either didn't apply to me or served merely to whet my appetite for outdoor routes. If you're looking for something specific to indoor climbing, you're probably better off exploring Matt Burbach's [title:Gym Climbing] book. Still, even a mostly-indoors beginner climber will find the chapters on body position, footwork and hand-holds, knots, belaying, and bouldering to be useful.(less)
**spoiler alert** FIRSTLY: If the entire novel had bristled with the same energy and momentum as the bottom half of the book (i.e., from "Holy Mountai...more**spoiler alert** FIRSTLY: If the entire novel had bristled with the same energy and momentum as the bottom half of the book (i.e., from "Holy Mountain" through to "Night Train") then my review here would bristle with five stars. That said, I also do not believe that those subsequent chapters could have been nearly as successful without the supporting cast of Okinawa, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. (Jury is still out on the closer, Underground.)
David Mitchell delivers a very strong novel here. Stylistically, it is very mature -- especially for a first novel from such a young author. He is able to bring themes, concepts, and phrases from one section into another apparently disjointed section fluidly, naturally and -- most of the time -- without that recurrence or repetition feeling like a gimmick. Mitchell is screwing with you (the reader), and you both know it, but the reason that you believe he is screwing with you is a little bit different than the reason he believes he is screwing with you. Meanwhile, the narrative has an agenda of its own. The comparisons to Haruki Murakami are justified but not all together accurate; Murakami blissfully and accidentally trips into an improbable parallel universe while Mitchell begrudgingly tries to inch his way back from a very possible tangential universe.
Now there were two thematic elements of the story that jumped out at me as worthy of commenting upon:
(1) Varying shades of apocalypse. Maybe my sensitivity to the subject is up because I'm also neck-deep in the John Joseph Adams collection " Wastelands" but there is a sense of penultimate destruction within each of the disjointed narratives in Ghostwritten. We start with a cult member trying to hurry along a very eschatological apocalypse and over the course of 400 more pages, we work our way through every flavor of personal or global threat we can stomach. The whimsical, speculative damnation of the "Night Train" component was clearly my favorite. (Though "Holy Mountain" blew my mind for the way tone and voice was used as the treatment for personal and national world-ending.)
(2) Have any other readers picked up on the sub-text that concerns conception and birth? Every one of these tales somehow works in a child (real or imagined, material or emblematic) that I presume is supposed to function as a cue for each story's theme. But the children aren't safe and sound. They're adopted orphans, aborted fetuses, ghosts of infanticide, bastards, parents that can't conceive, a precocious matricidal AI... I have not quite figured out this sub-text yet (hence the "to-re-read" shelving) but it's definitely there. And it is haunting me.(less)
Typical Dick. And thus a little predictable. But not without some peculiar charms and idiosyncrasies. Rounds out the Valis canon. And intriguing to se...moreTypical Dick. And thus a little predictable. But not without some peculiar charms and idiosyncrasies. Rounds out the Valis canon. And intriguing to see PKD insert himself into the prose so directly.(less)
An engaging read but not necessarily the scintillating, mind-blowing experience it had been hyped as.
Levitt and Dubner present their arguments well an...moreAn engaging read but not necessarily the scintillating, mind-blowing experience it had been hyped as.
Levitt and Dubner present their arguments well and their style makes the at-times daunting subject matter easier to approach and thus easier to digest. I don't read much non-fiction (for example) and even less stuff about economics but I found this book quick to get through and I was able to take away their message without having to labor through it.
That said, a few points:
(1) They make some outrageous claims. To their credit, these claims appear to be backed up by the data. Their rhetoric is frequently hyperbolic though. At times it takes some patience to get the point of a given chapter. The arc tends to go like this: outrageous claim > brief discussion of that claim > discussion of parallel claim > presentation of data > analysis of data > tie them together > see if you can tear down the argument via convention wisdom > oops, conventional wisdom falls under scrutiny of the data. That said, the style makes it easy to break chapters up into small read-it-on-the-can chunks; if you read it that way, prepare to bite your tongue on any given objection until you have finished.
(2) In light of #1: Levitt keeps mentioning that he's not much of an economist and even poorer with his math. But there's a lot of math in here. (Presented in a friendly, non-mathematical sort of way, but math nonetheless.) So... Is he just putting us on? Or (as A. would say) is it that "stats" aren't "math"?
(3) Also in light of #1: I would like to have seen more of the data. We get a lot of "xx% decrease" and "such-and-such quadrupled" but the figures themselves are obfuscated. There is an extensive appendix of notes at the end of the book which references specific articles; I'm assuming the "hard numbers" are in those articles. But my own background (i.e., bio-psych research papers) biases me to expect a more explicit presentation of those data. So that was disappointing.
(4) Levitt & Dubner allege at the beginning of the book that there is no unifying theme. That's more/less crap. The unifying theme seems to be: here are some microeconomics, mostly having to do with crime and/or corruption (see also: crime).
(5) The "Revised & Expanded Edition" was touted to me as essential because of all the additional articles and re-published blog posts etc. that are now included in this binding. I was a bit under-whelmed by these. They were certainly interesting and they do help illuminate aspects of the text but I didn't necessarily believe that they were essential. (The revisions vis-à-vis Stetson Kennedy's KKK research however: very essential.)(less)
Without a doubt, A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the classic post-apocalyptic novels. That it strikes so mercilessly at so many of our deepest fear...moreWithout a doubt, A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the classic post-apocalyptic novels. That it strikes so mercilessly at so many of our deepest fears, it is no wonder the tale has held up well over time. There is a fantastic interplay here of innocence vs. corruption, of reason vs. faith and intuitions, of hope vs. despair... The novel was significantly more emotional and gut-wrenching than I'd expected.
The novel is certainly worthy of a thoughtful and detailed review but I fear I may need more time and subsequent re-reads to really pin it all down. That said:
(1) That the novel revolves principally around an Abbey dedicated to preserving knowledge (specifically scientific texts) presents a wonderful little conundrum in and of itself -- one that Miller does well in exploring. The "Fiat Lux" section is where he performs this most skillfully. However:
(2) The science vs. faith conflicts were, I felt, a bit overly simplified. When presenting this conflict in terms of allegory, it makes sense to create these high-contrast dichotomies. But my skin crawls at the suggestion that an atheist and a scientist will apply his knowledge without consideration for conscience. The last, fifth ★ in my rating might well have been earned with a more subtle and thorough treatment of this.
(3) On "Benjamin (the Old Jew)": is there a name for this kind of character? The pilgrim, the wanderer, the hermit... In reading the passages that contained this character (the pilgrim in the opening chapters of "Fiat Homo"; Benjamin in "Fiat Lux"; and the appears-only-once vagrant in "Fiat Voluntas Tua") I could not help but get echoes of Merlin, Gandalf, Fizban... This archetype seems to appear most often in fantasy novels (sometimes in scifi; perhaps elsewhere?) -- the nearly-supernatural not-quite-narrator that has a too-intimate knowledge of the past and a too-accurate prediction of the future. This demands further research.
A gorgeous book in every possible way. From the lush illustration and clever diagrams clear through to Sagan's lyrical and at times whimsical narrativ...moreA gorgeous book in every possible way. From the lush illustration and clever diagrams clear through to Sagan's lyrical and at times whimsical narrative, this is the science book for non-scientists. (And if you are a scientist, may this be a lesson in how to tell your story.) Sagan makes the astronomy and the math and the mind-boggling complexity of the universe not only comprehensible but palatable. He wraps up our history as a species into the history of the universe (such that we can even know it).
As a kid, I adored this book for the color plates. I would flip the pages in my Dad's copy over and over and over again. Down on the floor, on the couch -- anywhere. Probably every day from ages four through seventeen. I didn't go on to be an astronomer. Hell, I never took a physics class and I nearly failed more than one math class (as I recall) but this book...
Reading it cover-to-cover for the first time as an adult, I was struck by many things. The book is dense but Sagan paces it well, makes you hungry for every anecdote about Kepler or Pythagoras, thirsty for the decimal-laden scientific notation.
And then there was the moment that blew my mind; tucked away in a footnote about telescopic "snapshots" of galaxies:
...The near side of a galaxy is tens of thousands of light-years closer to us than the far side; thus we see the front as it was tens of thousands of years before the back. But typical events in galactic dynamics occupy tens of millions of years, so the error in thinking of an image of a galaxy as frozen in one moment of time is small.
Overall, Don't Make Me Think is a solid, layman's terms examination of UI design and usability issues, particularly as those issues apply to web sites...moreOverall, Don't Make Me Think is a solid, layman's terms examination of UI design and usability issues, particularly as those issues apply to web sites. Steve Krug presents us with a plain-English approach that just about any web professional can quickly and easily digest and then rapidly apply to his work for maximum effectiveness. That said...:
(1) The book had relatively strong start but the "lessons" start to seem a bit "commonsensical" before you get very far. As they say in Freakonomics, there is certainly a great deal of value in questioning the conventional wisdom out there but at the same time, a little experience in the field seems to reveal these lessons well enough. Thinking about yourself as a user instead of a designer or developer.
(2) The book (sadly) feels a bit dated. Granted, there is a revised/updated version but the copy that I read was published in 2000. Again, the lessons translate well and most have not diminished over time but there is a statement in there that reads: "...barring a total collapse of the Internet boom..." Umm... Guys? Hubris?
Also (3) I give "points off" to Roger Black's foreword which says: "So Don't Make Me Think! is not about exhaustive statistics and thousands of hours of clinical trials, and tons of survey research jargon. Rather it contains sharp empirical observations..." [emphasis added] -- umm... no statistics or experimental data, eh? You are familiar with the definition of "empirical", right?
Bottom line? A bit dated but most lessons still apply. Definitely worth the read for anyone doing webdev and/or UI work. Bonus points for the chapter on usability testing "on the cheap".(less)
Overall, a very strong and representative collection of PKD's short stories. These shorts in this binding include a lot of old favorites that are arra...moreOverall, a very strong and representative collection of PKD's short stories. These shorts in this binding include a lot of old favorites that are arranged chronologically so we can watch PKD's obsessions and themes emerge and unfold and develop. It also allows us to see where he managed to frustrate himself along the way as well. Anyone reading this would do well to read the PKD bio by Emmanuel Carrere, I Am Alive And You Are Dead; it's interesting to line up the parallels in PKD's life with his recurring tropes and stylistic choices.
First and foremost: an uncritical read of this book will leave you feeling cynical and a bit cheated. It ranks up there with E.O. Wilson's Sociobiolog...moreFirst and foremost: an uncritical read of this book will leave you feeling cynical and a bit cheated. It ranks up there with E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology and Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (though I'll admit that I know those two primarily by reputation, having read excerpts and not their entireties). It would be very easy to find yourself getting defensive about the material presented in here; especially if you believe humans to be some special exception among animals.
Meanwhile, with a more critical approach, you'll find that you cannot get Robert Wright's text out of your head: it is insightful, intellectually rigorous, even-handed, and at times palpably funny. Plus, you will find that it informs a great many (all?) of the human discourse (verbal or otherwise) that you encounter daily -- how certain traits and behaviors came to be and the functions they serve.
Don't ask about their intentions though; we need to remember that evolution is goal-less, after all. Put most succinctly:
What Robert Wright sets out to do with The Moral Animal is to take Darwin's life and oeuvre (primarily The Origin of Species), frame them with two other important contemporary writings (John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism and Samuel Smiles' Self-Help), and use that lens to execute a thorough analysis and discussion of Darwinism and evolution, how human civilizations evolved as a consequence of "reciprocal altruism", and capsulize all of this as the basis for what Wright calls evolutionary psychology. Wright's choice of style is an interesting one and reminds me vaguely of Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: meticulous and technical scientific discussions of biology, genetics, and evolution are interspersed with nearly whimsical narratives that detail the life and times of Charles Darwin. For every page that cites Robert Trivers or Richard Dawkins, there is another that quotes Darwin's personal correspondence or illustrates the backdrop of Victorian society. Wright's is an interesting and compelling approach that makes that text very engaging and approachable. Which is not to suggest that the material is easy to follow; Wright does not shy away from getting denser and heavier as the work progresses -- there were many instances were I found that I needed to double-back over certain passages to "get it".
Again, for as dense and technical as much of Wright's writing is, he throws himself whole-heartedly into the text and makes the material come to life. There is something strangely erotic about his in-depth scientific analysis of mate competition, cuckoldry, and evolutionary strategizing. There is something perversely amusing about his apples-to-oranges comparisons of Darwin and Freud. There is something appropriately voyeuristic about reading letters from Darwin to friends and seeing how they reflect elements of his own theories.
In many ways, Wright's eloquent prose is currency for getting us through some very challenging material. As I've already discussed, there is the implicit challenge of reading technical literature (especially as a layperson). More so however, is the explicit challenge that Wright lays out early in the text: that we all carry a great deal of cultural baggage that sets us up to reject the logical conclusions posited by Darwinism and evolutionary psychology. Wright spends the first half of the text building up to the discussions that give the book its title. By the time we get to Part Three: Social Strife, it is no small wonder why Wright keeps circling back on the example of bluegill sunfish and the equilibrium between "nest builders" and "mate poachers". The animal kingdom seems to contain not a more succinct microcosm of industry versus opportunism, of cost/benefit economies and stability through constant adjustments in strategy.
The cornerstone of the second half of The Moral Animal is reciprocal altruism, a theory introduced in the early 1970s by Robert Trivers. Wright gives reciprocal altruism the thorough treatment: he describes how it may (must?) have evolved, the benefits it bestows on an organism (or, more accurately, its genes), how reciprocal altruism gave rise to human societies and civilizations, and the feedback loop between society and biology (i.e., meme and gene) as mediated through the extremely complex manifestation of reciprocal altruism in human beings. At first glance, Wright's exposition may appear cynical and determinist: even "on our best behavior", we are just a product of our genes -- even agape presumes a pay-off in the form of a more "loving" and stable society for our offspring. Swing such a cynical evaluation around to the other end and you are using these postulates for justification of extramarital affairs, for rape and for genocide, or for whatever other Twinkie Defense you might conjecture. Wright is very conscious of this and tries to be very delicate and deliberate in his treatment of all this; he even goes so far as to label it "postmodern morality" and he summarily eviscerates these conclusions as damaging and naïve. (Perhaps he is so explicit about this because he wishes to avoid being damned in the same way as E.O. Wilson when he published Sociobiology.) Wright suggests that if anything "separates" humans from animals, it is self-reflection, the capacity that we have to evaluate our actions (and the actions of others) and consequently judge those actions. Wright asserts that even if the content of our judgments (and our abilities to make those judgments) are evolved tendencies, that we can on some level make choices about the "rightness" of a given action; that our memes (though he eschews that word) and genes interact and we express agency in our evolution.
Of course, he also appears to caution us that there is a great deal of cultural transmission going on in human evolution right now and that meme transmission is fragile and tenuous even under the best conditions. Hyperbolic though it may sound, Wright appears to suggest that we are one catastrophic event away from being free agents in the game of evolution.
Underlying all of this is the assertion that reciprocal altruism is a non-zero-sum game where each player (i.e., the genes that are making efforts through the organism to reproduce) functions as a kind of accountant of favors. Each organism is playing life and evolution as a game where sometimes the best move is to take a short-term loss, where sometimes the best move is to take a little more than what you're owed but not as much as you could exploit. In a way, this is a hopelessly romantic view of evolution -- that even despite the ubiquitously short half-life of any pleasure, that an organism might still "choose" a small short-term sacrifice for a greater long-term gain. In reading the entirety of Wright's argument however, it is certainly reasonable to assume that this is a pragmatic trait, that it's a complexly evolved response system for economies of scarcity -- that there is in fact nothing romantic about charity or sacrifice or romance or the outlaw exploiter. Mechanistically, we are all cogs in the perpetual motion machine of evolution's equilibrium. And as such, our morals (or lack thereof) are the motions of that machine balancing itself.
I could see how some, perhaps many might find this thought is unsettling. With his re-telling of Darwin's tale, Wright illustrates a Copernicanian re-centering of humankind, its origins, and even its humanity. As mentioned above, it can be easy to carve out portions of this hypothesis and serve them in cynical isolation. Taken as a whole, it is a strong composite view of humankind's genetic and cultural make-up, the forces that drove us to where we are, and the agency we may express over our destiny.(less)
This is a good/borderline-great collection of sci-fi shorts compiled and edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. It has a great introduction th...moreThis is a good/borderline-great collection of sci-fi shorts compiled and edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. It has a great introduction that proffers a decent definition of the term "space opera", from its inception, through its disparaging adolescence, and now into its renaissance[†]. It has a great cast of authors but... And I feel bad saying this but: I really don't think that it's a collection of "best werk" from all of these authors. Most of the stories are at least good (★★★ on the Goodreads scale) but there are quite a few that are just OK (think ★★). That said, I also felt myself wondering: are we really talking about "space operas" here...?
When I think of a "space opera", I'm thinking of Star Wars and Dune, I'm thinking of galaxy-spanning civilizations and huge fleets of space cruisers captained by messianic psychopaths. I don't think of effete playhouse founders on Mars. (Didn't we talk about that in the introduction?) But then again, there are quite a few stories in here that make up for it.
ANYWAY: Given my tradition of rating collections/anthologies as a computed average of my ratings on the individual stories themselves (out to four decimal places), The New Space Opera scores: 3.1944
Includes: (1) "Saving Tiamaat" by Gwyneth Jones: ★★★★ ➟ First thought was ★★★ but the more I digested this one, the more I liked it. Solid and with a palpable cynicism that was pretty damn appropriate in context.
(2) "Verthandi's Ring" by Ian McDonald: ★★★★
(3) "Hatch" by Robert Reed: ★★
(4) "Winning Peace" by Paul J. McAuley: ★★
(5) "Glory" by Greg Egan: ★★
(6) "Maelstrom" by Kage Baker: ★★ ➟ Didn't really seem to fit the theme (vide supra) — what with the planetary/stellar civilization at play vs. the interplanetary/galactic civilization expected.
(7) "Blessed by an Angel" by Peter F. Hamilton: ★★★ ➟ Anytime a word like "angel" or "devil" is invoked, the author needs to work extra hard to keep from slipping into cliche.
(8) "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken Macleod: ★★★ ➟ Almost ★★★★; it's a brilliant idea that is well (but not perfectly) executed but could stand to be a little clearer. I.e., it needs at least two reads.
(9) "The Valley of Gardens" by Tony Daniel: ★★★★ ➟ Brilliant, almost perfect.
(10) "Dividing the Sustain" by James Patrick Kelly: ★★★★ ➟ A bit prurient and/but clever in a way that makes it all so very worth it.
(11) "Minla's Flowers" by Alastair Reynolds: ★★★★ ➟ A bit over the top, a bit heavy-handed, but overall well-executed. Using a narrator that's not above a bit of petty eye-for-an-eye revenge makes up for it.
(12) "Splinters of Glass" by Mary Rosenblum: ★★
(13) "Remembrance" by Stephen Baxter: ★★★★
(14) "The Emperor and the Maula" by Robert Silverberg: ★★★★★ ➟ Fatality. Flawless victory. I "got it" within the first couple of pages but Silverberg carried it so perfectly.
(15) "The Worm Turns" by Gregory Benford: ★★★
(16) "Send Them Flowers" by Walter Jon Williams: ★★★½ ➟ Weird. And very, very right. But the pace seemed a bit off.
(17) "Art of War" by Nancy Kress: ★★★ ➟ Interesting idea but Kress' male protagonists aren't terribly convincing.
(18) "Muse of Fire" by Dan Simmons: ★★★ ➟ Q.v., "the short version" of my review for Hyperion (since the remarks are more/less the same).
--- † = Though that word is taken from the title of wholly separate but similar anthology.
A fun little classic little science book. It's about the size of things. And our units of measurement. For adults it hopefully impresses that right se...moreA fun little classic little science book. It's about the size of things. And our units of measurement. For adults it hopefully impresses that right sense of scale. (When you start at 10^26 meters, you can get an idea of how infinitely small you are.) I want to share this with my child some day.(less)