This isn't ever going to be my favorite science fiction novel. Let's just get that out of the way. Mostly because I found the class-based allegory toThis isn't ever going to be my favorite science fiction novel. Let's just get that out of the way. Mostly because I found the class-based allegory to be so disturbing and just WEIRD I never could get that bad taste out of my mouth.
But that's not what's interesting about it.
Science fiction has traditionally been used as a means of social commentary - future humanity (or alien life, or robots) speaking to present humanity. But this is very first sci-fi novel ever written, right? So I came to it expecting proto-sci-fi, a first crack at the genre.
What I didn't know was that the genre was birthed, fully formed, in the late 19th century, in The Time Machine. This very first example of the sci-fi genre is perfectly fleshed out sci-fi, complete with social commentary and pretty sophisticated moral allegory! It lacks nothing! The fact that the social commentary is addressed at late 19th century England only makes it more fascinating and wonderful, perfect fodder for steampunk "retro-futurism." (But also, really, really creepy and weird. But I've mentioned that.)
Teetering between three and four stars here. I can see why this is a classic - it is jam packed with interesting ideas and political insights. It is aTeetering between three and four stars here. I can see why this is a classic - it is jam packed with interesting ideas and political insights. It is a daring piece of speculative science fiction, comparing a decentralized, non-authoritarian, anarchist regime (which reminded me a little of a kibbutz) with a capitalist society that looks creepily like 19th England (minus its conscience) to me.
What's great about it is that both societies are deeply flawed, hence "An Ambiguous Utopia." And they are flawed in ways that the reader recognizes as familiar on a small and large scale from any human organization.
But am I the only one to find the book, despite the interesting ideas, kind of boring? Perhaps there was a little too much discussion of philosophy and physics and not enough forward momentum? At various points, I felt that I could put it down and forget all about it. Even in the last 20 pages, I found myself wishing it would move forward at a faster pace! From everything I've heard about Le Guin, I expected a fun and fast-paced novel. This was not that.
Still, it's a fascinating and ambitious take on government and economy; a book that I know I will think about a lot in coming months....more
An interesting and respectful little conversation between Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (a Catholic and scholar) and Umberto Eco (an agnostic who knowsAn interesting and respectful little conversation between Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (a Catholic and scholar) and Umberto Eco (an agnostic who knows more about Catholicism than ... well, practically anyone) about faith and ethics. There were some moments in this little volume when I felt the language was more flowery than it needed to be, while the depth was less than it could have been. And of course the debate is very Catholicism-centered, as you would expect given the debators (other religions are not discussed at all). But it's worth reading just for Eco's last chapter, where he discusses the basis for an agnostic ethos.
It turns out that agnostics and believers can discuss ethics and religion respectfully and without blasting each others' point of view. This is a refreshing change from the shrill, spiteful, absolutist polemics of the Atheism vs. Fundamentalism debate. If you have any interest in religion at all (even if your interest is in criticizing it), you should read this book just to learn how to talk about belief (and nonbelief) without making a complete ass of yourself....more
This book has everything I look for in science fiction: a fascinating premise; multiple juicy political and social messages; well developed charactersThis book has everything I look for in science fiction: a fascinating premise; multiple juicy political and social messages; well developed characters as well as an awesome, thought-provoking plot. It's all here! And best of all, it's extremely well-written. The prose is always lean and spare, which is just amazing when you consider the issues she addresses - race, sexuality, violence, love, human nature, life, the universe, and everything.
I mean, dang.
It's a long book, but I was eager to keep turning the pages through all 750 pages. I am looking forward to reading more Octavia Butler. Highly recommended....more
Once again, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explodes, with methodical logic and impeccable research, our culture's ideas about the essence of human nature, the famOnce again, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explodes, with methodical logic and impeccable research, our culture's ideas about the essence of human nature, the family, motherhood, and gender. As with Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this book fundamentally changed the way I think about motherhood.
Bam! Pow! Smash!
Seriously. That's how it felt.
In Mothers and Others, Hrdy takes on topics as broad as the essentially cooperative nature of humans, the nuclear family, and how "it takes a village." Conclusion (brutally paraphrased): If you think you weren't meant to be a stay at home mom, well, that's because no one was "meant" to be a sole caretaker of children. Human children demand more than even two parents can provide for them. Which is why humans have historically raised children cooperatively. Which is, to really boil it down, a primary reason that humans are so good at reading each others' intentions, feelings, and thoughts - skills that are very useful for cooperative breeding.
Here, she also explodes the basis of attachment theory, by pointing out that hunter-gatherer human mothers, unlike the other great apes, do not remain in contact with their infants 24/7, but tend to be very trusting about passing them off to kin and friends ("as-kin," in her terms). While this may seem like a statement of the obvious, it radically challenges the whole basis of "attachment parenting." Hrdy does not question that infants form strong attachments with their mothers or that human infants prefer to be in contact with a person at all times; what she suggests is that infants also form strong attachments to a variety of others - "alloparents" - in a system of cooperative breeding that actually makes humans more similar to cooperatively breeding birds than chimps or gorillas. She suggests that having children cared for by non-parents (cough cough, day care providers?) is not only acceptable, but - watch out world! - natural. Potent stuff!
But this summary doesn't do the book justice. There is so much more.
One of the best things about Hrdy is her friendly, easy-going writing style. I know other commenters have remarked that this is "dense" and "heavy" but I find Hrdy's writing to be meaty but riveting.
Warning: Prepare to have your deepest assumptions challenged in ways that are not always comfortable (although the topics here are thankfully not quite as difficult and disturbing as those discussed in Mother Nature). Highly recommended....more
I have long been extremely leery of evolutionary or biological explanations for differences between the sexes. Just the words, "mothering instinct" maI have long been extremely leery of evolutionary or biological explanations for differences between the sexes. Just the words, "mothering instinct" make me break out in a rash. Why? Because "biological" explanations, which are more often than not based in pure speculation, always seem to conveniently rationalize the superiority of men and reduce women to their reproductive capacity. Don't even get me started about this, you'll never hear the end of it.
Which is why this book totally rocked my world, and why I want to recommend it from the rooftops. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy looks exhaustively at the biological data regarding mothers of all species, and explodes the Victorian archetype of the sexless, submissive, and nuturing wife and mother. She finds that human mothers do have instincts, of course, but they are not all stereotypically "maternal." Rather, difficult decisions and a dose of ambivalence have always been part of what it means to be a human mother.
The best part is the way that huge amounts of not-always-straightforward biological data are presented with ease and charm. Once you've started, it is difficult to put this book down.
I recently read another book on "natural" mothering, Our Babies, Ourselves, by Meridith Small. I enjoyed Our Babies, Ourselves, and reviewed it positively here. However, I felt that it was an introduction to the ethnographical study of motherhood, and in some respects, grossly oversimplified the needs of infants and mothers. But I was intrigued, and wanted to learn more about this field. As a follow-up, Mother Nature far exceeded my highest expectations. It is simply a far superior book, and may even make me rethink my high rating for Our Babies, Ourselves.
Don't get me wrong, this book still pushed some buttons for me - okay, a lot of buttons, or was it one really big button, over and over? - but because Hrdy takes feminism so seriously, ideas that might have infuriated me from another source become genuinely "thought-provoking."
This book left me hungry to read more by Sarah Hrdy....more
This little introduction to "ethnopediatrics," the study of child-rearing across cultures, is by no means a how-to manual, but nonetheless may be oneThis little introduction to "ethnopediatrics," the study of child-rearing across cultures, is by no means a how-to manual, but nonetheless may be one of the better parenting books I've read to date. This is a well-researched, thought-provoking survey of parenting styles among non-human primates and human cultures throughout the world. The conclusion? It is Western child-rearing practices that are "weird."
I loved the indictment of our cultural obsession with "independence" and getting infants to "sleep through the night." Small's observation that American parents rely on pediatricians, who have no training in child development, rather than other mothers, for parenting advice, stopped me in my tracks. I may think a bit more deeply the next time I pick up a book on parenting written by a pediatrician.
Make no mistake, there is a definite agenda here. This is an advocacy piece, and should be read as such. Small is promoting a high-response style of parenting, which may not be possible for everyone (and is probably not 100% workable for anyone in an industrialized country), and you have to take some of her conclusions with a grain of salt. There are also some moments of naivete, as when Small claims that colic doesn't exist in traditional cultures. I'm sure that there is some truth to this (there may well be less colic in cultures where babies are carried and breastfed 24/7), but I know many attachment-parented babies who still meet the definition for colic. Guilt-tripping parents of colicky babies (parents, if you were just more responsive, your baby wouldn't cry so much), doesn't do anyone any good. I believe that there are physiological reasons for colic, and that it is unfair, as well as insanely unhelpful, to blame it on the parents. "Attachment parenting" has gotten a bad reputation because of these kinds of claims.
Finally, readers may legitimately complain that Small surveys relatively few cultures overall, oversimplifies "traditional" cultures, underestimates the differences between traditional cultures, etc. This book is a summary, and it has some real limitations. But I thought it was an excellent, thought-provoking summary.
A side note: The title is terrible. Everyone seems to think this is somehow associated with Our Bodies, Ourselves, when in fact they have nothing to do with each other. At best, the title is painfully unoriginal; at worst, it seems like an attempt to piggy-back onto a better-established brand. Either way: annoying....more
I spent the first half of this book noting the similarities between I, Robot and Foundation. Short vignettes that build on each other - check. CleverI spent the first half of this book noting the similarities between I, Robot and Foundation. Short vignettes that build on each other - check. Clever but gruff lead male characters - check. A central philosophical conundrum presented in puzzle form - check. Pointed references to religious belief as a lower form of intelligence - check.
These are the only two Asimov novels I have read, but based on what I know so far, I would venture to guess that Asimov used this "formula" in other novels as well. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
Once I recovered from my initial "This is Foundation, but with robots!" reaction, I really started to enjoy I, Robot, for the same reasons I enjoyed Foundation: It is really smart and also really fun. A geeky good time. Asimov is no Vonnegut, but neither is anyone else (besides Vonnegut)....more
I keep coming back to the clarinet solo ... the one transcendent moment in a dark, dark novel. As the week wears on and the existential pain fades, whI keep coming back to the clarinet solo ... the one transcendent moment in a dark, dark novel. As the week wears on and the existential pain fades, what's left is the near-poetic brilliance.
Dangit: five stars. ___________________________________________
Five stars for near-poetic brilliance, great one-liners, and the skillful crushing (in less than 200 pages!) of my last remaining hopes in God and humanity, minus one star for completely ruining my week.
(Needless to say, this is anything but a light read.)...more
Despite my recent decision to stop engaging in the increasingly vicious atheism vs. religion blood bath, a recent Salon interview with this author cauDespite my recent decision to stop engaging in the increasingly vicious atheism vs. religion blood bath, a recent Salon interview with this author caught my interest. (The letters section? Still scorched earth.)...more
This is the book on water politics in the West. It is one of my all-time favorites, and rarely a week goes by that I don't think of some aspect of itThis is the book on water politics in the West. It is one of my all-time favorites, and rarely a week goes by that I don't think of some aspect of it in my work or in my driving around California and the West....more
This was very, very interesting, at times quite profound, but a bit uneven overall.
The narrator's voice ranges between that of a cowboy or noir detecThis was very, very interesting, at times quite profound, but a bit uneven overall.
The narrator's voice ranges between that of a cowboy or noir detective and a philosopher or theologian, and neither is quite convincing. The scientific descriptions of the intelligent ocean are long and skim-worthy. The characters are one-dimensional. It's carelessly sexist - Kelvin's wife has no personality beyond being submissive and suicidally depressed, and yet, with little explanation, he loves her? That sort of thing.
And yet, the idea - how would you react if your lost loved one returned to you, only to be lost again in almost the same fashion? - was perfectly executed. It would have been more touching had the characterization been better and the emotional range of the novel larger, but the poignancy was still there, at least in the abstract.
But this just goes to show - my usual reading is very character-driven, and this just is not. It's plot-driven, and idea-driven. Given this, you have to admit: the premise of the book is brillant. And it has moments of dark philosophical intelligence. Very thought provoking.
I'm glad I read it, although I don't feel it's a "must-read" by any stretch....more
This novel takes place in the far distant future, when humans have settled the whole galaxy. The origins of humanity, on the legendary "Earth," have bThis novel takes place in the far distant future, when humans have settled the whole galaxy. The origins of humanity, on the legendary "Earth," have been all but forgotten. The Galactic Empire is dying, and a small colony of scientists (the "Foundation") are struggling to survive the subsequent dark ages.
First, the bad news: The book is, in some respects, very dated. In this distant future, women all but do not exist. Asimov could imagine a radically changed society, but apparently not in this one respect. There is one female character in the entire book, a nagging wife, who gets less than a page of dialogue. Because of this, I could never entirely forget the 1951 publishing date. Apparently, in 1951, the possibility that women might participate in scholarship, science, politics, and business seemed more remote and unlikely than the accurate prediction of history through the mathematical science of "psychohistory."
The truth is officially stranger than fiction.
(Foundation is further evidence that midcentury 20th century culture was markedly more sexist than the previous Victorian era, when women were at least acknowledged to have interesting personalities worth writing about.)
That aside, this is clever, fun, appropriately scary sci-fi, and I recommend it. The history of Foundation eerily echoes European medieval history - the fall of Empire, followed by dark ages, the rule of religion and superstition, the advent of early capitalism, making this a strikingly intelligent read. But again, this book is a product of its time, as can be seen by Asimov's derisive dismissal of religion and borderline-worship of science and free trade - or maybe that's just sci-fi. But the fact that it is clearly an ideological child of its time does not make the book less interesting - rather, it makes it more so.
I second other reviewers who note that this is not exactly an emotionally-engaging read. The generational parade of clever male politicians are not exactly relatable. But as a plot/idea based novel, Foundation is good fun and well worth a read....more