Strange but this is the third post-war German author I've read in the last few months, by coincidence, together with Thomas Bernhard (who's Austrian aStrange but this is the third post-war German author I've read in the last few months, by coincidence, together with Thomas Bernhard (who's Austrian actually) and G.W. Sebald.
But this book, which takes place in a split Germany, reminds me more of Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles. Both fall somewhere between story and philosophy, both use a scientist-protagonist and science to explore love and relationships, and both are ultimately critiques of the naivte of the generation that gave us the sexual revolution—in their belief that sexual freedom would lead to a better, more generous world.
Schneiders' protagonist Eduard, a molecular biologist in West Germany, has reached the scientifically dubious conclusion that the average life of a relationship is three years, one hundred sixty-seven days and two hours. He and his two friends, a composer and a East Berlin poet—all of whom are in long-term but not really exclusive relationships—place bets on who will still be together with their current girlfriends a year hence.
The tone gets less philosophical as the story goes on, but to its detriment. Too much happens. There are pregnancies, weddings, breakups, a father's death, a trip to Paris to evade cancer, protests at the university, and an elaborate plot by a girlfriend which ends up ensnaring the secret police.
In The Elementary Particles, the protagonists remain almost to the end, completely removed. They are brutal in their assessment of their own motives and in their commentary on love past the age of 40. Eduard, on the other hand, quickly turns out to be a playboy who thinks he's absolved by his acceptance of guilt.
Guilt is a theme that ties a few of the story lines together. Eduard's grandfather might have been a Nazi, Eduard is accused of allowing "mice concentration camps" because of his scientific research, Eduard's brother pronounces their mother guilty of suicide then rescinds the decision, the brothers fight over nature/nurture, or in other words how much we are to blame for ourselves.
But the story is about three men navigating relationships, and what role does guilt play there? None, if they have their way.
Overall, the story feels unfinished, with lots of good material but too many threads to follow any of them. That's not to say it's bad, just fragmented.
It's strangely addicting. Strange because the narrator, a writer who has spent 10 years researching a topic, is clearly depressed, and the reader spenIt's strangely addicting. Strange because the narrator, a writer who has spent 10 years researching a topic, is clearly depressed, and the reader spends a 100-page paragraph inside the winding spiral of his depressive thoughts. And whatever humor or relatability there is in a writer making desperate excuses for their inability to write a single sentence, it's overshadowed Both by his hatred of everything, and by the fact that it's increasingly clear that there will be no redemption.
By the time he decides to travel we know that it won't help and so does he. and maybe that's why it's compelling? Because we know he won't get relief so we have no choice but to relish the paralysis, the mental mind games to escape the paralysis, and maybe eventually understand that that is where the story lies -- that to say nothing happens in this story (which nothing really does) misses the point.
And for someone who spends a lot of time in her head, it's a validation that mental drama is just as real and compelling as what happens in the 'real' world.
Then again, the guy is seriously depressed so inside his head is not exactly a pleasant place to be....more
This book attempted to be both the story of the first computer and an explanation it, and ended up accomplishing a very confused mix of the two. It'sThis book attempted to be both the story of the first computer and an explanation it, and ended up accomplishing a very confused mix of the two. It's a beautiful effort with a ton of information (and I understand from other reviews, new information) about the building of the first computer, and everything that led up to it, and the lasting impacts today (on the philosophy and structure of computing, not just on the fact of it).
But unfortunately, the chronology was confusing, the narrative was unclear, the explanations assumed more knowledge than I had, and the rhapsodizing about search engines as the ultimate -- even possibly thinking -- computers put the other philosophical/prophetic passages in doubt.
I don't have another history of computers book to suggest at the moment but I have a feeling that there are far better ones out there depending on your level of previous knowledge and desired depth of knowledge. It's a shame because there's so much great stuff in here. It was just hard to parse most of the time.
That being said, there were plenty of themes/questions/ideas/tidbits that got me thinking. Here are a few of those:
"The part that is stable we are going to predict. And the part that is unstable we are going to control."
John von Neumann said that, and it's part of a larger theme about how computers were made only once people realized that instead of expecting perfection, they should expect imperfection and account for it.
"There is reason to suspect that our predilection for linear codes, which have a simple, almost temporal sequence, is chiefly a literary habit."
I have no idea if this is true but seems like an interesting thing to think about.
"If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent."
So like humans then?
"Machines will dream first."
Before thinking that is. What a wonderful thought. It brings to mind the silent square nineties computer that sat in my father's office at home, alone in the dark after we all finally went to sleep. Did it dream?
"That the resulting human behavior can only be counted on statistically, not deterministically, is... no obstacle to the synthesis of those unreliable human beings into a reliable organism."
This (which comes from the section on the future of computers, or what its first inventors thought of its future back in the fifties) is terrifying. Not only because it suggests a future where humans are controlled by computers, but because it means that now currently, we are already statistics. And the fact that predictions made about us based on human data are predictive but not deterministic is not a consolation.
Oh, and the origin story of the Monte Carlo method. It's a great origin story and now I actually understand what it is! ...more