This book was both a joy to read and quite enlightening. Not only was the writing engaging, but it did a wonderful job integrating the story of theseThis book was both a joy to read and quite enlightening. Not only was the writing engaging, but it did a wonderful job integrating the story of these various symbols into the context of the wider world of human affairs. While certainly intended for a popular audience, Houston took his task very seriously, drawing upon an enormous range of sources to tell the story of these symbols to the tune of ~67 pages of references. Houston tells the history of these symbols in a very economical way, not falling down any academic rabbit holes. Each chapter, which highlighted one particular symbol, was short enough to consume in one sitting, making it easy to put down and pick up the book as needed.
I think the most insightful thing I gleaned from this book was how much technology has influenced human language. When everything was written down there was little to no uniformity in terms of symbols and their meanings. Typically a center of learning (such as the Library of Alexandria) would introduce some technique that would slowly disperse across the greater Mediterranean area. The advent of the printing press brought a level of standardization to language, but also a winnowing. Printers were limited by the letters and symbols they cut so some things had to go. Symbols were lost, others re-purposed and life went on.
As much as the printing press limited what symbols made it into printed material, it was nothing like the symbol holocaust that was the typewriter. Where a printer could cut some custom pieces as needed, a widespread commercial typewriter solidified what symbols would be carried forward into the brave new world, limiting them to what could fit within the typewriter's limited space. This extended into the computer age, as well, as computer keyboards mimicked those of type writers.
The most interesting winnowing of symbols due to this technological constraint was the dash. There were apparently a whole bunch of different dash lengths used for different effects that have now all been reduced to the simple -. But at the same time the widespread popularity of novels and their writing style necessitated some mark that would denote a character speaking, giving rise to the popularity of the quotation marks; technology and social trends giveth and taketh from our language.
It was also fascinating to see how some symbols have changed over time, both in terms of their use (such as how the # has been from denoting pounds to tweeting) and their form (the quotation marks started existence two thousand years ago looking like >). Humanity has shown remarkable flexibility and innovation when it came to representing some non-textual intention, though sometimes it took a REALLY long time. Heck, just putting spaces between words took quite a while. The development of a line break and indented line effectively killed off the pilcrow and for a while quotation marks were made in the margin of a page.
And don't think that we've reached some end point in the development of the written word. Things are always in flux, and with the advent of cheap and widespread computing power there is no reason to think we aren't on the verge of a symbol revolution. Want an interrobang? You can get that. Want a manicule? Not sure why, but you can do that too. But language can also be a stubborn thing, with new symbols facing an enormous institutional and usage barriers.
In any event, this was a swell reading experience. Houston peppers his accounts with witty insights, humorous anecdotes, and plenty of self awareness ([In a footnote] "In honor of their [asterisk and dagger] role as footnote reference marks, I plan to fill this chapter with numerous lengthy and entirely tangential footnotes so as to take full advantage." ). If you love the written word (which, I would hope most people on this site do), this was a wonderfully illuminating work that will give you a greater appreciation for what we have today....more
This is an excellent book for people who are looking to learn more about the traditions and customs of Judaism and its various wedding traditions. ItThis is an excellent book for people who are looking to learn more about the traditions and customs of Judaism and its various wedding traditions. It was quite accessible and does a great job explaining the history and meaning of the very many parts of this ancient tradition. It also offers modern interpretations and changes that have been made to these customs. Perfect for the uninitiated and members of the tribe equally....more
As it is with most anthologies, there were some strong and some weak stories in this collection of whimsical sci-fi/fantasy stories. One thing I did aAs it is with most anthologies, there were some strong and some weak stories in this collection of whimsical sci-fi/fantasy stories. One thing I did appreciate is that they were grouped together into themes which will make this review much easier.
Myth Remembered: Two interesting takes on some monster myths. Where The Beautiful Biting Machine read as a pretty straight tale where you knew a twist would be coming (and I thought it was a nicely delivered, non-contrived twist), Moon Wolf was a more reflective piece about the nature of the human relationship with the proverbial "dark forest". Both enjoyable reads that demonstrated a nice range of writing skill.
Burning Bright: Three stories revolving around fire the idea of fire or burning. These, in my opinion, were by far the weakest in the anthology. Two, oddly, appeared to revolve around the transformative power of fire (magical fire in one case, filtered sunlight in the other) to elevate the plain, dour appearance of women into some sort of blond sex bomb. Very weird. The other story, The Thaw, I enjoyed more for its sober take on the future than the story itself. All in all these stories did not offer up many interesting ideas to ponder of characters to care about.
Falling Angels: The anthology gets back on track with these three stories about fall angels. I really liked all three, but for different reasons. With a Flaming Sword does a fun job re-writing some of the book of Genesis from a sci-fi perspective, Black Fire is told in a neat way with a pretty funny (in my sick and twisted mind) payoff, and Written in Water is an excellent examination of a survivor of a pandemic's state of mind an dhow she responds to an unexpected guest. Probably my favorite section of the book.
Death's Door: Another strong section, these three stories deal with death in different ways. Tonight I can sleep Quietly provides an interesting idea to chew over. If you existed in a universe where human's were reborn with memories of your past life, would you try to track down the love of your past life even if it had been a century since you were last together? Stalking the Leopard is a fun re-imagining of a story about the impossibility of escaping death. Dead Yellow was a bit sparse, more like a writing exercise than a story, but it was cute in its own way, it didn't overstay its welcome.
Exiles: In terms of writing, these were probably the strongest of the collection. These stories are much longer developed than the previous ones. They are also written in a more traditional manner. They all deal with people who, for one reason or another, have become separated from the rest of humanity and the reflections there of. A very strong finish to this anthology.
All in all a pretty good and diverse slate of stories. I think their greatest strength is not so much in the world building but in offering up an interesting idea for the reader to chew over and reflect upon. Apart from the oddly out of place Fire stories this book was quite engaging and interesting....more
I enjoyed this... uniquely written book. I hesitate to say story because it really is a collection of several that mirror, echo, and contain each otheI enjoyed this... uniquely written book. I hesitate to say story because it really is a collection of several that mirror, echo, and contain each other. I have a feeling a lot of people would hate this book. It is written in a variety of ways: hand written notes, personal letters, straightforward prose, secret police transcripts, and books within books; very post-modern in structure. There are also some wonderful drawings in this book that add nicely to the setting and the characters.
So there are a few main threads of the story: a dystopian future Texas city state, a book about a mid-19th Century Chicago family, letters between a man and his daughter that he has been separated from for decades, and letters between the possible ancestor of a Texas character and his love (who was a member of that Chicago family). The events of the mid-19th century and the future dystopia show many parallels to the point where I sort of got the impression of an Ouroboros:
Was the Dystopian story actually a book written in the 19th century or was the 19th Century book but a work of fiction hat existed in the Dystopian future? Given the vagaries of time and the seemingly supernatural abilities of some characters it could be both or neither. It can get a bit confusing but the story does a good job sweeping you up and moving you forward. The world building was superb, both in the past and future, and the characters felt very vibrant.
Also, I must say, the book is gorgeous. Great pictures, each different story thread was done up in a unique visual style, there were some excellent information supplements that felt very natural in the flow of the story further deepening the world of the story. But the best part was the package. In the story this package was essential to both the future and past timeline. AND IT WAS PHYSICALLY INCLUDED AT THE END OF THE BOOK, SEALED AND ALL!!!!!! So when I got there I got to open it up and read the ever so important contents of it.
This book is by no means for everyone, but I really enjoyed it and appreciated the risks the writer took to tell this unique and imaginative story....more
So when is a dystopia not a dystopia? When it occurs in the real world while everyone else lives online. That is the state we find humanity in: the woSo when is a dystopia not a dystopia? When it occurs in the real world while everyone else lives online. That is the state we find humanity in: the world is on the down slide (famine, disease, energy shortages, the works) but thanks to some next level technology people around the world can choose to instead interact in a massive online world, where they can at least feel like they have some modicum of control over their lives.
The OASIS is the setting of all my happiest childhood memories. When my mom didn't have to work, we would log in at the same time and play games or go on interactive storybook adventures together. She used to have to force me to log out every night, because I never wanted to return to the real world. Because the real world sucked.
On OASIS you could be anything you wanted to be and no one would be the wiser. Want to be a strapping barbarian with muscles on his muscles? You can on OASIS! Want to be a femme fatale with looks that could kill and legs that go all the way up? You can on OASIS! Do you just want to look like yourself but with a bit less weight and acne? You can on OASIS! It is easy to see why so many people in this world would rather spend time on OASIS than the real world. Of course Dilbert predicted this shift years ago:
Even one of the creators of OASIS thinks its unintended side effects have been pretty horrific:
"It had become a self-imposed prison for humanity. A pleasant place for the world to hide from its problems while human civilization slowly collapses, primarily due to neglect."
But honestly, given the state of the world, a pleasant cage can be quite preferable to the dying earth that awaits outside the prison doors.
Anyway, this is the world our brave (white, male, nerdy) protagonist, Wade Watts, finds himself in. The reclusive, socially awkward creator of OASIS has died several years before leaving behind control of the OASIS system (and billions of dollars in wealth) to the first person who can solve a difficult, 1980's themed scavenger hunt. And not something like "What was Ferris Bueller's principal's name?". No, this hunt draws upon absurdly obscure 1980's minutia and figuring out where in the enormously large OASIS universe that clue leads. Oh, and there is a super evil internet corporation that is pouring tons of resources into the hunt and would make OASIS a pretty crappy, corporate oriented universe that makes them a lot of money but makes it worse for literally everyone else in the world.
To say this book has a lot of 1980's references would be to say the Great Fire of San Francisco was a small grease fire. Thankfully, I am pretty knowledgeable about that slice of pop cultural history and didn't feel terribly lost in its many references. But even for the references I didn't know the book did a good job explaining, but not over explaining, the important parts. It would have been very easy for this book to be drowned in 1980's nostalgia but I found the enthusiastic voice of Wade to present the 1980's as a neat, fascinating place instead of just a club to bludgeon the reader over the head with the awesome perfectness of the 1980's.
I would hazard that even someone ignorant of the 1980's would still find this an engaging read. The real strengths of the book like lie in the mystery of the hunt and the relationships between all the characters. Given that on OASIS you don't have to be yourself or look like yourself it gets pretty interesting. I really liked the relationship between Wade and his online buddy Aeche. While I thought his online relationship with Art3mis was a bit cliched, Art3mis herself was a pretty great character. All in all the characters felt like real people who behaved and reacted to circumstances like real people would. They could easily have been mere window dressing while the book concentrates on 1980's pop cultural stuff but Cline does a great job avoiding that pitfall.
This book was quite fast paced and I found myself burning through pages, wanting to find out what was going to happen next and I was genuinely invested in the success of the characters. There were some fantastic fight scenes and the mixing of magic and technology in OASIS worlds was pretty nifty too. Cline does a great job setting up the hunt and creating a rational OASIS culture and behavior pattern. I didn't feel the need to suspend my disbelief beyond the basic assumptions of story (which you need to do with any fiction story anyway).
I really only have two slight issues with this book. The first is that we don't really get a feel for the real world and why everything went wrong. Since most of the action takes place in OASIS this isn't a huge knock on the book, but I felt like the real world was a bit flat an undefined. The other slight issue I had was the hero was once again a white male that saves the day while the minority characters (which, huzzah that they had a prominent place in the story) by the end were just standing on the side lines cheering him on. Not a terrible major set of problems (especially since it wasn't Team Wonderbread that saved the day), just areas that could have been improved.
All in all this is a very exciting, fast paced read that I think a lot of people could enjoy. I know I did!...more
While this installment wasn't great, it was good enough to keep me interested in the series. I will begrudgingly continue this series, even if it is a bit of a guilty pleasure.
The Good: -The Aliens: One of the few tings this series does well is imbue aliens with an actual sense of otherness. Douglas based their behavior and outlook on their biology and the environment they developed in. Instead of aliens just being written as humans with a slight twist, Douglas structures their entire philosophy and social organization around their unique circumstances; this typically comes off as very alien. -The Action: Like the more successful predecessors, this installment had tons of fights and started off with a pretty long one right off the bat. This is something Douglas does well and it was sorely lacking in the fifth book. It is both entertaining and helps cover up the weaker parts of the book. -The Story: While Douglas isn't the most nuanced story teller, the big picture is rather compelling and Douglas does a nice job flipping some major assumptions that were assumed up to this point. Plus, dare I say, Douglas even showed some subtly regarding the relationship between humanity and advanced AIs.
The Bad: -Repetition: After five books readers of this series knows what GRIN technologies are and we know what the Alcubierre Drive is. Unless Douglas thinks his readers have the memory of a gold fish there is no need for these repetitions in the second book let alone the sixth book. -The Asides: Douglas has this terrible tendency to go off on tangents and asides at the drop of a hat. It is unnecessary and really harms the flow of the action. It would be one thing if there were only a few in the book but but there are a ton of them. Sometimes it is going on in the character's minds, but usually it just text explaining something to the reader. -The Characters: The characters, for the most part, are still extremely shallow. They have one or two qualities and that is the extent that they are defined. The "villain" who has it out for one of the good guys (thanks to good old fashioned classicism) is comically evil bit at the same time has a laughably terrible plan for getting back at the good guy.
All in all this was a middling book that was a strong improvement over book five but was not quite as good as the first four in the series. The paradigm shift at the end was neat enough for me to keep reading but this series does nothing to elevate itself above a pulp level of book quality....more
I really enjoyed this book, but it definitely helped talking out some of the themes with my book club. Ostensibly this book is about the strange occurI really enjoyed this book, but it definitely helped talking out some of the themes with my book club. Ostensibly this book is about the strange occurrences that surround a prestigious group of writers in Scandinavia, The Rabbit Back Literature Society is an exploration of the nature of memory and how it influences identity and relationships.
The story of this book follows and explores the history of The Rabbit Back Literature Society and its secretive founder, the beloved children's book writer Laura White. Through this narrative we see how the various writers were influenced by the events of their past and how the memory of those events influence the present
For instance, Ella Milana's, one of the main characters, father is in decline due to Alzheimers disease. As he lost more and more of his memories he became less and less the person his daughter had grown up with a loved. Where once he was a great runner, he had been reduced to an old man puttering around in a garden, preferring to spend time in the garden, oblivious to his surroundings. When he finally passes he does not feel that she has lost her father because he had been gone for so long already.
The book also explores the nature of the writers' memories through something called The Game. In The Game, writers can accost each other and force them to "spill" about anything and they must be absolutely honest about it, no matter how private.
"You see, The Game doesn't produce stories, it produces material for stories. that happens when you break open stories and let their unformed essence spill out. that's what The Game is for. Everybody has valuable material inside them that The Game can help draw out."
Ella, the first new member in decades, uses this to ferret out the murky history of the society that she is researching. It also clearly serves as a method to explore how people remember their past and how it influences their present identity.
Of course the story itself is also pretty neat. There is some sort magical goings on: suggestions of faery creatures, spontaneously rearranging books, disappearing authors. The mystery Ella tries to uncover is also fascinating and is a dark secret at the heart of the society. The path to get there winds through many pasts and shows just how fickle and unreliable memory is.
She pounded on her memory like a coffee machine on the blink, but her past returned only in small fragments. If all of her remembered images from birth to confirmation were laid end to end, they would have formed at most a short film of ten minutes, grainy, fuzzy, and confused.
This book was also beautifully written. The prose was excellent and the characters vibrant. Here are a few of the passages I really enjoyed:
"Martti, if you were any less interested in what was happening around you, you'd be indistinguishable from a leather sofa."
She'd wanted to do literary-historical research that might bring to light a few small skeletons - secret relationships, homosexuality, that sort of thing. Pleasant little scandals. Murder victims weren't the sort of thing she'd been hoping to dig up.
I don't remember anymore exactly what he wrote, but when I heard him read hi stories out loud in Laura's reading room I remember thinking, "Fuck, thanks a lot, guess I'll give up writing now.
The story was very engaging, the mystery was intriguing, and the pages just kept turning. A word of warning though: the end is a bit ambiguous and the epilogue is really the last chapter of the story and not a traditional epilogue. All in all though I really enjoyed reading this book which was very much out of my usual track of genres. ...more
So I actually saw the movie and the other movie well before reading this book. While the Bruce Willis version adapted the book to an American setting,So I actually saw the movie and the other movie well before reading this book. While the Bruce Willis version adapted the book to an American setting, the original was slavishly loyal to the book (and excellent to boot). In a way that is good and bad.
On the one hand the plot of this book is very well constructed. It opens with an actual historic event, an attempted assassination on French President Charles de Gaulle. From there Forsyth weaves a fictional assassination plot to be carried out by a mysterious mercenary assassin hired by a historic French resistance/terrorist group (depending on your view of French Algeria). Of course killing De Gaulle is a tough task as he was likely the most heavily guarded person in the world owing to the many assassination attempts on him (seriously, the guy seems like a giant ass, but was also quite fascinating and made the brave decision to withdraw France from Algeria). The lengths the assassination has to go to achieve his mission and the preparations he makes are impressive. The assets and procedure the French police use to track him down is equally impressive. Very much a cat and mouse chase by the last third.
So the plot is great and really lent itself to a movie. The problem is Forsyth doesn't do a great job of populating the plot with compelling characters or writing in a way very engaging way. Very frequently characters are nothing more than a role that is needed to advance the plot. Forsyth spends a lot of ink describing some pretty mundane activities that could easily have been slimmed down or cut completely. This was especially a problem in the early part of the book before the chase really gets going. So while all this translates nicely onto the silver screen it does not lend itself to compelling reading.
Compound this and my foreknowledge of all the twists that were to come thanks to the super loyal first movie and this read felt like a slog at times. It is extremely well constructed story and if I had not already seen the movie I might have bumped it up a star. But as it stands this was just a so-so read for me. If you like thrillers this is certainly a touchstone of the genre and it does explore a fascinating part of French history which I enjoyed reading about....more
Chuck is not a good person. He is a bitter forty-something druggie with no prospects and no ambition beyond the next score. His job involves feeding mChuck is not a good person. He is a bitter forty-something druggie with no prospects and no ambition beyond the next score. His job involves feeding mini-whales for a tech-millionaire that are sold to other tech millionaires (to say he is alienated from his work would be a drastic understatement), his friends run the gambit from drug addled strippers to obese drug dealers to steroid addicts. And these aren't scrappy, down on their luck underdog downtrodden folks, they are legitimately bad people. They have little to no empathy for others, are more than willing to steal drugs off each other, and aren't afraid to dish out some pain if the situation calls for it. All in all, these are not the sort of people most folks would want to have any encounter with.
So why did I find this book so compelling?
Simple put Chuck was a very fascinating character. He is fully self-aware of his scumminess. He knows he is way past his prime, that he snorted/shot up/smoked most of his life away. That his so called friends are merely that because of convenience. He knows he is at rock bottom and is perfectly content with that. He, like all addicts, lives for the next high. He knows that and accepts that. He doesn't hate himself for it, he recognizes it for what it is: a lifestyle that will inevitably destroy him (he is surprised he is even still alive), a lifestyle he is too old for, and a lifestyle he will continue as long as he can.
The other thing he knows is how much San Francisco and the Bay Area have changed since the 90's. He will go on and on about how much neighborhoods have changed. How yoga studios and artisanal cheese shops are pushing out the businesses of old, cleaning up and rounding off the sharp edges of San Francisco. Gone are the dirty, rough, raw, violent days of old. Tech money has pushed all the undesirables out and made the city a safe place for yuppies to live. He hates gentrification, but recognizes it as inevitable and even enjoys some of its benefits.
This mixture of self awareness, bitterness, and self-destructive life style just made him a very interesting character to follow. In fact he sort of reminded me of Tyler Durden from Fight Club. Only instead of pontificating on abstract philosophical principles and societal organization Chuck's insights are grounded in his experiences and what is happening on the ground. His bitterness seemed rooted in actual wrongs and changes instead of abstractly attacking society.
For example, a few weeks back I was in San Francisco on vacation (where I bought this book). After having dinner with a friend and her fiance in the Mission District we decided to walk around for a bit. The Mission District is an interesting place with lots of neat graffiti and businesses. Not the ritziest place and in fact it has been gentrifying quite a bit of late. During this walk they spotted a listing for an apartment that they thought was a steal: 1 bedroom, 1 parking spot apartment for $3,700 a month. A MONTH!!!! It is no surprise that the city Chuck grew old in was dying. This single incident really made me sympathetic to Chuck's perspective on things.
Anyway there's a murder, some freaky designer drugs (because money attracts new drugs like flies to whatever flies actually like), blood, guts, and crazy spirit animals. Sinister attributes Philip K. Dick as an influence. If you have read any of Dick's trippier books (the dude loved drugs and it showed) you will recognize this way before the acknowledgements at the end. Chuck spends the entire book getting high, coming down, or evening himself out. Given the book is written from his perspective the reader gets to go along for the ride.
While there is technically a murder mystery (among other unsavory happenings), this book is more about the exploration of the underside of humanity and the effect of gentrification, the winners and losers (but mostly the losers), and the life of an addict. Personally I found it quite fascinating even if I found the end a bit too Philip K. Dick-esque for my taste (don't expect much closure). It is way outside my typical book taste but I am quite glad I took a chance in buying it....more
No matter how you look at this, rust is going to affect you, whether you like it or not. It is the persistent and pernicious peril that threatens nearly every aspect of modern society: bridges, pipes, cars, missiles, giant beacons of freedom. Basically if you draw a Venn diagram of things people like and things rust hates you end up with a single circle.
Waldman takes the reader through the fascinating and under appreciated world of rust. From its near destruction of the Statue of Liberty, to the development of stainless steel to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline the world of rust encompasses so many aspects of our lives. I found the section on cans very interesting. The science of not only creating the perfect can (aluminum now, and extremely thin) that not only preserves the product, but also doesn't affect the taste. Considering some of the stuff that gets shipped in cans, it is impressive that they can be successfully shipped and preserved for as long as they are, while still preserving freshness and not turning into time bombs just waiting to explode in someone's hands. The story of stainless steel is also quite fascinating (as are most things we take for granted in our modern times).
Waldman broke up the book into discrete chapters covering various parts of the world of rust. They are a mixture of science, history, and current happenings. They are also quite varied, covering subjects from the Department of Defense's Rust ambassador to a photographer who is fascinated with a rusting Bethlehem steel foundry (pictured above), to galvanized steel. I think my favorite chapter was either the one on cans or the one about the rehabilitation/saving of the Statue of Liberty.
One of the over riding themes of the book was how poorly we approach rust. Most large institutions' incentives are not aligned to prevent rust. The U.S. military has a rather meager office devoted to fighting rust, even though its projects have paid enormous dividends in terms of return on investments. Many bridges were built without a long term rust mitigation policy in mind. Typically the local DOT would just slap on more paint, which works up to a point.Other techniques, such as galvanizing the steel is roughly equivalent in cost but offers a much stronger proof against rust. Weapons system acquisitions are judged on their delivered costs, not long term live cycle costs. Until the mind set about procurement and construction changes, rust will continue to be a big problem.
While not a terribly exciting topic for most people, rust is an expensive problem we should be spending more time and attention fighting. Waldman does a great job showing just how pervasive rust is in our lives, what we are doing to fight it (little though it may be in many areas), and how much more we could accomplish if we set out to affect change. While the chapters were a bit uneven (some very short, others quite long), I enjoyed the balance of subject matter he covered. This is a great, quick read for folks who like science, history, or the TV show Modern Marvels (because our many struggles against rust is itself a modern marvel!)....more
Ah, Jurassic Park, a keystone moment in movie history where dinosaurs were brought to the silver screen in such an indelible way. I don't think it wou
Ah, Jurassic Park, a keystone moment in movie history where dinosaurs were brought to the silver screen in such an indelible way. I don't think it would be inaccurate to say the movie franchise (especially with the most recent entry of Jurassic World) has significantly overshadowed the book. Heck, I only just got to reading it now, 23 years after the movie was released. Having recently seen the movie, I was struck by the differences between the novel and the movie. Some changes were welcomed, others lost some of the book's depth in the translation.
First off most of the characters are portrayed a bit differently in the movie from the book. In the book John Hammond is not the lovable grandfatherly figure Richard Attenborough portrayed in the movie. Book Hammond was rather narcissistic and self-absorbed. Where as the Movie Hammond experienced some humility by the end, it seemed like Book Hammond had a restraining order out against that emotion. Nothing could possibly go wrong with his brilliant idea, the government was an unnecessary impediment on human progress, and when things do go wrong they are the fault of his (highly trained specialist) underlings and their lack of vision. He is a nice enough man if you are agreeable with him, but if you cross him he will treat you rather poorly. All in all a less sympathetic (though a bit more believeable) of a character.
Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler are not romantically involved in the book and there is in fact a large age difference between them. This pleased me because it allowed the characters to shine without having to devote time to a romantic plot-line or undercurrent. They are both very capable and knowledgeable in the book and easy to root for. While separated for most of the book they are very calm and collected under pressure and maintain an effective mentor-student relationship. They were great in the movie, but I think I liked them more in the book.
Jeff Goldblum is Ian Malcolm, nuff said.
John Arnold (Samuel L. Jackson from the movie and Park Operator), Henry Wu (chief scientist), and Robert Muldoon (big game hunter and park warden) are explored in much more depth than in the movie and provide some fascinating insights into the events as they unfold.
Arnold comes from en engineering and theme park operations background. As such he views the park through his own experiences, knowing that things will go wrong and how to best deal with them. He isn't caught up in the grand vision of Hammond and treats the park problems as things that will occur as a matter of course and that can be fixed.
Wu, the brilliant scientist behind the miracle of resurrected dinosaurs, views things through a highly scientific lens. He is much more interested in the process and methodology that went into creating them than the end product. He isn't married to the notion of bring back dinos as they were, but instead pushes to explore how they could be using the techniques he has developed. He clashes with Hammond on this topic, wanting to expand science while Hammond is more than content with just cranking out existing dinos and not meddling with their appearance.
Muldoon is a former big game hunter turned conservationist. He has hunted plenty of dangerous game and has no rosy eyed vision on what dinos are: they are big, smart, dangerous creatures that should be treated with respect of rocket launchers, depending on what the situation calls for. He knows what needs to be done when things (inevitably) go wrong and provides a very pragmatic view of the park and its inhabitants.
All in all, the secondary characters provide a wide and nuanced view of the experiment Hammond is trying to pull off. This really gave the book a very nice bit of depth beyond "Amusement Park Tries to Kill its Guests." Where as the movie was very much about surviving dino related deaths, the book took time to explore different views on the park and serve as a cautionary tale about pushing the boundaries of science too quickly. Malcolm seems to be the avatar of this view, noting "Story of our species, everyone knows its coming, but not so soon."
Crichton also adds in some moments of levity so it isn't all scientific doom and gloom/raptor attacks:
"I don't see him [juvenile T-Rex] at the moment." "Maybe he's down hunting the apostasaurs." "He would if he could, believe me. Sometimes he stands by the lagoon and stares at the animals, and wiggles those little forearms in frustration."
But this was by no means a flawless book. I thought Crichton got a little too hung up on technical details and spelled some things out a but to specifically when a general comment would have sufficed. This was especially true as we are shown the computer interface that must be used to save the day at the end. Speaking of the end, I felt the book end was rather sloppy. Instead of ending like the movie with the survivors flying away, Crichton decided that Grant et. al. needed to do a a head count of all the raptors to insure that none escaped to the mainland. While possible important, it really threw the flow off of the narrative.
All in all, though, this book was quite riveting. Up until the end it had a great pace, fascinating characters, and a great plot. If you liked the movie, you'll love the book....more
This was a tough book to put down (and not just because of the lack of chapters). Eggers draws up a chilling world where a near omnipresent technologyThis was a tough book to put down (and not just because of the lack of chapters). Eggers draws up a chilling world where a near omnipresent technology company (think a combination of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon) is on the verge of even more amazing breakthroughs thanks to the power of computer networking, big data algorithms, and ubiquitous connectivity of devices to the web. Sound familiar?
The story is told through the eyes and experiences of Mae, a young 20-something who begins working at The Circle, the aforementioned, and definitely not at all ominous, technology company. The Circle (the company) is all about having the workspace also be a community. Think the mythical Google Campus writ much larger. Gorgeous new buildings, the best, most up to date technology, fully furnished on campus dorm rooms, free and amazing food options, tons of different intra-company groups and activities hosted for free on the campus, support for employees' personal projects. All this to attract the very best minds in the world and getting them interact with each other. A paradise for the brilliant where they are unfettered by financial limits to push the boundaries of science. Progress is the by word and everything will make the world a better place.
Sounds great right? Mae certainly thinks so. What's not to love about being part of such a positive company that is working to eliminate the risk of child kidnapping, is investing in technology to explore the Marianas Trench, and is improving online dating to name but a few of the many, many programs they are invested in.
But there is a seductive dark side to this Techno-Eden. Mae runs afoul early by ignoring a few invites to events. This results in what I can only describe as a self-criticisms right out of communist Russia. But these aren't recriminations for being ideologically impure, but for failing to engage and be part of the Circle family. While you don't have to do anything you don't want to, it is expected that Circle employees maintain a certain level of social presence both online and on campus. Failure to do so is socially (and somewhat professionally) frowned upon.
Because the story takes place over many months the reader is privy to the development of Mae within this atmosphere. We can see how subtle social pressures can alter a person's behavior, be it from interacting with other people acting a certain way, or having incrementally more outwardly facing responsibilities added as part of her job. By the end it seemed like all the online and on campus social obligations and interactions she has taken upon herself had hollowed her out, leaving nothing but a drone going through the expected motions throughout the day. Her entire outlook on life and others had changed as well as her value systems. There was no Room 101 or O'Brien that made her change, this was a an incremental process that was almost undetectable over the course of the book, but by the end was very apparent. The Circle (the book) is just as much about a person being inducted into a cult as it is about the dangers of total informational awareness.
Another unstated cultural norm at the Circle is that information wants to be free ("You can't stop the signal, Mal" for you Firefly fans out there). The more information that is available, the better people can be. Sounds great right? More information means better decisions. More information means you can track when a flu epidemic might be about to breakout, or what sorts of food people prefer to eat at lunch, or if your diet is causing some unexpected health side effect. Awesome stuff, right?
Well, what if it was taken a little further? Instead of information wanting to be free, what if everyone had a right to all information? What if the withholding of information was treated as a type of lie that hurt others? What if by having everything about ourselves known, we would act better: we wouldn't eat bad food, we wouldn't cheat, we wouldn't steal, we wouldn't break the law.
There is a seduction there. A hand that gives you the perfectly safe world, the perfectly transparent world, the world where no one is ever in want, no one is ever abused, no child is ever stolen or killed. This is the fruit of the the ultimate tree of knowledge, but it must be fertilized with our privacy. Every moment is stored for all of posterity, freely accessible to all. An omnipresent mob that could always be looking over your shoulder, judging you, measuring you, and very possibly able to socially shame you. And it isn't just a mob, they can always miss things. No, thanks to the power of technology computers can track your behavior now and determine if it is outside some preset norm. Mobs might sleep or ignore you, but a computer is an eternal watchman that knows all and sees all.
Suddenly this Eden isn't paradise because it is inhabited by angels, but because every fallible human fears the devil that is lurking on their shoulder ready to excoriate them if they diverge from the acceptable path. There are no titanic shifts from Techno-utopia to Techno-dystopia. There is no mustache twirling villain, Satan hasn't overthrown God and sits upon the Throne of Heaven, Big Brother hasn't taken over through a blood revolution. No, this sort of mob tyranny is like a creeping vine, barely preceptable in its growth and welcomed by nearly everyone. They freely done the shackles of surveillance that once only existed in the wet dreams of tyrants and dictators
But more than the shackles is the willful submersion of the self to the global web mass of humanity. With access to so much information and connections with people there is no time for the self. There is no time for the self-reflection that comes from being truly alone. When everything and everyone is transparent, we all act the same else we run the sticking out from the crowd and earn its disapprobation. That is the ultimate risk of interconnectivity and total information awareness: the uniqueness that grows from isolation and privacy cannot be.
I saw a lot of themes and ideas from touchstone dystopias in this book, most prominently 1984 and We. Where Big Brother is already entrenched at the head of a totalitarian police state in 1984, we see how such a thing could organically develop and be accepted. Where We had transparent buildings to better observe everyone at once, The Circle introduced nearly invisible cameras that can be easily installed anywhere and everywhere, no need for transparent walls when every wall has a camera on it.
The most unsettling part of The Circle is how much more realistic it is than many other classic dystopias. Many of the technologies described seems to be within our reach. We already have massive tech companies that track and store immense amounts of data on all of us. As computing and programming technologies advance it is not inconceivable to see parts of The Circle come to life.
The brilliantly handled thing about this book is how close to paradise the technology brings us. Some of the Circle's technology advances are genuine boons to the world: unremoveable chips in children that can prevent them from being kidnapped, small cameras that can be used to bring transparency and accountability to terrible regimes, breakthroughs in medical monitoring. But these fruits are twisted into serving the goal of total information transparency. Do I think this will happen? No, but there is no doubting that the proliferation of the technologies described in The Circle will change how we live our lives, for better (fingers crossed) or for worse.
I found The Circle to be an utterly engrossing read with a very deftly handled message that didn't bludgeon you over the head. Eggers expertly laid out the story and let you draw your own conclusions from its events. There are tons of other things I am leaving out of this review (the ever expanding screens Mae works with, the three wise men, the potential for abuse for those who control information, what happens to those who try to opt out to name but a few) that do a wonderful job further laying out the chilling near future world of (cue dramatic music) The Circle....more
This book is an excellent exploration of not just Islamic history (dates, names, events, etc.), but also provides a fascinating insight into culturalThis book is an excellent exploration of not just Islamic history (dates, names, events, etc.), but also provides a fascinating insight into cultural forces of Islam. Speaking as someone with a pretty good knowledge base I can honestly say I learned a great deal from this book (beyond never accepting a dinner invitation from the Abbasids) and viewed history in a different light. Ansary rightly points out that Islamic history, one where Islamic cultures were much more advanced that European societies, are relegated to very small slices of world history text books. After reading this, it is difficult to understand why when Islamic cultures are major players in world history.
The most important aspect of Islam the author (who is himself a Muslim) stresses is that Islam is not about individual salvation but about the community. Many Muslims throughout history and today have harkened back to the very first community of Muslims, when Mohammad still lived among them, as an ideal to strive for. In that society the leaders were humble and lived among the people. Mohammad was on hand to settle disputes in a just and fair manner and there was much harmony among the Muslim community. From a Christian or Western perspective, it would be as though Jesus was never killed and lived among his followers, continuing to provide divine wisdom and guidance. While that may not have been how things actually played out, Ansary notes that the story of how it happened has influenced Islamic culture ever since.
Ansary then does a diligent job highlighting the direction the Muslim community (which at this point was still confined to the Arabian Peninsula and among Arab tribes) went after Mohammad passed. The rightly Guided Caliphs, as they are known, led their community in to a vast expansion, with each victory lending further credence to God being on their side. This link between victory and divine approval was a keystone to the community for much of its early existence. The first Islamic Empire spread from Central Asia to Iberia, making it one of the largest in history.
What I found fascinating was how the community absorbed and was changed by converts. What was once a close community composed of Arab tribesmen became a multiethnic Empire. At different periods various ethnic groups were the dominant force in the Muslims world. Initially it was Arabs but at various times it was Persians or Turks or some other group. The mixing and merging of different peoples also lead to a diverse expression of Muslim piety and power. However, whichever group was in power, still saw their victories heavily outweigh their setbacks.
That is until the greatest calamity the Muslim world had seen to date fell upon them. No, not the crusaders from Europe. They were at worst a nuisance, really only conquering four major cities and not penetrating into the Muslim heartland. They had struck during a time of chaos within the Islamic world where the great Empires of the past had devolved into competing cities in the Eastern Mediterranean world. At times battles would be fought between armies that saw Muslims and Crusaders on both sides of the lines. The Crusaders were just another piece on the board that various Muslim rulers had to take into account.
The calamity which, arguably, still resounds to this day, were the Mongols. They swept through central Asia (which had its share of advanced Islamic civilizations) destroying literally everything in their bath. They sacked (and I mean SACKED) Baghdad so hard it has yet to recover after hundreds of years, and general owned just about everyone they came across. While some parts of the Mongol population were eventually converted to Islam, the swiftness and severity of their devastation shook the very core of the Muslim world. Why had God forsaken them? Were they no longer in his favor? What did they do wrong? While some within the community argued that in the end the conversion and defeat of the Mongols meant God still favored them, many turned to new ways to understand Islam and Allah. New schools of thought and law were developed in response to the Mongols that has resonance to this day.
For me, the most interesting part of the book dealt with the response the Muslim world had to the rise of the West. The dynamism of the west driven by the emphasis on individual achievement and powered by the industrial revolution made inroads into the Muslim world (by this time mostly dominated by the Ottoman Empire and Iran). Slowly, piece by piece, these empires were places further and further under the thumb of European powers. Be it through Western technical advisers who helped reform the government and military, or the monied interest that extended loans to find these reforms, or business interests that could buy off entire portions of a country's economy the West slowly became dominant over the Muslim world.
This wasn't some grand conspiracy among the various Western powers, even if the ends were the same. They were concerned about other powers gaining an advantage in The Great Game and had to make the appropriate count moves. This resulted in unsettled populations, resentment between the ruling and upper classes who benefited somewhat by these changes and the lower classes who were displaced or exploited. Ansary does an excellent job parsing the various currents and forces that flowed through the Muslim world, explaining how they reacted to the change of events and why. It was extremely fascinating to see the various responses to modernism in the Islamic world and how those responses influence the world today.
Simply put this book is an essential part of any attempt to understand the modern world and especially the modern Muslim world. It is extremely well written, being accessible to novices and informative to the more well-read. It provides a unique set of fascinating insights in Islamic history and culture that I have found somewhat lacking from Western sources. ...more