Friday, October 30, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Somehow, despite hearty recommendations from friends, I had never read anything by Neal Stephenson. I even went so far as to buy Snow Crash a few years ago, but it's sat unopened on my bookshelf.

So it might seem odd that my first Stephenson book was Anathem, but I forgot to pack a book for a trip, most of the books in the airport bookstore were unappealing, I recognized Stephenson's name, and it was a nice long paperback.

I would say I was impressed by Anathem, but "impressed" is not really the right word: blown away was more like it.

Anathem is intellectually rigorous without sacrificing any entertainment value. I won't spoil the plot, but I will tell you that this book will give you a basic understanding of concepts like many-worlds, the quantum mind, directed acyclic graphs, Platonic realism, configuration space, and the "long now". In many ways, this novel is like a mix of the intellectual rigor of Eco, the world creation of Tolkein, the social variety of Vance, and the epic storytelling of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. Although some people will surely find it excessively didactic, rest assured that this is excellent modern hard science fiction.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy

After blasting through A Wizard of Earthsea a week ago, I naturally had to read the sequels, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. Although neither sequel gave me quite the emotional punch I got from the first novel, both are good in their own rights.

Like A Wizard of Earthsea, both sequels could be considered coming-of-age novels even as they portray Ged's growth and maturity.

In The Tombs of Atuan, Ged is really a secondary character; the story centers on a young girl named Tenar. At a young age she is determined to be a reincarnation (similar to a Tibetan Buddhist tulku) of Arha ("the eaten one"), the high priestess of the "Nameless Ones", old gods who have fallen somewhat out of favor. In stark contrast to the first novel, which ranged across the known world, this is a claustrophobic story, confined to a small area around the eponymous tombs, and taking place largely in underground caverns and within Tenar's mind. In the end, Ged's role in this novel seems to me to be almost a deus ex machina plot device, rather than really playing a part in the story, and for that reason, I found it somewhat unsatisfying.

The Farthest Shore introduces us to Ged as an older man, mature not only in his magical powers but also in his decision-making. The story is told from the perspective of a young prince, who, in the course of the story, develops the self-confidence that he would need later as king, but is really about Ged's transformation from a life of doing to a life of being (similar to the Taoist concept of wu wei). This is an engaging story, but in many ways it revisits themes covered in the first novel.

Altogether, the Earthsea trilogy is excellent children's fantasy. Though the quality drops somewhat from the first novel, they are all well worth the short time it takes to read them, and all are head-and-shoulders above the majority of both child and adult fantasy.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

Last night I had the tremendous pleasure of reading Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea (which, sadly, appears to be completely out of print, but can likely be found at most used book stores).

I've only read it once before, more than 20 years ago, when I also read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Eric Frank Russell's Wasp within the same 24 hours. The other two I've come back to many times over the years, but for some reason, I hadn't re-read LeGuin's novel until yesterday.

For what ever reason, last night I pulled this book off the shelf with the intention of reading a few chapters and then going to sleep early. Just like the previous time, however, I wound up devouring the book in one sitting! Beyond that, it was so good that I felt compelled to write about it, producing my first posting here in two years.

Although my edition clocks in at a slender 181 pages, this is a superb coming-of-age story about a powerful but undisciplined young wizard (LeGuin says that the book was in part a response to the image of wizards as ancient and wise, and to her wondering where they come from). Too often, juvenile fiction is either overly moralizing (as in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia) or mindless adventure. Here, LeGuin has threaded that needle perfectly, producing a rivetting adventure story in which we see the protagonist overcome his hubris. Although it is a children's novel (probably most suitable for 6th grade and up, though appropriate for advanced readers as early as 3rd grade), adults will also find it quite engaging; this is a must-read for anyone who enjoys fantasy.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Compelling material, poor layout

PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives
by Frank Warren

Begin with the concept. The website says:

"You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to PostSecret. Each secret can be a regret, hope, funny experience, unseen kindness, fantasy, belief, fear, betrayal, erotic desire, feeling, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything - as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Create your 4-by-6-inch postcards out of any mailable material. If you want to share two or more secrets, use multiple postcards. Put your complete secret and image on one side of the postcard."

PostSecret is a compelling website, and so I looked forward eagerly to the book, which promised a selection of the best submissions shown online as well as others not previously displayed. It lives up to the hype in all respects except one. The selection truly does contain many of the best submissions, however the layout leaves quite a bit to be desired. In many cases the postcards (originally 4" by 6") are enlarged to fill a page, or even to stretch across two pages. For a book in which the visual element is so key, the bad layout is a major handicap. Nevertheless, it is an intruiging look into the secret lives of others -- many of which look strikingly familiar.

Retirement should have come sooner

The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus
by Harry Harrison

The latest installment in Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series begins with the title character, a.k.a. "Slippery Jim" DiGriz enjoying a comfortable but boring quasi-retirement with his wife and sometime partner Angelina. A picnic is interrupted by a mysterious man offering Jim a job to alleviate his boredom and, of course, augment is personal fortune substantially. Is this autobiographical? Like his famous character, Harry Harrison has been quite successful at his career for many years, leaving him with a solid reputation and the means to live comfortably. Whether he was motivated by money or boredom I don't know, but just as Jim should have turned down the job, Harrison should have known better than to write this book. The first Stainless Steel Rat book was as fresh and exciting as Slippery Jim. Other books in the series, such as The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You!, exhibited a keen sense of humor. Although Jim is still skilled at the misdirection and sleight of hand that made him a successful criminal, Harrison's writing has become dull and predictable. At the end of this book, Jim indicates that he may retire permanently. I hope this signals an end to the series, because like Jim the series has grown old and tired.

Totally unique!

The Good Soldier Svejk: and His Fortunes in the World War
by Jaroslav Hasek

I read a tremendous amount, but I've never come across anything like this novel. This book is a funny anti-war adventure story, but also so much more. It gives the reader an excellent sense of what it might have been like to live in the Austrian Empire in 1914-15. I know it sounds strange, but after reading this, Kafka begins to make sense. Read this book once for sheer entertainment, but then read it again and give it some thought. It's well worth it!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I'm back!

After a 9 month absence, I am back! I have several reviews lined up for the next few weeks, and hopefully more if I can get the "Publish to a blog" feature on Judy's Book to work - if you can help with that please let me know/leave a comment here!

Also, I know that neither of my blogs display properly in Internet Explorer. If you can help me fix that, please let me know; otherwise you can change browsers. The sites look fine in Opera!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fails to refute moral relativism

Moral Courage: Taking Action When Your Values Are Put to the Test
by Rushworth M. Kidder

While this book contains many interesting and illuminating anecedotes of personal courage (or the lack thereof), it fails on one key point.

Kidder argues against moral relativism, suggesting (based on interviews) that honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion are universal values. These are just words, however, and they can mean very different things to different people. To people in a very communal culture, responsibility might be used to mean the individual's responsibility to the community. In more individualistic cultures (and in the philosophy of Ayn Rand) it would more likely mean responsibility to self. To some fairness means equality, while to others it can mean extreme discrimination. A refutation of moral relativism demands that different people agree upon the same meanings, not merely the same words.

With this failure, Kidder's entire case falls down. He presents moral courage as "the string" holding together the pearls (of moral values). When those very values are in question, moral courage becomes undefinable.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Good drug legalization analysis

Between Politics and Reason: The Drug Legalization Debate
by Erich Goode

In this brief analysis, Goode takes the reader beyond the value statements and ideology that characterize most conversation about drugs in the US, analysing the real cost in dollars and lives, and how the equation might change under various legalization proposals. He thoroughly presents the physical and social effects of most of America's commonly abused drugs, including cocaine, heroin, marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol. In the end, Goode suggests a number of ways to mitigate the damage of tobacco and alcohol, many of which have been implemented since the book's publication.

The book's shortcoming, if any, is that it completely ignores America's most commonly used drug, caffeine. He gives just half a sentance on the drug, saying that it is a mild stimulant with no euphoric effect.

If you have any interest at all in the subject, you will find this a valuable book. It is concise, but offers thorough references, and aside from the above-mentioned suggestions, reads like a recent publication.

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