Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Grid

The Grid
© 1995 Phillip Kerr
447 pages

Some modern architecture might make you want to kill yourself. Other modern architecture might try to kill you directly. The Yu Corporation's newest project in Los Angeles, derisively called "The Gridiron" by everyone except for its starchitect, is an example of the latter. The Grid is the pinnacle of not only the kind of architectural brilliance it takes to make viewers wish fervently for a good disaster to remove the eyesore, but of integrated computer technology. It is the world's first wholly "smart" building, in which every supporting system of the building -- even the physical structure of the building itself -- is controlled by a computer. It is a technocrat's greatest hope: people can't even use the elevators or enter doors without being authorized by the computer as having legitimate business within the building. And if they try to attend to their own 'personal' business -- using the restroom, for instance -- their leavings are automatically scrutinized, subjected to not only a drug test but health screenings. A system this complex is bound to go wrong, and it does: with less than a week to go before the grand opening, people start dying. At first it seems like a rash of bad accidents, but then the characters realize the building itself is trying to kill them -- but why? Did a deranged ex-employee sabotage its programming, or has it developed intelligence and decided to remove its internal carbon-unit infestation?

For someone accustomed to Kerr's historical mysteries set in Germany, this is startling different work. In terms of literary craftsmanship, Kerr has grown by leaps and bounds since penning this. Much of the dialogue is forced, like canned lines from a television show. The increasing tension itself carries the novel forward, as the true source behind the mysterious deaths is revealed. Of interest to modern readers is the technology, which -- astonishingly -- within our grasp if not already achieved today. No one can read this today without thinking of the rising "internet of things", although we have more to fear from outside sources hijacking those devices and using them against us than we have of our house trying to kill us. Readers from the 1990s may remember the Sandra Bullock movie, The Net: at times, the book has that feel, of the building being an entity that can do anything -- even interfacing with a police department's internal network and suspending two officers to keep them trapped in the building -- and the futurism has the occasional short-sighted pockmark, like the fact that people use film cameras despite living in a world of holograms. The increasingly frequent trips inside the 'building's brain grew tedious because of their weirdness, but on the whole I enjoyed this. It's not stellar, but still topical. Too bad Kerr has never tried to revisit techno-thrillers -- I'd like to see what a more experienced hand produces.

The Fear Index, Robert Harris

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Persians

The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Iran
© 2009 Homa Katouzian
452 pages

Come, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. It'll take a while, because there's been a lot of them.The Persians: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Iran is a sweeping  political history of Persia, and of the modern Islamic Republic of Iran. The author quotes a Persian proverb which asks -- six months from now, who alive? Who dead?  --  and argues that Persian history is established proof of the thin line between arbitrary authority and chaos. While technically  a survey, its density and focus on a list of rulers rather than the general trends within Persian history makes it a formidable challenge to the beginning student.

The Persians is largely modern, reaching the 20th century in less than two hundred pages.  What follows beforehand is essentially a long list of men killing men.  It’s nearly biblical – just replace “begat” with “who was killed by”, and you’ll get an idea. Oh, there’s some variety; sometimes the potentates settle for blinding one another instead of killing, which does get pass√©, and some Turkic and Mongolian fellows are offed, too.   Although Persia looms in the background of western history, invading Greece and lopping off Roman consuls’ heads, even marching on Jerusalem,   those episodes of strength seem to be the exception rather than the rule.   The tediously recorded butchery may actually be intentional, for the author’s main contention is that arbitrary tyrants have been the norm of Persian history, and that not until the 20th century has any work been put into creating a state beyond the will of one man, in forming a civil society that checks the ambitions of a solitary tyrant.

Even once the text moves to the 20th century and becomes more fulsomely detailed and varied, it’s still a little odd in what it dwells on. The author mentions, for instance ,that the 1953 coup has been studied in detail, and so...he bypasses it. If you didn't know that coup was executed by Britain and America to shore up their client-king’s absolute authority over the the Iranian people, too bad. If you're in the dark, you're staying there, because one minute Mossadegh is in power and the next he's in prison. Trends within Iran which bear significant fruit, like the  development of the Shiite clergy,  are barely present, or are  like the poetry buried under the mounds of executed kings.

That's not to say there isn't material of interest in here. I didn't realize that Alexander the Great is actually claimed by the Persians as one of their own, a half-Persian lord who appears in the Shahnameh, a massive work of legendary history.  The Great War and World War 2 take on a different light from Iranian eyes: because Britain and Russia spent the late 19th and early 20th century playing tug-of-war with an increasingly frayed Iran,  Iranians admired and sympathized with the Germans in both conflicts. The closer the author draws toward the present day, the more communicative he is about Iranian culture in general:  in the final hundred pages there is a good section on the evolving role of women in Iranian society, which -- while not as good during the Shah's forced modernization -- is not as bad as it was in the early 1980s.  

While there's no shortage of useful information to be mined here, beginners should probably look for something less mountainous and less dry.



© 1995 Peter Hernon
393 pages

San Andreas? You want a real earthquake, son, you come to Tennessee.  In America's heartland lies a currently-quiescent fault, the New Madrid Seismic Zone. In the early 19th century a series of three massive earthquakes  rolled the Mississippi River region, the most powerful quakes recorded in American history.  In 8.4., it happens again.....but instead of scaring the coon-skin caps off of hunters and making the cows go crazy in the frontier, it devastates cities. It doesn't just give them a bad day, knocking the electricity offline and collapsing interstate bridges: it levels the area, with a preliminary death toll of over a hundred thousand.

The novel is a genuine science fiction tale, as most of the viewpoint characters are seismologists who are frantically trying to figure out what's happening; as they argue between themselves and attempt to convince the authorities that the worst is yet to come, the reader is treated to not only explanations of tectonic geology,  but graphics that give some idea of what is happening below -- illustrating the different kinds of faults, for instance.  Key to the drama is the fact that New Madrid activity doesn't consist of one big quake with minor aftershocks, but that its powerful tectonic activity erupts in clusters.   The characters spend most of the book in mortal danger: if they're not fleeing the consequences of the quakes, like floods in Kentucky after a dam collapses, or urban riots as people raid stores for supplies, they're actively courting it by  crossing rivers transacted by the faults, rappelling into open breaks in the Earth's surface, or probing deep into abandoned mines to collect data.    There's even a little outbreak of civil war at the end, when the President decides the best thing to do is stick an A-bomb in the Earth's innards and blow it up, and the Kentucky governor realizes the White House is out of its ever-lovin' mind.

8.4 leads with science, and follows with disaster-movie thrills. The endgame is bonkers, frankly, but maybe it's hard to sell 20th century readers on the idea that not everything can be solutioned or bombed away.

Supervolcano: Eruption, Harry Turtledove.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

In God's Path

In God's Path: the Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire
© 2015 Robert Hoyland
303 pages

A Roman author referred to the Roman and Persian empires as the two eyes of the world -- but they didn't see the Arabs coming. In the span of a hundred years, a people from the desert wastes between Egypt and Mesopotamia had traveled from Spain to the Indus, bringing together a diversity of nations under one banner and laying waste to empires. History texts usually present a map of expansion as the sudden creation and explosive growth of Islam, but Hoyland argues that's premature.  Instead, he examines the Arab conquests as...the Arab conquests, in which Islam is first the means of an alliance between Arab tribes that allows them to sack two ailing realms, and then is the means of forging their own empire that transcended tribal bounds.  Instead of merely attributing the Arab spring into empire as one motivated by religious zeal, Hoyland examines the Arabs as actors on the historic stage, and dwells on their political skill.

The result is a history that overturns elementary assumptions.  For instance, conquest and conversion were two completely different processes: even a province absolutely integral to the nascent Islamic civilization, Persia, was not majority-Muslim until the 14th century.  (Islamic provincial governors were by no means eager to force conversion:  non-Muslims were taxed by the government.) By preserving the structure of the societies they were conquering -- relying on Christian and Persian scribes, civil officers, etc to retain their roles --  and offering completely secular benefits for joining the Arabs on their globetrotting campaigns, what began as a local city-state quickened into a global phenomenon.  Eventually, the religion of the Arabs, who had become the ruling class, would become the religion of a multitude, evolving along the way. Towards the end Hoyland dips into religious history,  reflecting on how the century of war, mixed defeats and triumphs, and the assimilation of various cultures shaped it. For instance,  he views the bar against images as a way for the Arabs to distinguish themselves against the decadent empires they had supplanted, but especially against the Romans, whose Constantinople twice defeats sieges here.   While there were some brief spots in the strictly historical narrative that rivaled Numbers for being a list of names and places without story to them, Hoyland's insightful commentary more than makes for it, This is a history that illustrates not only the beginning of the Islamic world, but shows some of the shared machinery of empires in general. For a book on conquests, there's comparatively little about the actual execution of battles; for that, a source like Crawford's War of the Three Gods might prove a complement.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Science: the Index

This list includes most of the science books I've read since 2007, omitting  titles that received only scant mention.

Brane and Brane! What is Brane?!- Cosmology and Astrophysics*

The Milky Way: Local Astronomy

Space: the Final Frontier

Third Rock from the Sun: Geology and Planetary Science

Weather and Climate

Chemistry and Physics

Flora and Fauna



Neurology and Psychology

History of Science

Thinking Scientifically


* I actually use this as a shelf label on Goodreads. I live in hope that anyone will recognize it. Ten years, no luck so far.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Planets

The Planets
© 2003 Dava Sobel
288 pages

Like Lives of the Planets, Sobel's The Planets is a flyby through the solar system. The inclusion of the Sun and Moon give this a classical feel, since those bodies were considered by the Greeks to be wanderers as well. This is most likely intentional, because Sobel steeps her descriptions of the planets' exploration in the language of mythology and poetry, sometimes to a distracting level. A discussion of Holst's suite, "The Planets", is also included; although Sobel mentions a growing fascination with the scientific understanding of the solar system, the music was mostly inspired by the planets' astrological import. Astrology also features heavily in one chapter, which will raise some hackles -- it did mine. Mythology and poetry can be used for literary effect, but astronomy fought too long and too hard to escape its mooney-eyed cousin to sudden be thrown back into relations again. For the lay person, there is actual content here, just not a great deal -- don't expect tables of comparative volume, or probe photographs. There's discussion of Venus's greenhouse effect, of course, and Mars' past life as a livable planet, and the curious relationship between Mercury's rotation and revolution. Some of the information is delivered in...well, let's say unconventional ways. In the chapter on Mars, for instance, the reader is given a lecture by a rock on its life history. This book is interesting if limited; for someone who has expressed mild curiosity about the lives of planets, sure -- give it go. There's lot of poetry and history to ease you into the waters before being surprised with ruminating on Jupiter's cloud activity. The seriously interested reader has probably encountered the majority of the usual information before, however, and considered its datedness would probably be better off elsewhere.