Monday, December 31, 2012

Sparkly Hayek

Yesterday I finished my last read for 2012, which was...Twilight. Yes, the sparkly-vampires-playing-baseball book. I read it as a joke. It turned out to be a rather mean joke on myself, because it consisted of 400 pages of two lovesick teenagers emoting over one another -- "Oh, Edward!" / "I can barely restrain myself from jumping your bones!" -- 30 pages of suspenseful action, and then ten more pages of emoting.  I read the book out of curiosity; though familiar with some of the criticisms levied against it (like it condoning sketchy behavior),  I prefer seeing things for myself.  But this was...bad. Worse than Angels and Demons, and even worse than Left Behind. Things happened in Left Behind.  This is such a very large book of gush, of lingering descriptions about Edward's chest, and embarrassing displays of intense emotion that aren't in the least believable and scream wish fulfillment.  And I'm told -- by a fan of the books -- that the sequel is even less eventful.


So, I will not be reading the rest of the series, unless I do something awful and need to atone for it. 

Shortly before that, I finished The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek, a work of economic and political philosophy which is sharply critical of any government involvement in economics and argues for classical liberalism, for free markets and an emphasis on individual rights and responsibilities. The book consists of a series of essays which elaborate on the problems of planned economies. I must confess to somewhat liking Hayek, even if I find most of his ideas objectionable, because his writing is almost fussy in its exactness, and his general spirit one of humility and prudence rather than sneering dismissal. I find him at his most convincing when writing on the the limits of our knowledge, of how problematic our attempting to  manage from the top down, something as complicated as an economy, is...largely because unintended consequences, 'blowback', is a topic I can't seem to get away from these days.  His flat denial that no checks need to be made to curb the power of economically successfully companies, to break monopolies, strike me as risible, and there's always something entertaining to me about an intellectual safe and well-fed in an academic job writing on the virtues of market forces that effect the lives of working folk far more than him....entertaining in the way the insect on the leaf  alleging that there is too much life among his hungry brethren in the dust is entertaining, if I might borrow from A Christmas Carol.  

I did enjoy the book, though, and suspect I may be grappling with Hayek again in the future..


The Great Railroad Revolution

The Great Railroad Revolution: A History of Trains in America
© 2012 Christian Wolmar
448 pages

The United States’ history is one written with novelty: born in the dawn of the industrial age,  America was a blank slate for technologies with the potential to transform societies – technologies like the railroad. Rail historian Christian Wolmar sees the history of railroads and the United States as inextricably bound to one another: they came of age and rose to power together. Their mutual ascendancy is the source of The Great Railroad Revolution, a marvelous history of both.

The story of trains begins not in the United States, but in England, where cars on rails pulled by horses were used to transport coal relatively short distances. Early in the course of the industrial revolution, however, a series of inventions allowed for the complicated and powerful system of the railroads to be born. The United States' need for efficient inland transportation made it an early adopter of the rails, and as the young nation pushed west it did so under the puffing smoke and whistle of a steam engine. In Blood, Iron, and Steel, Wolmar demonstrated how important the rails were to economic development and expansion. Here, he's able to drive home the same lessons, but at the same time give more coverage to smaller topics. He devotes a chapter to the rails' role in the Civil War, for instance, and argues for his belief that they allowed the conflict to metastasize from a small dust-up into a continent-wide brawl that consumed the lives of millions, by giving both governments the technology they needed to shift massive armies across regions and keep them supplied with food and ammunition. In "Rails of All Kinds", he covers trolleys, which were the first form of public transportation, and even the short-lived interurban lines, which were electric trains connecting cities short distances apart. Although a rail advocate, Wolmar doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of the railroads' legacy like the abuse of power that companies held over farmers in the midwest, who lived so far from population centers that they were dependent on the railroads to get their goods to market.

Americans have a curious relationship with railroad companies, Wolmar writes, describing it as an affair that began passionately and ended with enthusiastic rejection. The book's final quarter tracks the decline of the railroads as a reaction against their abuses and subsidized competition from the automobile. The decline wasn't inevitable, but Wolmar sees the rail companies as hampered by the baggage of their own history. In spite of their rapid decline, though, the American system is still one of the largest,and the best means of moving freight across the company. His conclusion urges Amtak to adapt to changing circumstances and give up the thought of long-distance passenger transport, which he views as a waste of their precious resources. Far better to play to the rails' strength, which is freight and regional passenger transportation.

The ending is mildly disappointing: in this age of rising oil prices and the contraction of automobile-dominated suburban sprawl, the rail lines's future seems more promising than just freight delivery. Even so, this is a delightful history of the railroads in the United States, one that demonstrates that their fall to the cars wasn't a foregone conclusion.

Selected Bibliography:

The Transportation Revolution, George Rogers Taylor
 All Aboard: the Railroad in American Life, George H. Douglas
Passage to Union: how the Railroads Transformed American Life, Sarah Gordon
Enterprise Denied, Albro Martin
Railroads Triumphant, Albro Martin
Urban Mass Transit, Robert C Post
The Electric Urban Railways, George Hilton and John F. Due
Urban Mass Transit, Transport or Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, Paul Mees

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
© 2008 Suzanne Collins
 378 pages           

 Once every year,  two teenagers are chosen at random to represent their region in a nation-wide game….the Hunger Games. But they’re not competing in track and field or spiking volleyballs to earn metals:  they’re fighting to the death. And you thought high school sucked.

The Hunger Games is the first in a science-fiction trilogy set in a dystopia future wherein the United States is gone, replaced by a country known as Panem. Its central city, Capitol, is rich beyond measure, and rules with an iron hand twelve outlying districts, all impoverished. There used to be thirteen districts, but when it rebelled against the state the insurrection was brutally put down…and to ensure that no other district bucked the reins again, Panem instituted the Hunger Games, forcing two kids from every district to compete against one another, fighting one another until only one survives.

Katniss Everdeen is a voluntary contender in the games, fighting so that her young sister Primrose doesn’t have to. She is, in effect, taking a death sentence: the odds are long that she will prevail among the 24, because other, wealthier districts train their children for the yearly games and see them as a place to earn wealth and glory.  Katniss’ home, District 12, is a poor mining area: they see the games for what they are, the murder of children for the glorification of a malevolent state. But Katniss is up to Capitol's challenge. Orphaned by her father and functionally abandoned by her mother,  she shouldered the burden of  responsibility for herself and her sister, defying the laws to hunt secretly in the woods bordering her district and bringing home food for her family . It takes courage to live outside the law, but Katniss is determined to survive. That, and the survival skills she's learned pacing the woodlands in search of prey,  are her best hope.

The Hunger Games is not a happy story. It is brutal and intense, both in terms of action and the emotional turmoil readers joining Katniss will go through. The physical challenge is daunting enough:  Katniss is not only compelled to fight against 23 other teenagers abandoned in the woods, having to provide her own shelter and food, but the Capitol authorities, the “Gamemakers”, constantly imperil the contestants,  altering the weather and sending monsters to harry the tributes. The young people create alliances to survive, but temporary physical advantages carry their price: it’s a lot more difficult to kill a friend, and a lot easier to be killed by someone you regard as an ally.

Happy it isn't, but The Hunger Games proved more compelling than I expected it to be. Katniss is an indomitable central character, feisty and self-reliant. She never whines, and though she has vulnerabilities she doesn't waste time dwelling on them.Other characters, like the mysterious Rue and the brooding Peeta, prove able additions to the cast. She's easy to root for, even when forced to make difficult decisions. And happily for a teen novel, there's not a lot of dwelling on romance -- although it does factor in, and will become more important in the sequel.  

This is essentially a story about courageous young people in harrowing circumstances, attempting to survive not only 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune', but the Capitol's attempt to destroy their own sense of humanity. It's a fast, thrilling read, peopled by strong characters whose maturity gives the lie to the conflation of adolescence and silliness. 


Friday, December 28, 2012

Hamlet's Blackberry

Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age
© 2011 William Powers
288 pages

Getting online used to require sitting in front of a computer terminal and waiting for it to dial in, oh so slowly. It was a choice to connect, one which required effort. But now the online world has expanded to encompass the real: we are constantly connected to it, and virtually nothing happens outside its context. If the online world is the web, we are flies trapped in its silken strings. We have not lost our mobility, however, but our peace of mind – and a certain richness of experience.  But the internet is new yet, and our powerlessness is only temporary. We may yet adapt, and in Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers attempts to channel the wisdom of generations past, who likewise witnessed technological revolutions in the way they interacted with one another and information.

  After an opening section that elaborates on the problems of hyperconnectivity, Powers turns to philosophy as the guide to the good life.  This is not the philosophy of academics, the impotent discussions on how many Ideal Forms can dance on the head of a pin in Plato’s cave: this is philosophy as it was once practiced: an inquiry into life.  To keep our head, we must live consciously, and this is emphasized throughout. Powers begins (naturally) with Socrates, who with his companion Phaedrus seeks respite from the noise and business of the city by going for a walk into the wild.  Although putting distance between ourselves and distractions sounds nice, today it’s not necessarily practical: we’ve integrated digital connectivity into so much of the world that even wildernesses have wi-fi hot spots. More helpful is the second chapter, set in Rome, where Seneca’s Stoicism is touted as the key to a steady mind, and his practice of letter-writing as a means of focusing amid the clamor of the city. In Elizabethean England, Hamlet uses an erasable pad to organize his thoughts – overwhelmed by all of the information he and the world were beginning to experience during the scientific revolution. Benjamin Franklin is tapped as a mentor for self-growth, and in 19th century New England,  Henry David Thoreau illustrates the value of establishing the home, at least, as a refuge. Last and possibly least-recognized is Marshall McLuhan, who led the way in analyzing how technology changes mental culture, and who here prompts readers to consider how much the use of a particular technology is going to expose them to unwanted distractions.  To end, Powers examines ways he has pushed back against chronic connectivity in his own life, establishing 'internet sabbaths' where he and his family stay disconnected throughout the weekend. The result, he found, was astonishingly liberating and restful.

Powers' work is essentially moderate; he advocates that people adapt to new technologies, instead of being dominated by them (as are most people these days) or simply rejecting them, as is my tendency.  The premise of the work isn't quite accurate (Thoreau and McLuhan are the only ones responding deliberately to a new technology), but Hamlet's Blackberry is useful just for challenging the general attitude toward connectivity, namely that More is Better.  Powers emphasizes the quality of experience, and  his guides are largely helpful in pointing out ways to increase that quality. Definitely of interest to most readers.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Racketeer

The Racketeer
© 2012 John Grisham
340 pages

Malcolm Bannister is a largely unsuccessful lawyer who was imprisoned by an overly aggressive government prosecutor when he accidentally turned  his law firm into a shell company for a shady crook who needed to launder a lot of money.  Two years in a minimum-security prison camp are sufficient to turn him from a struggling bungler into a mastermind, and the tangled web of deception he weaves begins when Bannister approaches the FBI with information that can help them solve the execution-style murder of a federal judge. Although at first the plot seems straightforward -- Bannister turns state's evidence and is then ostensibly pursued by the man whom he helpd indict's friends -- by novel's midpoint Bannister reveals himself to be an unreliable narrator, whose machinations and ultimate motive are as confusing to the reader as they are to his victims. It's as if upon pulling the first rabbit out of his hat, Bannister was so impressed with himself that he kept doing it -- "And another! And another! And another!"  The resulting frenzy and self-congratulatory antics quickly grew tiresome. The Racketeer is somewhat reminiscent of The Partner, in that the main character is in the middle of an extensive and extremely complicated con that will make him very rich, but unlike him in that instead of wanting to be left alone,  Bannister goes out of his way to entrap people and  cackle at his brilliance. I hoped earnestly that things would go awry, but every part of his plan falls into place in this light-action 'thriller'  loaded with unsympathetic characters, leading to a smug conclusion that made me wonder if I could get the receipt for this book and return it.

I'll let the author's note speak for itself..

"Almost nothing in the previous 340-odd pages is based on reality. Research, hardly a priority, was rarely called upon. Accuracy was not deemed crucial. Long paragraphs of fiction were used to avoid looking up facts."

The Racketeer has earned the distinction of being my least-favorite Grisham novel among all of his adult fiction.  It has the merit of an interesting cover, though. I do like hats.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Riding Rockets

Riding Rockets: the Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
© 2007 Mike Mullane
400 pages

Mike Mullane is a shuttle astronaut with a penis fixation. Although Riding Rockets is ostensibly about the opening decades of the space shuttle era in NASA,  it could be titled the Cosmic Adventures of Mike and his Member. If he doesn't mention his genitalia more times than he uses the acronym "NASA", he at least makes a valiant effort. His is an astronaut memoir of an altogether different kind than say, Jim Lovell's, or Deke Slayton's.  This is not a heroic tale of people achieving the impossible:it is instead the story of a man-child and his bros in space. He is juvenile, inappropriate, and obsessed with himself --- but someone who has an interesting story to tell, one that sometimes verges on thoughtful,  if you can endure his boorishness.

Riding Rockets gave me fits, being an uncomfortable read: Mullane has all the tact of a dog in heat, and writes almost confrontationally. His emotions are ever on his sleeves, and he dares anyone to challenge him. ("Come at me, bro!") His story is entertaining, and even touching -- there were times when I shook with laughter, and moments wherein I put the book away to put some distance myself and Mullane's emotions, like his despair at his friends' death following the Challenger explosion. Part of the appeal in reading the memoirs of astronauts is that they've seen Earth and humanity in a way the overwhelming majority of us haven't. A photo of Earthrise cannot have the same profound effect on people as actually being there, hanging in the black of space and seeing the Earth -- the stage for every human drama, the sum of our experienced lives -- shrinking below, the entirety of our existence reduced to a finite thing that can be left behind. Mullane can write beautifully, but instead he makes a lot of penis jokes, and those moments of author-reader connection were always broken by  wanting to recoil from his personality.

Despite the sometimes beauty of his words, and  his insights, Mullane is, candidly, a jackass.  The image that comes to mind is that of a drunk teenager invading a bar,  perhaps one who has just finished the greatest high school football game of his life and can't wait to impress his audience with it -- but is oblivious to the fact that he is in the company of grown adults who find his posturing and immense self-satisfaction wholly obnoxious.  He identifies himself early on, and somewhat proudly,  as being in a state of a Arrested Development, along with most of the astronaut corps.  Having cheerfully written off his ability to function as a mature, considerate, and thoughtful human beings, he spends most of the book acting instead like a jackass -- ogling women, devoting paragraphs to how rockin' the bods of some of his female colleagues were; endlessly complaining and opining about everyone who thought or acted differently from himself, and of course, chatting merrily away about his penis.  Inexplicably, he forgot to mention said organ in the index. It was certainly mentioned enough times to merit inclusion there.  Charming he isn't, although his attempts at civilized behavior are almost comic.  After dismissing civilian astronauts for being a bunch of pantywaisted granola-eating libtards -- in contradistinction to the solid, right-thinking, manly-man military pilots -- Mullane reflects on their performance throughout the shuttle missions and concludes, "Hey, those guys  did have a pair. Not bad!"

I couldn't be impressed by Mullane. Behind the cocky grin and the swagger are thoughtful eyes and a mind that can deliver stirringly poetic tributes and reflections to friends, love, and the beauty of life , but these occasions are few and far between, diamonds in a rough possibly too broad to justify digging in.   There aren't many astronaut memoirs about the shuttle program, but I'm planning on reading the other I've found (Sky Walking, Tom Jones)  to see if readers interested in that era of NASA's history have to be content with this story of adolescents in space.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Humans Who Went Extinct

The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived
© 2010 Clive Finlayson
256 pages

Whatever happened to the Neanderthals? Did Homo sapiens drive our beefy cousins into extinction in the first of many exercises in genocide as we spread across the planet? Poppycock, suggests Clive Finlayson, to whom such a suggestion is the very height of hubris. His The Humans Who Went Extinct paints of a picture of generations of climate change hitting the planet like a rolling barrage, stressing increasingly marginal bands of hominids -- humans and Neanderthals alike. Eventually the Neanderthals succumbed; the difference between the species, Finlayson writes, is that human populations were lucky enough to be in areas where they could adapt to the unpredictable environment. 

I've never had a problem with the Humans Are Homicidal Maniacs theory as applied to Neanderthal death, because we have a proven track record in that regard. Name a living species, and we've probably driven most of their extended family into extinction. Finlayson thinks the idea is rubbish, and while he's at it he also doesn't cotton to the idea of humans being responsible for other mass extinctions, like the mammoths. No, the malefactor was climate change, and climate change alone. Neanderthals weren't the slow, stupid brutes that people like to fancy themselves as having killed off in a feat demonstrating superior ability and intelligence: they were bigger-brained than we were, using tools and creating art just as we did. And their kill sites demonstrate that they were an adaptable and agile species to boot, devouring tricky prey like rabbits and birds.

Finlayson's work is very much inspired by Guns, Germs, and Steel, which he refers to repeatedly: his last substantive chapter leads directly into Diamond's work, which demonstrated the importance of geography in human affairs. In Humans Who Went Extinct, geography and climate are the main actors. He relies both on traditional archaeological evidence and genetic tracking to put forth his case, but the overweening emphasis climate change seemed a bit much for me. I can accept human populations being marginal and strained, but surely we bear some responsibility? In those instances where Sapiens and Neanderthals shared the same area, I find it hard to imagine the two living in peace.  Part of the difficulty for me in accepting Finlayson's arguments wholly is that the evidence is hard to come by, relying in part on inference. The scope of the question also poses a problem for anyone looking for definitive Answer: the drama of extinction played out on a a stage that encompassed most of the "old world", and thousands of years. My biggest beef with Finlayson is  his dismissal of our having any role in killing off any of the ice age fauna, though that's only a sidenote and he may have been referring only to the European species.

The Humans Who Went Extinct gives readers curious about the world early humans lived in something to chew over. Its view of that world as being turbulent and hostile, one that we were lucky to survive in, let alone conquer, is definitely one to consider, as is his depiction of the Neanderthals as people quite like us who had the misfortune of being in the wrong spots of the globe at the wrong time, whose population bottlenecks resulted in extinction.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

This Week at the Library (20 December)

Well, the week is winding down, and with it, the year. I've recently finished both The Great Railroad Revolution and The Humans Who Went Extinct, so comments for those are in progress.  And what will I be reading this week, this last week of 2012?  At the moment I have Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane, which is a memoir of his years as a space shuttle astronaut.  I also checked out Union Pacific, by Zane Grey, which is a western that I checked out mostly because it's about trains, and I'll be exploring The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek. I say 'exploring' because I want toget a feel for his writing style. I've heard a few quotations from him which have piqued my interest, like the phrase "the pretence of knowledge", and the below tidbit...

 "We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those which we expected."

I should confess that what interested me in him was...a rap-battle between himself and another economist, John Maynard Keynes. Oh, but the internet has such strange and wonderful things in it. There's another video of the two actor-economists rapping in front of a conference hosted by...The Economist. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

All Fall Down

 Supervolcano: All Fall Down
© 2012 Harry Turtledove
416 pages
YellowstoneNational Park is gone, replaced by a vast caldera that still ripples the air with its heat. The momentous eruption covered North America’s great-growing heartland in ash, ruining harvests for years to come, and vented enough dust into the atmosphere to begin a new ice age. In Supervolcano: Eruption, Harry Turtledove began a trilogy exploring the aftermath of such an enormous eruption, using the dysfunctional Ferguson family and their associates to tell the tale. The original novel was shaky at best, relying more on its premise than anything else, but All Fall Down is an improvement.
All Fall Down builds on the world the eruption began to create – a colder world, with abbreviated growing seasons and snow that never seems to stop. Characterization has improved from Eruption, or rather the characters have: the Fergusons tended toward the obnoxious before the earth-shattering kaboom, but having to adapt to increasingly adverse circumstances has improved their dispositions. They , and the world in which they live, are adapting; this is especially obvious in the case of the Ferguson boy trapped in Maine, who before the fun began was touring in a garage band. With the entire northern hemisphere experiencing eight months of winter and four months of bad skiing, the Federal government has largely abandoned Maine. There, characters live close to the land. No more do they ship in salads from California and shrimp from Thailand: now they hunt moose and squirrel, and subsist on whatever crops can survive the new local conditions. In California, Colin Ferguson – a no-nonsense cop whose steely resolve and willingness to make adjustments makes him a solid central character – bicycles to work, even if he is the #2 cop in the city. He’s also willing to turn a machine gun on the Los Angles Police Department if they try to pinch his department’s tanker of gasoline. Desperate times breed strong men and iron-handed measures. Colin’s daughter Vanessa continues her caustic reign of terror, but the Ferguson crew is supplemented by a mysterious guerilla-turned-freedom fighter from Serbia and an endearingly odd political leader who embraces anachronity in his dress and speech.

 The novel spans anywhere from three to five years, judging by the fact that a woman gives birth to a child who is asking annoying questions by novel’s end, and in that timeframe Turtledove’s new world becomes much more like Jim Kunstler’s peak-oil world featured in his World Made by Hand Novels and less like our own. This slow transformation takes place in the background, against which characters pursue their own private stories – a serial killer for the lieutenant, escape from the purgatory of Kansas for Vanessa. As with the first novel, the premise and how that shapes the characters’ lives is more interesting than their private lives, with the exceptions of those characters who live outside of California.
Unfortunately, the same basic weakness of Eruption is present here, as well. Turtledove's novels have a big background happening with his characters trying to live out their lives against it, but the gradual transformation of the climate doesn't move the plot, and neither do the characters' little stories. The man in Maine whom CNN calls a virtual dictator has the potential to create a more energetic story, but so far he's only functioned as a wry commentator. And of course, there's the usual editing problem -- Turtledove stumbled upon a metaphor he likes between the two books, "screwing to the wall", and he used it with great gusto here. He does seem to be curbing his habit of repeatedly describing the same characters: here, only Colin's dry humor is used in this way. For the most part, Turtledove demonstrates his characters' personalities rather than describes them, which is refreshing after reading for the hundredth time that Sam Carsen burns easily or Ludmila Gorbunova is a good child of the Soviet Revolution and has no use for priests.*

Although All Fall Down was entertaining enough that I don't regret reading, I can't say I'd purchase it. It is a step forward in the right direction, and the general premise still holds fascination for me.
* To be fair, though, I remember Turtledove's characters when other novelists' creations have long been forgotten, so perhaps there's a method in his madness. The trivia I can tell you about people who don't exist...!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus Created
© 2011 Charles C. Mann
690 pages

Although Christopher Columbus's reputation as an intrepid explorer doesn't withstand historical scrutiny,  Charles C. Mann believes Columbus has a legacy still worth honoring. No, he didn't prove the world to be flat -- that's a myth peculiar to American schoolrooms -- and his attempt to establish that the world was smaller than conventional wisdom held would have failed were it not for the existence of the Americas. But Columbus made the world smaller, through his actions -- for he not only 'discovered' the new world, he aggressively promoted interactions between it and the old. What began as the Colombian Exchange, we now call globalization -- and its effects have been profound from the start. Such is the story of 1493.

Throughout most of recorded history, the economies of large polities tended to be self-contained spheres.  The economies of the Roman and Chinese empires, for instance, were largely separate  aside from a trickle of activity along the silk road.  The modern age is marked, however, by a world economy. No sector of the Earth, no community however small, conducts business in a market smaller than the entire globe. This dense interconnectivity is made possible by both by powerful transportation, in the form of fast-moving planes, ships, and delivery trucks, and the near-instantaneous telecommunications networks. It began, however, with enormous trade galleons tying Spain to central America, and its holdings there to  China. The influx of so much silver into China's markets played havoc with its economy, leading to decades of instability. Crops from the Americas became staples of the global food market, allowing for a prolonged population boom in China and alleviating famine in Ireland, at least until the new crop the Irish came to depend upon, the potato, was hit by blight. The habitat of both plants and animals spread wildly, and it wasn't just large fauna like pigs and horses that found new ground:  bacterial populations flourished, and with them disease. In 1491, Mann detailed how the human landscape of the Americas was laid waste by the arrival of European diseases like smallpox; here, another population, that of the west-coast Africans, is reduced to slavery because of their resistance to malaria.

People tend to like histories of themselves, of great people doing great things -- but this is a material history, very much in the vein of Guns, Germs, and Steels, one which demonstrates how human history is often driven by outside factors -- here, by access to resources and the economic changes they allow. Although humans are active as agents, initiating the changes, the outcome is never what they expect: the effect is rather like Odysseus' sailors opening up the bag of wind and being blown wildly off course.

 Mann's history of early globalization covers the changes being wrought across the globe, missing only the mideast. Though dense, Mann is quite the storyteller, at least until the final leg of the story when he wanders into the rubber plantations of South America and the story loses some steam, getting lost for a while charting the growth of communities of runaway slaves in the jungles. The  work isn't as tightly focused in its latter half as in the first, but Mann does tend toward the informal, combining standard narrative with merry anecdotes from his first-hand explorations of the subject. Early on, he spends three pages detailing how he investigated a word Columbus used, eventually concluding that yes, he did mean exactly what we think he meant. The investigation is interesting to a word-nerd like myself, and amusing for its irrelevancy, but it's an example of the way he tends to wander off.

1491 was for me, the book of the year in 2010. Earlier in the summer,  when I looked back over the past five years and reflected on the stand-outs, it ranked among them. Its sequel is strong -- it puts up a good fight -- but it's not quite in the same class.   Even so, I'd recommend it to those interested in the economic impact of the age of discovery, especially if they like rubber-tree plantations.


Cattle: an Informal Social History
© 2001 Laurie Winn Carlson
321 pages

Consider...the cow. A humble creature, its dopey expression reveals no vast intelligence, and its barrel of a body gives it virtually no athletic ability, but it is remarkable if nothing else for its extensive influence on the human race. Throughout our long history with cattle, we have used them for much more than food -- and they have used us, in turn. Laurie Winn Carlson holds cattle in high esteem, and her history of cows and people is rich and wide-ranging, if sometimes romanticized.

Although most people would associate cows with beef, or food in general (dairy milk being the source of cheese and butter), the various kinds of domesticated cattle have also served as labor and medical factories; the first vaccines were taken from the lymph of cows, and are named in tribute of the cow, the Latin for which is vacca. Although it's nice of the cows to give us a cure for smallpox, it's the least they could do considering the disease migrated from them in the first place.  The story of cows and people is one of give and take, each side contributing to and detracting from the other's well-being,  but until recently it has been a mutually advantageous alliance. Since the industrial era, however, the relationship has become decidedly exploitative, with cattle being reduced from beings that we related to into machines that we create, use, and discard at our own convenience.  People have become detached in general from the sources of  our food, but Carlson is especially concerned about the marginalization of cattle.

  Although Carlson sometimes gets carried away in her devotion to cows , as in early on when she attributes the development of law to the complexities of life arising from keeping cattle, Cattle is a fascinating book in part because of how much ground it covers, addressing anthropology, evolution, economics, medicine, and food just for starters, with  the main course being history.   There are definite weaknesses (repeating "facts" that should have been scrutinized more) and some curious omissions (nothing is mentioned of CAFO feedlots), but this is a unique book. Other books I’ve looked at cover only the food aspect of cattle culture, not their role in the everyday life of pre-industrial people.  Cattle isn't a beefsteak of a book, but it's a good burger at least.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Teaser Tuesday + This Week at the Library (11 December)

"The Sun King used to entertain his guests by giving them rides on the Roulette, a kind of roller coaster built in the garden of his chateau at Marly, near Verailles, in 1691. It was a carved and gilded carriage on wheels that thundered down an eight-hundred-foot wooden track into a valley and, thanks to its momentum, up the other side -- much to the amusement of the king's bewigged guests."

p. 4, The Great Railroad Revolution. Christian Wolmar.

Last week, I finished Charles C. Mann's 1493 and a social history of cows, both of which would have been reviewed over the weekend had I not spent it going to three Christmas parties. (Well, one was a Hanukkah breakfast...) I'd started The Age of Voltaire with the intention of reading at least one more chapter of the Story of Civilization before civilization ends in ten days (I jest, of course, but it's been a while since I've read one), but then...I found out that my library has a copy of Christian Wolmar's newest work, The Great Railroad  Revolution, which covers the intersection of the railroads and America's past and future. And to think the day before I ordered a book on the history of steam transportation. So, trains first, then Voltaire. I'm also intending to finish The Humans Who Went Extinct. I'd managed to find it, but now I've lost it again. Tricky Neanderthals..

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Eternal Tide

Star Trek Voyager: the Eternal Tide
© 2012 Kirsten Beyer
388 pages          

Only Kathryn Janeway can save reality, imperiled by the physical manifestation of Chaos itself. At least, that’s what “Junior”, the scion of the mostly-omnipotent and thoroughly mischievous Q, thinks.  It’s just  not that Jane way is a demigod: all Starfleet captains are. But something she did in an alternate timeline defeated chaos, and Q Jr. is hoping she can figure what that something is. Unfortunately for him, she’s dead, having perished at the dawn of the last great Borg War when she was assimilated before being blown to smithereens. Fortunately for him, he’s a Q, so restoring her to life isn’t that hard of a trick.  But even for a Q,  life’s not that easy. The Eternal Tide witnesses the return of Captain Kate*, the culmination of Fleet Commander Afsarah Eden’s mysterious-past storyline,  the Q Continuum invading Voyager in force, and  the near-obliteration of life as we know it, all inextricably connected.

Kirsten Beyer has turned the Voyager relaunch into an enterprise far more critically successful than its onscreen edition,  reviving it. Here, it's Janeway that she brings to life -- to the mixed delight and vehemence of fans.  Since the return of Spock in the third Star Trek movie, fans have complained that death has lost its sting in the Trek universe:  while Joe Redshirt may be dead for good, the major characters always have a way to return. Data, for instance, dumped his entire memory into B4 shortly before engaging in his own attempt at a heroic death. Janeway's salvation is the Q Continuum, who showed up shortly before she started the mission that led to her assimilation and "death" and warned her not to do it.  She did it anyway, and then something astonishing happened: her death became a "fixed moment in time". In Q-terms, this means that in every universe, in all but one timeline,  Kathryn Janeway dies at the same exact moment. Clearly something is afoot, and Q Jr intends to find out what it is. He has a personal interest in sorting out the mystery, because for some reason, he can't look into the future beyond a certain date. Doe that mean the universe simply ends?...or just himself or the Q?

Although this is the book of Janeway's return -- it has her on the cover,  after all -- it isn't about Captain Kate, Wonder Woman in Uniform.  Afsarah Eden, commander of the Federation fleet exploring the Delta Quadrant and looking for signs of the supposedly-vanished Borg,  plays a part even more crucial. Eden has a past shrouded even mystery: even she doesn't remember her early childhood, and in Children of the Storm  she made a discovery that overturned what little she thought she did. Here, the plot thickens. Her past and the future of the Q Continuum are bound together. The story eventually sheds light on the origins of the Q, which is what fans may remember The Eternal Tide for after the furor of Janeway's return to the living is over.  Although the Chaos-Monster-Thing plot took time to grow on me, once the little storylines (Eden's exploration of her past, Q Jr's investigation of oblivion) coalesce,  all comes together splendidly.   There were multiple fascinating ways the story could have been resolved, but Beyer's choice was a nice nod to the abiding spirit of Star Trek, a belief in the power of the human spirit.

As usual, the writing is a pleasure. Characterization is, as ever, a strong suit:  I still can't get over how cocky Tom Paris has become a responsible first officer and devoted family man, and a source of pride to  Captain Chakotay, when for most of Voyager's run they were at each other's throats. Beyer first impressed me by making Chakotay likable, and a relationship between him and Janeway palatable.  Janeway's return would obviously have the greatest effect on him, rivaled possibly only by that of Seven of Nine's, whose own response is touching given her tendency to not emote.

The Eternal Tide thus tells a story that is big enough not to be overshadowed by the return of a major character from death, and it's told with all the skill relaunch readers have come to expect from Beyer.

*Technically it's Vice Admiral Janeway, but "Cap'n Kate" has so much more consonative appeal.

Teaser Tuesday (4 December)

They sat and continued to stare at each other, in a precious stolen moment of pure happiness. Finally, Kathryn said, "You do realize the universe is tearing itself to shreds around us?"

p. 251, Star Trek Voyager: the Eternal Tide. Kirsten Beyer.

"So we're facing something that appears to have the potential to destroy not only the lives of every being now in existence, but also the lives of at least two theoretically immortal beings," Cambridge said, "And you and this Junior are convinced that another version of Voyager encountered the same problem and somehow eliminated this threat?"
"We're pretty good," Chakotay offered semi-seriously. 

p. 262, The Eternal Tide. Kirsten Beyer.

Friday, November 30, 2012

This Week at the Library (30 November)

This past week I read A South Divided, by David Downing, which covers  the same ground  in part as David Williams' Bitterly Divided, in that it examines the importance of southerners who worked against the confederacy. But whereas Williams argued that the Confederacy's loss in the American Civil War was primarily one of popular support, not of combat operations, Downing's history is less pointed: he doesn't cut to the quick like Williams, but chooses individual cases in different categories (a southerner who became a leading Union officer, a slave who ran away and took a steamship with him, a given band of anti-confederates fighting from a particular swamp, a county which refused to secede from the Union) to explore the different reasons southerners had for resisting or fighting against the Confederacy.  Although his narrative is missing the teeth of Williams', Downing is an English professor, not an historian, and what he delivers is admirable: a book which tells another side of the Civil War, one rich in human interest. His work is superb for illustrating Bitterly Divided, expanding on the untold towards of the southern fight against the confederacy, but by itself it lacks the critical substance.

I also finished Charles C. Mann's 1493, which enthralled me for the most part. It seemed to lose vigor after the first four hundred pages, but I'll be giving full comments in a few days.  I hadn't intended to read it so soon, but The Humans Who Went Extinct has gone missing on me. I have far too many cases and piles of books that a given work might disappear into when I absent-mindedly set it down...

I'll be trying to find that, and in the meantime I'm doing my annual Christmastime Harry Potter re-read. On the serious side, I've got Cattle: An Informal Social History, by Laurie Winn Carlson.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


© 2003 Robert Sawyer
448 pages

"You manage to comfortably feed six billion people with plants?"
"Well, ah, no," said Mary. "About half a billion people don't have enough to eat."
"That is very bad," said Ponter, simply.

Why did humans kill off the Neanderthals? Nobody likes a scold.  Researchers studying neutrinos are startled when a Neanderthal suddenly appears in the bowels of their laboratory, though not as surprised as he, who materialized into a tank of heavy water while conducting some quantum research of his own. Quantum research? Yes, this Neanderthal is no time-traveling caveman. He's a scientist from a parallel world, one in which Homo sapiens is extinct and Neanderthals are the dominant species -- and what they've accomplished puts humanity to shame. Hominids is the beginning of an intriguing yet maddening SF trilogy that I can't help but wonder at even as I wince.
Sawyer uses a small group of viewpoint characters to tell a fast story. Two scientists in our world are responsible for taking care of  their interspatial colleague  "Ponter", who has no idea what's has no idea what's happened to him and finds himself in a world that is utterly alien, yet mockingly familiar in terms of geography. He knows the landscape: it is his home, and yet these are not his people.  Across the divide, one of Ponter's coworkers is desperate to find out what happened to him, as in the wake of Ponter's disappearances, the assumption is that he has been murdered...and the coworker is the only plausible suspect. Sawyer uses the two Neanderthal men to explore the differences between the societies that Sapiens and Neanderthalensis have created. Although the story itself has little dramas -- the trial, Ponter's attempts to communicate, the question of how his displacement occurred -- anthropology carries the day, along with mystic physics and sketchy musings on consciousness.
By our standards, the Neanderthals have created a utopia wherein poverty, hunger, and crime are unknown, and technology is highly advanced even though the population is smaller and more widely dispersed. A global population of 185 million people is sustained on a diet of meat and fruit, and the only species human beings have driven extinct are themselves -- Sapiens, are extinct on that world, and viewed as stupidly violent by Neanderthal anthropologists. Neanderthals live close to the Earth; literally, their beds are flush with the ground, and they use moss as their flooring. Their ways seem ancient, at times -- a council of elders, called the Grays, are the leaders, and men and women live apart in separate groups for most of the month -- but are also inseperable from modern technology. Therein lies a darker side to the utopia: violent crime isn't an issue because violent offenders are castrated or sterilized, as are whichever members of their family share 50% of their DNA.  Even those who carry an impulse toward violence are careful to keep it in check, because the odds of their being discovered are nearly perfect: all Neanderthals carry an implant which records everything they do (rather like the implants in The Final Cut, with Robin Williams) onto a data cube. 
The novel puts forth a lot of interesting ideas, ideas which come from scholarly sources but are unlikely to find as broad an audience as an exciting novel might find. Because Ponter's people never embraced agriculture, nor domesticated the attendant animals, they and he are not susceptible to diseases that were born in livestock and later spread to humans through close association. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel made the same point about native Americans: because they didn't use cattle, horses, and pigs, they were never exposed their diseases until Europeans arrived  in the Americas, pestilence in tow. Unfortunately, these ideas are presented with all the subtlety of a club to the head. The Mary-Sue esque lead character of Earth's Children, Aayla, was a Sapiens woman raised by Neanderthals: she could do everything, perfectly, the first time. Little wonder: she must have been raised by Sawyer's Neanderthals, because they're just so gosh-darned wonderful. Ponter spends most of his time slack-jawed, not because he's ignorant, but because he's bewildered by the actions of people -- people, with their smelly internal combustion engines, and their violent crime, and their patent failure to embrace birth control,  and their gods and taboos. (Neanderthals are not only nonreligious, they've never had anything like religion and are utterly baffled by it.  Their every measurement system is based on tens, with no religious calendars to bother with, so they're a bit like beefy French revolutionaries.)
I tend to agree with the author on the merits of his Neanderthals, but they're so overplayed and the Sapiens are so ridiculously weak that the constant preaching becomes obnoxious. Yes, I get it. Humans are terrible. But we have spunk!  Sawyer's humans don't. When Ponter wanders and finds a Catholic character following the Mass on TV, he stands jaw agape at what she's doing, and later schools Mary on why she's irrational. And incredibly, Mary marvels at what a fool she's been her entire life.  She's like a character from a Chick tract, and not any more believable. With the exception of one Neanderthal, most of the characters are sock puppets used to put forth arguments that lose interest when one realizes there's no tension in them: there's never a chance that the humans won't go "Gosh, we're so dumb."   And the one time that humans do something that impresses Ponter -- going to the Moon, which he's just flabbergasted by -- he loses interest upon learning we did it once, decades ago, and for the trivial reason of proving the worth of economic systems. But he tries hard to make his new human companions think he's still impressed, sounding for all the world like a parent presented with a crayola drawing of a box with legs from their child and marveling at it as though it's a masterwork.
I like that Sawyer overturns expectations by having his Neanderthals be more intelligent than Sapiens: unfortunately, the expression thereof is just unbelievable. Even beyond the characters, his society itself strains credulity. How exactly did the Neanderthals build an advanced world society without agriculture? What is its material basis, considering how many resources it takes to sustain scientific enterprises in the 21st century? The Neanderthals don't use fossil fuels, so how on Earth did they go from hunter-gathers to the scientific and industrial revolutions?  They use solar power, fine -- but what power did they use to produce the materials that solar plants need?   I'm sort of hoping that the next book, Humans, or the third, Hybrids, will answer those questions...which is why, even though  the series off to a problematic start, I'm planning to read more. Whatever its limitations, the central idea fascinates me.  

If you'd like to read a sample, there's a chapter available here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (20 November)

" others. I....all..." He shook his head, and spoke again. The Companion switched to its female voice, speaking for itself. "I do not have the vocabulary  to translate what Ponter is saying."
Mary nodded slowly. "The word you're looking for," she said gently, "is 'alone'". 

p. 196, Hominids, Robert Sawyer

"When his slaves began sneaking away to nearby Yankee camps, a Vicksburg planter asked the 'patriarch' of his slaves, Silas, if the elderly man and his wife were planning their escape as well. Oh, no, 'Uncle Si' reassured his owner, they were too old for that and they were going to stay right where they were. That night all the remaining slaves on the plantation slipped away, including the aged couple. When the planter rode out after them the next day, he found Uncle Si in the woods, bending over the lifeless body of his wife. The planter asked, not unsympathetically, why the old man would subject her to such a strenuous journey, one she clearly was not strong enough to endure. Silas replied simply that it couldn't be helped, adding pensively, 'But then, you see, she died free.' "

p. 166, A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy. David Downing.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Space Chronicles

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
© 2012 Neil deGrasse Tyson; edited by Avis Lang
384 pages

On July 20th, 1969, America mesmerized the world by landing men on the Moon. For the first time in history, human feet stepped on the soil of another planet. But on July 21st. 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down on the runway and the United States ceased to be a spacefaring nation, for the shuttle program had ended. Space Chronicles collects essays by astrophysicist and science advocate  Neil deGrasse Tyson which looks back on the history of the American space program and reflect on its legacy both to science and the human endeavor before arguing that the United States need to return to space with  bold ambitions.

Tyson first caught my attention a few years ago when a book described him as "the next Carl Sagan".  Here, he lives up to expectations as a passionate science communicator: he is earnest, witty, and urgently excited about the matter at hand. Although  ostensibly about the exploration of space, Chronicles is more fundamentally a book about the value of science -- and not just the knowledge itself, which enriches human experience and provides the spark for material progress, but of scientific thinking -- skepticism and wonder. The epilogue, which stresses the value of the "Cosmic Perspective", practically channels Sagan.

Science advocacy is the message, but Tyson uses the inspiring and exciting adventure of space exploration  as the messenger. Although enthusiastic about humanity's accomplishments thus far, Tyson avoids being labeled a starry-eyed optimist by consistently stressing the pragmatic aspects of space exploration, the technological boons. It's not the spin-off products like Velcro that Tyson has in mind, though: he points out that NASA's endeavors have  effected progress in other fields through "cross-pollination": one example he uses is that of the Hubble research team pioneering methods to put together meaningful conclusions from scant data while the telescope was impaired, methods that were adopted by cancer researchers to improve their analyses of mammograms.  More strikingly, though, he makes no attempt to interpret the space race of the 1960s as a bold, purposeful step forward in human exploration: instead, he sees it as being motivated by the desire for economic and military gains. Tyson emphasizes this not to convey cynicism about space exploration, but demonstrate how much was accomplished even though the motivations were less than inspiring, and to to point out that aerospace can continue to be a source of economic progress today.

In fact, aerospace is a source of progress for humans today, but not for Americans. Americans, Tyson laments, have gone backwards by standing still. Other nations are becoming the technological leaders of tomorrow, and Tyson -- an American, writing to motivate his fellow citizens to start believing in and working for the future again -- despairs of this. He sees hope in China's aggressive ambitions in space: if competition with Russia sent us to the moon back in  1960s, perhaps competition with China will take us further.For the time being, however, even our past accomplishments are beyond us now.

Space Chronicles sees Tyson communicate a great deal -- the history, motivation, and practical aspects of space flight, the value of science, critical thinking, and wonder, the United States' emphatic need to re-prioritize science, mathematics, and industry -- and do so with style. There is a slight weakness in the fact that Chronicles is an edited collection of essays and interviews, and not a monograph written as a cohesive whole. Repetition of certain facts, examples, and so on exists, but this is a weakness only and not a glaring flaw. As it stands, Chronicles  is impressive and engaging, of interest to both space enthusiastic and critics.

Friday, November 16, 2012

This Week at the Library (16 November)

The postman was kind to me this week, delivering a batch of reading I'm very much looking forward to. Some of the books I received include works I’ve been intending to read all year long: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles and Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Discovering the World Columbus Created. Adding to that is The Humans Who Went Extinct, which I’ve had on my 'book wishlist' since its inception, and the most recent book in the Star Trek Voyager Relaunch, The Eternal Tide. And who is that on the cover?
Janeway's back and you're gonna be in trouble
Hey-la, hey-la, Janeway's back...

Oh, what fun times we’ll have. Also, to go along with The Humans Who Went Extinct, I’m going to be exploring Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series, which establishes an alternate universe where Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, are supreme on Earth. I have the first book, Hominids, checked out from the library.  My reading tends to flow in moods, and right now the prevailing wind is one of natural history.

Speaking of which, I finally finished Twilight of the Mammoths, which I began....months ago. I'd wanted to learn more about the megafauna that dominated the Americas before humans arrived. I'm utterly fascinated by the idea of primitive North America as a land of lions and cheetahs, a wilderness teeming more with large life than even Africa. As it turns out, a primary source for learning about ancient mammalian behaviour is...dung. Dung is mentioned more  in Twilight of the Mammoths than it is in Flushed: how the Plumber Saved Civilization. That I mark impressive, but it's versatile stuff, dung. The oh-so-serious dung dissection didn't interact well with my desire to be awed, so my interest trailed off until being reignited by Baxter and Pratchett's The Long Earth, which involves as part of its setting an Earth in which humans never spread to the Americas, and so the native ecology is intact. Twilight exists to argue that human predation ("overkill") was the primary cause of megafauna extinctions in the Americas, as opposed to climate change.  In the decades since Martin released this book, I believe overkill has become the standard explanation, but even so this is a worthwhile book for the curious mind. It puts overkill on solid ground for those new to it, provides a catalog of large animals that were driven into extinction,  and ends with a smaller argument advocating for the restoration of the prehuman ecology, one using still-living animals to replace the many gaps the spread of human civilization created. He suggests, for example, using camels to counter the spread of mesquite in the southwest.  

Read of England 2012

Last week, Britons celebrated or observed Guy Fawkes Night on 5 November, a date I usually try to do some English-themed reading around, just as I do readings for the Fourth of July and Bastille Day. This year's reading consisted of my finishing off Bernard Cornwell's excellent King Arthur trilogy, along with two nonfiction works: Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island and Kate Fox's Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.

To start off my set, I decided to take a tour of Britain with Bill Bryson, an American humorist author who lived in England for twenty years, beginning in the 1970s.  Before returning to the United States, Bryson decided to mull over his adopted homeland  by traveling over it, in part repeating the journey he made upon first arriving. Bryson is a riotous author for me, and here he's of course an entertaining guide, cheerfully rambling through the country, offering commentary that varies from serious reflections on English culture to absurd thoughts and irrelevant tangents.  At the outset, when repeating his initial 1970s travels, the commentary  compares the Britain of his youth to Britain today, though the changes he notes (in the flowering of chain stores, the destruction of older architectural for modern boxes) are scarcely for the better.  Even so, this is a delightfully fun book.

Kate Fox's Watching the English takes a more serious tack, slightly so. The author has a earnest endeavor -- scrutinizing English culture with an anthropologist's eye -- but she offers a spirited analysis. Although her intent is to discern the rules governing English behavior by watching how Britons act, she's no passive observer,  instead turning her fellow Brits into lab rats and experimenting on them. She devotes afternoons to jumping queues (cutting into lines) and bumping into people on purpose, noting how many of them automatically apologize. As she studies one area of English life after another -- work, hobbies, sex, shopping -- patterns emerge, rules which interact with one another, and eventually the patterns create a cohesive analysis of English culture. Fox declares that the English are fundamentally socially anxious, and that many English behaviors act to counter that awkwardness. The weather, for instance, is not actually all that interesting to English folk, regardless how how incessantly they speak of it: instead, talking about the weather is a way to be social without being impolite, to make a human connection without seeming weird.  Fox sees her countrymen and women as being desperate for fellowship, but denied it by a culture that encourages emotional coolness -- reserve, moderation, and the respect of privacy. Other aspects of English culture she touches on are the prevalence of class consciousness (which is ubiquitous, being expressed and betrayed not just by the word you use to describe household furniture, but which items you are willing to buy from a Mark's and Spencer), English humor, and a fundamental belief in fair play.  While I can't judge her book against personal experience (not yet having traveled  to England's green and pleasant land), I found it utterly engaging and entertainingly written.

The Long Earth

The Long Earth
© 2012 Terry Pratchett, Stephen Baxter
400 pages

Suppose there were an infinite succession of Earths, and travel between them was as easy as taking a step. A new age for humanity begins when a reclusive scientist posts plans for a “Stepper” online, a relatively simple piece of machinery that is remarkable only for the potato it uses as a power source. Suddenly, the borders of states are irrelevant, and the very idea of scarcity is outmoded. Travel to the other Earths has few limits: iron can’t make the passage, and stepping between worlds induces nausea for most. But not for Joshua Valentine, a strange boy raised in an orphanage by nuns who “read Carl Sagan before they read Genesis”. When a globe-spanning corporation of infinite power and aggressive curiosity decides to launch a mission into the “Long Earth”, the chain of infinite planets humanity is now spreading into, they come to Joshua for help.

The Long Earth has a lot going for it, particularly the titular setting, which tickles the readers' fancy with Earths-that-might-have-been, alternative natural histories. A step away, and the differences are slight: absent of humans, the Americas are still wild and home to megafauna that seem otherwordly to 21st century. In more distant Earths, evolution has taken wildly divergent courses from what Joshua would consider 'normal'. Deep into the long Earth, there are strange and inhuman intelligences, and something is driving those that can step across the earths forward -- toward the datum, and away from danger. Joshua and his companions choose to probe further into the darkness, to confront whatever lays beyond them. Throughout most of the book, his only only traveling companion is a sentient AI named Lobsang who claims to be housing the soul of a reincarnated Tibetan bicycle repairman -- definitely a quirky sort. Fate seems to be an active component of the book, as there are hints that Joshua is Bound for Something, the Chosen One. He's an agreeable enough main character, but the setting takes center stage, especially as human society begins evolving in its new boundless universe. The new abundance of resources means that gold is transparently useless; instead, bartering and the exchange of favors are king. With people breaking away into small communities that can sustain themselves through forage and hunting, human history seems to be reversing itself.
The Long Earth ends with the partial end of a journey, but it isn't the end of the story: a second novel is in the works. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (13 November)

"I have studied the rules of sparring for an adequate time," said Lobsang, standing up. "Two millionths of a second, to be precise. Sorry, did that sound smug?"
Joshua sighed. "Actually, it sounded like exaggeration for humorous effect."
"Good" said Lobsang. "That's exactly what I intended."
"That sounds smug."

p. 138, The Long Earth. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

"You might find her sunbathing among the dinosaurs."
"Dinosaurs! Her! Sunbathing!"
"You'll have to see for yourself. But be careful, Joshua. The dinosaurs look amiable enough. Well, some of them. But she might bite..."

p. 208, The Long Earth. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

Suppose there were an infinite succession of Earths, and you could move between them with a single step? Such is the premise of The Long Earth which I started a few days ago and have found to be  most intriguing.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reads into Reels: Timeline

Chris is a twenty-something guy with the hots for Kate, an archaeology student who is studying under Chris's dad, The Professor. But smitten as she is by the world of medieval France, Kate won't give Chris the time of day. Fortunately, The Professor has gotten himself lost, via time machine, in medieval France, and the Amoral Corporation responsible for this has decided to send in a bunch of archaeology students to rescue him, which will give Chris and Kate some bonding time. Sure, they're just kids; they know nothing about self defense, they haven't been inoculated for anything, and they apparently know nothing about the culture they're going into except for the fact that once upon a time, Evil British guys hung a young woman from a castle under siege, and it so enraged the French army that they captured the castle in one night -- but the corporation has decided to send them in instead of security goons, because they're at least aware that the medieval world is marginally different from the modern world and won't spend their time wondering where all the cars are. 

Unfortunately for the students, not only do they transport into time right over water, they also appear right in the middle of a chase scene. Some Evil British fellows on horseback are pursuing a young French woman, and although she gets away, the aforementioned Evil Brits decide a bunch of wet young people dressed in generic-but-clean medieval clothes will do nicely. When the students are presented to the Evil Brits' lord,  Oliver, they introduce themselves as Scottish.  Now, if *I* were to be transported into the court of a medieval English lord during the hundred years war, when England fought against France and its chronic ally Scotland, I would not say to the lord, "I am a Scot".  This, to me, would be like infiltrating the Taliban and pretending to be Israeli.  But I'm just a lowly history student. Perhaps archaeology students possess more wisdom, wisdom that can make full use of being imprisoned in a town that will be set ablaze by an angry French army within a few hours' time.  

In present course, the kids escape through a hole in the roof, though it does them little good since the Evil Brits find out quickly enough and the Chase Scene continues until the end of the movie. The movie is in fact one great long Chase Scene,  with occasional breaks for speeches and war.  The chase scene could be set anywhere, and that's the great problem with this adaption of Michael Crichton's novel of the same name, because the novel was a unique blend of history and science fiction, but the movie is generic. In the novel, the medieval world itself presented the challenge that characters had to contend with. They had to grapple with the fact that modern English and modern French would be mutually unintelligible to the medieval forms and dialects of these languages:  social mores were an obstacle that had to be navigated, as Chris learned in the novel when he accidentally accepted a challenge to a duel by picking up a laid-down glove.  Here, the kids might as well as had invaded a Renaissance fair. 

I watched this movie because I wanted something medieval, and because I'd read the book. In retrospect I'm glad I read the book before watching the movie, because I probably would not have read a book with a plot I thought to be as irrelevant as this.  The movie's technical setup establishes that while the Amoral Corporation was trying to figure out teleportation, their machine connected to a Wormhole that sent everything from the machine into 1357 France.  Part of the reason the corporation sent the professor and the kids into the past was so that they could figure out why this was the case. This is immediately forgotten by everyone involved.  The movie has exactly one interesting character, Andre Marek, who is portrayed by the film's salvation, Gerard Butler. Butler, who also played King Leonidas in 300, appears in Timeline's every scene of worth, starting from an early one in which a passionate Marek attempts convey the value of studying history to Chris.

The presence of two other actors is a highlight for me: Billy Connelly, who played Uncle Monty in A Series of Unfortunate Events, is a professor here, rather like Monty except that his penchant is for medieval history instead of snakes, and David Thewlis, who is the project head for the Amoral Corporation. You may know him as Professor Lupin. Predictably, the movie is poor history: the opposing armies each wear uniforms, red for the villainous English and blue for the valiant French. Each speaks modern English or French, with the only barrier to communication being that a French woman doesn't understand Marek's euphemisms when he attempts to chat her up. "Am I seeing anyone? I see you..."

Timeline doesn't do justice to the book, and it's not a particularly good movie by itself, but if you're really in the mood for swords and bows, it should prove entertaining, especially seeing as it features Gerard Butler, who I became a fan of while watching it. You might be better off with Men in Tights, however, which has as much historical integrity and much better acting.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Excalibur: a Story of Arthur
© 1999 Bernard Cornwell
436 pages

In Britain's darkest hour, a man named Arthur came to rule. With the high king dead and enemy Saxons filling the shores looking for land to settle, he confronted the tremendous challenge of uniting the feuding British kingdoms and guiding them to victory against a foe superior in numbers and in spirit. He faced adversaries from within his camp, as well,  as even longtime companions proved treacherous when tempted by ambition. Now Bernard Cornwell tells the final story of Arthur with Excalibur, a fitting conclusion to an extraordinary trilogy.

The trials that Arthur has faced would break lesser men,  even other heroes. It would be easy to give into despair, to abandon hope -- but here in Excalibur, Arthur again looks  adversity square in the face.  Although an uneasy peace prevails at the start of the book, the aftermath of Enemy of God's epic ending, for Arthur and his ally (our narrator, Derfel), the growing might of the Saxons will soon need to be reckoned with. The unity Arthur fought for seems to have dissolved, but he remains determined to defy the inevitable, and this culminates in the Battle of Baden Hill, which is incidentally the only historical reference we have to an Arthur of any kind.  But Baden Hill is not the end, for this King Arthur trilogy is inspired both by history and by myth, and the final battle is between Arthur and a final betrayal, that of the dark prince Mordred. The conclusion is masterful, beautifully appropriate: this being a trilogy about King Arthur, it could not end but with a flourish.

Excalibur lives up to Cornwell's usual legacy, but reveals an additional strength of this trilogy in particular: character evolution. Although Cornwell doesn't shy away from writing evil characters, in the Arthur trilogy the lines between heroes and villains isn't a clear cut. Guinevere, for instance, was utterly despicable in Enemy of God, but moves toward redemption in this final volume, while someone who has been Derfel's friend since his childhood becomes monstrous, continuing a trend that began in Enemy of God.  It points to the complexity of life, of people and our motivations, and the fact that nothing can be taken for granted.

...nothing, that is, except for the quality of a Cornwell novel. This trilogy has been absolutely stunning, and I'm sad to have finished it. Happily, though, it can always be re-read.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Mark of Athena

The Mark of Athena
© 2012 Rick Riordan
608 pages

In The Son of Neptune, Percy Jackson -- a demigod, the son of a human mother and Poseidon -- discovered another population of half-blood like himself, a veritable city called New Rome. The Romans are hostile to Percy and his Greek brethren, but the two sides must unite against Gaea and her plans to destroy life and create it anew -- which is unfortunate, because Percy's plans for an alliance soon crumble into war. The Lost Hero  introduced Jason Grace, the leader of the Romans, and in The Mark of Athena he and Percy (joined by five other demigods drawn from both of the camps) have to score a victory against Gaea before the Romans reach Camp Half-Blood and destroy it.  Their quest takes them to the old world where Annabeth Chase must descend into the bowels of Rome on a private mission from Athena, one that offers the hope of achieving peace between the demigods and preventing the real city of Rome from being toasted by two campy giants.

Riordan's novels tend toward the episodic, with a monster milestone threatening to destroy life next week if the kids can't scamper across the continent (or the world, in this case) in two days and win out, but Heroes of Olympus has already established itself as a different beast altogether from Riordan's previous Greek and Egyptian series.  The first two novels read very similarly to the previous series: there were three characters, each trio had a private romance, and the group had to accomplish ludicrously  big things alone. But Heroes of Olympus is developing into a more mature series. Now there are seven characters, each with a fascinating story to tell, and tension between them is rife. Jason and Percy are accustomed to leadership, for instance, and subtly vie for the role of alpha male. While a monster-killing mission usually drives these novels, here it's incidental, just a very small part in the larger scheme of things, and marginalized by Annabeth's solo mission. There are of course lots of monsters;  the book writhes with urgent fight scenes against all manner of unpleasant beasts,  from giants with snakes for legs to American tourists. Happily, not every fight is resolved with strength; sometimes clever escape is the best option, and the book ends by depriving two heroes even that, giving readers something of a somber cliffhanger.

Heroes of Olympus continues to delight.

Friday, November 2, 2012

This Week at the Library (2 November)

Being as 5 November falls in a few days, it's finally time for me to do my reading set in tribute to England, and I've been looking forward to it since before July -- though when it came time to order my books, I forgot a couple of the titles I had on my short list. Alas.  I'm currently in the middle of Bernard Cornwell's Excalibur, which has me bowled over. It's not as fantastically dramatic as Enemy of God, but  he's already portrayed the epic battle of Mount Badon, and I'm all a-quiver with anticipation as to how he's going to end the trilogy.

Strictly speaking, Excalibur wasn't part of my planned English reading. That will include Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island, about his cultural observations of England, and Watching the English, an anthropological study of English folk which takes offense at Bryson's notes for dismissing English weather as uninteresting.  I had planned to introduce myself to the works of P.G. Wodehouse by reading one of his Jeeves & Wooster collections, but there's always next year. Besides, I'm distracted by the fact that I have two library books out at the same time, and both Demand to be Read Immediately. One is The Mark of Athena, the latest in the Percy Jackson series, and some of my friends know I am partial to the grey-eyed goddess of wisdom.  Given the series' newfound Roman emphasis, it should be interesting...but I must finish Arthur first.  On all this, I found a copy of The High Cost of Free Parking, by Donald Shoup, which I've been wanting to read for quite some time now. It's rather expensive online, selling for $30 even used, but I found law library in Alabama that was willing to check the book out to me through my own, so now I've got it.

In short, I have entirely too much to read this weekend, but both the English books both seem breezily fun.  On top of this I've dipped my toe into doing NaNoWriMo, mostly because I've had this fantasy novel in my head for years now and  despite constantly playing scenes from it in my head and tweaking them, I've not actually written anything down.  One problem is that I'm such a pedant that I can't so much as put a star in the sky without thinking "How would that affect this culture's mythology? Can I have months without a moon? And if I don't have a moon, how will this world have predictable seasons?" 

I think next year I will do my English tribute on St. George's day in April, in part so it won't be so close to Armistice Day, and in part because then I can stop explaining to people that yes, I know Guy Fawkes night isn't England's national holiday,  but it's as close as I can find. Besides, St. George's Day seems so charmingly old-fashioned. I don't know if anyone outside of England or an English literature class would recognize the name. (I must confess my curiosity was picqued by that "Once more into the breach" speech in Henry V...)

I've finished Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, and was much impressed by it although it didn't delve into the history of Apocalypticism like I'd hoped. Expect a review for that this weekend.