Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Chindi by Jack McDevitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a certain genre of science fiction where human beings find a massive and ancient alien artifact or ship. They explore that artifact while being completely ignored by the it and whatever attendants it may have (automated or otherwise). They marvel at the age and history and unfathomable alienness of the thing. Then they leave, having found more questions than answers but opening the eyes of our species to a new level of cosmic wonder.

When done well, books in this genre can be a page-turning adventure story about a group of people overcoming tremendous obstacles — all set against an amazing and rich backdrop. When done poorly, books in this genre become monuments to how much math the author has done to arrive at something fantastical yet plausible.

This book was done well. The characters are fleshed out and engaging. The ancient artifacts are compelling and they leave the reader with the same questions that it leaves the book’s human civilization: “Who built this? Where are they? Can we find them? Can we talk to them? Can we learn from them?” The other relics of other civilizations our heroes find have their own shades and layers of mystery, leaving the reader with even more questions and idle fantasies while painting a picture of an and well-populated galaxy. The adventures are fast-paced and exciting. The AI is charming.

And ultimately, the chief adversary of the humans in Chindi turns out to be the hubris of members of their own team. Which, in a book that chronicles the self-destruction of countless other civilizations, serves as a solid theme and a good reminder to not do that.

This book was both satisfying and entertaining. I look forward to finding other entries in the series.

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

The Big Sleep
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sherlock Holmes. Miss Marple. Jessica Fletcher (hush, you!). And Phillip Marlowe. These great detectives of our culture have long been cemented — in thousands of pages and hours of film — as icons of our culture. Yet I had somehow never actually experienced Chandler before. I’ve only really ever been exposed to the hard-boiled detective genre through tributes and pastiches like Star Trek‘s Dixon Hill or “special episodes of shows like Castle or Psych. I was excited to turn to an original and classic like The Big Sleep.

I was not disappointed but I was also not prepared. As a fan of detectives like Holmes, I expect my detective stories to follow certain patterns of evidence and deduction. Marlowe doesn’t really go for that sort of thing. There is even a nice moment where he explains that he doesn’t do that because, in reality, the police don’t miss many clues when they are really looking — it was a lovely reprimand from an author from seventy-five years go.

Instead, The Big Sleep focuses on the who instead of the how or why of detecting. Chandler was not so much interested in building a proper mystery as he was in having Marlowe deliver the perfect mot juste when questioning a suspect. And if the story’s resolution doesn’t make perfect senses, does it really matter so much if you had a good time getting there?

Once I embraced the differences between this and every other detective novel I’ve ever read, I was able to come on board and enjoy the ride.

Monday, February 16th, 2015

The Monkey Wrench Gang
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am no fan of the environment. Indeed, I am far more of an antifan. I long for the day when we are forced to flee to giant domed cities where we can finally solve the problems of insects and animals and humidity and sunburn and angry plants and all the other little evils waiting to strike in “the environment”. I am also not a fan of terrorists. I hate them even more than I hate the environment.

All of which is to say that I am not the target audience for this book in which the main characters are all eco-terrorists and the plot follow their eco-terrorist activities as they attempt to spread unnecessary mayhem across the Southwest. I am not even in the neighborhood of being the audience for this book. Had the author known me, I am almost certain that he would not have been able to find any use for me. And I am pretty sure that I would feel the same about him.

So it was a tremendous surprise when I started liking this book. I’m not saying that it’s a great book. And I wouldn’t recommend it. But I was expecting this review to be a long catalog of the book’s faults without a kind word for it.

And while there are certainly many faults to list (the most prominent being the weird notion that having a character pee is the height of comedy…), my heart just isn’t in it.

The book is fine. Even entertaining. It didn’t make me sympathetic to eco-terrorists but that would be a pretty tall order for a novel. So whatever.

It’s fine.

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015
Link: WonkBlog: Yes, the Federal Reserve has enormous power over who is president

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book a few years ago and I remember really liking it. So I was surprised to find that I only gave it 3 stars back then — which is lower than I remember but about right for where I am now. Unfortunately, I didn’t write a review back then so I will attempt to explain the same 3-star rating more carefully this time around.

Mr. Feynman is sort of a nerd hero these days. That’s not terribly surprising. He was a brilliant mind (he shared the Nobel prize with a couple of other gentlement “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”.) who could make complex topics approachable even for the layman (some of his lectures are on YouTube. You should watch them). He combined his genius with a playfulness, so many of the stories in this book are about pranks and games he would play. He was fun and brilliant and approachable — almost the perfect public figure for the nerds of the world to unite around.

Except, as his book makes clear, he was an unapologetic jackass. It starts off almost innocently early on where he taunts restaurant servers by hiding their tips in ways that will make a huge mess for them to retrieve the money. But eventually, he starts learning full “pickup artist” techniques like “negging”. He actually says he didn’t like doing that and would stop but then in the very next chapter notes that he knows how to treat a different woman thanks to his lessons in being jackass.

There’s never a sense of remorse or growth and it seems like Feynman never saw anything wrong with treating people (especially women) like playthings and experiments.

In an autobiographical memoir, it’s difficult to separate out the person from the book. In fact, I can’t do it: I don’t really like Feynman anymore so I don’t really like his book.

That said…there is one story where someone is extremely excited by how awesomely Feynman was playing a cowbell. No human being in the history of our civilization has ever said that about someone playing a cowbell. This story is almost certainly a lie.

And if that story is a lie, maybe the other stories are too. Maybe the whole book is just one more of Feynman’s famous pranks and this time, the joke is on us.

That probably-false meta-narrative is, at least, enough to allow the rest of the book to provide some redemption. The writing style is simple without being boring and easily carries the reader from story to story and moment to moment — it’s easy to see why Feynman was such a good lecturer.

His chapter on the textbook selection of California seems increasingly relevant these days.

His final chapter on scientific integrity should probably be read by everyone. I think a lot of things would be better off more people were able to internalize an rigorous and evidence-based approach to figuring out how we know what we know.

For better or for worse, this book is part of the canon of nerd culture. And, for better or for worse, Feynman is a hero to that culture. But he probably shouldn’t be.