Category Archives: Books

Anathem

image by Neal Stephenson

Do not be fooled by the monastic trappings of the book-cover. This is high-concept, big ideas, mind-bombing science fiction. By the time you are through the 800 page story, you will have had a philosophical, mathematical and cosmological education. Much like his Baroque cycle, the novel builds on real research.

Annoyingly, the research is obfuscated by placing the action on the planet Arbre (french for “Tree”),  where the philosophers and concepts all have their own names. Instead of Pythagoras, we read about Andrakhones; instead of Occam’s Razor we read of The Steelyard and so on.

The reason for this is presumably to avoid endless discussions about the precise meanings of the philosophical stance of Andrakhones/Pythagoras, and instead focus on the story. The faux greeks are in some way all straw-men, to pad out the back-story and buttress various philosophical or cosmological positions.

The footnotes and acknowledgements for Anathem get their own web page. These help you discover the primary sources and the earthly thinkers behind the straw-men.

The philosophy and cosmological questions in the book run the gamut from basic Platonism to Husserlian phenomenology.  You will learn some of the ideas Thales and Pythagoras, Plato, Saint Augustine, Leibniz, Kant, Mach, Husserl, and Godel brought forth. The Syntactic vs Semantic divide (on Earth called the Analytic vs Continental philosophical divide) is one thread through the story. This is not your typical sci-fi story.

Stephenson has basically hidden a philosophical primer in the guise of an apocalyptic sci fi novel. My favorite parable/story is a discussion on the nature of consciousness. This becomes important later on, when we apply it to the many-worlds interpretation of cosmology. Anyway: The Bat-Fly-Worm story goes a bit like this: imagine a world with an ideal Bat (all hearing, ultrasound echoes, flying), an ideal Fly (all eyes, flying), and ideal Worm (all touch sense, crawling). These three creatures co-exist in a cave. How do they communicate? How does a deaf Fly describe something to the blind Worm, or vice versa?

The Fly-Bat-Worm is a metaphor for consciousness – our senses report a multitude of distinct, disparate sensory inputs that our consciousness sorts into a coherent whole. How do we build a perception of continuous time, when all we have are distinct observations? The argument in Anathem is a lot more enjoyable to read than the original Husserl.

The major question in the novel is Platonic in nature: the Platonic Ideal world (or Hylean Theoric World, in Arbre) is real in the many-worlds sense. Pi exists independently of observers, it exists independently of the universe. Pi is constant in the ideal world of plane geometry, no matter which of the many universes you calculate it in. Pi is something we discover, rather than invent. Similar to the allegory of the cave, there is a series of levels between the ideal world and the real world. Anathem proposes that these levels all exist as parallel universes, and that information flows between these universes in an acyclic directed graph. The idea of Pi flows from the Platonic Ideal world through the multi-verse into our own, occasionally bumping into a consciousness that is affected by it. Feel free to laugh and ridicule the concept now.

There is an acknowledged indirect intellectual debt to the Clock of the Long Now. The idea of the Long Now suffuses the society the book focuses on. The “mathic” world is monastic and focused on the long term, while the outside “sæcular” world is much like our own: short-term and distracted by blinkenlights and money. The “mathic” world sees the skyscrapers outside come and go as the “sæcular” civilization rises and collapses.

The idea that a monastic society can be so separate from its surrounding society for so long seems far-fetched, but the continued existence of the Amish would seem to show that it is possible. In any case, the idea of a community focused on long term thinking rather than on short-term satisfaction, of thinking beyond the next millennium rather than just the next quarter, is well worth pursuing. Anathem deserves respect for pushing the concept to its extreme, just to see what happens.

So Anathem is not exactly an easy read, but if you enjoyed the Baroque cycle or Cryptonomicon, or if you liked the bits of Snowcrash that discussed linguistics and Sumerian myth, then Anathem might be the book for you.

The Graveyard Book

image by Neil Gaiman

The story of a young orphaned boy, raised in a graveyard’s community of ghosts, protected by vampires and werewolves, hunted by an ancient league of assassins. The novel is made up a series of short stories tracking the growing boy.

Ok – so this is really a book for children, but like Terry Pratchett’s children’s books, they are enjoyable by grown-ups too. Unlike Pratchett, the moral and teaching is not quite as explicit in the telling, but a little more woven into the story itself. Like Pratchett, the story moves along at a page-turning pace. Each story concludes safely, and usually includes a useful nugget of learning ready to be used in a later story.

The overall story arc moves along quickly: as the boy Nobody Owens grows up, the challenges and problems he faces increase as well. His world is initially limited to the graveyard he is raised in. The first stories chronicle his exploration of his world, and his discoveries of witches, ghouls, ancient Romans and ancient Picts. Later, as a teenager he needs to go to school, and encounters bullies, thugs and greedy pawnbrokers.

Gaiman manages to make the ordinary business of going to school seem exciting by seeing it from the outsiders fresh perspective. Nobody Owens is the outsider – he’s in school to learn stuff. He reads books for pleasure. What a weirdo. Gaiman reminds us how difficult life used to be when we were 10 and stuck in a classroom full of others who did not necessarily want to be friends with us.

Gaiman once wrote in Sandman that “All stories are true”. The Graveyard Book, if not factual, feels true to itself. Like a good fairy tale or fable, it has lessons to teach, and a happily ever after ending. Most of all, the story has heart and wonderful new images and allusions. Instead of re-using the goth-chick Death, Gaiman has a new image of Death: the Lady on the Gray horse. Werewolves and Vampires are shown in a new light – as reformed characters, working to protect the young Nobody.

Gaiman notes in the afterword that he was inspired by his own son playing in a graveyard, and by Kipling’s Jungle Book. If nothing else, this should inspire more people to dig out the original Jungle Books, not just the Disney film.

Rubicon

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic
by Tom Holland

An easy-to-read history of ancient Rome that focuses on the Republic and how it is gradually taken over by the men who swore to protect it. One thing that makes it easy to read is the way it traces the inter-relationships between the many players. The elite were famously interbred, and this balance of power ensured stability. The rise of plebian power and the rise of the empire go hand in hand. The military history and the expansion of the Empire is documented well, as well as the reasons for the expansion: Caesar’s need for cash, Marius’s pride, and Pompey’s vanity.

There are many tempting parallels to the fate of today’s mightiest republic, but the author cautions against reading too much into surface similarities. The Romans were very different from us – their moral system, their ethics worked differently.

However, the little anecdotes and histories of how Rome united the countryside explain the ancient roman’s view of themselves as better than other civilizations. This inflated self-view goes a way towards explaining things like this recent news article. Some aspects remain unchanged after two millenia it would appear.

Blind Spot

Blind Spot: the Secret History of American Counterterrorism
by Timothy Naftali
340 pgs + 40 pgs notes and index

A fascinating look at history behind the scenes, from the start of the fore-runner to the CIA during WW2 up to and including Sept.11.2001. The first two thirds of the book focus on the gradual rise of terrorism as a distinct area of concern within the US government and the White House. The last third of the book focuses on the new free-agent terrorism of the 90s and the reaction to bin Laden. The notes are extensive and show the associate professor’s thoroughness. Very few things are unattributed or unsourced, which makes it a credible study.

What makes it fascinating is the glimpse into way governments and the public reacted to terrorism in the 60s and 70s. Planes were being hijacked every three weeks in 1968 – mostly to Cuba, and this continued into the 70s. Most of these were resolved through negotiations or paying ransom.

Reading this so close to the anniversary serves as a useful counterweight to the wave of dramatizations and propaganda that are being churned out (at least Stateside) right now.

The conclusion we can draw from the various attempts at fighting terrorism though the last thirty years is that military attacks on a non-state entity don’t deter terrorists from striking back. Denying them funding and bases to operate from do work. Diplomacy and covert actions work better than military strikes. The only way to win in the long run is to make suicide bombing a less attractive prospect.

The paperback edition has a second afterword written in 2006 where progress and the diversion into Iraq is discussed. The FBI’s new information sharing system is mentioned in passing as a positive development. Alas it has failed.

“How much harder are we making this for ourselves?”
Much it appears.

Gates of Fire

300 was a well told tale of the battle of Thermopylae. A good comic book: striking visuals, a broad and clear story-line, buckets of attitude, fast pacing. It is being turned into a film – which should be interesting to watch.

But I just finished Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, and it kicks ass. Like the historical Roma-sub-Rosa novels of Steven Saylor it manages to fill in the daily details of life in the ancient world (but not as well as Roma-sub-Rosa does it). Also it tells the story in flashback, which is a nice way to allow the story skip around a bit, and to let it cover more of life in Sparta, not just the battle itself. The descriptions of training, of battle, of tactics are what make the book really fascinating. The descriptions of the battle itself makes the D-Day scenes in Private Ryan seem tame in comparison.

Vitals

Vitals by Greg Bear.

Average bio-tech thriller, much in the vein of Michael Crichton or Bear’s own Blood Music (which is better). It’s the Manchurian Candidate meets Blood Music. There are similar thoughts on the intelligence of bacteria and its ability to communicate with its intelligent host — I’ll never quite be able to look at intestines in quite the same way. The dust jacket blurb mentions a search for immortality, but it’s a MacGuffin — the actual plot jumps off into paranoid cellular conspiracy soon enough, dragging in Stalin and Beria for good measure.

It’s a page-turner, and Bear has learned a few new tricks: the plot jumps back and forth in time, telling the story through two different protagonists. The two stories are quite linked, and events in one show up in the other soon enough. Definitely makes for a more interesting read.

Good for a plane ride, but nothing worth keeping to read again.

Thud!

Thud! by Terry Pratchett.

(also a board-game)

Pratchett is definitely in a more preachy corner this time. The book picks up the themes of tolerance, fundamentalism and multi-culturalism, so if you’ve read Small Gods, you know which corner the author is in. A fundamentalist dwarf is murdered, and trolls are the obvious fall-guy. Vimes has to solve the murder mystery, avoid starting a war, and deal with a growing city. The allegories are fast and thick in this book, and quite topical after the London bombings. Fundamentalism: bad. Multi-culturalism and tolerance: good.

Beating people up in little rooms — he knew where that led. And if you did it for a good reason, you’d do it for a bad one. You couldn’t say ‘we’re the good guys’ and do bad-guy things.’

The allegory sometimes veers dangerously close to preachy, but a good laugh usually rescues the situation.

Some great names as usual: the Gooseberry personal assistant, the dwarf Grag Ardent, the Troll Mr Shine (him diamond!), Mr. Pessimal the auditor. (Pessimal is an old pun on optimal)

Also this is one of Pratchett’s more lascivious books:
Nobby falls in love with Tawnee the stripper, the policewomen go out for a razzle (discovering drinks with names like ‘Multiple Orgasm’, ‘Pink, Big and Wobbly’, and ‘Neck bolt’), naked policewomen (Sally the vampire, Angua the werewolf) almost in a mud-fight:

‘Yes. We’re both wearing nothing, we’re standing in what, you may have noticed, is increasingly turning into mud, and we’re squaring up to fight. Okay. But there’s something missing, yes?’
‘And that is…?’
‘A paying audience? We could make a fortune.’ Sally winked.

The best part of the book is the feeling that there is a big, living city growing up within the pages. And in this universe, driven by narrativium, good wins in the end by being better.

What I did on my summer vacation

Reading. Lots of it. The plan was to spend lots of time at the beach lying in the sun with a stack of books on hand. Instead I’ve spent a lot of time in bed with a stack of tissues and cups-of-tea next to the books.

Short History of Nearly Everything
by Bill Bryson
Makes science history fun! Should be part of the curriculum in all schools — has just come out in a norwegian translation that the education ministry should be shortlisting for the imminent start of school. The brilliance of the book is that it focuses on the process of science, not just the end results, so you end up reading about all sorts of odd-ball 18th and 19th century gentlemen who spent years fiddling with rocks and/or plants, sometimes to no great effect, but who ended up building the foundation for later discoveries. Absolutely fascinating.

Wrong about Japan
by Peter Carey
This book has saved me trip to Japan. I share the same fascination with Japan and its alien culture, and I’m fairly sure I would be as baffled by it as Carey-san is in the book. Unfortunately it becomes annoying to read about an authors failure to achieve understanding, especially when he appears to have skimped on his preparations — the whole trip is a father-son bonding trip as much as it is a reporters field trip. Still, I fear I would fare no better in Japan. Annoyingly realistic.

The Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson
Too weird not to be true. Generals who try to walk through walls. Subliminal messages in music as a kinder, gentler interrogation technique instead of torture? I read this, and wondered if the author was pulling my leg — is the book a big joke? A bit of googling makes it appear not. The news reports coming out of Iraq and Gitmo back up his reports. Crazy people are running the “war on terror”. Oh joy. Funny in a funny-uh-oh way.

A World Without Time: the forgotten legacy of Gödel and Einstein
by Palle Yourgrau
Interesting history of Gödel, less about Einstein, mainly because this is a book about philosophy, not theory. We had quite a bit of Gödel at university — gödel numbering is a pretty cool trick. I remember feeling a rush when the lightbulb came on. The book covers the material well, and digs into the philosophical debates Gödel raised. The big let down is really that philosophy has kind of ignored the issue of time, and physics doesn’t worry too much about it. Basically the problem boils down to this: why is there a now? If time is a fourth dimension, then why should one point along its axis be special? If time flows, then time is not a fourth dimension, and Einstein’s theory needs to be re-formulated.

Raw Spirit

Finished Raw Spirit by Iain Banks. (Note lack of middle initial M in author’s name, indicating that is not a science fiction book). A very friendly, pleasant romp around the Scottish countryside, searching for the perfect dram. The biggest problem with the book is that you start to get cravings for bottles of whisky. The quest is mainly an excuse for Banks to tell stories and bring his friends along for a good party. He talks about his love of driving, his penchant for climbing bits of architecture (Banks should learn more about Parkour – urban climbing.)

Reading it is like hanging out with friends who enjoy a good curry, strong wine, strong ale, a good tale, and whisky in all its glorious shadings. I rather enjoyed it, possibly because I like these things too. It confirmed my suspicions that Talisker is one of the best drinks in Scotland, and has piqued my interest in the Macallan.

The book should come with a packet of aspirins – and a reminder that it’s time to stock up the bar again. The book’s definitely worth a read if you’re planning a driving holiday to Scotland.