Townhouse Books

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fledgling: Octavia Butler

It's not every author that occupies her very own literary niche, but as the only African-American woman science fiction author this reviewer can think of, Octavia Butler held a unique place in the genre.

I haven't read anything else by Butler, but I have to imagine she built her reputation on better books than Fledgling. Before her untimely demise last year, she won a MacArthur Foundation grant, a Hugo, and a Nebula This was her first new book in seven years, and the last before her untimely demise.

The premise of Fledgling is that vampires are real (although they call themselves the Ina), they're a parallel species to homo sapiens, and yes, they're super strong, super fast, they're not immortal (although they naturally live into their fifth century), they don't burn to ashes in sunlight, but they do sleep through the day and get a nasty sunburn from direct sunlight, and they walk around smelling everything.

The protagonist is an Ina named Shori who has the body of a 10-year-old at the young age (in Ina years) of 57. She wakes up in a cave burned, shot, and ravenously hungry. She grabs the first living thing that wanders by and eats it, and spend the rest of the book looking for answers.

That's the elevator pitch, and it sounds great. The reality is a little different.

Most science fiction and fantasy happens in a fantastic place or time and authors (other than John Clute) typically need a character that represents the reader's point of view. This viewpoint character is usually clueless about the crucial parts of the world, which provides ample opportunity for the author to have some second character explain crucial things to the first character, and therefore the reader.

You see this all the time in sci-fi movies where you'll often have a character that's a doctor on a space station, a young farmboy who's going to explore the galaxy, or a mysterious traveler from another land and who is completely clueless about all the technical aspects of their futuristic world. The farmboy doesn't need to know how their warp drive works, and if it were explained to them they'd never understand it anyway, so the author can just engage in some handwaving and TLA-lobbing, and still weave a vaguely realistic world.

You'd think that amnesiacs would pop up more often in books to fill this role since they ostensibly don't remember anything and need everything explained to them, but in practice, or at least in this book, they're just annoying. Shori must have had a case of super-double amnesia, since she doesn't know what a car is, she doesn't know what a horse is, she doesn't know what refrigerators are for, she doesn't know anything about anything, (but seems to know English well enough,) and we're constantly being reminded of that fact. Repeatedly.

Sometimes we're reminded of her amnesia multiple times in the same sentence. Just because the main character has amnesia doesn't mean the reader does.

The actual plot of Fledgling is: there's a group of Ina who don't like the fact that Shori's family has been trying to breed a daylight-resistant Ina by combining human and Ina DNA. Shori is the result of that genetic tampering, and it's left her with dark dark skin and kinky hair. In theory this brings in the racial issue, but since we're talking about a black Ina and not a black human, the comparison seems initially clever, but on further examination just seems lame. The other Ina look down on her not because she's black but because she's part human.

The climax of the book is actually pretty good, but slogging through the court scenes leading up to it just isn't worth it. The story doesn't work, but it's because Butler doesn't give us any real reason to care about Shori or her family. The horrible things happening to her would carry emotional weight if we were able to identify with her, or if we thought that Shori actually was in danger of losing something that mattered to her.


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Monday, August 20, 2007

The Secular Bible: Jacques Berlinerblau

Most books about religion, especially books about any particular religion, tend to be written from the point of view of an adherent of that religion and addressed to the faithful or to the potential faithful for conversion purposes. Rarely do we see books that are intended to critically discuss the texts of a religion from a secular standpoint, which is exactly what The Secular Bible does. In fact, besides analyzing The Bible, one of the stated purposes of this book is to agitate for more critical discussion about religion and religious texts.

The Secular Bible concentrates on the history of the Hebrew Bible, interpretations of the Bible, Jewish intermarriage, and acceptance of homosexuality.

The history section is the most interesting of the three main sections, and he spends most of it comparing religious and secular questions of authorship. If you ask a believer who wrote the Bible, you usually get answers like God, Moses, or "prophets." But by taking the reader through the process of hand-copying and showing cases of marginalia that made its way into the main, accepted text, Berlinerblau makes a good case that no-one really wrote it, at least not in anything like its present form.

As you might imagine, he also shows that Jewish marriage requirements aren't really supported by scripture, and that condemnation of homosexuality is only vaguely alluded to in both the Old and New Testaments.

The Secular Bible is an interesting book, and an excellent starting point for someone who's not well versed in western religion. Karen Armstrong's A History of God explores many of the same questions in much more detail, although, its a much larger, more ambitious book.



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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Arguing A.I.: Sam Williams


Artificial intelligence, much like fusion research, has claimed to be within reach of its ultimate goal for the last 30 years. There's always a breakthrough projected just around the corner, but that assertion is based more on public relations and funding than any actual progress.

Once upon a time the public goal of AI was to produce a computer that could solve problems that typically require a human. Creating a machine that can use language, recognize objects, and generally employ cognition were originally the goal. In the past forty years researchers have tried to solve the problem of artificial intelligence from the bottom up and the top down, and the closest we have to HAL are some basic systems that can track moving objects, sometimes, and some systems that use techniques of machine learning, but we've made no basic progress towards a truly intelligent machine.

The book is laid out as an introduction to the world of artificial intelligence, four profiles of figures in the field and a summary that tries to give an overview of the fictional treatment of Artificial Intelligence and compares it to the reality. If you're interested in the subject, Arguing A.I. is an interesting overview of the current problems in the field, but it's not the best introduction. It's also very short, so if you can check it out or borrow it, do so, but it's not worth the $15 you'd pay if you buy it through Amazon.



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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Feed: M.T. Anderson

I admit it. I'm a sucker for product recommendations, especially Amazon's. They've been right in the past, and I often end up finding books that I otherwise wouldn't have read.

Coincidentally, Feed is about a future, (that sucks,) where everyone has a constant feed of recommendations, media, and instant messages fed directly into their minds. The story itself is told from the point of view of Titus, a teenager who has the normal teen worries: he's constantly wondering if what he's wearing is hip enough (the feed doesn't think so), whether spring break on the Moon sucks (it does), and which flying car is the best.

Of course, as you might imagine, things start to go wrong, but in surprising ways. One of the most interesting things about the book is that you get little glimpses of the outside world, but since Titus doesn't really concern himself with worldly issues, you only get the barest outlines. Figuring out the world in the story is actually one of my favorite things about reading Science Fiction, and why I keep coming back to the genre.

Feed is a "young adult" book really targeted to teenagers, but it was a great surprise, as its satire works on multiple levels.



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Monday, June 18, 2007

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

Great Book. A future I can see. Wearable computing. Cooperative Assignments. World Powers working together. Cured Alzheimer patients struggling to reinvent themselves.
etc..

Did I mention Vernor prominently features library digitization projects, and deals with real world issues faced by such issues. You can see Google themes in the background.


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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown

Book CoverThe story of a young man growing up in Harlem in the 50s and 60s, Manchild in the Promised Land is Claude Brown's roman à clef, and the book that launched his career.

He grew up as a working class child who got involved in drugs, crime, and the NYC penal system by the time he was 8, was sent to a school for wayward boys by the time he was 14, and then turned himself around by the age of 18. At an age that many of his friends were just getting involved in petty crimes, he had decided to leave that life behind and try to do something important with it.

Aside from the compelling story, Manchild in the Promised Land paints a vivid picture of a neighborhood in the midst of decay. It's one thing to read about drug dealers in the local newspaper, but learning about how they ended up making that decision, or, how that decision was really made for them, is a whole other thing.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory And the Search for Unity in Physical Law
by Peter Woit

Book CoverIt seems like every time you look at the cover of Scientific American or Discover there's a new article on the weird and wonderful world of string theory. While your average person may not know what QED or the Standard Model are, many people who don't know anything else about particle physics can explain the subtleties of an incredibly rarefied theory.

The problem is that while string theory gets the headlines and the majority of the funding in most physics departments, there is no experimental evidence to support it and it's likely that there are not even any ways to falsify it. String theory, in its current forms, makes no predictions. Karl Popper must be spinning in his grave.

Not Even Wrong is a description of the last two decades of physics research by physicist and mathematician Peter Woit. He was working on his PhD at Harvard when the Standard Model was being finalized and String Theory was just gaining steam, so he's able to provide plenty of anecdotes about various theories and the researchers who championed them.

The book grazes some very technical issues, but Woit strikes a balance between readability and completeness.

Woit also keeps a frequently-updated blog about the subject. It's worth reading just for the comments.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

It seems like it's been a trend over the last decade for a writer to prove his chops by writing a big, sprawling, tome of a book to prove his chops. Michael Chabon gets the sprawling thing down pat and creates a wonderful story in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

The book is set in New York in the 40's and 50's and is about two cousins, Josef Kavalier and Sammy Klayman (later Clay), and the comics that they write. Kavalier is an escape artist and illustrator while Clay writes the comics.

They create a hero named The Escapist who spends most of his time fighting Nazis and escaping from the fiendish traps they create for him. The Escapist comes out at the same time as the first generation of superhero comics and is at least partially based on Clay's view of Kavalier, who has smuggled himself out of Nazi-occupied Europe, and in comparison to the gimpy Clay, is tall, handsome, and athletic.

One of the best things about the book is the deftness with which Chabon describes the comics. He guides the eye of the viewer around, much like Dante, and in doing so, communicates what it feels like to read a comic book. The vividness of his writing is what makes the book such a tremendously pleasurable read.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Cryptonomicon: Neal Stephenson

That was one long book. The WWII storyline was excellent -- interesting and funny (Bobby Shaftoe!) and successfully jetted the characters and readers around the world. Loved it. The present day storyline however, I was not as fond of, though it definitely had its moments. Randy's relationship with the woman was actually almost offensive in places and the ending was laughable and kinda weird. Fun times overall though. Thanks for the multiple recommendations.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Everything is Illuminated: Jonathan Safran Foer

So apparently the last several months have been filled with books that have been recommended very highly by people who are very close to me. This is the most recent one, which was actually recommended *after* I saw the movie of the same name.

This is one book that I'd actually recommend you save until after you see the movie, and it's mostly because of Alex.

Alex is a Ukrainian twenty something who has big dreams of moving to the US and bringing his brother Igor with him. His English isn't necessarily bad. I mean, it's technically correct, but it's really more like he has a basic command of English and then found out about thesauruses, and then used them like there was no tomorrow.

He signs his letters "guilelessly" and often refers to things as "rigid" when he really means "hard". Seeing the movie first really let me cue into how Alex actually speaks, and it keeps Alex's sections from coming off as cheesy or fake.

Oh, right. So Everything is Illuminated is the story of Jonathan Safran Foer, who journeys to Ukraine to search for the town his grandfather was from (Trachimbrod) and to search for a woman in a photograph who may or may not be named Augustine. Alex and his Grandfather act as guides for Americans who come to Ukraine searching for the places their ancestors lived.

This story is also intertwined with the story of the history of Trachimbrod, which is told in a fanciful, almost magical realistic voice of Jonathan. This story actually isn't even in the movie, and it came as a bit of a shock that there was a whole other story line that I didn't even know about.

Get this book, read it, ignore the hype. You'll almost certainly enjoy it, although it can be a bit harrowing at times.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Appleseed: John Clute

So have you ever read a book that was really enjoyable to read, but once you're done with it you're not really able to say whether it was good or not? Or, probably more precisely, you liked it, but you wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone else?

Well that's how I feel about Appleseed. The setup: it's the future and everything is really cool, unless you're on Earth, and then things really suck for you. Because Earth has been taken over by Plaque, an informational disease that has laid waste to the Earth, and which is being spread across the galaxy, killing entire planets and civilizations as it goes.

That's the setup. Our hero, who owns / is friends with an information ark named the Tile Dance, becomes the focus of unwanted attention from a belligerent company called Insort Geront. Things are not as they seem, though, and as the book progresses there are plot twists, as there always are, but these twists mostly suck, as they tend to be so implausible that you're left wondering why the Clute didn't think more about what he was doing, and it seems as though he's just making shit up so that he can hit the plot points that were in his outline.

This makes the book sound unappealing, which is not really what I'm going for here, as it's a very enjoyable read. There are a lot of big ideas, his vocabulary is the best of any science fiction author that I've read since David Brin, and he can really turn a phrase, but I still probably wouldn't recommend it to you. Actually, if you have any interest at all in this book you should send me an email (or comment in the thread) and I'll send you my copy so that you can see what you think.

Clute has a very good reputation as a science fiction book critic, and this first book has been widely anticipated. It's an excellent first effort, and I'll most likely read the rest of his books, upon which I'll report in the future.

it's not entirely clear whether Clute is an important new voice in science fiction whose work represents the next major phase of science fictional technique, or whether he's just pretentious and, in the end, vapid and uninteresting.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Oryx and Crake: Margret Atwood

Margret Atwood likes to say that she doesn't write science fiction, presumably because she sees science fiction stories as being something other than literature. I think she's wrong.

A good friend of mine once pointed out that most sci-fi stories are summarized by starting with the formulation "It's the future, and everything sucks." If that's the case, Oryx and Crake is about as sci-fi as it gets.

The story starts out with a character who is now called Snowman who is one of the few survivors of some sort of catastrophe in the near future. He jumps around a bit while relating the story of exactly what happened, who Oryx and Crake are, and his involvement with the whole mess.

Atwood deals with some very large ideas including gene manipulation, the role of corporations in modern society, and the growing difference between the very rich and the very poor, and addresses them in a literary rather than fantastical way. Her characters are fascinating people, and are both experiencing the radical changes that are going on around them, and are stand-ins for classic archetypes.

It's a great book, although not appropriate for the young or the easily shocked, as the levels of violence are sometimes excessive.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close : Jonathan Safran Foer

To my unborn child: I haven’t always been silent, I used to talk and talk and talk and talk, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like a cancer, it was one of my first meals in America, I tried to tell the waiter, “The way you just handed me that knife, that reminds me of__” but I couldn’t finish the sentence, her name wouldn’t come, she was locked inside me, how frustrating, how pathetic, I took a pen from my pocket and wrote “Anna” on my napkin. “And” was the next word I lost, probably because it was so close to her name, what a simple word to say, what a profound word to lose, I had to say “ampersand” which sounded ridiculous, but there it is, “I’d like a coffee ampersand something sweet,” nobody would choose to be like that. “Want” was a word I lost early on, which is not to say I stopped wanting things -- I wanted things more -- I just stopped being able to express that want. I lost “come” one afternoon with the dogs in the park, I lost “fine” as the barber turned me toward the mirror, I lost “shame” -- the verb and the noun in the same moment, it was a shame. I went to a tattoo parlor and had YES written onto the palm of my left hand, and NO onto my right palm, what can I say it hasn’t made life wonderful, it’s made it possible. “I” was the last word I was able to speak aloud, which is a terrible thing, but there it is, I would walk around the neighborhood saying, “I I I I.” “You want a cup of coffee, Thomas?” “I.” I know I’m not alone, you hear the old people in the street and some of them are moaning, “Ay ya yay,” but some of them are clinging to their last word, “I,” they’re saying because they’re desperate, it’s not a complaint it’s a prayer, and then I lost “I” and my silence was complete.

I was stubbornly uncharmed by the overall story for almost half of it, but found myself carried along enough by these amazing mini-stories. And then suddenly it all clicked and I couldn't wait to finish.

So basically, if the above paragraph moves you, I highly recommend this book. If not, then you’ll probably want to pass on this one.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Mind Children by Hans Moravec

Hans Moravec's book Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence purports to give the reader a glimpse into the future of robotics, explaining how robots work and how they will change in form, function, and ability. Unfortunately the book was written in 1988, and things didn't really pan out the way Moravec thought they would.

Moravec seems to fall into that classic AI fallacy of form equalling equivalence. Just because a automaton looks like a roach doesn't mean that it's the same thing as a roach and it especially doesn't mean that it's as smart as a roach. Just because bug and machine both know how to walk and tend not to bump into each other doesn't mean that the robot is as "smart" as a bug and it definitely doesn't mean that we'll eventually be able to next build a robot thats as smart as a frog, then a snake, then a bird, eventually resulting in a human-equivalent AI.

The thing that is missed is that computer computation is not the same thing as the intelligence that a roach has. We can build a program that can emulate some of the basic abilities of a roach, but we're not able to build something that is as capable as a roach. Will we ever? Moravec definitely thinks so, but I have some serious doubts.

If you get a chance to either pick up this book at the library, give it a read. It's very short and it's interesting as a historical artifact even if we still seem to be 50 years away from anything resembling a real AI.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

OK, the new Harry Potter book has been out for three days. Someone had to start this thread, but I won't put much effort into an initial review. Those of you who have finished please share your thoughts on the comments page.

ETA: Yay! Harry! Also, I don't subscribe to any RSS feeds, but we're kosher for going spoiler-nuts in the comments area, right? I ask after I've posted, but I kept things pretty vague since I'm not sure how it might appear on RSS feeds. I should explore that soon. -- lillygog

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo - Volumes 1-6

Ah, Akira. I spent many a night in college watching this movie. It was really the first anime that I had ever seen and it still occupies a special place in my heart. A couple of years ago I learned about this collection of 6 volumes of English translations of the original Japanese manga.

If you haven't read this series yet, you should. The movie adaptation was really good, but it doesn't have near the depth that the original manga does. Many of the characters that have brief appearances in the movie actually have a complete backstory and fit into the overall plot much better than you'd think.

The full set can be a bit pricey if you buy it new, but it's readily available used on Amazon or via eBay.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Watchmen: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Brutally depressing, kinda brilliant and believably groundbreaking for when it was first published in the ‘80s. The thing I like most about the Batman comics, especially the Dark Knight Returns when he’s old and achy, is his utter humanity. The crime fighters in the Watchmen, except for this almost-god Jon, are too just a bunch of humans dressing up in dorky owl suits and such. They live, they age, the get murdered. Throughout the story is a stressful end-of-the-world motif, by way of war in Afghanistan sparking WWIII or a former crime fighter looking to save the world by destroying it. Excellent use of the panels for suspenseful pacing, with a detail from one panel randomly shown pages later. I think if I read this again I’d be able to talk about tons more layers that were in there, but it was such a relief to be finished, to get away from those unhappy people and that horrible planet, that I won't be rereading anytime soon. But someday.

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things

I'm a big fan of blogs like Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools that are about things that enable you to do interesting things, rather than about the interesting things themselves. I figure that I'd rather make my own fun.

So Kevin recommended Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things (the official website) a while back and I immediately ordered it, after all how could I resist a book that proffered an easy way to turn into the neighborhood MacGyver? Well, I probably should have saved my money. This book is pretty disappointing. There are exactly two interesting things that you can make, one of which I'll tell you about.

The next time you have 8oz of spoiled milk on your hands dump it in a pot and heat it short of boiling. Add in a tablespoon of vinegar and stir until it gets lumpy. Strain out the lumps, press, and allow to dry overnight. What you have is casein, the primary phosphoprotein in milk.

By precipitating it out and allowing it to dry you've formed a "plastic" that can be further dried and supposedly used for a variety of household tasks.

So aside from the casein trick, which I've now given you, there's no real reason to read this book.

If you're still trying to hone your MacGyver skills I'd recommend that you read the American Boy's Handy Book, which I'll review at some point in the future.

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Friday, May 13, 2005

Reader's Block - David Markson

David Markson's writing is...unique.

For the past decade or so he's been writing books that only vaguely have a narrative structure, anything resembling characters, or any characteristics of fiction. They consist more and more of two-sentence bits of trivia about writers, scientists, and philosophers.

Reader's Block seems to be one of the earliest of Markson's novels written in this way. There are a few lines here and there that refer to "Reader" (Markson) and "Protagonist," who is the main character in a story that Reader is thinking about maybe, one day, writing. Actually, considering that we know so little about them, Reader and Protagonist are only barely characters and the little that we know about them tends to meld into the surrounding trivia.

The overall effect gives the reader a peek into what may be a parallel stream-of-consciousness to the two main characters. Or I may be reading too much into it, and the whole technique could be the result of a writer who has gotten lazy, who has become more interested in the particulars of other people's lives than in creating a novel.

Here's a taste of what Reader's Block is like:
Not one of the violent moments in Greek tragedy occurs on stage. Medea murdering her sons, for instance. Or Orestes bloodying Clytemnestra.

Does Reader yet know how long Protagonist has now been alone?
Who, when, the last woman in his life will have been?

Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.

Pio Baroja was an anti-Semite.

Melville. A little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.
Said Hawthorne.


And that's a typical section from page 70 in the trade paperback edition, if you're interested.

And so I realize that this review makes Markson's writing sound... obtuse. Or maybe just pretentious. But it's really good, and I mean really really good. It's like Infinite Jest, which I also love, in that the actual process of reading is intensely pleasurable, although what passes as a story isn't as affecting.

Also, if you're going to read it, which you totally should, try and set aside 2-3 hours and just read it straight through. Although many of the passages are entirely singular, many of them aren't, and there's a lot of repetition in subject and in description.

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