Comments on some books recently read

A Whole New Mind, why right-brainers will rule the future, by Daniel Pink
Silly, puffy, fuzzy, wrong. Because of Asia, Automation, and Abundance, we are all going to prosper by being artists, designers, musicians, gestalt-masters.

Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt
A fine book, powerful and honest and sometimes very hard to read. The author comes of generations who survived ranching in what must be one of the toughest spots in the US. She writes of her experiences growing up there, informed by her later insights. The privations, the endless work just to have a chance of doing the same next year, the way human beings grow into strange shapes to fit what is demanded of them.

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright
Published a year before Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and follows a similar plan: by narrating the decline of earlier cultures due to hubris and systemic faults, the author hopes to convince 21st century homo sap to shape up and avoid disaster. Wright finds errors in Diamond’s earlier book Guns, Germs and Steel, and I found some things in Wright’s book to question. I would suggest that in general it’s very iffy to found a line of reasoning upon a particular cause for the decline of a premodern civilization. Historians of Sumer or Rome cannot agree upon causes; what hope has a non-specialist? Answer: make your case look good by cherry-picking arguments and data from authorities old and new. Give it up. But it does sell books. And yes, our civilization’s got one foot on a banana peel—conveying that message seems to be the raison d’etre for these books—and we love to read about it, witness all the sf dystopias, but I cannot believe that efforts to convince the intellect will help much, since little power is governed by that human faculty.

Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue
London, c. 1750: barely a teenager, the daughter of a desperately poor family becomes a prostitute. A hundred years earlier, Hobbes famously described the life of humans in a state of nature, without government, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Such is the life of Mary Saunders, despite the existence of a government, because there were at the time few significant efforts to help the poor or restrain the depredations of the rich, while the legal system severely punished even small criminal acts. Rich in period flavor and well-drawn characters, though I felt that the protagonist was not as full as I’d wish: her behavior at the end seems abruptly imposed. A study in desperation. It is disgraceful to realize that one could write something not too different these days about a runaway on the streets of any large American city.

Hogarth engraving of street life among the poor.jpg

William Hogarth (1697–1764), engraving of street life among the poor.

Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fiction, in that subset of alternative histories where some portion of the earth’s surface is suddenly switched out for the corresponding portion from another history or universe. Same topography, but everything else is different. Interesting, but I think it fell between two stools, to use an antiquated phrase (visualize someone beginning to sit down who can’t decide which of two stools to land on, and falls in the middle, to the bar-room floor). There’s the standard adventure/discovery plotline as characters from the “old world” (ours, interrupted prior to the first World War) explore the strangenesses of the apparently uninhabited “New World”. And then the New World turns out to have a connection to some sort of Lovecraftian Other Reality. Didn’t quite connect up for me, but nonetheless I’m currently reading this author’s Mysterium, which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1994 and turns out to have a similar plot device. [Later. Yep, about the same. ]

Solar, by Ian McEwan
This guy sure can write, in one sense of the word, but I just could not care about the characters or the plot. Since the plot had to do with developing a revolutionary system of generating electricity from solar power, I should have wanted to see what happened. But the scientist protagonist was so unlikeable. Venal and boring. I was a third of the way through, with nothing much happening on the solar electricity front, and the main character still as clueless and mopey as ever…I gave up. Three demerits to me, but art (and my list of books to read) is long and life is short.

The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
Recently I posted about how Young Adult books are sometimes well worth adult attention. Here’s one from the adult fiction shelves, that should have had the YA label; as an adult I found it simplistic and disappointing. The author is a Grand Old Lady of science fiction.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
A woman discovers, at about age 50, that her increasing mental lapses are early onset Alzheimer’s, which progresses much more quickly than the Alzheimer’s of the elderly. Perhaps for the sake of irony, she’s a professor of psychology, specifically at the intersection of cognition and language. The author is a neuroscientist herself, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Moving and informative, but maybe you should wait to read it until you are past the age at which early-onset Alzheimer’s begins.

Ship Breaker , by Paolo Bacigalupi
and
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
See earlier post on YA fiction, the category of the first of these. Two looks into a post-oil, post-Big Crash future. Recommended. I liked Ship Breaker better, myself.

Platinum Pohl, by Frederik Pohl (1919- )
Short fiction by one of the masters at the top of his form. Sf.

Zombies make things better

From Information Design Watch comes a link to a graph showing that the number of zombie movies in the US parallels war and social upheavals.

Makes as much sense as anything. Now a media talking head can look at it and conclude that since spikes in zombie movies precede peace or betterment of social upheaval, the zombie movies must be the curative force. “After this, therefore because of this” (post hoc ergo propter hoc) is the only logic the mass media seem to use.

zombies3chart.jpg

This is much reduced; take a look at the original where you will also find a long list of the movies they used for the chart, going back to a 1910 version of Frankenstein.

The site of the zombie movie graph, 1o9 Strung out on science fiction, labels it with the category “Chart Porn”. I took this term to be some sort of a spin-off from Edward Tufte’s “chartjunk” (= irrelevant, distorting, or distracting material added to charts) but a search on the term told me that it may mean something different. Another blog that deals with charts, themessthatgreenspanmade, tells us

In case you were wondering, the reason this post is titled “chart porn” (a term shamelessly stolen from Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture) is that if you open the charts with a Windows Internet Explorer browser using Windows Vista, you get multiple windows opening on a somewhat random basis (at least, that’s what happened to me).

It reminded me of six or eight years ago when a co-worker would come by and say, “Type in http://www.whitehouse.com” and up would come some porn site that proceeded to open more and more windows faster than you could close them … and then the boss would walk by.

I took a look at chart porn on The Big Picture, where indeed the term is used frequently, but couldn’t decide exactly what it meant. Most of the chart porn posted there, from major media, is what one could call “tarted up”, that is for sure. Looks like a good site for skeptical commentary on current economic authorities and their continually readjusted b.s.

Recent Zombie Appearance in Real Life

zombies2.jpg

These members of an event called “SF Zombie Mob 2007” got a little confused and evidently tried sucking brains out of iMacs––no gratitude, don’t they remember how Apple freed them in the 1984 Mac commercial? Meanwhile the Apple Store employees jostled for position to take the best photos; other stores had no sense of humor and shut the zombies out, according to the source.

Science fiction fan wins Nobel Prize

Hold up your heads, science fiction readers! Ansible, the sf news publication by Dave Langford, reports that

Paul Krugman, winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics, is an unashamed sf fan who earlier in the year said of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series: ‘It’s somewhat embarrassing, but that’s how I got into economics: I wanted to be a psychohistorian when I grew up, and economics was as close as I could get.’ (New York Times, 8 May)

Maybe someday “genre” won’t be a putdown when applied to fiction. Have some respect for sf: it is the literature of ideas.

The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace

Another post-apocalypse novel published (like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) as mainstream fiction rather than science fiction. The Pesthouse (2007) won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and got good reviews, but I’m afraid it left me cold.

It’s a journey, the writing is “sensitive” and competent, the two protagonists suffer and change, the typical after-the-fall elements are present (religious nuts, violent raiders, superstitious greedy villagers)… Maybe if you don’t read sf this would all seem original and riveting, but I got bored and started skimming less than half-way through just to see if anything better came along and to find out how it would end. I think some sf writers have done much better on this theme, though as genre writers they never get much attention. Topics for another day: the genre label, and better stories on this theme.