Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (4 stars)

This novel has been getting a lot of attention recently, so I decided I'd better take a look. It's a near-future dystopian USA called Gilead where society is completely run by white men, and women have lost essentially all privileges to have any kind of control over their own lives.

I'm going to get straight into spoilers, so be warned.

How did today's America get transformed into Gilead? Offred (literally Of-Red, after the male commander she serves) our narrator drops a lot of clues about being unreliable, but here's what I cobbled together. Most of this isn't revealed until close to the end:

  1. There are riots about porn and abortion, the implication being either that the ultra-conservative government has taken both away completely, or that an ultra-conservative group wanted them taken away and the government wouldn't. "it was during the time of the porn riots, or was it the abortion riots, they were close together." 
  2. "...they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time."
  3. "...they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on."
  4. "Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said."
  5. "They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them."
  6. Fire all the women from their jobs, transfer their money and assets to their husbands or male next of kin. "It's the law, I have to. I have to let you all go". "They've frozen them...Any account with an F on it instead of an M." "They had to do it that way, the Compucounts and the jobs both at once. Can you picture the airports otherwise?"
  7. "There were marches of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought. I guess people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped."

This seems like a scarily plausible playbook for creating a dictatorship, and despite being written 30+ years ago, it's a cautionary tale that is still very relevant. Offred's experience and this dystopian world is chilling in many ways. I think mostly it shows the reader that modern values, rights, and cultural norms are all just ideas and conventions, that can be swept away with sufficient force.
It isn't running away they're afraid of. We wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.
There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it. 
4 stars.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (4.5 stars)

The Earth will very soon be unlivable. How could we survive? That's the thought experiment that occupies the first two thirds of this very lengthy novel. This is a exploration of an idea that progresses in a similar way to The Martian, i.e. with plenty of detailed technology discussion and little character development. It's a book about tech, and some macro-scale politics, but individual character study it is not.

 I loved this book, but it I can see why those less interested in pure technology "what if" imagination didn't like it at all. I was quite happy to read pages and pages of orbital mechanics discussion, but others may not be. Here's my somewhat random list of annoyances:

  • Probability of pulling off space scenario seems far, far, lower than digging into the ground scenario at multiple sites. Many similar challenges except transport is way harder for space.
  • Why morse code with the father? It was cute, but they could have sent voice just as easily and had higher bandwidth comms.
  • Why did Earth stay functioning for so long? People are still driving trucks, working in factories, stocking shelves in the stores. Why?
  • The third section probably should have been a completely new book, since it required completely new world building.

Annoyances with spoilers:

  • I don't buy the submarine survivors at all. Was there a massive submarine building program started at the same time as the space one? How did they keep that quiet? How could they maintain equipment on the ocean floor for thousands of years?
  • The the re-population from 7 eves seems equally implausible. Too much to go wrong in a very fragile space environment before population reached viability.
  • In this future they have incredibly advanced micro robotics, but no basic cheap silicone storage? Having small robots like that requires advanced chip manufacture. Doesn't make any sense, and offered explanations aren't convincing.
But really, it's a great thought experiment and delves into many interesting areas of space exploration. How fast could we build in space, especially with a higher acceptance of risk? What would we need to mine an asteroid? How could we find water? Would society even survive when confined to such close quarters? If we rebuilt the entire human population would there still be racism?

4.5 stars.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Babylon's Ashes by James S. A. Corey (3.5 stars)

The expanse series continues. This one is pretty much a holding pattern for the protomolecule story, in favour of following the human war of everyone vs. the Free Navy. This storyline is OK and has some interesting thought experiments about space warfare tactics like this one:
If Earth hunkered down and rebuilt, it would take them years to get back to where Ceres had been, pinning them to the station like insects against a board. If Earth chased and attacked the Free Navy, they would be firing on ships carrying refugees. If they abandoned the station, millions of Belters would die under their care and push anyone still sympathetic to the old ways toward the new. Anything they did would be a victory for the Free Navy. They couldn’t win. That was Marco’s genius.
But overall it felt pretty meh. The number of POVs explodes and I didn't care about most of them. The continuation of the Rocinante being at the absolute center of all the action was perhaps necessary for the plot, but it was delivered in such an implausible way as to be grating. Lets bet the outcome of the war on a secret mission that must stay low profile from the enemy for it to succeed. How about we pick the most high profile ship and crew in the entire galaxy to run it? Who could be watching? Turns out, everybody.

You'll read it because the series is great, but I can't wait to get back to some protomolecule craziness. 

3.5 stars.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Regeneration by Pat Barker (2 stars)

Pat Barker says of the Regeneration trilogy that:

The trilogy is trying to tell something about the parts of war that don't get into the official accounts
It certainly does that. By accounts of people who know WWI history it is well-researched and the artistic license with actual facts seems to have been kept fairly minimal. But the what-happened-when and why isn't the focus of this novel at all. In fact, the view we get of the trenches through the eyes of mentally and emotionally damaged veterans is limited to just a few pages. The plot skirts around the details and raises questions that are much more vast and existential.

Should a doctor treat a patient, when the 'cure' sends them back into the final gasps of a war where they will very likely die? When is a soldier obliged to publicly object or defy their orders? Should the allies have negotiated a truce with Germany earlier, once they were in a strong position, to save further loss of lives?

Some of these questions are raised fairly directly through personal internal conflicts in the novel, others are left up to the reader to come up with on their own and mull over. This novel would be an excellent framework for a school discussion about war, but as a novel read for enjoyment I really did not find it at all interesting.

Towards the end, the novel shifts into describing the terrible electric shock treatments that were being used to 'cure' patients of mental conditions at the time. As described in the novel it was essentially producing a 'cure' through torture. This is a complete departure from the rest of the novel, and felt like 'well, I did a bunch of research, I need to stick this in somewhere'.

Since I'm not reading for a school assignment I'll be giving the rest of this trilogy a miss. Enjoy your essay writing, kids.

2 stars.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (4 stars)

An audacious concept for even a writer of Chabon's pedigree: alt-history Jewish noir. The alt-history part is a realisation of one of the many proposed alternatives to a Jewish state in Israel. In this novel Chabon builds a very convincing Yiddish-speaking Jewish settlement in Alaska (as apparently actually proposed by FDR) at a time of turmoil: it is about to revert to US sovereignty.

The Jewish noir part plays out through the eyes of our protagonist: a long-suffering despondent Jewish police detective living in a flea bag hotel which also is the site of a murder.

So it's a clever, and tricky, plot premise, but the superstar of this, and any other, Chabon novel is the writing. It's glorious. There's literary gems like this all over the place:
In the street the wind shakes rain from the flaps of its overcoat. 
An invisible gas clouds his thoughts, exhaust from a bus left parked with its engine running in the middle of his brain 
Bringing that writing style to bear to Landsman's noir character produces this:
He picks up the shot glass that he is currently dating
But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.
The problem comes in the hours when he isn’t working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down. 
But it's not all beautiful similes and metaphors. It's also chock-full of Yiddish slang, which adds a flavour of authenticity to the Alaskan settlement. It also adds a lot of reading complexity in the style of A Clockwork Orange, where you need to infer the meaning of Yiddish words from context and repetition.

Some reviewers suggest having a Yiddish dictionary handy, but I hate doing that. Interrupting the flow of prose to go look something up is a great way to turn a beautiful novel into a school assignment. So I didn't and I think my experience suffered somewhat: I remember thinking at one point: "is that phone or gun?" which is a fairly important difference when a character pulls it out of his pocket.

Like Kavalier and Clay, this is not a short novel. While I'm very happy to run my hands over the wood-grain and admire the fine joints and beautiful design of Chabon's craft, at some points I'd really just like the plot to move along. There were a number of times when my enthusiasm waned and I just wanted the pace to pick up.

When the pace does pick up and Landsman makes a one-man assault on the "bad" guys I was actually a little disappointed. The action and escape scenes seemed almost slapstick, and I felt like the novel lost it's gritty noir feel and traded it for Dan Brown-style secret hideout discoveries.

4 stars.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography by David B Williams (4 stars)

This book captures a lot of excellent geographic history that Seattle residents will find interesting. I'm not a big fan of reading history and this kept my interest for essentially the whole book. If you've ever wondered why a large part of Seattle is listed as "high liquefaction" risk in the event of an earthquake, this book explains why.

The drastic geographic modifications made by white settlers were quite shocking to this modern reader, long-used to complex and lengthy planning approvals for even small changes:
Changing the shape of the land and bodies of water was as natural to settlers, developers, and urban boosters as building houses, cutting trees, or ignoring the rights of Native peoples.
Between 1898 and 1930, Seattleites washed and scraped away more than 11 million cubic yards of Denny, reducing a double-peaked, 240-foot-high mound to a pancake-flat tabula rasa.
Linking freshwater with salt water lowered Lake Washington by nine feet and reduced the total amount of shoreline in the city by more than thirteen miles. 
Those geographic modifications are impressive both from their sheer audacity as well as the technological innovation they drove, such as self-dumping scows that dumped most of Denny hill into Elliott Bay automatically.

The book also considers the geological timescale, explaining the effect of lahar flows from Mt. Rainier and delivering some chilling warnings:
We will do our best to counter those forces with good engineering and planning, but ultimately our lives will be changed the next time Mount Rainier sends a lahar our way or the Seattle Fault shifts the ground by twenty feet.
 4 stars.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Roadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky (4.5 stars)

This is a fascinating first-contact story as seen through the perspective of a Russian smuggler. The contact itself is entirely unusual: aliens have come and gone, and left humanity a bunch of alien artifacts in a series of 'Zones'.
“A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras . . . A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about . . . Scattered rags, burntout bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp . . . and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow . . .” “I get it,” said Noonan. “A roadside picnic.”
The artifacts are both incredibly useful and, more often than not, inexplicably deadly.
These suits are completely safe from the burning fuzz, for example. And from Satan’s blossom and its spit...
The government and smugglers (stalkers) are all intent on finding and extracting these artifacts for their own gain. The story follows a stalker, Red Schuhart, initially in the first person, then somewhat surprisingly in the third-person with more POVs added. Red's character feels very Russian, he has a fairly bleak world outlook, a very dry sense of humour, and there's a LOT of drinking involved. His monologue was one strengths of the novel:
I take out the flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech
I'll walk on my teeth, never mind my hands. I'm no novice. 
This is an amazing thing, by the way: anytime you come in, these barmen are always wiping glasses, as if their salvation depended on it.

At times it heads into fairly dense philosophy, and I felt my attention straying somewhat.
It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from his dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural acts.”
I appreciated the complexity, and getting a taste for the Russian-ness, of the characters.  But what I really wanted was people to go back into the Zone and do more exploring. What calamity would befall the next adventurer! Instead we are left with only a couple of very small tastes of such a fascinating concept.

4.5 stars.