Monday, June 19, 2017

Death's End by Cixin Liu (4 stars)

Another impressive, thoughtful novel by Cixin Liu, closing out the series. I'm finding these fairly hard to review, mostly because I've waited too long to write the reviews, but here's some random thoughts.

The thought experiment of what would happen if humanity developed highly reliable hibernation technology was interesting and fairly horrifying:
Once the technology was successfully commercialized, those who could afford it would use it to skip to paradise, while the rest of humanity would have to stay behind in the comparatively depressing present to construct that paradise for them.
Shooting a brain out into space with a series of nuclear weapons was badass.

The transition from Luo Ji to Cheng Xin as swordholder was brilliantly executed and shocking.

The specific focus on Australia as a refugee settlement was fairly weird.

4 stars.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (4 stars)

Sequel to the excellent Three Body Problem. Less Chinese history, even more crazy thought experiments. Some serious spoilers ahead.

What would you do if your mortal enemy could observe even your most secret discussions and all strategy was essentially an open book? Humanity comes up with a really novel solution in the form of the Wallfacers and Trisolaris counters with their Wallbreakers. Great stuff.

The Wallfacer Luo Ji is obviously set up to be the real danger, by appearing to do nothing for a very long time.
How are we supposed to know whether or not you have already started work?
The Trisolarans recognise the threat and come up with a super sophisticated assassination method. Meanwhile Zang Beihai is also coming up with his own amazingly complex murder plot to remove opposition to technological research: it involves creating bullets out of meteorites....

The central realization of the book is that the universe is a dangerous dark forest where voices are silenced quickly, which is a neat explanation of the Fermi paradox.
“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them.

A very interesting and thought-provoking read.

4 stars

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu and Ken Liu (4.5 stars)

In Part I: Silent Spring, the book begins in the Chinese Cultural Revolution from the perspective of Ye Wenjie, and gives us some insight into that time. There's a lot of little footnotes dotted through the text that explain some of the Chinese context when pure translation falls short.

Spoilers ahead.

Reading Silent Spring shakes the foundations of Ye Wenjie's life, and causes her to question almost everything and then betray humankind in a very surprising way:
If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil?
Wenjie extends a deliberate invitation to a powerful alien race to invade and cleanse Earth of humanity. This was unlike any other first contact story I've ever read. Wenjie's actions start a doomsday clock ticking that will expire in 450 years.

As a society how can you possibly plan a project that will a) determine whether your species continues to exist, and b) spans many many generations? It's a fascinating thought experiment that Liu explores from a number of angles, not least of which is the anticipated demoralization and fatalism that is expected to overcome future generations.

Many factions react differently to the news of a powerful alien race coming to take over the Earth. The "Saviors" develop a video game as a recruiting tool which is a fantastic and surreal exploration of the Trisolaran world that includes a player solving mathematical problems by developing an entire computer architecture based on humans moving around on a field:
“Your Imperial Majesty, this is the Qin 1.0 operating system we developed. The software for doing the calculations will run on top of it. That below”—Von Neumann pointed to the human-formation computer—“is the hardware. What’s on this paper is the software. The relationship between hardware and software is like that between the guqin zither and sheet music.”
Complete with progress bars made from people carrying coloured flags:
“Self-test complete! Begin boot sequence! Load operating system!”
Rehydrate! Dehydrate!

The next thought experiment is: how could you hold back all scientific innovation of a global society with the smallest amount of effort? The Trisolarans want to hamstring Earth science and defense to meet minimal resistance in 450 years. So with very limited resources they decide to disrupt fundamental physical particle research.

It's a really really odd book. It's not particularly easy reading and it's fairly slow to start. But it is fascinating.

4.5 stars.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg (4 stars)

This is a great read, and I was surprised to find it is actually very scientific. Ansari and Klinenberg (who is a sociology professor) conducted a lot of research as well as literature review, and present the information in a engaging format with plenty of humour sprinkled throughout. Aziz reads like how he speaks, I think the audio book might be even better.

Some of my favourite quotes below.
It made me wonder whether our ability and desire to interact with strangers is another muscle that risks atrophy in the smartphone world.
On the amount of time to wait before texting back:
“There is this desire, for me at least, to have the upper hand. I have to have it. So if I text someone, and they wait ten minutes to text me back, I wait twenty.
The amazing things people write in their profiles:
“No fatties, no alcoholics,” proclaimed another. “I’m currently cleaning up toxic waste” is how one man described his professional life, while another described himself as “an executive by day, a wild man by night,” and a third proclaimed, “I’m interested in all aspects of data processing.”
On the fundamental problems with online dating:
But our research also convinced me that too many people spend way too much time doing the online part of online dating, not the dating part.
4 stars.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Mrs. Kennedy and Me: An Intimate Memoir by Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin (4 stars)

Clint Hill has written a very personal account of his time protecting first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. It casts Mrs. Kennedy in a positive light and doesn't raise any scandal, as you may expect from someone writing about their former employer and not interested in burning their bridges. It also gives the reader a good insight into the lives of the first family and what it's really like to be a Secret Service agent on protective detail. Protecting the first lady is considered a second-string detail compared to the president, but despite that, Clint Hill was amazingly steadfast in his devotion to the job and obviously had a strong personal relationship to the family.

Mr. Hill assumed great personal cost to do his job. He was rarely home, and Mrs. Kennedy's choices to travel constantly and evacuate DC at every opportunity essentially blocked him from being involved in his child's early years.

As a taxpayer I was fairly horrified by the immense costs incurred by Mrs. Kennedy's jet-setting lifestyle. Lavish vacations overseas and semi-official tours of India and Pakistan driven by personal interest were all huge logistical operations for the secret service that would have resulted in large costs borne by the taxpayer.

While it's tempting to see these visits as pure junkets, I somewhat agree with this statement that building personal capital via the first lady can be useful for the leader of the free world. Sadly he probably didn't get the chance to call in these favors:
You don’t even realize the impact you have, how much you are admired, how you just single-handedly created bonds between the United States and two strategic countries far better than any diplomats could have done.
For Mr. Hill the Secret Service job was everything from security and logistics to shopping for swimsuits and transporting horses gifted to Mrs. Kennedy back to the US:

Thus it was that I became a frequent shopper on Worth Avenue, buying swimwear for the president, toys for the children, and personal items for Mrs. Kennedy. This was not in the job description the Secret Service had for me, but it was just one more way to make life a lot easier and less confrontational for Mrs. Kennedy. She appreciated my efforts, and I considered it a good protective move to remove her from public exposure as much as possible.
...all I could think was how the hell are we going to get this damn horse back to Washington? 
It's an interesting read, even if it skips over the more scandalous events such as rumored affairs, and Hill's own deep personal struggles after JFK's death.

4 stars.

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.