Book Review: “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Travel! Deadlines! Wedding prep! I haven’t posted for weeks! Look, here’s a review of a book I managed to read on the plane before and after a conference:

23122312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I need to use the word “transcendent” to talk about a book with spaceships in it. I am fully aware that this is a silly thing to do, and I hope that one day you can forgive me. But really, 2312 is a transcendent work of science fiction.

Let’s start with the science fiction and work our way up to the transcendence. So. Three hundred years from now (q.v. the book’s title), we’ve managed to colonize the solar system and we’ve started terraforming some likely planets, moons, and asteroids. The advent of powerful quantum computation is a real presence in this effort, and hugely extends humanity’s technological reach. And medical technology has advanced to the point where humanity has started to speciate into different variations with all kinds of weird body types and more than two genders. Oh, plus a two hundred year lifespan is starting to seem reasonable.

That’s all really rich material, and good sci fi has been written about any one of these ideas alone. But Kim Stanley Robinson takes all of these ideas together and builds something large, profound, and beautiful with them. Take the colonization of the solar system for example. This is driven by environmental catastrophe on Earth (totally understandable, given the bottomless dithering about climate change we see in 2012) and in turn it drives an expansion into new economies and systems of government. So in addition to the exciting plot and the rich emotional lives of the characters (I’m getting there, hold on) you, the reader, also get to think about twelve billion people living all over the solar system. Is 21st century American-style capitalism the natural course for all these people in all these different environments? What does the working day look like for somebody who grows up on Mercury? How would she relate to somebody who grew up on one of Saturn’s moons?

The miracle of 2312 is that it doesn’t turn into a giant essay on political science. Instead, Robinson manages to explore and develop all these ideas through strong, vital characters moving in an exciting plot. (In a science fiction novel! Imagine that!) Things kick off with Swan Er Hong, a citizen of Mercury’s only city, dealing with the unexpected death of her grandmother Alex. Alex was a politically important figure in the solar system, and this importance sucks Swan into an rich and complicated world of interplanetary politics, space travel, and quantum computers that may or may not be behaving strangely. (Get it? Quantum physics joke — you’re welcome.)

It’s worth stressing this point: Swan is a fascinating protagonist. She used to be a scientist who designed and built enormous, space-bound terraria to house animals and ecosystems that can’t survive on post-climate-change Earth anymore. But now she’s an artist, because somehow that other work wasn’t rewarding for her? She grew up on Mercury and has, yes, a mercurial temperament. And along the way she meets huge, intensely contemplative, toadlike Wahram. Wahram has a complicated past that involves manual labor but also apparently a nontrivial role in the politics of Saturn. (Wahram is a titanic, saturnine citizen of Saturn’s moon Titan. This would be trite if it wasn’t so well done.) Then, lots of things happen to them.

I want you to understand how great this is. It is a real rarity in contemporary fiction – especially genre fiction, but also in TV and movies – to find characters who are totally actualized, who speak with their own voice instead of the author’s voice, who are not just robots built to drive the machinery of the plot. Instead, each character is unique and together they interact in ways that totally make sense given this uniqueness. I guess I have high standards for books about space travel? Anyway, to sum up, I’ll just say woo-wee Kim Stanley Robinson can write!

It’s very hard for me to understand how there can be so much breadth and depth in a 550-page book. How can you have a book about interplanetary politics that is also about one person’s complicated emotional life? There are only a few other books I can think of that manage this successfully and I love them so much: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem takes breaks from the action to explore dialogues – all of them relevant to the plot, but also just intellectually cool – between a teacher and a student; Frank Herbert’s Dune starts chapters with excerpts from a scholarly work on galactic history; and of course Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quotes liberally from the titular Guide. 2312 manages this in a more postmodern way, by sprinkling the book with 1-2 page “Excerpts”. It’s not explained what these passages are excerpted from, but it doesn’t matter. They’re a great way for you to catch your breath and put the action into a larger context. Some of them are long and expository, but some of them are short little political-scientific lightning strikes:

…any given economic system or historical moment is an unstable mix of past and future systems. Capitalism therefore was the combination or battleground of its residual element, feudalism, and its emergent element — what? … as feudalism is the residual on Earth, capitalism is the residual on Mars

I chewed on that one for a while before I moved on to the next chapter. Or how about this one:

It was rumored in these years that Martian spies were everywhere in the system, but that they were constantly reporting back to headquarters that there was nothing to fear — balkanization meant Mars faced nothing but a stochastic chaos of human flailing

This is what ends up making 2312 transcendent instead of just “good” or “exciting”. There’s just so much more than you could possibly expect from a single science fiction novel. It manages to look forward to a plausible, exciting future for humanity, totally, but it also somehow manages to make deeply incisive observations about the world we actually live in today, in reality. It explores wild new ways of being a human being – Swan Er Hong has given birth to a child, has also fathered a child, and has an extremely powerful computer implanted in her head – but the book still throws much of its emotional weight behind the growing, blossoming relationship between two interesting people. (Just like Jane Austen does, but different!) The action spans the solar system and multiple governments on multiple planets, but there are wildly exciting, nail-biting chapters devoted to small groups of people in difficult, exciting situations. And all the future-y technology-related stuff is cool and forward-looking while still seeming plausible.

2312 manages to be great in every way that a science fiction novel can possibly be good. Read it.

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Book review: “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom” by Graham Farmelo

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the AtomThe Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is a grand, categorical statement for you: The quantum mechanics revolution of the early 20th century is the greatest achievement of the human mind to date.

I will admit to some bias here, since I’m a physicist. But really, think about it. Over the span of something like 50 years, a group of very smart human beings figured out some fundamental, non-obvious truths about how the universe works. Energy quantization? The probabilistic behavior of subatomic particles? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? Relativity? These sound like things a crazy person at a bus stop would tell you. Try and imagine how you would come up with any of these ideas on your own. And then try and imagine how you would go about proving them.

Now, of course, you can’t go a day without benefiting from these insane, impossibly correct ideas. For example: you’re reading this review on a computer, which is made up of lots of tiny electronic components that simply wouldn’t exist without a clear understanding of quantum mechanics. And the general theory of relativity is what makes your GPS so accurate. But beyond the practical applications, you could argue that furthering our understanding of the world around us is one of the best and noblest things a human being can do.

Fine, so quantum mechanics is a monumental achievements of human understanding. Well, Paul Dirac was one of the most talented, successful theorists of the quantum mechanics revolution. He’s what they call a “theorist’s theorist”. Dirac understood quantum mechanics so well that Einstein regularly used Dirac’s textbook as a reference. Dirac understood quantum mechanics so well that he was able to predict the existence of antimatter. Dirac understood quantum mechanics so well that quantum mechanics would call Dirac on the weekends, asking for advice about its love life.

If quantum mechanics is the greatest achievement of the human mind, and if Paul Dirac is one of the superstars of the quantum mechanics revolution, then you might as well read a book about Paul Dirac. To appreciate one of the best, most important things any human being has ever done? Yes?

A question, then. Is Graham Farmelo’s “The Strangest Man” that book? My answer is a resounding “yeah, probably”.

It’s a biography, written for a general audience. As such, it deals a whole lot with Dirac The Man. Which is great. And interesting. And very well researched and written – Farmelo is a very good writer. But did you notice how I just spent 4+ paragraphs talking rhapsodically about the importance of the ideas involved in quantum mechanics? Since this is a popular biography and not a physics text, the overwhelming weight of this book is spent on talking about who Dirac was, what he was like, what his marriage was like, etc. If you’re looking for an exhaustive treatment of Dirac’s contribution to physics, this is not your book. Being a physicist, I was a little disappointed on that score. On the other hand, if you really want to understand that stuff, you might as well read his primary source material. And if you’re not inclined in that direction, this book is the one you want.

And listen, there’s a lot of good stuff in here. In addition to being one of the smartest people ever, Dirac was a Grade A Weirdo. (I say this with a heart full of love.) Leaving aside your noble intentions to better understand a triumph of the human mind, you could read this book just to read about the life of a very unusual person. (Q.v. the title of this book.) Paul Dirac is the embodiment of the scientist stereotype – a frightfully smart person who is not great at normal, day-to-day interpersonal stuff. Here’s an example from page 164:

It is easy to imagine Dirac at one of these evening balls, sitting at a table and gazing quizzically at Heisenberg as he jived on the dance floor. Heisenberg long remembered being asked by Dirac, ‘Why do you dance?’ After Heisenberg replied, reasonably enough, ‘When there are nice girls it is a pleasure to dance,’ Dirac looked thoughtful. After about five minutes of silence, he said, ‘Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?’

In fact, there’s quite a lot in this book that would make for a solid Hollywood-style biopic. There’s the humor of Dirac’s weirdness, the pathos of his upbringing by some not-great parents, his nonstandard but functional marriage, and the triumph and validation of his Nobel Prize. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll eat all your popcorn in the first ten minutes. Really and truly, the story of Dirac’s life is a good story.

Which brings me to my only really substantive criticism of this book. Towards the end, I started to feel like Farmelo focused a bit too much on the narrative arc of Dirac’s life: difficult upbringing -> brilliant student -> iconoclastic physicist -> Nobel Laureate -> late-career productivity slump -> sad old guy whose friends are old. Without a better, deeper description of Dirac’s work, you have no compass with which to navigate this narrative. You just have to follow Farmelo’s lead. And since Farmelo is so focused on a (kind of simplistic) narrative arc, there’s an inevitability to the end of the book. And in the end of the book, Dirac is old and sad and not very productive. I ended up feeling pretty melancholy during the last 50 pages or so. It’s a great story, but it’s missing an important dimension.

Yes, absolutely, read this book. Read it to appreciate the people who laid the foundation of quantum mechanics. Read it to enjoy a good story about a thoroughly unique individual. Read it and just keep in mind that the most important dimension – his work – is something you’ll have to read elsewhere.

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Book review: “City of Glass” by Paul Auster

City of GlassCity of Glass by Paul Auster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I told the guy in the bookstore (whose name is also Daniel) that I wanted a book that would open my brain up. He didn’t think too long before he pointed me towards this short weird book.

Imagine that David Lynch and Haruki Murakami got punchy one night and decided to write a noir detective novel together. And Samuel Beckett stopped by to contribute a chapter or two? I recognize this sounds crazy, but it’s hard to imagine that this book was written by a single person. There are so many thoughts crammed into every page, and they’re typically surprising and convoluted and odd.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Quinn writes pulpy detective novels under the pseudonym William Wilson. But really, he feels some significant connection to the protagonist of those novels, Max Work. And then one night, with nothing in particular going on, somebody calls him asking for Paul Auster, who is apparently a private detective. The caller desperately needs the help of Auster in order to prevent a murder. And Quinn at first is all like “I’m not Paul Auster”, but then a little later he’s all like “yeah, sure, I’m Paul Auster” and he jumps head first into doing some detective stuff.

Then the book kind of gets odd.

I feel pretty good about feeling confused, which means I tend to enjoy weird books and movies. And I will tell you right now that this book is confusing. Not in the same way that a Tolstoy novel is confusing, with everybody having like 3 names, or the way the first chapter of “Infinite Jest” is just totally opaque. The plot is crystal clear and it’s very easy to tell what’s happening, the above paragraph notwithstanding. “City of Glass” is confusing because Auster gives you so many things to think about on basically every page. He had a lot of ideas in his brain and wanted to share all of them with you. Sometimes this made the book feel disjointed, but most of the time it just felt rich.

You should read this book if you like weirdo detective stories. And you should probably avoid this book if you really need to be able to decide on the significance of every literary curve ball Auster throws. It’s a pretty short book, but it will support a lot of pondering. Just don’t expect a lot of resolution.

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Book review: “A Storm of Swords”

Back before I started writing my dissertation in earnest, I had the habit of writing book reviews for some of the books I read.  It helped me to organize my thinking and it helped my opinions to gel.  Actually, people say this about tasting wines too.  If you just taste a wine, you’ll forget about it in a day and then that’s it.  But if you try to describe it while you’re drinking it, it will stay with you longer and you’ll end up knowing a lot about wine.  Same with books, right?

I use Goodreads for this. It’s a good website that you should check out.

Anyway, so now that I have a life again, I’ll try to get back into the habit of reviewing the books I read. It turns out that the first book I reviewed wasn’t so great, but I’ve also reviewed books I do like.  Stay tuned for those.

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A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, #3)A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“A Storm of Swords” is a brutal, brutal book. And the book is part of a brutal, brutal series by George R.R. Martin called “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Whether you should read the book – or the series – is a tough question. A decent answer might take me a few paragraphs.

So. The basics. I was going on a trip and I needed some airplane fiction. A couple friends had recommended the series to me, and at first blush it seemed pretty well-suited to some of my dorkier sensibilities: “People hitting each other with swords, you say? Court intrigue and spooky monsters? Giant, psychic wolves? Don’t mind if I do!” Martin is a decent writer with a good imagination, so it’s easy to get sucked into this world he’s created. But these books are largely dark and heavy. This is not the breezy airplane reading I was looking for. More on this in a bit.

Broadly, the books are set in a place called Westeros, populated by feudal types who are all vying with each other for political power. It has the same general thrust as Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, in that the narrative perspective shifts between a bunch of different characters who are all strategizing against each other. But unlike “Dune”, everything is shades of gray. You’ll start out thinking that somebody is a good guy or a bad guy, but then good guys get forced into miserable moral conflicts, bad guys end up having good reasons for being bad, and everybody is consistently frustrated in basically all their plans. Oh, and all this inter-family squabbling has everybody distracted from what ought to be their real focus: maybe there’s an army of demonic ghouls from the wintry north who want to do terrible things to every living person in the world, and maybe those ghouls are getting ready to head south en masse. Not bad, right?

Let me elaborate a little on what I said before about “dark and heavy”. In these books, each season lasts several years. The first book starts at the tail-end of a long summer, which means everybody is gearing up for maybe a decade-long, murderous winter. And look, things weren’t all that great in summer. It’s an obvious metaphor for everything else that happens in the books. People start out with hard lives, then their lives get ruined, then their ruined lives get ruined-er, then they die, then their relatives’ already-hard lives are ruined, and so on. Martin has a knack for introducing new characters, getting you to really like them, and then killing them off in horrible ways. Or hey, maybe they don’t die and you just end up caring deeply about characters who never get even the tiniest bit of redemption. I am not exaggerating about this: basically no character gets what they want, ever.

Those are the themes consistent to the three books I’ve read so far. War is hell. People die. Life is hard. Shining knights and little kids can be monsters and cold-blooded killers. And Martin never wants you to get complacent about this. It’s the same grinding, brutal lesson over and over again and at basically every opportunity. There’s something weirdly compelling about how bleak everything is. Popular fiction is overflowing with characters who resolve their problems quickly and inevitably. It’s masochistically refreshing to find that easy gratification absent here. At least, that’s what I say when I’m feeling generous. There are other times though – like right after the grisly murder of a likable character – when it seems like maybe George R.R. Martin never got enough hugs when he was little.

Should you read a book like that? I’m not selling this book very hard, am I?

Martin is an extremely compelling writer. Some of that compelling-ness (?) comes from genuinely good writing, in which well-developed character are put into interesting, fully realized environments and situations. (One caveat here: Only a few of these well-developed, three-dimensional characters are women. Of the minority of female characters, a fairly large portion of them have some sort of “if only I wasn’t a girl, I’d totally have control over my life” issues. This is probably lame.) Some of that compelling-ness, though, comes from addictive, TV-style emotional manipulation. (Martin was a TV writer after all, and it totally shows through in his writing.) Just as every episode of “Battlestar Galactica”, “Heroes”, “24”, etc. has a cliff-hanger before every commercial break, most chapters in these books end with some sort of cliff-hanger. And then because the narrative shifts perspective so often, you’re left hanging for five or six chapters while Martin returns to other supporting characters, moves their sub-plots along, and sets up their cliff-hangers. More often than not, once you finally return to the original tense situation, the tension is prolonged or enhanced instead of being resolved. Some people – probably the same people who love that sort of episodic TV – love this style of writing and eat it up with a spoon. I find myself hating it, but I seem to be reading these books anyway.

It strikes me that most of this review has centered on the story mechanics. Martin’s methodical, cliff-hanger-y way of telling this story has been just as much a part of my experience as any character or sub-plot. People like these books because of the intrigue and adventure and all the medieval hoo-hah, but the hoo-hah is hard to appreciate if you have to do it in spite of the story mechanics.

I’ve been reading these books – despite how depressing and brutal and manipulative they are – because I want very much to see what happens to all these people and how the story ends. Like I said, Martin is a talented writer who creates interesting characters and situations. But then he abuses you with that talent. It raises interesting questions about what we want from entertainment. Is a book or TV show “good” just because it stresses you out?

So in the end, I don’t even know if I want to keep reading this series. Except I probably will, but then I’ll resent myself for doing it. I don’t know, guys. Books about knights and monsters are fun, right?

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