Book Reviews 2015

I haven't taken the time recently to provide reviews on the books I've been reading.  So here's a quick update.

During the past year I had been in the national security classes so I didn't have much time for leisure reading.  I did get some done during the Christmas break between semesters and once my last class ended, and after a recuperative period, I started in on some fiction.  The classes pretty much burned me out on non-fiction for a little while.

the_martian_coverThe Martian - Andy Weir

The Martian is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read.  It's smart, it's witty, and it's just fun.  Weir went through a lot of effort to get the science right which, for me, really makes the experience stand out.  I'm certainly no expert, but I do know a little chemistry, physics, biology, orbital mechanics, etc.  So when I'm reading a book where those topics are important to the story line I really appreciate them being correct.

I really enjoyed that the story is driven by the intelligence of the characters and not their ability to shoot things or punch things.  I am extremely excited for the movie coming out in October.  The previews suggest they captured the spirit of the novel.  Next month Weir will be visiting the Lab so I'll have a chance to get a signed copy of the book.

the_synchronicity_warThe Synchronicity War - Dietmar Wehr

The Synchronicity War is a four-part series set during the time period shortly after humanity's first foray into interstellar space travel and colonization.  I enjoyed it.  It was light, fast-paced reading.  The story involves some time-travel (well done, in my opinion), alien encounters, space combat, and the development of sentient artificial intelligence.  I thought the story was cohesive though bordering being over the top at times.  If you can look past the occasional blatant deus ex machina it's a fun read if you're into sci-fi, action-adventure stuff.

duneDune - Frank Herbert

Dune is widely considered to be one of science-fiction's foundational works.  At just shy of 900 pages it's a commitment to read.  Honestly, it's a slow starter.  I think it's 150 pages before the story line starts to pick up.  There's a lot of foundation laid and I felt like it could have been cut down without much loss.  However, once the story picks up it keeps moving rather steadily.  It's well written and the story is well put together with good interlocking details.  I did enjoy it overall.  One oddity for me though was that it felt more like fantasy than science fiction.  Sure there are space ships and advanced technology, but the themes and surrounding narrative felt a lot like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time.

ready_player_oneReady Player One - Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is another quick, fun, read.  No, it's not serious writing about serious subjects.  It's not trying to be Dune.  It's just trying to be entertaining.  And it is. The story is cyberpunk obsessed with 1980's nerd/geek computer/game culture.  I'm not exactly a 80's fanatic or big into MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer, Online, Role-Playing Games), but I know enough about them to enjoy the book.  If you know nothing about those topics the story may be rather unimpressive to you.  I think Ready Player One's following and popularity is fueled by a very successful appeal to nostalgic charm and that's fine.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Hugh Howey Short Stories

peace_in_amberPeace in Amber

This story is a bit of an oddity.  My understanding is that Howey was asked to write some kind of a mixin with Kurt Vonnegut's writing and this is what he came up with.  If you're unfamiliar with Vonnegut's writing half the story might seem really bizarre, but I don't think it matters much.  The interesting aspect of this story is Howey tells his experience of being in New York City on September 11, 2001.  He was working on someone's yacht at the time and was in the harbor.  He spent hours using that yacht to ferry people out of Manhattan.

boxThe Box

The Box was alright.  Not one of Howey's stronger works.  But somewhat interesting still.  Definitely still carrying his strong theme of the right to self-determination.

glitchGlitch

Glitch was a bit predictable, but not every story has to be full of twists and turns.  Well written and enjoyable and, again, heavy on the self-determination theme.

Second Suicidesecond_suicide

This one was unique.  I really enjoyed it.  There's not much I can say that wouldn't simply spoil the story.  Definitely worth a read.

plagiaristThe Plagiarist

The Plagiarist highlights Howey's ability to take something that looks predictable and turn it on its head.  I think the way he does this in many of his stories causes things like Glitch and The Box to feel like lesser works as I think they're missing this element.  Also definitely worth a read.

flowers_for_algernonFlowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon is another deemed classic of science fiction writing.  Perhaps I had read too much hype about it before actually reading it, but it didn't live up to expectations.  Incredibly well written and executed.  The unique story telling style would be difficult to pull off but Keyes manages it.  An unarguably interesting story.

dunes_over_danvarDunes Over Danvar - Michael Bunker

Bunker is an indie author with a growing number of good stories.  I'll be keeping my eye on his future work.  Dunes Over Danvar is set in Howey's Sand universe (I believe Howey is working on a sequel!).  It's an enjoyable adventure story set during the same time period as the events of Sand, but with unique characters.  This story caused me to pick up another of Bunker's stories, Pennsylvania.

pennsylvaniaPennsylvania - Michael Bunker

Pennsylvania certainly presents a unique universe.  The only way to categorize it is "Amish Sci-Fi."  I know, how could such a category exist?  Well, you can read this and find out.  Bunker wrote the story in several pieces, but you can buy an omnibus at this point.  While the universe has some compelling features and story line was enjoyable, I felt like Bunker didn't really know where he was going with it overall.  It feels a bit strung along.  And the ending does not really wrap anything up.  Presumably he's working on a sequel.  But even so, unless he has a master plan that he's working towards I think it will continue to feel strung along and lacking depth.  It really begins to feel like back story, details, and explanation aren't being provided not because they need to be for the story to unfold a certain way, but because he can't decide what they should be and doesn't want to start fixing elements in place.

A Day with Hugh Howey

IMG_20140911_090630asOne of the employee morale groups (for lack of a better description) runs a series where they invite authors to come and speak about their work and meet with employees and then get a tour around the Lab.  Back in April or May they asked if anyone had suggestions for authors to invite out.  I suggested we invite Hugh Howey out.  He's a science fiction author which is always a good match with the Lab population and he has great knowledge of the self-publishing process which would be of interest to aspiring authors lurking about the property.

We were very pleased when he accepted our offer and we arranged for a visit on September 11 while he was already going to be in the Bay Area.

He took a tour of the supercomputer facility in the morning and then gave a presentation and we had a group lunch.  I spent the morning working, but was able introduce him at the talk and have lunch and then tour the National Ignition Facility and the High Explosive Application Facility with him during the afternoon.

It was a lot of fun.  He's a geek at heart which made seeing all the incredible science great fun.  I really enjoy getting to tour other parts of the Lab.  It's easy to stay cooped up in my office and not hear about all the other amazing work being done.

After our tours a small group went down to the Concannon Winery for dinner.  It was a blast to ask him about his work and his experiences in life and hear how those experiences have influenced his writing.  He's an incredibly personable guy and has remained quite humble despite his great success.

I think he enjoyed visiting the Lab as much as we all enjoyed having him.  I highly recommend sitting down with him for a chat if you ever get the chance.  In the meantime, we will all just have to settle for reading his stories.  I can't wait to see what bits and pieces from his visit work their way into his writing.

IMG_20140911_213103as

 

Hugh Howey

Howey_SAND_OMNIBUS_EbookEdition-600Hugh Howey is an author and he's a fantastic writer.  But he's not your typical author.  Hugh Howey is on the forefront of the future of publishing.  His website gives a status report of the progress he's making on his current projects.  And he engages directly with is fans (I've actually emailed him a few times to report typos I've seen and he's responded each time).

But those are just niceties that any author could be doing.  What sets Howey apart is his understanding that technology has changed the game.  eReaders, on-demand printing, and the Internet overall with easy access to self-run websites and easy-to-use payment systems have changed everything (Amazon is a big player in this new ecosystem).  And not just his understanding about this changing world but his embracing it and pushing it forward.  He's showing everyone else how to be an author in the 21st century.

I'm a big fan of Howey's.  The first reason is that he's just a fantastic writer.  When I read his work my eyes just glide over the words.  His writing isn't necessarily simple, but it has fantastic flow (his blog post about vocabulary, rhythm, and plot elucidates the point).  It's rare that I stumble over a sentence and have to back up and try again when reading his work.  It's incredible and it makes you want to just keep reading because you barely notice that you are, in fact, reading.

I started with Howey by reading The Wool Omnibus based off a recommendation from the GeekDad blog.  I was hooked.  I needed more.  I quickly devoured the Shift stories that act as a prequel to Wool.  And then I anxiously waited for the conclusion, Dust.  Since then I've breezed through Half Way Home and was just in time to catch the release of the Sand Omnibus.  And I still want more.  (Word of warning: Howey's characters due use expletives on a not-irregular basis, in case that bothers you.)

But he's more than just a fantastic author.  As I said, he sees where publishing is going.

Howey refuses to cripple his eBook works with DRM.  He understands how DRM hurts the very people that support him.  I really appreciate this.

He refuses to sell his soul to a publishing company.  While he now has made deals with publishing companies it's always on his terms (something they told him repeatedly was never going to happen, until it did; they caved, he won).

He refuses to gouge his customers, because to him we're not customers, were fans.  And you need to treat your fans right.  His works are always made available at reasonable prices right out of the gate.  The cost of seeing if you like Howey's writing is so small that you don't even have to think about it.  No one likes dropping $20 on a book and not liking it.  Libraries are great for mitigating this issue, but $0.99 for the first slice of a story is great too.  In fact, right now, you can pick up Wool Part 1 for FREE, that's right, $0.00 for the eBook.  Even if you don't have an eReader you can read it on your computer, or your phone, or your tablet to see if you like it.  Then you can buy the physical book if you want or pick up the rest of the parts in eBook form.

He refuses to restrict other authors' creativity and interests.  He has given his blessing to other authors to explore the worlds he has created.  This is why if you look on Amazon you will find dozens of fan-fiction stories set in his worlds.  He understands that not only does this not hurt him or his work in any way; it helps his fans build a robust and excited community.  A community that will eagerly fall over itself to buy his next story and see where they can take those worlds.

I anxiously await more stories from Howey.

Book Review: The Tyranny of Clichés by Jonah Goldberg

To start, an anonymous commenter asked me to read this book. It is unlikely I would have selected this for reading material without prompting.  Also, I know nothing about Jonah Goldberg outside of this book.  I don't know who he is, what he does, or why anyone should care what he thinks.  So my opinions are not built around any personal like or dislike of Goldberg himself.

I'd like to preface my remarks by plainly admitting that clichés generally lack depth and nuance.  Generally because it's hard to include depth and nuance in an one-sentence sound-bite.  But just because they have obvious and glaring exceptions does not mean there's nothing worth hearing from them.

I'll even agree with Goldberg that when clichés are used as discussion-enders the people who use them as such do a disservice to society.  Like using Wikipedia for research, clichés should be a starting point rather than a stopping point.

Honestly, I kept this as short as I could, but it's still longer than I'd like for a blog post.  But let's get started.

"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Goldberg introduces his book with his criticism for "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."  One example he uses is Martin Luther King Jr.:

Most reasonable and decent people would recoil at the suggestion that Martin Luther King was a terrorist (some liberals might interject at this point and say, "Aha, but some Southern racists said exactly that about King!," to which a sane person would respond, "Yes, and they were wrong to do so"). (p5)

Goldberg takes an example entirely supporting the idea the cliché represents and then dismisses it because the people holding the viewpoint that King was a terrorist are wrong.  This seems to be a blatant misunderstanding of what the phrase is trying to say.  The phrase is saying that people can view the same situation in completely opposite ways and that to each person their own viewpoint is the valid one.

Similarly, he says it's ludicrous to suggest that George Washington and Osama bin Laden could be viewed as either terrorist or freedom fighter.  Which, of course, they can be if you understand how to view the world from someone else's point of view.  I imagine the British would have happily (and in their eyes, rightly) labeled George Washington a terrorist had the word been used then as it is now.  I also easily imagine that the followers of Osama bin Laden view him as a martyr for their cause for freedom from Western oppression (as they view it).  This does not mean that we can't also view those same examples differently and apply our own moral reasoning.

Goldberg, however, refuses to anyone a point of view which conflicts with his personal sense of morals.  Osama bin Laden can't be a freedom fighter because he wanted to oppress women.  Washington can't be a terrorist because he wanted to create a nation of freedom.  And that's essentially where his argument ends, but not before calling anyone who disagrees "a terrorist sympathizer," "an idiot," or "frightened." (pp4-5)

Centrists, Moderates, Independents and Compromise

Next Goldberg attacks political moderates and the concept of compromise:

The independents and moderates who just grab stuff from this shelf, then from that shelf, like a panicked survivor of the dawn of the dead grabbing what he or she can from the supermarket before the zombies spot her, do not value consistency at all. (p7)

After an eighteen-month campaign, all of the informed, conscious, and ideologically consistent voters have already made up their minds.  All that's left are the undecided centrists, who actually think they have the more sophisticated and serious position; their indecision comes, actually, by virtue of the fact that they've either not paid much attention until way too late in the game, or more simply, they're a**holes (sic) who think they must be the center of the universe. (p8)

If I say we need one hundred feet of bridge to cross a one-hundred-foot chasm that makes me an extremist.  Somebody else says we don't need to build a bridge at all because we don't need to cross the chasm in the first place.  That makes him an extremist.  The third guy is the centrist because he insists that we compromise by building a fifty-foot bridge that ends in the middle of thin air?...The independent who splits the difference has no idea what to do and doesn't want to bother with figuring it out. (p7)

If that's not arrogant, intentional misunderstanding then I'm not sure what is.

He seems to be unable to grasp the concept that a voter may not like any available candidate because none of them particularly align with the voter's ideology; and, therefore, they spend more time trying to decide what to do than a voter who is perfectly aligned.

These excerpts perfectly show Goldberg's reasoning throughout the book:  There are only 2 valid viewpoints, the "liberal" one and the "conservative" one.  And if you don't fit into one of those two bins it's because you "do not value consistency at all",  "[have] no idea what to do and [don't] want to bother with figuring it out", or "[are an] asshole who [thinks you] must be the center of the universe."

When a situation is complex and not easily divided into two sides Goldberg sets up a false dichotomy and then attacks the side he doesn't like.

This leads me to my biggest problem throughout the entire book: Goldberg rarely has anything constructive to say.  Almost every chapter is an angry attack made of emotional vitriol.  Sadly, I rather expected this type of one-sided rhetoric given that the subtitle of the book is, "How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas."  He makes no secret that it's going to be an assault rather than a discussion.

Which is really too bad.  At times you can see that he's intelligent and able to form meaningful thoughts.  And he could have written a book I probably would have really enjoyed; that is, if he had attempted to present a remotely fair view of the topics.  But instead it's all, "I'm right; everyone else is an idiot" (I suppose that's what sells books).  [I'm not even saying he shouldn't pick a side, but at least give the other position a fair shake and then argue for a side instead of just attacking the other.]

Dissent

Liberals are uncomfortable with the topic of patriotism because their core philosophical impulses are to make America a different country than it is.  This is not an evil impulse, and it can certainly manifest itself in patriotic ways.  More importantly, it can manifest itself in humane and decent ways.  But at the most basic level love is about acceptance.  If you are constantly trying to change the person you claim to love into someone he or she is not, there comes a point when it's reasonable to ask whether you really, truly, deeply love the person for who he or she is.  Barack Obama campaigned promising to "fundamentally transform" America.  We would not think a husband who promises to "fundamentally transform" his wife has a healthy love for her. (pp127-128)

In a incredible manipulation of words Goldberg equates patriotism to love and then argues that anyone who wants to change the country (specifically President Obama) doesn't love the country and is equivalent to an abusive husband who demands his wife change to suit his whims [seriously?!--yes he's entirely serious].  (Also, stay tuned for a future blog post discussing nationalism compared to patriotism.)

"Better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be imprisoned"

This, I presume, was the impetus for the commenter asking me to provide a review.  In the aforementioned post I made this remark, "...my predilection for the idea that it is better to let 10 guilty persons go free than to convict 1 innocent person."

This chapter, like a few others, is rather bizarre in that Goldberg never makes any point.  First he rambles on for four pages on the idea that it would be insane to release 10 prisoners every time a defendant was found not guilty in court (or some variation on that theme).  And, yes, it would be rather silly to embark in such behavior.

He then goes on to say that of course that's not what anyone means when they use the phrase.  He then spends one page defending the principle that the phrase represents (that we should have a justice system that errs in favor of the defendants).  He then ends the chapter with this paragraph:

But the phrase becomes pernicious and dangerous when it is used to change the subject from actual and specific questions of guilt or innocence.  If Joe the Accountant is guilty, he is guilty.  Too often, when people invoke n guilty men what they are in fact trying to do is change the subject.  They corral an abstraction--"the system"--because they are uncomfortable arguing the facts in question. The implication is that they are arguing with somebody.  But who are they arguing with?  Not the judge, nor the prosecutor, nor the loved ones seeking justice for the dead, nor the other guests on the cable talk show.  It is a debater's talking point preloaded with its own straw man.  As such it is a way to fend off an argument rather than a means of making one. (p158)

Now, I've read it several times over and I can't make any meaningful sense out of it--especially not as the scathing criticism over the phrase that it's apparently supposed to be.  I guess he's arguing that some people try to use the phrase as a defense for letting someone escape justice?  I've never come across such usage, but then I don't spend my time watching talk shows (where he implies this occurs).

Which leads me to my concluding topic.

In many, if not most, of his chapters he sets up some grand argument (usually a false dichotomy) and then attacks the "liberal" side as being absurd/stupid/ignorant/etc. and rarely actually defends the "conservative" side.  But much of the time I found myself simply not caring, because I personally didn't agree with either side he posited.  But, as I previously mentioned, to him that simply makes me either ignorant, lazy, or an asshole; so take your pick.

Book Discussion: Cold-War-Era, Post-Nuclear-War Fiction

I've been on a bit of a post-apocalyptic fiction binge. I've just finished reading three cold-war-era, post-nuclear-war books.

AlasBabylon(1stEd)I started with Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank.  Published in 1959, it details a small town's struggle to cope with the results of a U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear war.  Much of the U.S. survives the war and enough government continues to exist to maintain order and rebuild the nation.

The bulk of the story is concerned with the need to find safe drinking water, food, sanitation, and supplies; the loss of electricity; the lack of medicines; etc.  The town creates a trading post where people can barter for supplies.  Some townspeople breakdown and can't deal with it, some townspeople take advantage of the situation to loot, rob, and steal.  The characters deal with reinstating order and protecting the town while waiting for contact from the outside world.

It was interesting and I really enjoyed it.  But, I feel like it may have been a little too optimistic.  Compared to the other books it feels lighthearted.  Sure some things go poorly and people die, but overall things aren't so bad.

A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz_cover_1st_edIn counterpoint is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller Jr., published in 1960.  It covers the rebirth of civilization after a nuclear apocalypse.  Rather than a survival story, though, it's written in a much different style.  The only other work like it I know of is Asimov's Foundation Trilogy (which were published in 1951, 1952, 1953--I wonder if Miller read them and borrowed the idea).  Meaning, it's not a story of a character or set of characters, but it's a story of a civilization.  The book covers about 1200 years starting many centuries past the nuclear apocalypse and eventually seeing civilization obliterate itself again in another nuclear apocalypse.

After the initial nuclear war, civilization collapsed and slipped into warring tribes and factions.  A surviving scientist realized the threat to mankind's knowledge and worked with the surviving Catholic church to found a monastic order dedicated to seeking out and preserving knowledge.  These monks dedicated the centuries to collecting, preserving, and copying what they could find of any and all of mankind's knowledge; waiting and hoping for a day when that knowledge would help mankind rebuild civilization.

Miller does an excellent job of allowing the history of the world and civilization's downfall to devolve into mythology that then become wrapped up into the remnants of Catholicism.  It's a fairly intellectual-level book.  It's not about action, emotion, or being absorbed by the characters, it's about the big picture.

OnTheBeachFilling in the gap between immediate survival and civilization's collapse is Nevil Shute's hauntingly effective On the Beach, published in 1957.  In this version of nuclear holocaust the Southern Hemisphere is uninvolved in the nuclear war that encompasses the whole of the Northern Hemisphere.  Set two years after the war we follow the dying struggles of the Australian continent.  Having not participated in the war they have no direct losses, but the extreme radiological contamination in the atmosphere is slowly working its way to their continent.

Two American nuclear submarines survived the conflict and, having placed themselves at the disposal of surviving governments, perform scouting missions in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans searching for survivors in the Northern Hemisphere.  None are found.  The fallout slowly works its way south killing everything in its path.

Even with two years knowledge of their fate the population begins to fray as normal behavior becomes meaningless in the face of having only months, then weeks, then days left to live.  Slowly they lose contact with the remaining more-northern cities around the world as the contamination settles in.  Knowing their fate the government has prepared suicide capsules and injections, to be dispersed as the end draws near, to allow the people to die painlessly.

The novel ends as the young mother and father and their infant daughter become symptomatic.  As their sickness progresses they make the painful decision to inject their suffering baby and then take their own capsules, saving themselves from the final agonies of radiation-poisoning.  It was heart-wrenching and incredibly effective (perhaps especially to someone with an infant daughter sleeping in the next room).

On the Beach is easily the most depressing, and one of the most powerful, books I've read.  Yet even so, I'm not sure I'd say I enjoyed reading it, but it's definitely worth reading.