Monday, April 7, 2008

Moving House

I've decided to move this blog over to Wordpress. It just seems better there somehow. I won't be tranfereing all the older posts over. They can stay here, like a wasp in amber. Come on over.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

Luckily this book is not confusing, as the title suggests. In good literary style, the title refers to an older meaning; con-fused, or joined together. Through the journeys of its characters, particularly one who makes an eastward journey from India to London, Stephenson shows how the lines of trade connect and join the globe, even in 1700. The naming of a ship in Malabar can have consequences in Paris, should the wrong name be chosen. Trade has always been global.

In The Confusion the three characters from Quicksilver return, though in this book they are rarely together. The Confusion is a book about the journey. The evidence of con-fusing is background, a detail if you will. Jack's journey around the world is the principal focus of the book, and the effects his actions can have on Eliza are unforeseeable. Daniel Waterhouse is rarely seen, being mostly immobile in London during the years of this book, and wishing he were in Massachusetts. The mercurial character of Enoch Root also returns, to save our trading heroes from a subtle and deadly trap set by the Japanese.

As in Quicksilver, the slow emergence of what we today would recognise as science continues, though here science is still con-fused with alchemy.

As with Quicksilver before it (and The System of the World after) this novel is dense and rewarding to read. Like all good books, the reader is encouraged to seek out yet more books to read to answer or confirm (or not!) questions raised.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Dilbert Future by Scott Adams

Reading Scott Adams at length is like reading the output of a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters. Mostly garbage, with the occasional line of insight. So it goes with The Dilbert Future. There's good stuff in here, and it was the memory of that good stuff that lead me to re-read this book. I had forgotten the garbage.

Still, at least the garbage sections are peppered with Dilbert cartoons. This gives it a big advantage over the work of monkeys.

The concept of the confusopoly was the one thing I took away from this book last time. It's a delightfully expressed concept that is so very accurate. Any industry that essentially sells an identical service/ product falls into this state. It's for their own benefit. Obscuring the difference between identical products means that consumers can never make a rational choice, after that it's all down to who has the best marketing. Companies seem happy to compete on this level. Home loans, insurance, mobile phone plans, electricity for the home, these are all examples of confusopolies where the direct comparison of identical products is rendered impossible through obfuscation. Good call, Scott.

The Dilbert Future was written in 1998 (or at least published then, according to my copy) so reading it ten years on, some things are dead wrong, some things are kind of right, if you're generous, and some things are spot on. I say that's not bad. Sometimes it is simply chilling. "The incarceration of the entire planet will come about due to a chain of events beginning with an increase in terrorism." Did you have
to be right on that one?

Many of the 'predictions' are simply observation of trends that were well under way in 1998, such as the move to contracting and consulting work for skilled professionals. However I liked his prediction that no one will watch the news anymore as what is presented as 'news' is simply irrelevant. As someone who gave up watching the news years ago, I can only agree. I still watch The Daily Show, mainly because what is presented there is relevant - an interpretation of daily events. If
Scott had foreseen that the leading source of news for many would be a daily show presented by comedians, that would have been impressive.

I'm not going to talk too much about what I didn't like, which is everything else, because then I'll just go on and on and on until everyone rolls their eyes and wishes they were sitting at another table. Nobody wants that.

I would say that The Dilbert Future holds up more than other similar books that attempt to divine future social trends, but I don't waste my time reading any of those other books. They don't have Dilbert cartoons in them.

I can't recommend this book, due to the garbage, instead do a Google search on confusopoly.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Olympos by Dan Simmons

After last week's late and sleepy starts, I read Olympos over the week-end to avoid any repetition of that this week. Hey, I'm not totally absorbed in my reading. I realise there are wider considerations. Spending a large amount of time sitting on the couch read is a luxury to be savoured.

Olympos is the closing sequel to Ilium, and reveals the deeper mysteries behind the events of Olympos, as the situation of the last humans on earth goes from bad to dire. Cut off from the automations that made their life so easy, humans must once
again learn to fight as previously benign robots of earth begin killing everyone they can find. Genius can create whole universes, but that's not always a good thing.

Like Ilium, this is a book that forcibly pulls me through the story. My will is not my own as I turn page after page. Just another 10 minutes I think, and then an hour has gone by. People talk about getting lost as though it were a bad thing. Getting lost in a good book is strongly recommended.

Ilium by Dan Simmons

The Trojan War will never be the same again. Dan Simmons has seen to that. Reading this book had an immediate and noticable impact on my life. I was at work late and tired every morning last week.
The reason was, that I had been up late reading Ilium.

It's a strange and intriguing tale of Hockenberry, a resurrected scholar tasked by the gods of chronicling the siege of troy, and informing of any discrepancies
between homer's original and actual events. It's also the tale of Mahnmut and Orphu, two robotic life forms living on Jupiter's moons Europa and Io, who become tasked with finding out the cause of alarming quantum instabilities on Mars. It's also the tale of the last humans on earth, who have devolved into an eloi-like society that unthinkingly moves through the ruins of a once greater society.

All of these threads are connected, and the best part of this book is following the
characters as they unravel the mysteries facing them. It also contains some of the best fighting scenes I've read anywhere ever.

The first book ends with Achilles declaring war on the gods themselves. Good times.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Artificial Kid by Bruce Sterling

I first read this book when I was twelve, and it was a cool book about a martial arts fighter who gets into some political trouble and ends up exiled in a strange alien jungle.

I read this book again in my early twenties, and discovered instead it was a very interesting take on society, sexuality, and nature.

Reading it again in my mid-thirties, the book is still highly enjoyable. The eponymous Kid is a 'combat artist' who enters arranged fights for money or honour. He is followed everywhere by his camera drones that record his every action. After a fight he edits and uploads his own tapes for the enjoyment of the masses. At the peak of his art, he is becoming very rich.

It all goes wrong after Kid encounters Moses Moses, the planet's founder returned after 500 years cryo-sleep. Forced to flee to the planet's untamed wilds, Kid meets his former mentor and understands the true nature of the planet that has become a playground for the indolent.

The Artificial Kid is all of the things I found the first two times I read. This time I discovered another theme - self. Kid and Saint Anne have denied their true natures for so long, subsumed in distractions until they thought that was their life. Trapped together in the wilds, they discover something unexpected - themselves. Hmm, does that sound like the voice-over to a crappy romance film? It wasn't meant to. Self. It's another theme. Go read it, it has nunchuks with guns hidden in them.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Gridlinked by Neal Asher

What better way to end my run of non-fiction than with a good sci-fi action story? Gridlinked is certainly that, starting with a massive explosion in a supposedly failsafe travel system.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading. The central character begins the novel ‘gridlinked’ that is, connected permanently and wirelessly to the Internet of the future. However for reasons of his own health he is advised to disconnect and does so. A fair amount of the book details his slow reintegration after spending such a long time hooked up.

Gridlinked is a science fiction adventure story, so there’s murder, mystery, aliens, and spaceships. Not usually the kind of science fiction I choose to read, but this is an enjoyable book. I assume this is a first novel since there is a lot of people staring at people “for a long moment” which was a bit off putting after the first 12 times.

Too much hard science fiction can be bad for you I think. I kept wondering why the bad guys were waiting for the good guys at their destination, when the good guys travelled instantaneously via runcible (a quantum transporter) while the bad guys took a spaceship so they could smuggle weapons. I just had this dry voice in my head wondering why the bad guys didn’t arrive like eighty years too late instead of two days early. But this is my issue. I must do something about that voice.

The central character is distant from those around him, and I can almost believe the whole idea of him being gridlinked for so long is just a device to explain his introversion. It was the similarly introverted character of Mika who caught my attention. There are other characters to choose from, the android, the space pilot, the mercenary, the psycho terrorist. You may remember them from just about every other sci-fi action story you’ve read.

Gridlinked is an enjoyable read, not to be taken too seriously, but worth the time spent reading. It's no think piece like Revelation Space, but it's no mindless bore like Descent of Angels either. Books like this should have a place on everyone’s shelf. Plus, you know, Taryn liked it.

The Interesting Bits by Justin Pollard

I’m a trivia buff. I’m a history buff. And here is a book of historical trivia. For someone like me it’s practically pornographic.

History is something I find endlessly interesting. There are some who contrive to make history boring, or didactic, but you really have to work pathologically hard to achieve this. History is just so … full of things. It has narrative, though it takes a good storyteller, I mean, historical scholar, to draw that out.

The Interesting Bits is broadly organised, by which I mean there are sections with titles, but they really didn’t mean anything to me. There’s no narrative here, or even an attempt at one. The bits that are chosen are generally short, digestible items, conversation pieces if you like that sort of thing, and know people prepared to hear you out.

If your friends roll their eyes and change the subject when you try to tell them who Downing Street is named for, or how a French lawyer successfully defended a horde of rats in court, or even where the term ‘Nosy Parker’ came from, well, you might need to get some new friends.

The layout is such that if you are someone who reads only in short bursts, you’ll love it, since it gives you a tale you can read in a couple of minutes, then put the book down. If, like me, you are someone who reads quickly and in long sessions wherever possible, you can suffer from excessive knowledge download.

There is no narrative here, or even any attempt to create one. That is my biggest criticism of the book, and also the least fair. It didn’t set out to be a narrative, but that’s how I like my history.

There is a tendency for the bits to be either about Britain or America, and the European pieces are written mostly with a “look at those silly continentals!” tone that grates. These annoyances are quibbles rather than show-stoppers though. Overall, The Interesting Bits gives exactly what it says on the cover; little bits of history that are oh so interesting.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape

I’d read a few of Scott Pape’s Barefoot Investor columns and always found them enjoyable. I didn’t know he wrote books, and when I saw this one I snapped it up without a second thought.

I worried that the ‘book’ might turn out to be a collector of small articles (I have my second thoughts only after buying things), but this is not the case. There is a strong organised narrative that runs throughout. Whether Scott is talking about shares, property, or giving childhood anecdotes, everything is heading in the same directions.

This book lays out a clear path to financial independence that (get this) does not involve radical changes to your lifestyle. Just remember to spend what you have, and not what someone is prepared to lend you, and you’ll be fine, is the message. Luckily accompanying this message are some very practical steps on exactly how to achieve this.

If there’s on thing I would recommend about this book, it’s that it shows just how easy it all is. Set up a few systems for yourself with minimal effort, and you’ll soon have assets are growing themselves faster than you can top them up.

In this day and age of out of control consumerism, this book is a rare voice of good sense. You don’t have to live like a monk, just make sure you spend money that’s yours to spend.

If you’re aged 25-60 you’ll find a lot of helpful stuff in this book. If you’re aged 15-25 this book is indispensable. I wish I’d had advice like this 10 years ago.

On The Wealth of Nations by PJ O'Rourke

PJ O’Rourke is an American humourist who is no longer funny. He’s been tasked with writing a commentary on The Wealth of Nations. Let’s see how he does.

To start with, not badly. I actually laughed at some things, and found others, such as PJ’s explanation of how we came to have a trading class in the first place, insightful without being dull. All good. Plus we have some context setting in terms of the era in which Adam Smith was writing.

Then it all goes wrong.

The first half of the book is marred only by O’Rourke’s insistence on comparing certain parts of The Wealth of Nations with certain parts of The Bible, as though that were the only book around, or worse, the only yardstick. It gets far worse in the second half of the book, the pile of biblical reference teeters ever higher and gets really pungent. The chapter ‘Adam Smith in Heaven’ is truly execrable. I don’t think even the greeting card industry would pay for that crap.

The descent into a fourth-rate Bible class leaves only a poor impression of this book. In fairness I will point out that I liked this book to begin with. However as I read on I liked it less and less, before finally reaching dismissive derision. No doubt there is a definitive commentary to be written on The Wealth of Nations, but this is not it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

If you were wondering what the delay in new posts was all about, this is the answer. The Lord of the Rings comes in at well over 1000 pages, and if you don't read the appendices that follow, then you're missing out. That's where half the story is!

It's difficult to review Lord of the Rings, it's a classic. Certainly one critique is that there are few female characters and they all have quite passive roles, whether they have power of fighting skills, or not.

People more familiar with the recent trilogy of films would be shocked at some of the differences. One of my reasons for reading this book again after a gap of at least 8 years, was that the films have stuck in my mind, and I could no longer remember clearly which parts of the story were unique to the films, and which to the book.

There are major differences, and I'll leave it at that. How terrible would a book review be if all it did was list how the book varied from the film interpretation? Let us not think of that dark reality.

I also won't pad this out with discussions of High Fantasy versus Swords & Sorcery, that can have it's own article, some other time.

Attention to detail is the watchword of this book. Tolkien takes every opportunity to describe the landscapes the travellers move through and the societies and peoples that live there. This is a book all about journeys, and not just physical journeys. Every member of the fellowship is on their own personal journey, and none come through unchanged.

It's a great sacrifice of time to read this book, but well worth the time spent.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Best Books of 2007

Seventy-Three. That’s the number of books I read in 2007. Not all for the first time, you understand. There were plenty of re-reads in there too. The number of new books read last year was more like fifty. I don’t think that makes a difference. Maybe if I only re-read books one year, all on the same subject, I might get worried I was stagnating. Not right now though.

There were plenty of new discoveries in 2007, as well as some favourites re-visited. Eleven books (old, new, borrowed) stood out from the pile though. They are listed below in order of their popularity on LibraryThing, mainly as I have no intention of trying to rank them. What would be the point?

1. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. The story of Fat Charlie Nancy, loser, and how he meets his brother, gets dumped by his fiancee, and finds out who his father really is. Plus an accountant gets his comeuppance. What more can you ask for?

2. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. I love the baroque cycle, of which this is the first book. A brilliant fictionalisation of a truly gripping phase of history.

3. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. A coming of age book unlike any you will have read before, I guarantee it.

4. Temeraire by Naomi Novik. Hornblower with dragons. Do I need to say more? This series was a welcome discovery for me in 2007, I read all four books. More please.

5. Spook Country by William Gibson. The phrase was often repeated that this was a science fiction book set in the present. What is was was a gripping spy story, set in a world too strange and yet too familiar.

6. Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett. This one is a personal favourite of mine, and I re-read it every couple of years. I tear up every time the Blackbury Pals come marching through the car park to collect the last of their number.

7. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I am an urban boy at heart, and so I love books where the city itself becomes a character. Un Lun Dun is a great story by Mieville, and also one I would recommend to ages 12+.

8. Space by Stephen Baxter. For some reason I am attracted to science fiction books that tackle the Fermi Paradox. This one is great, as humanity comes into contact with aliens who ask more questions than they answer.

9. The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden. I enjoyed the whole Caesar series, and this is the first. Great stuff.

10. The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History by Colin McEvedy. Don’t be put off by the title. This book is gripping. Each page is accompanied by a map, along with some commentary. The maps cover shifting borders, trade flows, and population growth and movements. Honestly, you won’t be able to put this one down.

11. The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton. When I read science fiction that’s not about the Fermi Paradox, it’s generally by this guy. A follow up of sorts to Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, this one is well worth your eyeball time.

If You're Wondering About the LibaryThing Link

Yes, I know the LibraryThing link on the side still has 'books read in 2007.' It gives 5 random books that I have read that year. Until I have read 6 books in 2008, that one will stay. You'll see a changeover probably by mid-Feb.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

This is the third book in the ‘Inhibitors Trilogy’. That’s not what it’s called, but that’s how I think of it. Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. They all form a series. While I get the impression that there have been other books by Reynolds in this setting and with these characters (well, some of them) I didn’t feel I was missing essential information.

Three stories thread throughout this book. I didn’t really see the connection between them, until I remembered to look at the date at the top of each chapter heading. That helps.

Humanity are fleeing the Inhibitors, those who know about them. Mostly they appear as rumour, ship to ship warnings of regions it is no longer safe for traders to enter. On another remote planet huge mobile cathedrals circle the moon of a gas giant. This gas giant is different. From time to time it vanishes, just for the blink of an eye. The reasons behind the vanishings are of no concern to the churches, as long as pilgrims continue to come. With the slow march of the Inhibitors many more pilgrims are flocking to the planet.

The three threads only merge in the latter half of the book, and here the action picks up considerably, with in-ship combat a particular highlight. Little tip; don’t invade sentient vessels and then start shooting the hull. They get tetchy. Hey, that might be handy advice one day.

I found the ending a little disappointing. Kind of like the ending to The Naked God, if you’ve read that. If you haven’t what I mean is the ending is very abrupt, invites a bit of a Deus Ex Machina, and leaves you thinking “yes, well?”

Of course if you’re two books into a three book series you’re not going to stop, and the book is good and everything. It just… well, you know.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

I got this book as a Christmas present, it filled an inexplicable gap in my otherwise complete Discworld collection. This also allowed me to keep reading all of the ‘Vimes’ books as I have been.

This is the first book I have read in 2008. I finished it at three minutes past midnight. Now that’s a way to spend New Year’s!

Pratchett uses Ankh-Morpork, and indeed all his Discworld books, to provide his own unique commentary on real world issues. The chief focus of The Fifth Elephant is diplomacy.

Vimes is sent to a far-off country whose hitherto chief relationship with Ankh-Morpork has been the source of its immigrants. Vimes notes that the country, Uberwald, is like a giant suet that everyone has just noticed on the table, and now the rush is on to get the biggest slice onto our plate.

Diplomacy comes naturally to Vimes, with its combination of threats, implied and actual, suiting his own character. Uberwald is not a country per se, being ruled by whichever local warlord currently has the upper hand. Vimes must contend with a conspiracy that reaches all the way back to Ankh-Morpork.

Pratchett also takes some subtle digs at the British monarchy, as the theft of the Scone of Stone threatens the future of dwarvish monarchy. For those not paying attention, the Stone of Scone is a small rock above which every British monarch, except the current one, has been crowned. It was stolen by Scottish nationalists in the 1950s and never recovered.

British in-jokes aside, this book is a good read by itself, but you’ll really benefit from having read the other Guards books first, as character development is ongoing. So, since you didn’t ask, here’s the reading order: Guards Guards, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud.

Sadly, Pratchett has recently been diagnosed with the form of Altzheimer’s. I have no idea if there will be any more Discworld books to come.