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Recently read - John C. Kirk

Jul. 11th, 2010

10:55 pm - Recently read

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A quick round-up of book reviews from the past month; I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum.

* "Pyramids" (Terry Pratchett).

I first read this at school: I borrowed it from the library just before the summer holiday, and read it three times before I returned it. Later on I bought my own copy, and I think it's one of the best Discworld novels, although I've now read it so many times that I don't get as much enjoyment out of it as I used to. Mind you, when I read it in 2002 I understood a physics reference that had gone over my head before, so I can sometimes get new stuff out of a familiar text.

There's a good story, with the action-packed climax that Pratchett has moved away from in his later books. (Key lines: "The speed of night" in Mort, and "How about once?" in Pyramids.) I first read this after I'd been studying philosophy at school, and the "axiom testing range" is a very clever idea, although you need to be familiar with Zeno's paradoxes to properly appreciate it. I think the funniest line was: "The trouble with you, Ibid, is that you think you're the biggest bloody authority on everything!"

(Explanation for non-academics: if you quote reference books in footnotes, it gets a bit tedious to keep repeating the same title several times, so "ibid" basically means "ditto", i.e. the same book as before but a different page. That means you'll get lots of references like "Ibid, p79", which suggest that a particular person knows about several different topics. It's less common nowadays, with computer generated bibliographies, but it made sense in the 1980s when this book was written.)

* "The Burglar Diaries" (Danny King).

This is a fictional auto-biography, as told by a burglar. There's a lot of swearing, and it's a bit dubious from a moral point of view, but it's also very funny. This is the first in a "Crime Diaries" series, and I'd like to read the others, but I'd prefer to get them from the library (or as e-books) rather than cluttering my shelves, and neither of those options are practical at the moment.

* "The Deathworld Omnibus" (Harry Harrison).

As the name suggests, this collects three books together, imaginatively titled "Deathworld 1", "Deathworld 2", and (wait for it) "Deathworld 3". Based on the introduction, "Deathworld 1" may have been Harrison's first published work; there are certainly themes that he went on to develop more in his other novels. For instance, the concept of someone tech-savvy being dumped on a planet where they've forgotten how to use most technology came up in a few of the Stainless Steel Rat books, and "Jason dinAlt" (the protagonist) has a similar name to "James DiGriz". Meanwhile, the idea of one man more or less being responsible for the industrial revolution was covered in more depth in The Hammer and the Cross. There's a bit of a lurch in continuity between the first two books, presumably because he hadn't planned the second one in advance (a bit like Back to the Future), but it works out ok. Anyway, these are decent stories, so if you like the author's other work then I think you'll enjoy them too.

* "Superfolks" (Robert Mayer).

This novel was out of print for quite a long time, and it almost reached legendary status amongst comics readers: several respected writers named it as a major influence on their work, e.g. Kurt Busiek and Grant Morrison. I'm willing to take their word for it, i.e. I believe them when they say that it was groundbreaking at the time it was first published, and it may well have inspired several people to reinvent the genre. However, looking at it now it's a bit embarrassing, so if you just read the stories it inspired then you won't be missing much.

One of the odd aspects to this book is continuity. Right from the first page, it directly refers to DC characters like Batman and Superman; more specifically, it says that they're dead, so this is apparently set in an alternate version of the DC universe. At the same time, the lead character is clearly an analogue of Superman, so why not just come out with it? Similarly, it's blatantly obvious that "Captain Mantra" and his sister Mary are really Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel, so why separate them? It would have made more sense to go down the Squadron Supreme or Watchmen route, i.e. don't refer to the existing characters at all and just whistle innocently if anyone points out similarities between them and your brand new characters.

There's also an odd scene where Brinkley (the protagonist) is with his girlfriend and he pulls out a condom from his wallet.

Peggy recoiled in horror.
"We can't," she said. "All those boys and girls seeing us in the comics. What would they think?"
He put the Trojan away. They continued to give each other hand jobs.
One night as they were lying together, Peggy's fingers encircling his pulsing thickness like diamond rings, he heard a faint sound, a cry for help, in the distance. He turned up his superhearing. It was a woman's voice, screaming in terror.
His impulse was to find out what was happening; to rush to her defence. But how could he explain it to Peggy, if he leaped out of her tender grasp, grabbed his uniform, dove out the sixth-floor window?
(p87)


The reason he can't dash away is that Peggy doesn't know he's really a superhero. That being the case, there's no reason for her to think that he has to act like a role model to anyone. Also, it seems rather bizarre that using a condom would be seen as an intrinsically bad thing. Beyond that, even if Peggy did know his secret, the reference to comics is breaking the fourth wall, i.e. she would then have to be aware that they were both fictional characters. You can do interesting things with that concept (as Morrison did in Animal Man), but it has to be handled carefully, and in this case it's just a brief reference that is completely ignored for the rest of the novel. Even if she does know that they're "on camera", and doesn't want to use a condom, it's then odd to be so explicitly sexual with youngsters "watching"!

It's described as a satire, but it was written in 1977, so I think a lot of the targets are a bit dated now. If you read it as a straight story, there is an interesting premise in there. As a historical artifact, it's noteworthy, but I can't really recommend it.

* "Unseen Academicals" (Terry Pratchett).

I used to buy all the Discworld novels in paperback (so that they'd look the same on my bookshelf), but in recent years I've been buying hardbacks. When this came out last year, I decided to wait, mainly because I have zero interest in football. The paperback has come out ahead of schedule, presumably to tie in with the World Cup, so I bought it half-price at the supermarket.

Some people (e.g. sulkyblue) said that it's not really about football, which is true. Unfortunately, it's still not very good. There's a mishmash of different ideas, none of which are really developed properly. In some ways, this is the reverse of Lords and Ladies, but that novel was far more effective.

Pratchett's novels have often relied on references to other media, which is fine. However, making a reference isn't intrinsically funny: you have to do something with it. (This is where Epic Movie etc. go wrong.) For instance, it was funny when Pyramids had a character called Ibid, as I explained above. By contrast, Unseen Academicals has a young male character called Dave Likely. As far as I can tell, the sole purpose is to make the reader think "Ah yes, that makes him The Likely Lad, which is a bit like the old TV program called The Likely Lads." That's not enough.

There are also continuity problems with previous novels. In fairness, this isn't the first time it's happened, e.g. at the start of Guards! Guards! Carrot was quite keen on Mindy (a female dwarf), but in Feet of Clay he's uncomfortable with the the concept of separate genders. However, it bothered me more here. At the end of Jingo, Carrot starts a football match between two armies, and it's clearly recognisable as the game we play on "Roundworld". In Unseen Academicals, they have to rewrite lots of the rules, e.g. getting rid of the ball that's basically a big block of wood. It's possible that I'm being a bit harsher this time because I'm not a football fan. However, another example involves rivalry between different universities. As soon as it was brought up, I thought about the university from The Last Continent, and Vetinari also refers to that to counter Ridcully's argument. It seems a bit odd to bring in a plot point that contradicts existing stories, and then point out that contradiction. This makes me suspect that Pratchett had forgotten about the previous story, and when someone reminded him it was too late to rewrite the novel so he just added the scene with Vetinari.

In one of the earlier novels, a character said "The leopard doesn't change his shorts". I assumed that was a deliberate mangling of an existing phrase, i.e. "The leopard doesn't change his spots" (meaning that people don't change their nature). I thought it was quite funny, and it's been repeated in several of the other novels since then. In this book, one of the characters ponders why everyone refers to shorts, but doesn't mention spots at all; that implies that she isn't aware of the original phrase. Again, this is an odd thing to put into the book, and I have to wonder whether Pratchett himself has forgotten why he started using that turn of phrase.

I'm reluctant to suggest this, but there is one obvious explanation: Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a few years ago. I'm not qualified to offer any kind of medical diagnosis here, and it could simply be that he's written so many books that it's hard to keep track of them all now. I've read worse books by other authors, which I'd still rate as "ok". In this case, though, I'd expected better from Pratchett based on his past work. That may be unfair, and hopefully his next book will be better.

* "Out of Gas" (David Goodstein).

Back in 2000, there were fuel protests which meant lots of petrol stations either "ran dry" or had huge queues. This made it difficult for some people to travel to work, either because they couldn't drive or because public transport was overcrowded. I remember an article in the Evening Standard that showed someone in London going to work on horseback: quite stylish, but not really a long term solution for everyone without major infrastructure changes. More recently, the ash cloud from Iceland grounded lots of flights. (When Gosh! referred to this on Twitter, they used the hashtag #volcanogods, which amused me!) The BBC had an interesting article on their website: they pointed out that although this was a temporary problem, eventually we will run out of oil to fuel our aircraft, and they'll be grounded permanently. (Unfortunately, I can't find that article right now.)

When I took part in the World Naked Bike Ride, one of the aims was to protest against oil dependency: it's a limited resource, and the faster we consume it the sooner we'll run out. So, I'm keen on encouraging alternatives (e.g. cycling) so that we can eke out our supply for a bit longer; we also need to plan ahead for when it's all gone. I expected this book to cover those topics in more detail, but it only touched on them briefly.

Instead, this is similar to the Science of Discworld books: it covers a lot of "history of science". Some of it was familiar to me from A level Physics, but I had to struggle to keep up. It was interesting, and if you've been to university then you should be able to handle it, but I can't honestly describe it as a book that everyone should read. Goodstein explains what the problem is: in particular, it's a "fuel crisis" rather than an "energy crisis". He also describes various ways to generate energy, along with their pros and cons. For instance, switching to nuclear fission wouldn't be a long term solution; even if you ignore the problems of toxic waste, there's only a limited amount of fuel to power those stations, so it would simply delay the inevitable. He's not very optimistic about nuclear fusion, so he seems to advocate solar power as our best bet, possibly from satellites.

The key principle of the book is Hubbert's peak. This basically says that we'll be in trouble when we've used up half of the total oil that was ever available, because after that we'll be consuming it faster than we can pull it out of the ground. However, this book doesn't describe why that is the case; it simply says that Hubbert made this prediction for the "lower 48 states" in the USA, and he turned out to be correct, so he's probably right about the rest of the world too. The bibliography refers to a book by Deffeyes (Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage), and I think I'll need to read that. If that the theory is correct, we're due to hit the peak very soon, i.e. within 5-10 years.

I've assumed that moving to electric power is a good idea, because that makes us "fuel agnostic", e.g. our computers and cars could be powered by oil today and then nuclear fusion later, without needing to change any wiring. However, Goodstein says that batteries are very inefficient, so it takes six times as much oil to power an electric car as it would for a petrol car. Using electricity immediately doesn't have that problem, so electric trains/trams are more efficient than battery powered buses.

I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, but I'd hope that our elected MPs are aware of these issues. (Whatever else you say about Margaret Thatcher, she had a degree in Chemistry, and I think we need a few more influential scientists now.)

* "The Tent, The Bucket and Me" (Emma Kennedy).

This is almost like a blog: it's a set of true stories from the writer's youth, about the disasters that happened each year when she went on holiday with her family. It's very funny, although I think it will only appeal to people from a certain background. She was born in 1967, so she was a young child in the 1970s and the family holiday involved taking a tent to Wales. I was born in 1974, and I went camping with the Cubs/Scouts in the 1980s, so I can appreciate what she's talking about. If you were born in 1990, and "holiday" means "going to Ibiza with your mates to lie on the beach and get drunk", this probably isn't the book for you.

Some of the problems they experience are sheer bad luck (e.g. getting caught in a freak storm), and others are partly self-inflicted (e.g. going to France without knowing how to speak French). I used to entertain/horrify my Durham friends with "John stories"; I've settled down a bit in recent years, but a lot of these events struck me as things that I could have done (or that could have happened to me). Most of the time I was just laughing, but there was one point where I had to stop because I just felt so sorry for them: it's the bit where they've just been for a 5 course meal in France.

There are some cases where I would have just thrown money at the problem. For instance, they had a bucket that acted as a portaloo, and at one point it wound up with a toxic smell. Personally, I'd just buy a new bucket; how much can they cost? However, I respect people who "make do and mend", and since her parents were both teachers it makes sense that they'd be on a tight budget.

All in all, it's a very good book, and I already have a few people in mind who I'll be pressing my copy onto!

* "World War Z" (Max Brooks)

This is a zombie story, hence the "Z" in the title. However, it's not a normal novel: it's written as a series of interviews with survivors, so the story is told in flashback from several different perspectives. That lets the author set the scene (first discovery of the living dead), then "fast forward" to the point where they've overrun entire countries. The stories I've read before (e.g. Shaun of the Dead or The Walking Dead) tend to focus on a small group of survivors. This book is able to take a wider perspective, by showing how politicians and soldiers dealt with the situation.

In DS9, one of the Changelings (disguised as O'Brien) tells Sisko that "We do not fear you the way you fear us". There's a similar idea expressed in this book: you can't use "Shock and awe" tactics against zombies. It's not that the zombies are really determined; they are simply incapable of feeling those emotions. Similarly, you can't negotiate with them, because they can't speak. From a military point of view, stealth technology is pointless if your enemy doesn't use radar.

I'd say that this book is plot-driven rather than character-driven, except that the plot is quite fragmented. Really, it's a set of interesting ideas. If you like zombie stuff, you'll like this book, but if not then there's nothing here for you.

* "The Forever War" (Joe Haldeman).

This is part of the "SF Masterworks" series, and I really ought to read more of them. The basic premise is that soldiers are going off to fight a war on other planets (via wormholes). However, relativity means that more time passes on planets than it does for them; effectively, they're being put into suspended animation each time they go into space, and then being woken up a few hundred years later. That means that each time they go back to Earth, things have changed a lot. Apparently it was originally written as a metaphor for American soldiers who returned from Vietnam and found themselves isolated from civilian life, but it also works well on its own merits. I thought that the ending was a bit weak, but I give the author credit for exploring the "speculative" part of SF.

* "Bones to Ashes" (Kathy Reichs).

I was camping last week, and they had a book exchange set up at several campsites. That's a good idea, so that you don't have to carry too much stuff around with you. Once I'd finished with World War Z, I swapped it for this book. This is part of a series about Temperance Brennan, a forensic scientist. The books were the basis for the TV series Bones; I've only seen a couple of (partial) episodes of that, but it looks as if they changed a lot, so I'm not sure why they bothered basing it on the books at all.

The author does the same job as Brennan, and there were some interesting snippets about medical techniques, as well as some terminology that I recognised (e.g. "the distal third of the bone" is the bit that's furthest away from the torso). The stuff about computers was a bit weaker, but I'll overlook that. Ultimately, I'd rate this as a trashy airport/beach novel. It had enough of a story to keep me reading, but it relied on contrivances and I figured out what was happening several chapters before Brennan did. So, it served its purpose, but I wouldn't want to pay for it, and I doubt that I'll read any more of her books.

* "Mister Monday" (Garth Nix).

When I returned Bones to Ashes, I swapped it for this: I recognised the author's name, although I haven't read any of his stuff before. I didn't realise that this was intended to be a children's book, and there are some books in that genre which also appeal to adults (e.g. Harry Potter), but that wasn't the case here. It passed the time, but it's nothing special, and I certainly won't pay for the rest of the series.

This book involves a stock plot: a young boy discovers that he's "The Chosen One", so he now has special talents without doing any actual work to earn them. He also has a magic wand, which will pretty much do anything he wants without any training required. There's some religious imagery, which draws a parallel between Lucifer and Prometheus (without actually naming them); I've made that comparison before, so I can't fault the author, but he doesn't really do much with it.

Ultimately, there are other books which explore similar themes, but do it a lot better. Lucifer (Mike Carey) has a protagonist with literally godlike powers; this is normally a cheat for superheroes, but it's not a problem here. The Homeward Bounders (Diana Wynne Jones) also has a Prometheus analogue, who actually serves the plot rather than being completely redundant. His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman) has an authority structure which resembles the Christian religion, and then has a point to make (whether you agree with him or not).

I've still got my copy of Mister Monday, so you're welcome to it if you'd like it, otherwise I'll dump it at a charity shop.

Comments:

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From:karne_k
Date:July 12th, 2010 10:09 am (UTC)
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I was very impressed with Garth Nix's 'Sabriel' sequence but 'Mister Monday' etc. is flat out disappointing. Somewhere the elegance of his prose evaporated and got replaced with annoying characters and contrived situations. I assume it's because he's aiming for a much younger audience but personally I think he's aiming too low.

'Unseen Academicals' appears to have been being badly over rushed. There are at least 3 separate plot thread, all of which would have made for a fun novel and none of which sit well together. I suspect Terry is pushing himself too hard, although I'd certainly understand why if so.

'The Forever War' is brilliant - I didn't get on with the rest of the series though.

Harrison rocks :)

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From:johnckirk
Date:July 12th, 2010 09:32 pm (UTC)
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Thanks - I'll give "Sabriel" a go.

The other SF Masterworks that I've read (not necessarily in this edition) are:
* "Eon" (Greg Bear).
* "Flowers for Algernon" (Daniel Keyes).
* "I Am Legend" (Richard Matheson).
* "Rendezvous with Rama" (Arthur C. Clarke).
* "The City and the Stars" (Arthur C. Clarke).
* "The Demolished Man" (Alfred Bester).
* "The Invisible Man" (H. G. Wells).

I'd say that those are all worth reading, if only because they're significant. For instance, The Simpsons and Spider-Man have both done versions of "Flowers for Algernon", so I feel a bit more cultured by reading the original version :)
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From:sammoore
Date:July 13th, 2010 08:57 am (UTC)
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I really enjoyed Flowers for Algernon, although it is impossibly sad.

Well worth a read.

Sam
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From:pozorvlak
Date:July 19th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
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AIUI, Hubbert's Peak has been observed for many minerals and in many places, giving credibility to the idea that there's something fundamental going on. More here.

Did Goodstein's efficiency calculation take into account the simpler drivetrains (and thus lower energy needs per mile travelled) of electric cars? If so, d'oh. Note that there's another benefit to widely-deployed electric cars, though - if you allow their batteries to supply power back to the grid at times of peak demand, then they help to smooth out the variability in renewable power supply.
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From:johnckirk
Date:July 22nd, 2010 12:54 am (UTC)
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He doesn't say anything in the book about drivetrains. Here's the footnote from p88:

According to Alec N. Brooks in his paper "Perspectives on Fuel Cells and Battery Electric Vehicles," presented at the California Air Resources Board workshop on zero emission vehicles, December 5, 2002, 1 kilogram of compressed hydrogen will drive a car about as far as a gallon of gasoline. A heat engine can produce about 10 kilowatt-hours of electric energy from a gallon of gasoline. To make and compress 1 kilogram of hydrogen requires 60 kilowatt-hours of electric energy, the equivalent of six gallons of gasoline. Just by way of comparison, a lead-acid battery stores .03 kilowatt-hours of electric energy per kilogram of battery, equivalent to about 1/300 of a gallon of gasoline.

Elsewhere in the book he said something about using his brakes to recharge the car battery, but I can't find the exact quote right now.
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From:baratron
Date:October 25th, 2010 12:14 am (UTC)
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I know what you mean about continuity errors in Discworld books. I'd noticed the thing about dwarf gender before (though not in Unseen Academicals as I haven't read it). I suspect the problem is far more that there is too much of the Discworld universe for one brain to remember, even without a memory impairment disorder. Though, isn't that part of the job of books like The Discworld Companion, and editors? You'd think that someone involved in producing the universe would have a massive database of all occasionally-mentioned characters and places, cross-referenced somehow.

At least, that's how I'd be doing it if it were my book series. I expect that, in reality, there isn't enough money even in a famous series like that to employ enough people to do it properly :/
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