Category Archives: Books

A Book: Rainbows End

Tommie laughed. “You should do some ego surfing. Your hack was noticed. Back when I was young, you could have got a patent off it. Nowadays –”

Xiu patted Tommie’s shoulder. “Nowadays, it should be worth a decent grade in a high school class. You and I — we have things to learn, Thomas.”

– Vernor Vinge in Rainbows End

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As the person who came up with the term “Technological Singularity”, any new science-fiction book by Vernor Vinge is always highly anticipated. Unlike his previous two bestsellers, A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep, both of which were space opera novels set in a universe of his own creation with specific rules to allow a high level of technological development without invoking a singularity, Rainbows End is a solid science-fiction story set in a near-future Earth. There are tech toys aplenty and cyberspace permeates and interconnects with the real world, but it’s still more or less our same old planet with recognizable lifestyles and people. Unnoticed by the most of the world’s population however, who live mostly pleasant and peaceful lives, are events that suggest that the state of the world is not as stable as it seems, and there are hints of upheavals yet to come.

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A Book: World War Z

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Max Brooks’ World War Z is a follow-up to The Zombie Survival Guide which became a commercial success largely through word of mouth on the Internet. While The Zombie Survival Guide was a fictional manual covering the biology of zombies and suggested methods of killing them and surviving a zombie outbreak, World War Z tells the story of a worldwide zombie apocalypse scenario through the oral testimonies of over 40 survivors. It has since become popular enough that there are plans to make a film version of the book with a screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski.

World War Z places the initial zombie outbreak in Sichuan Province, China, where a boy diving for treasure amongst the submerged villages of the Three Gorges Reservoir comes to the surface with a mysterious bite mark on his foot and is kept locked in an abandoned house by frightened villages after attacking and biting a number of them. They notify the local hospital and the doctor who is sent is shocked to discover that the boy is as savage as an animal, biting and clawing at anyone who comes near him. His skin has become cold and gray, and though numerous wounds are found all over his body from his struggles to free himself, no blood comes out of them. A hypodermic needle inserted into where his veins should be comes up filled with a strange, viscous matter. He is even able to snap his own arm in an effort to free himself and seems affected by neither pain nor exhaustion. Not unexpectedly, all of the villagers bitten by the boy have become comatose with cold and gray skin as well.

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Books: His Dark Materials

“There are two great powers,” the man said, “and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn from by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”

– Phillip Pullman in The Subtle Knife

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(Normally I try to keep my book reviews relatively free of spoilers so that readers can choose to read the books themselves and still enjoy them after having read my review. However, to do the same for these books would prevent me from saying what I want to say about them, so instead of a review, this post should really be thought of as a kind of analysis. As such, be warned that further reading will spoil the books for you.)

It’s not hard to imagine what went through the minds of the executives at New Line Cinema when they greenlighted the movie version of The Golden Compass that was released late last year. Their film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings had proved to be a tremendous commercial success. Walt Disney Pictures had The Chronicles of Narnia series going for them and Warner Bros. had the goldmine that is the Harry Potter series. The movie-going public clearly has an appetite for the fantasy genre, especially for films adapted from children’s books, so what could be better than the new and popular His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman?

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Books: The Baroque Cycle

Now, I have long been nonplussed by Isaac’s Alchemical research, but as years have gone by I have perceived that he would achieve a similar triumph by finding a single common underlying explanation for phænomena that we think of as diverse, and unrelated: free will, God’s presence in the Universe, miracles, and the transmutation of chymical elements. Counched in the willfully obscure jargon of the Alchemists, this cause, or principle, or whatever one wants to call it, is known as the Philosopher’s Stone, or other terms such as the Philosophic Mercury, the Vital Agent, the Latent or Subtile Spirit, the Secret Fire, the Material Soul of Matter, the Invisible Habitant, the Body of Light, the Seed, the Seminal Virtue.

– Neal Stephenson in The System of the World

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For a book written by Neal Stephenson, I had a hard time getting into Quicksilver, the first book of his Baroque Cycle. This is astonishing because of how much I enjoyed and how quickly I devoured his earlier books, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Quicksilver and its subsequent volumes The Confusion and The System of the World, appear at first glance to be a different beast entirely. For one thing, the events chronicled in the novel take place from roughly the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th century. For another, real historical figures from the period in question play a central role in the story and while most of the exploits described in the novel are fictional, they are skillfully interleaved with real historical events. For these reasons, ever since the publication of the first volume, debate has raged amongst fans and readers on whether or not it even constitutes science-fiction.

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Transubstantiation in “The Confusion”

I’ve been working through Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle for the past several weeks. With three volumes in total and more than a thousand pages per volume, this is certainly a monumental undertaking. In addition, to even understand what’s going on in the books, I have to make repeated forays to Wikipedia to brush up on my knowledge of 17th and 18th century history. This means that it will be a while before I can post a complete review of the books.

In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the second book in the cycle, The Confusion, which mocks the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation. I suppose that the episode must be fictional, but it makes for a fine example of the writing in the Baroque Cycle, with its attention to historical detail and intricate observations of the scientific, religious, economic, political and social dynamics of the time.

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The Real “I Am Legend”

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This was written as a response to Tan Kien Boon’s recent post praising the movie of the same name starring Will Smith and would properly show up as a comment on his blog via trackback if only he wasn’t using Blogger. Granted I haven’t watched the movie, but I have read the book it was supposedly based on and considering the spoilers to the movie version that I’ve read, actually watching it isn’t particularly high on my list of priorities. I’m sure that the movie is a decent enough action flick like so many others starring Will Smith like Bad Boys 2, Independence Day and Men In Black 2; entertaining, action-packed and exciting but schlocky, shallow and sappy.

The problem however is that it chooses to call itself “I Am Legend” and then proceeds to completely throw away all that is great in its source material. The real I Am Legend is a horror novella by Richard Matheson first published in 1954. It’s an influential and highly regarded book and the fact that it’s still in print today is a testament to its popularity. I highly recommend that people read the novella themselves but for those who aren’t going to read it anyway, here’s what makes the story so great and why its really called I Am Legend.

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Wuxia in English

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No one can be Chinese, wherever they are in the world, and be ignorant of Louis Cha, better known as Jin Yong, if only because television production companies insist on making a new version of a series based on one of novels every few years. I’ve always personally regretted not having ever learned Chinese well enough to comfortably read the original novels. After all, I was into comic-book superheroes, sword and sorcery adventures and space opera. Kung fu fighting heroes and heroines in a fantasy version of ancient China seemed like a perfect fit.

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