Category Archives: Books

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

Eagle Shooting Hero cover

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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A Book: Accelerando

The solar system is a dead loss right now – dumb all over! Just measure the MIPS per milligram. If it isn’t thinking, it isn’t working. We need to start with the low-mass bodies, reconfigure them for our own use. Dismantle the moon! Dismantle Mars! Build masses of free-flying nanocomputing processor nodes exchanging data via laser link, each layer running off the waste heat of the next one in. Matrioshka brains, Russian doll Dyson spheres the size of solar systems. Teach dumb matter to do the Turing boogie!

– Charles Stross in Accelerando

Accelerando by Charles Stross

Accelerando is a hard book to recommend to anyone. At times it reads as if author Charles Stross wrote it by first making a bullet-point list of cool stuff he wanted to include: effective cyclists! Rubberized concrete! Agalmic economies! Corporate regulations written in Python! Distributed Internet reputation servers! As the exclamation points suggest, every mention of the latest and greatest toys is suffused with breathless enthusiasm. Only afterwards is the story worked in and the characters, in this case, three generations of the dysfunctional and idiosyncratic Macx family, created to serve the plot.

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A Book: Descartes’ Error

Contrary to traditional scientific opinion, feelings are just as cognitive as other percepts. They are the result of a most curious physiological arrangement that has turned the brain into the body’s captive audience. Feelings let us catch a glimpse of the organism in full biological swing, a reflection of the mechanism of life itself as they go about their business. Were it not for the possibility of sensing body states that are inherently ordained to be painful or pleasurable, there would be no suffering or bliss, no longing or mercy, no tragedy or glory in the human condition.

-Antonio R. Damasio in Descartes’ Error

Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio

Descartes’ error, as meant by neurologist Antonio R. Damasio in this book, and one that has insinuated itself deeply into mainstream thought, is as he puts it: “the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism.”

In other words: thinking is inescapably a biological process. It is expressly not true, as many people take for granted, that “thinking, and awareness of thinking, are the real substrates of being.”

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A Book: Diaspora

Where do we go from here? History can’t guide us. Evolution can’t guide us. The C-Z charter says understand and respect the universe… but in what form? On what scale? With what kind of senses, what kind of minds? We can become anything at all – and that space of possible futures dwarfs the galaxy. Can we explore it without losing our way?

-Greg Egan in Diaspora

Diaspora by Greg Egan

Australian writer Greg Egan has consistently produced some of the most innovative, ambitiously speculative and technically rigorous science fiction stories of the 1990s. As an avid fan of the genre, my opinion is that Egan’s influence in the field goes far beyond what is evident in simple sales volume or media attention since many other writers seem to have taken note of his style and have attempted “Eganesque” stories or novels of their own. With his sixth novel, Diaspora, he probes the future of humanity, going farther than any other writer has ever gone before.

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