“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
(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?
Continue reading Books: His Dark Materials
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
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.
Continue reading Books: The Baroque Cycle
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.
Continue reading Transubstantiation in “The Confusion”
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.
Continue reading The Real “I Am Legend”
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.
Continue reading Wuxia in English
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 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.
Continue reading A Book: Accelerando
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, 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.”
Continue reading A Book: Descartes’ Error