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Tuesday 5 February 2008

What I've been Reading

In Flight:

William Gibson "Spook Country". I will have to restart this I'm ashamed to say. I started it in September and got distracted and I can't really remember what its about. Unlike every other Gibson book I've read this one didn't immediately grab me so I didn't get very far and was still a bit lost as the plot was finding its feet.

Niall Ferguson "Empire". This is turning out to be an excellent story about the evolution of the British Empire and the varied paths that British Imperialism and its colonies took as the Empire grew and then declined over the past four centuries.


Colin Tudge: "The Secret Life of Trees".  It's a great book for getting a quick overview of what Trees really are. You will learn, for example, that much of the commercial use of timber uses names that are really only accurate in terms of broad appearance (Pine for example of very often not really Pine) and he does an excellent job at describing the genuine diversity of Rainforests vs the simple abundance of life that is a feature of the various temperate forests. I ended up feeling that the book was way too short which is not a bad thing really as I hope it will prompt me to go and read (heck even study) some more detailed books that dig deeper. Overall this was an excellent read although the list nature of the first 50% of the book might seriously dismay some readers. 8/10

Richard Dawkins: "The God Delusion" . I had to take a break from reading this because of all the other stuff that was happening over Christmas (oh the irony) but once I got back to it last week it became a proper page turner. "The God Delusion" is a thoroughly lucid and engaging effort to get people to start thinking rationally and humanely about what Religion really is, what it claims it is and what that means. This is a much better written (or possibly edited, who knows) book than "The Selfish Gene". Dawkins never gets caught up in the style of detailed technical argument that was necessary in some of his earlier popular works and he has developed a significantly more approachable tone since he wrote "The Selfish Gene" in 1976. The result is concise and engaging prose that keeps the book accessible and (at least for me) entertaining.  His destruction of the arguments for belief are comprehensive and powerful. Clearly I'm not someone Dawkin's needs to convert so I can't say how convincing these arguments would be to a believer but from my point of view he demolishes almost all of the viable counter arguments to rational atheism that I've come across. In particular he eviscerates the arguments for belief like "Well you can't _prove_ God doesn't exist, he might you know", "Religious belief is necessary for morality and to make us good" and (my particular pet hate) "Religion makes people feel spiritually better and sure what harm is there in that". 10/10.

Oliver Sacks: "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat". I picked this up at a friends house out of suriosity and read it in one sitting at some point in mid 1980's and I've wanted to re-read it ever since but just never got around to getting my hands on a copy of my own. Returning to it was a revelation in a number of ways. For those who are not familiar with it, it's a fantastic collection of stories based on fascinating examples of the bizarre effects of neurological damage. Some of the stories are terrifying when you consider what must be happening in the minds of those that he describes but for the most part Sacks has chosen stories that show how incredibly adaptable the human mind can be even when it is the victim of severely destructive trauma or illness. The stories remain fascinating and Sacks recounts show him to be an incredibly caring medical practitioner, were something to happen to you like has happened to any of the characters in his case studies I thing you should hope that those who ended up treating you were similarly driven to care for their patients' well being. Two other things stood out for me on re-reading this after two decades. The one thing that most surprised me was just how heavily obscure much of Sacks' prose is - he just dumps neurological and psychological terminology onto the reader in a heap and leaves it up to you to research the terminology or plow on regardless. In addition to that he is equally obscure in much of the prose that he writes. I don't tend to have a dictionary nearby when I read and only very rarely look stuff up as that tends to upset my reading style but I was hard pushed with this book. I had no recollection of that aspect of the book but at the time I read it I was reading stuff by Camus and Balzac for fun so that may be no surprise now that I think about it. The final thing that struck me was just how intrusive I found the religious overtones in the book are, I definitely didn't see it that way when I read it first - a small sign of progress in my own mind I suppose. Overall this is a 9/10 book for me though despite ( or maybe because ) it actually made me work harder than I expected.

Cormac McCarthy: "The Road". I've never read anything by Cormac McCarthy before and the only reason I bought this one was that somebody described it as a non Science Fiction Post Apocalyptic story which I couldn't quite get my head around. The description is perfect although it doesn't even begin to do justice to the book. It's quite short, you'll read it in one good sitting if you have not much on on a weekend. The psychological pressure is relentless, the story is terrifying from the very start and everything about it is depressing so don't go near this if you're having an existential crisis but in the end its something that I think everyone should read and most will enjoy. The writing is awesome but since I spend most of my time reading fairly run of the mill SF and Fantasy that's not very surprising. I suspect though that despite the fact that I am un-qualified to judge that McCarthy is something very special. 9/10.

Charlie Stross "Glasshouse". I forgot to blog about this after I posted my comments on Stross's latest work "Halting State" a couple of months back. It's an interesting enough far future SF tale that explores the concepts of identity within a society where minds and bodies can be easily replicated and changed. The story takes place within a Big Brother style experiment where groups of volunteers have opted to participate in a reconstructed "Dark Ages (ie 20th Century-ish America ) within the eponymous "Glasshouse". It's a good idea and pretty well executed but I thought that it lost its way somewhat in the middle and to be honest I was far more interested in the potential of the universe within which the Glasshouse experiment was running rather than the storyline that unfolded within. For me Stross has done better work and given my bias towards Space Opera I hope he returns to the style that featured in Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise although another Accelerando or Halting State would be fine with me too. 6/10

Kim Stanley Robinson "60 Days and Counting". In short, disappointing. GrrlScientist has a pretty accurate review of it over at "Living The Scientific Life". The story started out pretty well in "Forty Signs of Rain" began to go a bit astray in "Fifty Degrees Below" and this just capped it off as a lost cause. It's very unfortunate as I've really liked some of his other stuff ( his Red\Green\Blue Mars Trilogy is excellent ). 1/10

Kim Stanley Robinson: "Icehenge". Just before I picked up "60 Days and counting" I got this on a whim as I'd heard nothing about it and assumed (correctly) that it was an early exploration of the sort of ideas that Robinson would go on to bring to fruition in the Mars Trilogy mentioned above. I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite it's age (it was first published in 1985 or so) it managed to age pretty well considering the fact that it's set in the nearish future. Some aspects of the story line are a bit jarring (the complete absence of interpersonal communications technology even on planets, the almost complete absence of personal computing resources, the continued human drudgery and manual labour) but the story works well enough and it made for a good bit of escapist SciFi with just enough of Robinson's thoughts on politics and sociology to make an entertaining story genuinely interesting. 6/10

Yet To Start:

Robert Harris: "Imperium"

Craig Murray: "Murder in Samarkand" ( thanks to Daithi.)

Jon Ronson: "The Men Who Stare At Goats"

Looking Forward To

Charlie Stross: Saturn's Children

Iain Banks: Matter

Alastair Reynolds: The Prefect

Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

Terry Pratchett: Nation

1 comment:

Brad said...

I really enjoyed the God Delusion. I'm normally a pretty quick reader, but I had to take my time over it to make sure I was understanding what he was saying at some points. I found it quite hard not to skim over parts that didn't go in straight away, and had to go back a couple of times and re-read sections. Well worth the effort though!

I've not ready any of Dawkins' other stuff, but I'm planning to track some down now.