April 30, 2005

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2005

Robert J. Sawyer, Calculating God
Mind candy. Pleasantly-written novel about first contact, the Argument from Design, and cancer. Sawyer's characters are however far too credulous about anthropic arguments; if they'd taken a drive from the Royal Ontario Museum to the Perimeter Institute, Lee Smolin could've straightened them out. Still, it's hard not to enjoy a novel where the newly-arrived alien's first request is for a paleontologist (and is met with "Vertebrate or invertebrate?").
W. G. Runciman, A Treatise on Social Theory, vol. I: The Methodology of Social Theory
First part of a massive trilogy on social science and how it should be conducted, by a sociologist who is also (as he puts it) a practicing capitalist. I was inspired to start this by reading his one-volume popularization (and revision), The Social Animal, which is excellent. Here is mostly concerned with clearing the ground and laying foundations --- answering doubts about whether social science is possible (it is), whether it must be fundamentally different from natural science (no, with one exception), etc. This is largely done through an exploration of four concepts: three different sorts of understanding, and evaluation. He introduces primary, secondary and tertiary understanding thus: "The first of these is the understanding necessary for the reportage of what has been observed to occur or to be the case; the second is the understanding of what caused it, or how it came about; and the third is the understanding necessary for its description in the special sense here given to that term," that of "convey what it is like" to do X or to be Y or to suffer Z. The difference between the social and the natural sciences doesn't lie in problems of reportage or explanation, but in description (in this sense), and in evaluation. ("[N]othing prevents those engaged in research into human institutions and practices from incorporating into their research the ideas which they cannot help having about what makes one form of social organization either better or worse.... If they wish to expound to their readers their theories of justice or freedom, or their vision of the good society, neither their readers nor any passing methodologist can stop them. All the methodologist can do is to make clear to them ... that in seeking to vindicate their evaluations against those of [rival] theoretical schools they are appealing to fundamentally different criteria from those to which they appeal in seeking to vindicate their reports as accurate, their explanations as valid and their descriptions as authentic.") As a writer, Runciman is careful, level-headed, thorough and agreeable, but not (here) exciting. (The Social Animal displays more verve.) He is good at raising, and fairly airing, serious objections, and generally convincing in his counter-arguments. I will definitely be pressing on to vol. II, where he finally introduces his substantive social theory, which a selectionist one, concerned with the differential reproduction and propagation of beliefs, and, more centrally, of practices.
Jane Lindskold, The Buried Pyramid
Mind candy. Enjoyable fantasy novel about 19th century Egyptology (in a rather more literal sense than Elizabeth Peters's books).
Damien Broderick, The Black Grail
An unusually well-written and well-conceived member of the dying earth genre, melding well-controlled mythic allusions with a thoroughly naturalistic world, though the protagonist is ignorant enough to often think he's dealing with magic. (Paul McAuley does something similar in his Confluence trilogy.) The ending is particularly fine, and surprising. (I won't spoil it.) A hideous cover makes it look like a Star Wars rip-off, which could hardly be further from the truth. Update, some weeks later: The Black Grail is a drastically revised version of a novel published over ten years earlier as Sorceror's World. Having now browsed through a copy of the later, I urge you not to read it, unless you want to see just how much better Broderick got in that time.
J. H. Plumb, In the Light of History
Well-written historical essays, mostly on British politics and society in the 18th century, with excursions to other parts of the English-speaking world before and since. I particularly liked the one attacking the cult of Burke, and the one on the oppression of women.
Jane Haddam, The Headmaster's Wife
Hadaam's latest mystery novel (oddly not mentioned on her website). As always with Haddam, an excellent combination of well-realized characters, in various stages of desperation, delusion and distress, with a portrait of an institution --- here, a marvelously unappealing New England boarding school that combines snobbery with hypertrophied political correctness.
Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
The scandal being that there essentially is no distinctively evangelical life of the mind, no respectable intellectual activity which is informed by the concerns and ideas of evangelical Protestantism. (This is not to say there is no respectable intellectual activity on the part of evangelical Protestants.) Noll is a historian and an evangelical, which leads to some interesting perspectives. It also leads him to end the book with a rather desperate search for signs of a "revival" of the evangelical mind (so desperate he instances both Philip Johnson and Christian Reconstructionism), and a whistling-in-the-dark hope that these dry bones shall yet live, when the — I use the word advisedly — natural conclusion is that he's made a strong case that there is no hope for the evangelical mind. For the most part, he's quite good, but there are places, especially when he discusses evolution and science (which I hasten to say he accepts) where I was definitely irritated: apparently Stephen Jay Gould was uppity for daring, as a mere paleontologist, to discuss what science is and what it can and cannot do, a task better left to those more qualified, like ecclesiastical historians. Still, it's an extremely informative and interesting book, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what a large fraction of Americans are thinking, or, rather, not thinking.
[It's tangential, but I was struck, while reading this, that Noll explains the origins of distinctive evangelical cultural traits in one way --- essentially, as adaptations to contemporary social conditions and more widely-distributed cultural traits --- but their maintenance in a quite different way: in fact he never does explain why they're maintained, seeming to take that as automatic. This seems not uncommon among historians, but it is curious. As a good Darwinian, I'm more than happy to accept that the two phenomena have different sorts of causes, but I would like to know why what seem like two completely different mechanisms were operative at different eras, and what the mechanisms which preserved, e.g., Baconian ideas about science among North American evangelical Protestants actually were.]
Read on the recommendation of Fred "slacktivist" Clark.
Stephen King, Wolves of the Calla
Volume five of King's Dark Tower series, good if you've read its predecessors and pointless otherwise. (I think the predecessors are worth reading: here's 1, 2, 3 and 4, the last link to my review. Bits of this one also draw on Black House, below, and still more on 'Salem's Lot, as well as Gaiman & co.'s World's End --- for which King wrote the afterword, come to think of it.) It's not much of a spoiler to say that this time Roland, the Last Gunslinger, stars in a remake of The Seven Samurai. The illustrations, however, are not very good.
Stephen King and Peter Straub, Black House
Sequel to their earlier collaboration, The Talisman, but independent, and highly enjoyable. They should collaborate more.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur

Posted at April 30, 2005 23:59 | permanent link

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