May 31, 2005

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

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Hallowed Hunt
What can I say? Bujold is a vice really a very good and enjoyable novelist.
Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250--1350
A tour of the "archipelago of towns" that constituted the first integrated economy, from Flanders to to Hangzhou, and centered on the Indian Ocean. Creates the impression that in some sense modernity ought to have begun then, and been centered in India and China, rather than the fairly peripheral lands of western Europe. To simplify Abu-Lughod's argument somewhat, the reason it didn't is that those same trade routes were the ones which spread the Black Death, especially in the great pandemic of the 1340s, and so tended to be especially severe in precisely the most advanced, integrated parts of the world. The knock-on effects of the disease, like the weakening of Mongol power, further damaged the system, so that by the fifteenth century all that was left were a few fragments and a lot of power vacua, which could be picked-up and repurposed by the new European imperial powers, especially since they had the resources of the Americas to draw on. Ming China could have done something similar, but chose not to, for what seemed like good reasons at the time. Remarkably well-written (especially for medieval political-economic history!), and accurate. (Though I admit I boggled when she implied that the capitol of the Tang dynasty was Peking, when every schoolchild knows it was Chang-an.) Highly, highly recommended.
Doug Henwood, Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom [full text free online]
For the most part, sound and intelligent. Henwood's insistence on looking at financial markets as social institutions, ones where power is vitally important, is entirely correct and refreshing. If you don't know much about how those markets and institutions work, this book will tell you, in a refreshingly disillusioned way. Even if you are more expert, you'll probably learn something — e.g., I was quite suprised by his numbers on how little investment is financed through selling new stock, as opposed to firms' internal cash-flows. Downsides: his reflexively negative attitude towards economic modeling and econometrics; the residual impulse to genuflect before Marx, and (this "coincidence" is no accident, comrades!) the tendency to describe social developments as deliberate actions taken by personified Capital; the excursion into the psychoanalysis of money; equivocation about whether the problem is money and finance, or whether it's capitalism (not a confusion Marx would've made); and the vagueness of his constructive proposals, mostly confined to the last two pages, which seemed like Alec Nove, only with all the intellectual clarity removed. As a good Left Popperian, I share his view that the institutions of a better society will only be found through struggle and experimentation; but by the same token, I dislike his spending many more pages on why all more concrete improvements are impossible and/or pointless until we expropriate the expropriators.
Kristine Smith, Code of Conduct
Mind candy. The over-exciting life of a government document examiner. No, really.
Kage Baker, The Anvil of the World
Initially, this seems like a fairly typical picaresque fantasy book, a series of agreeably-told but inconsequential humorous stories, like lesser works by Terry Pratchett, only without the social perspective, or by Jack Vance, only without the gorgeous prose style. By the end you realize she's constructed a fiendishly tight plot, where all the throw-away amusing details actually matter — that everything is a gun placed on the mantle-piece in Act I. (Cf. Greg Egan's Distress.) Clearly, I need to read more Baker...
Ken MacLeod, Cosmonaut Keep, The Dark Light and Engine City
Leftist human cosmonauts vs. nanobacterial cometary gods, with grey-skinned aliens piloting flying saucers caught in the middle. Great fun: revolutions, anarcho-syndicalists vs. communists, hacking, love, highly respectable materialism, arguments about the philosophies of history and of practice, special-relativistic tragedies, etc. Getting the in-jokes, both socialistic ("the delegates brandish their weapons") and science-fictional (the very last line) should not be necessary to enjoy these. (I'm sure I missed many!)
Eric Ambler, Background to Danger
Ambler is probably the best thriller writer I've ever encountered. This is one of pre-war anti-fascist novels, like his masterpiece, A Coffin for Dimitrios. While admittedly this isn't as good as that, it's still first-rate.
Helen Collins, Mutagenesis
Mind candy. Feminist bio-anthropological SF. I'm not sure how much more to say without spoiling the plot, other than that it's really good, and I'm more than a little disappointed that Collins doesn't seem to have published any more novels since this one.
Ramsey Campbell, The Face That Must Die
Mind candy. A queasily-absorbing venture into the mind of a paranoid killer; the interior lunacy is effectively echoed by late-seventies British urban squalor. This edition has an autobiographical introduction by Campbell which is, itself, fairly unsettling.
Elizabeth Ironside, A Very Private Enterprise
Mind candy. Enjoyable mystery novel, set among diplomats in Delhi, with a vividly-described excursion to Ladakh. Good on surprising-yet-persuasive plot twists, including a really big turn at the ending. (No buying link, since it's not in the Powell's catalog. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984; I read a 1995 paperback reprint, ISBN 0450640332.)
Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism
This is very mixed: some parts are quite good, like Berman's reading of Qutb, and the description of the curious psychological mechanisms which lead well-meaning people to discount the possibility of large-scale political madness. But other parts are not convincing at all. To proceed from the less to the more consequential. (i) It's important to realize that large, influential, successful, genuinely popular political movements can be completely, viciously mad, but there are always some would-be leaders of the people, offering insane political programs. It's also crucial to understand why the appeal of insanity varies over space, time and class. Berman offers nothing here beyond the suggestion that Europe lost its marbles after the Great War, and this then spread by contagion; at the very least, pragmatically unhelpful. (ii) That there was any important historical connection between European totalitarianism and modern Islamism remains just as dubious to me after reading it as it was before. (Berman doesn't even consider the possibility of similar responses to similar situations.) (iii) I completely fail to see how he convinced himself that attacking secular Arab fascism, as institutionalized by Baathist Iraq, was going to help deal with the threat of Islamism. Even if one grants, reasonably enough, that these are both two totalitarian movements, or clusters of movements, which have taken root among largely-Islamic populations, this does not follow at all. (iv) However desirable a determined US policy of support for democratization and liberalism in the Muslim world might be, the Bush administration could not be counted on to (1) actually agree, (2) implement such a policy, especially when it runs against short-term expediency, and (3) implement it competently. Here, as in his later writings, the possibility of an "anti-this-war-now" left is simply ignored. (Yes, yes, I know we were all supposed to read this book years ago. Sue me.)
Nancy Kress, Stinger
Mind candy. I like the idea of biomedical thrillers, but find the implementations generally unreadable. Stinger is a rare exception. The biology is good, the writing is significantly more than decent (especially the characterization), and the sense of how a major scare about bio-terrorism would play out is altogether too plausible — I thought some bits must've been lifted bodily from reporting on the 2001 anthrax cases, but this was published three years earlier. Features the return of FBI agent Robert Cavanaugh from Kress's (also good) Oaths and Miracles, with more amusing sketches ("meanwhile, back at the skin") and tragicomic cluelessness about women. Both books are out of print, naturally.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection

Posted at May 31, 2005 23:59 | permanent link

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