June 30, 2007

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, June 2007

Charles Stross, The Clan Corporate
The continuing adventures of a not-so-mild-mannered tech journalist who finds that she really is an adopted princess — from a family of petty-minded mobsters from another dimension. And then things start to get really bad, and are clearly going to get (entertainingly) worse, as here the Clan comes to the attention of our national security state, in its most one-percent-doctrinaire form. (Sequel to The Family Trade and The Hidden Family, but probably understandable without them, thanks to a lot of work on Stross's part. There will evidently be at least one more book in the series.)
Fred Vargas, Seeking Whom He May Devour
A mystery, pitting one apparent werewolf against three concerned, if somewhat less than fully reality-based, citizens of southern France and one torch-carrying police inspector. Not only a good mystery, but extremely funny in a very dry way, with great characterization. I realized that I was really hooked when I came to this passage on the heroine reading The A to Z of Tools for Trade and Craft:
She got out her bread and water and the tool catalog. It was an exhaustive listing with sections on compressed air, soldering, scaffolding, lifting gear, and scores of similarly promising headings. Camille read every entry from start to finish, including detailed specifications like jumbo weed hog, 1.1HP petrol engine, antirecoil bar, low-vibration solid transmission with reverse thrust, electronic ignition, weight 5.6 kilograms. Such descriptions — and catalogs were full of them — gave her profound intellectual satisfaction (understanding the object, how it fitted together, how it worked) as well as intense lyrical pleasure. On top of the underlying fantasy of solving all the world's problems with a combined-cycle milling machine or a universal chuck tool, the catalog represented the hope of using a combination of power and ingenuity to overcome all of life's shitty obstacles. A false hope, to be sure, but a hope nonetheless. Thus did Camille draw her vital energy from two sources: musical composition and The A to Z of Tools for Trade and Craft. Ten years younger and she had also drawn on love, but she had really lost interest in that overused well. Love could give you wings, but it also knocked you off your feet, so it wasn't much of a bargain overall. Far less so than a ten-ton hydraulic jack, for instance.
With abundant thanks to "Uncle Jan" for letting me know about this series; I'll be reading her other books as soon as I can lay hands on translations. (Note 1: My local bookstore thought this was by F. R. E. D. Vargas; note 2: they had it filed under fantasy and horror, not mystery.)
I. J. Parker, Black Arrow
A homage to R. H. van Gulik's classic Judge Dee stories, moved in setting from Tang China to Heian Japan. Here the detective-official is dropped into an emerging power-struggle between the increasingly ineffective imperial court, which he represents, and the proto-samurai provincial nobility, in addition to having to confront unrelated crimes.
Van Gulik's own books were inspired by his reading of traditional Chinese detective novels, one of which (Dee Goong An) he translated as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee; he said he tried to make the judge more human, and to downplay some elements (like the supernatural) which were part of the Chinese tradition but wouldn't fly with western audiences. Parker continues this line of development: Sugawara Akitada is more sympathetic than van Gulik's Dee, and the novel's attitudes towards women and sex are much better, though still within the bounds of historical plausibility. (In retrospect, I am not sure that I would recommend van Gulik's books to thirteen year old boys, though I don't think reading them did me any harm.) This is a lot of fun, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series as soon as possible.
Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Partly a tour of planetary exploration as it had been achieved in the mid-1990s, partly an argument for why human beings should in fact try to settle space. As to the first: I liked it, and wish he could have lived to write about Galileo, Cassini, Soujouner, etc. As to the second: Sagan considers all the usual arguments, and finds almost all of them wanting, certainly insufficient in the face of the vastly greater scientific success, and vastly lower cost, of robotic space exploration. The only one which he thinks makes sense, ultimately, is the one which says that the universe is a dangerous place, and human survival will be much more likely if we're not all on one very small planet. I happen to think this is true, but it imposes a very high threshold on worthwhile human space settlement: it needs, as much as possible, to be self-sufficient. This is going to be hard, a point he fully acknowledges.
Disclaimer: I imprinted so thoroughly on Cosmos as a boy it's not even funny.
Update: By coincidence, the day after I wrote that, Charlie Stross took it upon himself to expound the practical difficulties of space colonization.
C. J. Box, Open Season
Beginning of the Joe Pickett novels. Enjoyable.
Glenn C. Loury, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality
An exceedingly important work of social analysis, with two main insights. The first is a brilliant little unpacking of how stereotyping can be a rational stable equilibrium, even though the stereotypes have no intrinsic basis whatsoever. Loury's analysis has elements of Ackerlof's "market for lemons" argument, as well of course of ideas going back to Myrdal, but it is, I think, novel and distinct, and doesn't just apply to race. Loury recognizes that this mechanism doesn't explain why the equilibrium with blacks getting the worst of it is the one selected; there he turns to the analysis of stigma and "damaged social identity", and, of course, the legacy of slavery. To be black is to be seen as and not fully a member of the community, of the nation. This is where the problem lies, and where (some forms of) procedural liberalism break down. The Christian moral impulse behind all this ("who is your neighbor?") is evident, but not, here, explicitly Christian. This is not, I venture to guess, going to persuade someone who is already convinced that the problem facing black Americans is that they're genetically dumb and impulsive, but such people are hard to reach with scientific argument in any event. For anyone else, I'd say this is essential reading. (Many thanks to Scott Page for pointing me in its direction.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur

Posted at June 30, 2007 23:59 | permanent link

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