April 30, 2014

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2014

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Chris Willrich, Scroll of Years
Mind candy fantasy. The blurbs are over the top, but it is fun and decidedly better-written than average. Mildly orientalist, though in a respectful mode.
Matthew Bogart, The Chairs' Hiatus
Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios, Pretty Deadly
Joe Harris, Great Pacific: 1, Trashed; 2, Nation Building
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Saga, vols. 2 and 3
L. Frank Weber, Bikini Cowboy
Terry LaBan, Muktuk Wolfsbreath, Hard Boiled Shaman: The Spirit of Boo
Comic book mind candy. Muktuk Wolfsbreath is especially notable for ethnographic accuracy, Pretty Deadly for the gorgeous art and genuinely-mythic weirdness, and Saga for general awesomeness. (Previously for Saga.)
Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation
Mind candy, but incredible mind candy. The basic story is a familiar one for SF: an expedition into an unknown and hostile environment quickly goes spectacularly awry, as the explorers don't appreciate just how strange that environment really is. But from there it builds to a gripping story that combines science fiction about bizarre biology with genuinely creepy horror. It's Lovecraftian in the best sense, not because it uses the props of Cthulhiana, but because it gives the feeling of having encountered something truly, frighteningly alien. (In contrast.)
There are two sequels coming out later this year; I've ordered both.
ETA: the first sequel is very good.
Adam Christopher, The Burning Dark
Mind candy: a haunted house story, with a space-opera setting. (Self-presentation.)
S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
Starr has been a historian of Central Asia throughout his long professional career, and like many such, he feels that the region doesn't get enough respect in world history. This is very much an effort in rectifying that, along the way depicting medieval Central Asia as a center of the Hellenistic rationalism which he sees as being the seed of modern science and enlightenment. (It's pretty unashamedly whiggish history.)
Starr's Central Asia is urban and mercantile. It should be understood as the historic network of towns in, very roughly, the basins of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, or Transoxiana plus Khorasan and Khwarezm. Starr argues that this region formed a fairly coherent cultural area from a very early period, characterized by intensive irrigation, the cultural and political dominance of urban elites, the importance of long-distance over-land trade (famously but not exclusively, the Silk Road), and so cross-exposure to ideas and religions developed in the better-known civilizations of the Mediterranean, the Fertile Crescent, Iran, India and China. One consequence of this, he suggests, was an interest in systematizing these traditions, e.g., compiling versions of the Buddhist canon.
With the coming of Islam, which he depicts as a very drawn-out process, some of these same traditions led to directions like compiling hadith. Beyond this, the coming of Islam exposed local intellectuals both to Muslim religious concepts, to the works of Greek science and philosophy, and to Indian mathematics and science. (He gives a lot more emphasis to the Arab and Greek contributions than the Indian.) In his telling, it was the tension between these which led to the great contributions of the great figures of medieval Islamic intellectual history. Starr is at pains to claim as many of these figures for Central Asia as possible, whether by where they lived and worked, where their families were from, where they trained, or sometimes where their teachers were from. [0] He even, with some justice, depicts the rise of the 'Abbasid dynasty as a conquest of Islam by Khurasan.
Much of the book is accordingly devoted to the history of mathematics, natural science, philosophy, theology, and belles lettres in Central Asia, with glances at the fine arts (especially painting and architecture) and politics (especially royal patronage). This largely takes the form of capsule biographies of the most important scholars, and sketches of the cities in which they worked. These seem generally reliable, though there are some grounds for worry. One is that I can't tell whether Starr is just awkward at explaining what mathematicians did, or whether he doesn't understand it and is garbling his sources. The other is that there are places where he definitely over-reaches in claiming influence [1]. Even deducting for these exaggerations and defects, Starr makes a sound case that there was a long period of time --- as he says, from the Arab conquests to the coming of the Timurids --- when Central Asia was the home to much of the best intellectual activity of the old world. That this amounted to an "age of Enlightenment" comparable to 17th and 18th century Europe seems another over-fond exaggeration.
What Starr would have liked to produce is something as definitive, and as revelatory, as Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China. (He's pretty up front about this.) He knows that he hasn't gotten there. He can't be blamed for this: even for so extraordinary a figure as Needham, it was the work of a lifetime, backed by a massive team. Still, one can hope that his book will help make such an effort more likely. In the meanwhile, it's a decently-written and mostly-accurate popular history about a time and place which were once quite important, and have since faded into undeserved obscurity.
What the book is doing with blurbs from various reactionary foreign-affairs pundits, up to and including Henry Kissinger, I couldn't say, though I have suspicions. §
0: He also feels it necessary to make the elementary point that writing in Arabic didn't make these men "Arabs", any more than writing in Latin made contemporary European scholars "Romans". I will trust his judgment that there are still people who need to hear this.
1: E.g., on p. 421, it's baldly asserted that Hume found Ghazali's arguments against causality "congenial". Now, the similarity between the two men's arguments have often been pointed out, and the relevant book of Ghazali's, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, was known to the Scholastics in Latin translation. It's conceivable that Hume encountered a copy he could have read. Nonetheless, Ghazali's name does not appear, in any romanization, in Hume's Treatise of Hume Nature, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, or Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. (I have not searched Hume's complete works.) No other writer on either philosopher, that I am aware of, suggests either a direct influence or even the transmission of a tradition, as opposed to a re-invention, and Starr provides no supporting citation or original evidence.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (trans. Olena Bormashenko), Roadside Picnic
Mind candy, at the edge of being something greater. Humanity is visited by ridiculously advanced aliens, who leave behind artifacts which we understand no more than ants could comprehend the relics of the titular picnic. Owing to human greed, stupidity, and (it must be said) capitalism, this goes even worse for us than it would for the ants.
M. John Harrison, Nova Swing
Mind candy: noir science fiction, owing a massive debt to Roadside Picnic.
Elizabeth Bear, Steles of the Sky
Conclusion to the trilogy begun in Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars. It is, to my mind, magnificent; all the promise of the earlier books is fulfilled.
ObLinkage: Astute comments by Henry Farrell.
Felix Gilman, The Revolutions
Historical fantasy set in Edwardian London, and the outer spheres of the solar system, featuring under-employed young people with literary ambitions, dueling occult societies, interplanetary romances, and distributed Chinese rooms.
Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator
My comments on The Shadow of the Torturer apply with even greater force. (Sequels: 3, 4)
Darwyn Cooke, Parker (1, 2, 3, 4)
Mind candy: comic book versions of the classic crime novels by Richard Stark. The pictures are a nice complement to the high-energy stories about characters with no morally redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Afghanistan and Central Asia; Islam; Philosophy; Writing for Antiquity

Posted at April 30, 2014 23:59 | permanent link

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