February 29, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
The story told here is just as appalling as the sub-title promises. Blackmon focuses on Alabama, but makes it clear that stuff like this happened all over the South. Since this is popular rather than professional history, there is a bit more of you-are-there detail than I am completely comfortable with, and I wish there had been more about things like the Great Migration and the impact of agricultural mechanization. But it's still very well written, and the story it tells deserves to be much better known.
Two comparatively minor points:
  1. There were actually cases under Theodore Roosevelt of white men in the south being brought to court for holding black men as slaves. (The legal defense was that while amendments to the Constitution had banned slavery, there were no actual laws against it, so no crime.) This has all the elements which a big strand of our popular mythology looks for: a courtroom drama in which a fearless prosecutor and dedicated investigators, with the support of a reforming president, uncover a vast criminal enterprise, persuade reluctant witnesses to testify, bring the case before the public eye and an honest judge — and the whole thing failed to do the slightest bit of good. I think Blackmon has to be aware of how this part of his narrative fits with these motifs, but fails to have the expected ending; it's probably all the more effective for his not being explicit about it.
  2. It is probably irrational to feel more of a shameful connection to these injustices because U.S. Steel (and so Andrew Carnegie, and so Carnegie Tech) was one of the beneficiaries Blackmon highlights, but I do.
Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country
Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom
Mind candy. Ruff's book follows the mis-adventures of an African-American family of science fiction fans in 1950s Chicago, in a world where it's not clear whether eldritch abominations or ordinary life is more soul-destroying. It's a bit episodic, but still well done. LaValle's novella is a re-imagining of one of Lovecraft's most racist stories, "The Horror at Red Hook", from the perspective of a black Harlemite who would have been, at best, a nameless minion in the original. It's an interesting choice of a work to re-imagine, because even drawing a veil over the bigotry, it's not one of Lovecraft's better stories. Why respond to an ugly piece of bad fiction from almost a century ago? The only good reason is that there is, underneath all the purple prose and the all-too-transparent fears, something of real imaginative power and value in Lovecraft's work, and that value should be even to those whom he cast as monsters. The fact that LaValle is much better at cosmic horror than Lovecraft was in "Red Hook" is just icing on the cake.
If this is intriguing, it's worth reading LaValle and Ruff in conversation.
(Previously for Ruff; previously for LaValle.)
Jo Walton, The Just City
This is, obviously, exactly what would happen if Athena and Apollo conspired to realize The Republic with a population of time-traveling Platonists, 10,800 child slaves bought in antiquity, and robots. Exactly what would happen, down to Socrates trolling everyone so hard that, well --- read it.
Genre note: I thought the chapters from Simmea's viewpoint did a very good job of both sounding plausible, and playing off the now-well-worn conventions of young adult dystopias. Because, of course, from a certain angle that's what the the Republic would be.
(Shoved to the top of the pile by the outstanding Crooked Timber symposium on this book and its sequel [which is on its way to me].)
Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Blades
Mind-candy fantasy, sequel to City of Stairs, continuing the story of how the first technological power in a fantasy world deals with the consequences of having killed all the gods. It is as awesome as its predecessor, though I should perhaps say that Bennett is quite prepared to deal brutally with sympathetic characters. (There was a moment near the end where I thought he was going to reprise the cyclical metaphysics of Mr. Shivers, but fortunately I was wrong.)
J. H. Conway, Regular Algebra and Finite Machines
I liked the first half or so. In particular, the notion of the derivative of one regular event with respect to another is neat in itself, and the corresponding Taylor series gives a very direct way of translating a regular expression into a finite machine. But then Conway zoomed off into the algebraic stratosphere, and if there was any tether connecting him back to actual problems with formal languages or automata, I completely lost track of it, and didn't see the point.
(This is formally self-contained as far as automata and language theory goes, but definitely presumes a strong grasp of abstract algebra. Its full appreciation also evidently presumes more mathematical maturity than I possess.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Tales of Our Ancestors; Writing for Antiquity; The Beloved Republic; Cthulhiana; Mathematics; Automata and Mechanical Amusements; Philosophy;

Posted at February 29, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

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