January 31, 2020

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2020

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to say anything about Iranian history, political philosophy, sociology, or American literature and art.

Abbas Amanat, Iran: A Modern History
The title is, of course, a pun. On the one hand, it's a "modern" history because it's not an ancient or medieval one: it begins with the founding of the Safavid empire around 1500, and continues down to the now-abrogated nuclear deal with the US. (Bad decisions by mad and/or decadent rulers is one of his themes for a reason.) But it's also a modern history because Amanat is up-to-date on the scholarship about everything, and it's all here: high politics and its personalities and swings of fortune, village life and its rhythms and transformations; economic history across regions and centuries; the interplay between urbanism and nomadism, and the impact of motor cars on both; literature and philosophy, painting and movies, music and architecture; secular and religious law; the decline and growth of Iran's knowledge of the outside world, and the growth of orientalist scholarship on Iran and on Persianate culture more generally; Iranian imperialism (across multiple dynasties) and its rivals, Ottoman, Mughal, Uzbek, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Russian, Soviet and American; and of course religion. (Amanat is especially sensitive to the enduring role of messianic and millenarian movements in this history, going all the way back to the Safavids themselves.) It's a dazzling display of learning and sympathy, but also of skillful exposition. It's hard to imagine there's a better general history of Iran currently available. If you have time, read it before we start bombing.
W. G. Runciman, Great Books, Bad Arguments: Republic, Leviathan, and The Communist Manifesto
Runciman is a sociologist, distinguished for having worked out a genuinely evolutionary theory of social change (specifically, of the differential reproduction of social practices). This book is not about that. Rather, it's about an elderly, eminent sociologist, long interested in political philosophy, revisiting some of the classics of political theory and saying (more eloquently) "What were you guys smoking?" I am pleased to see that Runciman finds The Republic as baffling as I do, and his strictures against Hobbes, and against Marx and Engels, are for the most part sensible. His last chapter tries to rescue these books, on the grounds that they're not trying to be accurately descriptive nor ideally (idly?) normative, but "optative", hopeful. I am not sure even this can save Plato.
Linda Nagata, Silver
Far-future space opera. This is a direct sequel to Nagata's Edges, in which some of the characters from that novel find themselves on an artificial world which has been the site of a role-playing game going on for millennia. The world is now buggy, in plotful ways, and the megalomaniacal post-human entity who helped make it is about to return, much to the detriment of the really-very-nearly-human players, if not of everyone else in local space. Exploration, trickery, time dilation, improvisation, crop-dusting, self-pity, firmly-held misconceptions, journeys through the underworld and heart-break ensue.
As I've said before, Nagata is, to my taste, one of the best of her generation of hard-SF writers. Silver doesn't have the quite the same sense of cosmic strangeness and scale as Vast (which may be her masterpiece), but it's still really good, and shows (again) that she also has the talent to paint on a smaller scale.
(I feel compelled to note that while Nagata is a science-fiction author of a certain age, and this book unites the story-worlds of her "Nanotech Succession" series and Memory, she shows no other signs of brain-eater syndrome.)
Franco Moretti, Far Country: Scenes from American Culture
A version of what is (apparently) Moretti's long-run undergrad course on American literature and culture. Some of Moretti's characteristics are here --- he's really big on comparisons between multiple examples of genres, so there's a (brilliant) chapter contrasting Westerns with film noir, but it's definitely a contrast between the genres, rather than between any particular Western and any particular film noir. But I guess not even Moretti wanted to teach intro. lit. to freshmen through distant reading.
Paul Barnetson, Critical Path Planning: Present and Future Techniques (Princeton: Brandon/Systems Press, 1970, reprinting the London: Buttersworth, 1968 edition)
You may be amused, or horrified, to learn that when I was a small boy, my father the development economist used to tell me to always think about the "critical path" when planning my activities --- to figure out what part of the over-all project would take the longest to complete, and make sure everything else would fit inside that time. I don't remember how old I was when I first heard this, but it was definitely before he taught me linear programming, which was when I was 10 or 12. To this day, I feel vaguely guilty if I start preparing a tea-pot before setting water to boil.
When I ran across this little book (six years older than I am) at a sale, I couldn't resist seeing how close what I'd been taught was to the genuine article. If you ever need a short (102 page), clear explanation of the critical path method, aimed at reasonably smart but not very mathematical managers, complete with 1960s-vintage computer output, here you are. It's... not that different from what I learned as a boy, and now I don't know whether to be amused or horrified myself.
Tess Gerritsen
  1. The Apprentice
  2. The Sinner
  3. Body Double
  4. Vanish
  5. The Mephisto Club
  6. The Keepsake
  7. Ice Cold
  8. The Silent Girl
  9. Last to Die
  10. Die Again
  11. I Know a Secret
Mind-candy psycho-killer thriller novels. While not the apex of their genre, the fact that I read them all in a month shows they obviously do instill the "I need to find out what happens next" urge. (But they also instilled no desire to go back and read the first book in the series, or Gerritsen's other stuff.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Philosophy; Commit a Social Science; Afghanistan and Central Asia; Islam and Islamic Civilization; Writing for Antiquity; The Beloved Republic; The Commonwealth of Letters; Mathematics

Posted at January 31, 2020 23:59 | permanent link

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