Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I ran into this post by way of The Friendly Atheist, my atheist news site.

The first post I linked to is by a charismatic (?) Christian who accepts evolution. In it, he describes a conversation he had in college that made him question his stance on evolution.

"She then went on about how mankind’s more complex brain and social survival strategy resulted in increasingly more complex structures–economic, religious, social–all of which were just constructs that serve as methods for survival. None of them were right or wrong, and it was all about which structures and thought patterns worked best in ensuring the survival of the species. By contrast, animals with simpler brains had far simpler requirements, which is why they didn’t need all these social systems. We’re not special. We’re just more complex."

He goes on to say:

"I blindly accepted Evolution without bothering to think about all of its implications. I was an Evolutionist who believed in the existence of a soul."

I find this troubling. I think his friend's assertation that humans are no different than cockroaches is an immense oversimplification. I don't think the implication of evolution is that intelligence is not special. I'm not even sure it's a useful extrapolation.

It seems to me, or maybe it's just a combination of articles that I've seen recently, that it is becoming fashionable to question the reality of free will. I wonder about that myself some days, when my mood seems to be solar powered and not relative to my situation at all.

However, it seems fairly obvious that whatever our brains do, it is a real phenomenon that results in other real phenomenon. Maybe we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Or maybe we should, and stop being so... what, cynical? Plaintive? About the conclusions we draw. A mechanical phenomenon that allows for questioning and literature and architecture and engineering is so amazing that I don't think it's out of place to say that it is worth treasuring, regardless of the source.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Book 1) - a review

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series)

The Golden Compass is about Lyra Belaqua, a girl who embarks on a strange journey. Some bad people called the gobblers are stealing children from London. Her best friend gets stolen, and Lyra begins a journey to find him. With the help of a talking polar bear, a balloonist, and a group of river gypsies, she rescues him from a laboratory in the arctic where arcane experiments are being done.

Pullman's essay on the integrity of human individuality is a lovely reminder for us all, children and adults, that personhood is fragile and to be cherished. It's a complex book, with hints of allegory and odd philosophical juxtapositions.

The sweet thing about fantasy is the sense of perspective it gives you, the feeling that the world could be malleable in ways it really isn't. Setting often comes into play heavily in fantasy. Changing milieu is an easy way to provide a sense of dislocation from the everyday. Eschewing all traces of popular sword and sorcery fantasy tropes, Pullman chooses to set his morality fable in an odd pseudo Victorian framework.

Europe has trains and electric lights, but is still threatened by barbarians. The church is the dominant power, but the Pope has been replaced by numerous bureaucracies. The Tartars have themselves trepanned to let the voice of god into their heads more easily. These historical incongruities dust the story with a delicious alien tang.

It is the Victorian values and pseudo-Victorian language, however, that mark the important differences between the setting of The Golden Compass and our own world. Simple touches like calling plastic "coal silk", and electric lights "anbaric" lights, and the stressing of propriety over individuality really define a alternate social evolution, one in which the issues of identity that Pullman deals with are much more urgent than they are in our own western democracy, and thus easier to see the importance of.

The most important difference between Lyra's world and our own is that every human being has a kind of familiar called a Daemon, an animal that is sort of a literal embodiment of the character's nature. Servants' daemons are dogs, for example. The upper classes often have more flamboyant creatures as daemons, like ermines and golden monkeys. Daemons are constant companions from birth to death. People without them are regarded with horror, much as we might regard someone walking around with only half a head, or fresh burns all over their body.

Fantasy can be gentle or fierce, and the best is often both simultaneously. Lyra herself supplies the gentleness. Contoured by a child's perspective, Pullman's quasi-Victorian Europe looks less daunting, if only because children don't know how terrible the world can really be. Especially children who are protected by thick insulating love, like Lyra is. Our heroine isn't an orphan, but she's raised in a university by scholars and servants who don't know quite what to do with her. Still, they treasure her. She is special to them.

The fierceness doesn't come from standard fantastical monsters like dragons or the living dead. Much like children in our world, Lyra is savaged and threatened by human monsters. Tragically enough, they are sometimes her own parents. They show up at various places in the story, but their only real use for her is to further their own plans. And they don't care how she feels about it.

The central metaphor of the Daemon would seem to imply reverence for the human soul, but could just as easily represent whatever fragile quality in human beings makes us unique or differentiates us from others. That, and other issues, like the alien nature of the polar bear warrior that Lyra grows to love, and the witches that ally with her, make the theme of identity pervasive.

This serves to make the individual characters precious to the reader, even if they are a little four-color at times. It also underscores the brutality of the uses that individuals are put to.

The fact that children's daemon's can change their forms, and adult's daemons can't, presents a curious but obvious distinction between the nature of children and adults that underlies all the varied themes of the books. The juxtapositions of different kinds of personhood, and the threat of a unique part of yourself being stolen, underscore this.

The camps and labs are disturbing, and the monumental effort that goes unrewarded at the end of the book might lead some to believe there is no point in making that effort. But Lyra has seen enough of the world to know that there is no giving up, and I think she is a fine role model for children. She has heart. She cares even when, especially when, caring is inconvenient.

I knew what was going to happen at the end of the book. An inept reviewer let a spoiler into her review, so I was ready. But the ending of the book was still affecting, because I didn't trace the thematic "why" that supported the event until it was right upon me. And the little surprise of a coherent essay coming out of this otherwise straightforward fantasy made the book worthwhile for me.

The Golden Compass is about the unfortunate utility of people. In some ways it offers a frank but uncomfortable explanation for the question your child will ask you late at night - "But why, mummy, why are people so mean?"

People use each other to gratify their needs because people are useful to do that.

It's uncomfortable in places, and might be scary for children, but that simply highlights the fact that it's important to be good to others. The Golden Compass is a wonderful beginning to a broad theme, and I look forward to seeing how Pullman elaborates on it.


This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

You ever notice how when you have a few days off coming up, you can't seem to concentrate the first couple of days? I believe that this is the result of directed or "cold" probability mixing with undirected or "hot" probability. The resulting probability turbulence, similar to the turbulence created in air or water when hot and cold currents mix, generates mental static which causes the functioning of the brain to slow down.

All this by way of saying I have a fortuitous four day weekend caused by working the weekend before a three day weekend. Huzzah! I am hard at work finishing hanging chad projects: garage cleaning, game card finishing, clothing inventory.

Today, we went to a little renaissance festival in the county next to us. The small ones are a little seedy. This one had a sort of medieval head shop air about it. but the people were friendly, and there were some very nice vendors. I bought dead animal parts for the women in my family, and they were very grateful. Ruby's was her birthday present, a cougar skull. She loves to decorate our mantel with bones. Mine will go up there someday, probably soon. Poppy wanted a coyote tail.

My Celestial Wastelands game has fallen by the wayside. Marriages and surgeries are breaking up the last few games before Chris will run Keep on the Shadow Fell. I have to admit, my excitement was low. I think I have gotten sidetracked by 4th ed. Hopefully, I can pick up the Celestial Wasteland's experiment at another time. La.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

So last weekend we had visitors: our friend Gina and Ruby's brother John. They drove up form New York. I always love company, but had to work through most of their stay. That was my poor scheduling.

We did use the visit as an excuse to go out and get yummied up, at a local restraunt called LODOs, and Outback Steakhouse. Mmmm.

On Sunday, we went to a local attraction: the Air Zoo. This lovely museum has an annex in the back that we haven't been to yet. There's a great exhibet of early twentieth century planes, including one you can walk on to, and other artifacts, including some truly funky looking guns. There's also an aerospace exhibet, with a little ride/show that covers a hypothetical mars landing, that I thought was fun.

Poppy going to the moon.
Poppy on the moon. Who's that guy behind her? Watch out, Poppy! Watch out!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

I recommend - The Triggerman, serialized online novel

I have been having an excess of enthusiasms lately. It may be the death of me.

One that is surely wholesome is on Joe Schrieber's website. Joe is an author of thrillers who has been kind enough to read here at the library a couple of times.

Last week, Joe started to publish a serialized novel on his blog. For free. There's a lot of good fiction on his blog, but The Triggerman is a hella fun thriller novel with apocalyptic overtones. It starts out with a really smooth character study and segues, by the beginning of chapter two, into end of the world style craziness when a plane falls out of a clear blue sky onto the protagonist's condo. Luckily, he's out jogging at the time. The Triggerman speeds up through chapter 3 and 4. It feels a lot like Stephen King, but sharper and more concise.

Here's the beginning of chapter four:

"In the next twenty minutes, three more planes fall out of the sky.

After the jet that goes down in the direction of Hershey, one drops farther off to the south, perhaps five miles away. By that time the crowds of people in what remain of Boone’s condo community are staring up with the blanched, seasick expressions of spectators at some apocalyptic fireworks display, watching the expanse for whatever will come next. The shock of what’s happening has not yet worn off, and it will still be fifteen minutes before the first mass panic begins."

I can't guarantee that it ends as good as it starts. I've only read through chapter four. Well. everybody's only read through chapter four. Joe is releasing it one chapter a day. But in just four days and four chapters, I've gotten really excited about what day five will bring.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I have been doing stuff and sciency goodness.

Note that I am playing with a twitter account. Because the world never has enough of me. Like all of the widgety junk I play with, you can see it on the right bar.

Although I have yet to upload a video to Youtube, I have created a public playlist that I will continue to update periodically, and included my Youtube address under: My sites. The list is titled Please hand me a pistol, I haven't had breakfast yet. It is good, light hearted faux-Emo fun. Feel free to suggest songs for inclusion.

I love the future more and more. Unlike most people, I really think the future, despite mortgage problems, gas prices, and equivalent crap in the present, will be better, and brilliant. When it comes right down to it, there's only three possibilites for The Big Tomorrow: we become extinct, which is only sad as long as there's a dwindling population, we exhaust our technical capabilities and become a sort of peasanty backwater species, which would be the true tragedy of our species, but would make for some good novels, or we live in a future where the earth is a garden and human beings have purple striped tasmanian devils as house pets. Follow the link. Isn't that a gorgeous article?

The article links on the right side, are, if anything, more thrilling

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hey, over on Rosy Rod I published a couple of articles about how to hack 4.0.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Other Powers - a review

Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith

In a century when men were free to treat women with the same detached cruelty as they did their slaves, when marriage meant surrendering every right to property, when no laws protected women from physical abuse (although a few states stipulated the size of the instruments that could be used to inflict punishment)...

Victoria Woodhull ran for President.

This is the nineteenth century that Barbara Goldsmith illustrates for us in Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

The daughter of a snake oil salesman, at various times in her life Woodhull was a child preacher, prostitute, and the founder of the first stock brokerage for women. The identity that was most important to her, however, was that of a spiritualist. Spiritualism was a religion that allowed you to speak to the dead through seances and ouija boards. Woodhull claimed that to tell her life without her spirits would be like writing Hamlet and leaving out his father's ghost. Under the guidance of Demosthenes, Napoleon, and Josephine, she believed that the spirits had chosen her to become the ruler of the world.

The nineteenth century was epidemic with hybrid social theories. Woodhull's campaign manager, Stephen Pearl Andrews, founded the community of Modern Times as a model to demonstrate his "New Age" ideals. This included free love, and as part of the practice, colonists tied a red thread around their index finger to announce that they were married, and untied it when they decided not to be.

Spiritualism, however, was the idealism of the 19th century. It mitigated the sting of death, helping to heal the pain of the civil war and rampant child mortality by reconnecting loved ones even after death. Spiritualism demanded universal suffrage... the equality of all human beings. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the suffragette manifesto on a spirit table (Although that isn't noted where the table is displayed in the Smithsonian). Women, no matter how ill-educated, could now transmit the wisdom of spirits as diverse as Socrates and Benjamin Franklin. Not surprisingly, the rights of women were very much on the minds of these great thinkers. A spiritualist even claimed that President Lincoln had been moved to emancipate the slaves through a spirit message she delivered to him. Lincoln's wife confirmed this.

Woodhull was the most unique product of her age. With her myriad of identities, ranging from Marxist to magnetic healer, she reflected the madness of her times and the struggle to acquire rights taken for granted by men. Much more than a biography of Victoria Woodhull, Other Powers is a biography of the mythic age she lived in.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I may take July 11th as a vacation day. Hellboy II looks soooo gooood.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Wheelers - a review

Wheelers by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

Wheelers isn't a novel, exactly. It's an example of a current school of SF that proselytizes for secular humanism, doing a tour of duty as a missionary for the brotherhood of all genetic material and the beauty of civilization.

That said, Wheelers delivers the plot of a summer blockbuster movie, complete with humongous explosions, intrigue and way cool aliens. Set in a middling far future after an anti-technology fueled war leaves the Earth under populated, Earth is divided into two camps: The Ectopians, a green United Nations, who manage the earth's resources very strictly, and Free China, which resembles Imperial China in it's isolationism and class structure. The solar system is colonized by Zen Buddhist monks who mine the asteroids and the moon because they're really the only people who can handle the isolation.

Into this setting comes the near ubiquitous killer comet that seems to infest the last few years worth of science fiction movies and novels. The twist on this is that the comet doesn't start out as a killer. It starts out heading for Jupiter, and becomes a killer after an unidentified force rearranges the moons of Jupiter in such a fashion that the comet is redirected at Earth.

Is it an act of war? But by whom? There's no life on Jupiter! And why? What did we ever do to them?

Resolving these questions becomes the gist of the novel, and the questions unfold at the end into a vast reminder of how small the place of humanity in the universe is. That's how I like my science fiction, bold and sloppy and rich with context, specifically the context of a very small Earth in a much larger universe.

The first mystery concerns what life on Jupiter is like, and is mostly revealed from the perspective of the aliens themselves. This is deftly handled. In some ways more so than the human characters are.

Beginning "The cities were feeding. Deep beneath Secondhome's multicolored canopy they cruised, sucking up aeroplankton by the billions..." the authors introduce you to Bright Halfholder, a member of an illegal faction that skydives between floating cities in defiance of her eons old elders.

Halfholder's perspective deftly draws a picture of culture that evolved floating in the subzero cloud layers of a gas giant. Halfholder's people are living blimps with water ice for eyes. They grow their own cities from other Jovian creatures. Their technology is an evolutionary byproduct of excretion: using the minerals that they sieve out of the atmosphere, they create the semi-intelligent bio-robots that earthlings come to call wheelers.

More interesting is the time scale that the culture lives on: they are millions of years old, nearly immortal except for accident. They have evolved a bureaucracy to match, one for which the word "haste" is a curse and a thousand years is a short time in which to make a decision.

I myself work in such a bureaucracy right now, and taking a thousand years to make a decision doesn't seem so science fictional to me. It becomes a problem, however, as the comet that the Jovians diverted towards earth gets closer and closer... and the Jovians keep talking about whether they should stop it from hitting "Poisonblue."

Which is where the second question of the story comes in. How do we stop the comet? Why, by diplomacy! The earth sends a ship full of belter Buddhists and earthlings to find the aliens and ask them, pretty please, not to hurl the comet at earth.

The diplomatic attempt is deftly interwoven with a polemic about risk taking. For instance, without Bright Halfholder's courageous skydiving, humans wouldn't have contacted the Jovians in time.

Similarly, although the diplomats from earth have the government's resources and backing, they are too cautious to take the risks that are needed to solve the situation.

Among the earth diplomats are Prudence Odingo and Charles Dunsmoore. They are old enemies because Charles ruined Prudence's career in archeology by seizing credit for a discovery that she made.

Charles is a career bureaucrat, Prudence a seat of her pants, interplanetary curiosities trader. He's the head of the diplomatic mission, she wants to profit from the situation by contacting the aliens first.

In the end, it's her intuition that results in first contact, despite all the careful preparations of the diplomatic mission. More happenstance than purpose.

This focus on the value of rugged individualism over tradition is one of the main points of the secular human polemic, anyway. Chaos is the fabric of the universe, and humanity has to make its own luck. Religion is always noted with bemusement and curiosity. What good is it to wait passively for salvation, when you can actually engineer it?

Of course, Wheelers isn't above replacing religion with its own metaphysical flourishes. Moses Odingo, Prudence's nephew, has a facility with animal languages that borders on St. Augustine's, and this ability to decipher the "language of life" translates over to the Jovians.

His freak ability is definitely part of the right place/right time that saves earth from certain destruction, allowing humans to avoid an otherwise torturous effort to translate alien languages in the Nth hours of the crises. What's more, the authors don't even attempt to offer a scientific explanation for it.

The drawback of the SF tract as a subgenre is that characterization is often given short shrift. Characters often represent values in an almost allegorical way. Bright Halfholder is "compassion." Prudence is "intuition." Charles is "tradition." Moses is "biodiversity."

As a semiliterate lit jock, an uneasy looter of the ivory tower, I like my characters to be a bit more nuanced. The authors shirk that novelistic duty to a certain extent, unfolding character development by telling you that it happens. Charles evolves from a sleazy, self promoting career bureaucrat to a guy truly concerned about the welfare of the planet in the space of a few pages because the authors tell you that he thought about his misdeeds a lot on the two year journey from Earth to Europa. Also, Prudence's "wild" personality is delivered in such broad strokes that she seems more attention deficit than unorthodox.

In addition, the earth-culture that's left after the anti-tech war is largely undetailed, used only for ideas to be bounced off of. On the broad concept of Ecotopia and Free China are hung the illegal hunting of protected species and vast poverty that put Moses Odingo in peril for most of his life.

These scenes are largely peripheral to the plot, though entertaining: Xi Ming-Kuo, the Chinese warlord responsible for many of Moses' problems, gets killed in a cleverly amusing way at the end of the novel, and Moses as king-of-the-wild-dogs-and-
cannibal-street-urchins is a fun bit of baroque, a sort of Barbarella cum Where The Wild Things Are fluff. You are left with the sense that the narrative is being padded, but the padding is entertaining and moves quickly, so you don't ultimately mind.

Missteps aside, Wheelers has a big heart and some smart sounding science to back up its wild plot. It delivers a host of clever thought experiments in a colorful package, and ends with spaceships being spattered by molten lava, daring rescues, and moons hurtling out of their orbits. So you probably won't mind the missteps. I really didn't.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Aren't I a chatty cathy this week?

The New York Times explains steampunk to the commoners.

Me, I wish everyday was talk like a pirate day.

So, today was submission day. Stop it. You're being wicked.

The last time I submitted was in February of '07. I've often thought that the problem with my writing is not the rejections, but the lack of submissions.

One of my goals this year was to keep three submissions in play. Until today, I've had a total of two in play.

Only one was submitted this year.

But... I wrote a whole story for that one.

So today I retooled my submission record sheet and submitted three stories: Shaerd Destiny to Lone Star Stories, Fine Brass Chicken Legs to Abyss and Apex, and Those Days to Spacesuits and Sixguns. I have about twelve stories, but only four that I'm willing to submit right now... the rest have been submitted, and are being re-written.

I always find this part of the writing thing fraught. I don't know why... the worst they can do is say no, after all.
I was an anthro major, and though this by no means makes me an anthropologist, I love to read about why people do the things they do. I like futerizing, too, which is really about why people will do the things they do.

Ever feel like you spend too much time fucking around instead of doing something?

Me. Too.

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus is an article that not only explains why we do it (too much free time is a "cognitive surplus") but why the interenet and related technologies will inevitably make things better. It's one of the best things I've read recently.

I found it through Monte Cook's Chapel Perilous Blog. Not the usual stuff from that site, but this article alone made it worth putting Chapel Perilous on my RSS feed.

Friday, May 09, 2008

I feel as if I exist by the grace of black coffee alone.

Nothing makes me happier than gonzo science news, physicists knocking on the door of creation. Hopefully, these guys will bring home some answers. It would be interesting to find empirical evidence of string theory. I think it would revitalize science for the masses, especially if they found something that led to technical innovation. Can subatomic particles lead to technical innovation? I would think yes, since computer scientists are working on quantum computing, and entangling photons, and suchlike coolness.

Especially as I've gotten older, I admire people who make concrete contributions to technology or knowledge. I don't do much in the way of hero worship, but Mr. Arkani-Hamed makes me think that would be worthwhile. In any case, looking up his biography on wikipedia leads me to articles on dimensional deconstruction and large extra dimensions, which sound hella cool and comicky. Although, reading them, I understand them not.

Something I do understand is this giant sinkhole thingy in Texas. Ultimately harmless (thankfully, nobody died), it looks all cool and apocalypsy. Imagine watching that happen. I link to the Melbourn sun article because it seems to have the best pics, but you can google news or other news search for Texas sinkhole. It's like 900 feet wide and 180 feet deep. You expect it to burp up Cloverfield. Now I'm going to look up salt domes in wikipedia.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Hooray for me! I was up at 3:30 AM, fussing about something that's been going on at work. I am fascinated that the older I get, the more of my personality becomes sublimated. I tried to go back to sleep until 5:00 AM, then gave it up for lost and finished my short story. It was like free time! Then, at 6:30 I was nauseatingly tired again.

Easy come, easy go.

Yesterday, I worked the evening shift. I took a break in the middle of the day. Ruby has had the car for job hunting purposes, so she and Poppy picked me up. I had no desire to kill time at home, so we went for ice cream and to the mall to pick up jeans for Poppy. That was somehow soothing.

At the mall, however, I fell in love. I had a mad passionate affair with a shirt from a line called Obey. It had a faux retro print with masonic dollar bill symbols and slogans like "in lesser gods we trust" and "cash for chaos," which are practically tailor sloaged for my skeptical, inconstant and contrarian nature. They were none in my size! Skinny people can't wear cool T's like that! I looked all over the web that evening, but although the Obey clothing line is sold in sundry places, I couldn't find the T's I loved so much. Waily!

At least it was evidence that my inner dandy was not crushed to death by the slobbering porcine bureaucrat that sat down in his chair six years ago.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Years of Rice and Salt - a review

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Salt and Rice, like his Mars series, is a beautiful, painstaking diorama of history. Where Red Mars and its sequels project the foibles and foment of human history into the future and onto other planets in our solar system, however, Rice and Salt uses a different forum.

Using what is called alternate history, Robinson writes a history of our planet and race without the European nations. Every other review will tell you why, I'll just suffice it to say that around 1400 AD, Europe is removed from history.

It didn't happen in the real world, of course, so you might ask why this is a significant idea. Alternate histories are popular for the sheer imaginative play they allow, of course. The siren song of "what if?" appeals to a lot of people.

More importantly, I think, alternate histories model what certain events might have looked like from another angle. They teach by taking an event out of its natural (and only real) context. For instance, by taking racism and economic power out of context of the United States, a context which most of us in the U.S. take for granted, and looking at it from the vantage of another culture.

In 10 chapters and 658 pages, Robinson describes a world that might have resulted from the disappearance of the European powers. In The Years of Rice and Salt, the world powers are Islam and China, unopposed and unexploited by the west. They discover Yingzhou and Inka (the Americas). Science is invented again by Islam. The American Indians do a better job of preserving themselves from the predations of China and Islam, mostly by capitalizing on their own democratic traditions. The industrial revolution happens in India, which adopts the methods of Amerindian democracy to forge a new intellectual center of freedom for the world. Feminism and psychiatry are born in the crux of Islam and China. And eventually, a hundred year long war is fought between two titanic cultures, but the atomic bomb is prevented from becoming the property of a given culture by groups of scientists working internationally.

Because this is a huge chunk of history to cover (approximately 600 years), each portion of history is treated as a slice of life centered around influential people. Each slice is richly evoked, from the massive sprawling cities of culturally diverse China to the subtle cultural explorations made by Islamic women attempting to overturn years of misogynistic commentaries on what they see as the fundamentally humanistic Koran. Characters denote the tenor of the time, expressing the personalities of entire chunks of culture, as when Bhuri contrast the Isaac Newton-like Kheim's scientific investigations with the Sufi doctrine that God is love, stating that gravity is like love.

"Perhaps love is the force," Bahram offered. "The same attraction as of persons to persons, extended between things in a general way."

"It would explain how one's member rises away from the Earth," Iwang said with a smile.

Bahram laughed, but Khalid said only, "A joke. What I am speaking of could not be less like love. It is as constant as the stars in their places, a physical force."

Do I agree with all Robinson's assumptions about where history might have gone? No, but that doesn't matter. For instance: Islam hasn't generated any real feminist movement by this point in our history. What makes Robinson so sure that they would, simply because they maintained a level of cultural hegemony that the West took from them? However, his assumptions are convincing enough for me to follow them to where they lead.

This is mostly because he treats other cultures sensitively but realistically. Robinson understand that all of the cultures he writes about would have had to struggle from barbarism to civilization through many of the same steps that the West has had to take. His characters seem very authentic, different enough from Western characters to allow for cultural differences, and similar enough to evoke our common humanity. And the voices he takes are persuasive even as it is obvious that he is aware of the limitations of his musings and assumptions. Such as when a scholar, who was once a revolutionary, ponders in the book's last chapter how history as a theory is incapable of describing the real forces that are faced in its unfolding narrative.

"For we see immediately that what we call history has at least two meanings to it: first, simply what happened in the past, which no one can know, as it disappears in time, and then second, all the stories we tell about what happened."

Which is charmingly deferential for a work of fake history that makes efforts to show how history works.

Stylistically, Robinson's novel undergoes a sort of sea change of history. The beginning stories are fluid, pretty narratives that sound like Chinese poetry or Islamic folktales. They slowly metamorphosize into more modern narratives driven by musing and personality growth. They are connected by a series of characters reincarnated (a belief common to many eastern cultures and also, apparently, mystic Islam) together from one historical period to the next. The group is called a Jati, individual spirits being reincarnated with names that begin with the same letter each life. I- is the thinker and experimenter, the soul of reason. K- is a rabble rouser and revolutionary, the group's passion. B- is their heart, always looking for ways to reconcile truths.

This is a literary and mnemonic device that is also commented on by our scholar from the last chapters when he runs across it in his research, in collections of reincarnation narratives. "I like the naming device."

This device is interesting because it is very central to the idea of the book, that we strive forever to achieve the best that life can offer. That life is a series of attempts to make a better world, not a single goal to be attained and maintained by an individual, even an individual nation. Even though Robinson depicts culture rationally, as exploitative and self interested, the context of history reveals this kind of striving in every age, this attempt to reach ideals. It reflects a phrase I encountered reading C.S. Lewis: "In every age, there have been civilized men. And in every age, they are surrounded by barbarians." A beautiful experiment, the main thesis of The Years of Rice and Salt is that humans everywhere, in all ages, work and try to bring Utopia to the world.

There is some humor in here. The complaints that the left is always grumbling about are often put in the context of cultures who are marginalized today grumbling about their oppressive social systems. In a chapter set after the great Islamic/Chinese war, when Islamic feminists are attempting to carve out a role for themselves, a long passage in a cafe describes Islamic beatnicks eulogizing the perfections of a long dead European culture. Similar to the way American leftists long for the perceived civilization of Europe, or of simpler cultures.

Don't start reading this expecting a rockem sockem robot adventure. It's more like a sand painting, vivid and painstakingly detailed and meandering and with a momentum that comes from the interplay of ideas, not from jimmying events into a roller coaster ride. Unlike much science fiction, Robinson doesn't rely on changing technology to set the stage for his story. For Robinson, the technology is inside of people, it is the coping mechanisms they use to create and maintain a society that is usable by themselves and as many other people as they can share it with.

Other reviewers have complained about his tendency towards Utopian thinking, but in interviews he has said that he believes that someone needs to present the possibility that human society is growing and coping with its challenges, and destined to become something better. I do too.

In this book, his characters often say that history needs to reach a point where human beings are worthy of it. That I disagree with. I think the struggle alone shows that they are worth their history, and I think Robinson does a marvelous job of showcasing the possibilities. For a fake history, there sure are a lot of parts that feel very, humanly, real.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. During reposting, it was edited a smidge.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Mmmm. Sunday Dinner.

Indexed is funny yet again.

To clear my fiction writing palate, I started a short story tentatively called How to Build a Daddy, which is tough, because it is science fiction. That means I can't just make up everything. Or at least I have to pretend some of it is realistic. It is also tough because there is almost no action. But I need a reason to get up early in the mornings, and this story has been squatting in my head for six months or so. I'm hoping to finish it sometimes next week.

We have a new cat. We took in a friends cat because they were moving to a complex. He is very handsome and playful, which annoys the hell out of our old cat, who swears at him in the most foul kitty language when he tries to engage her. He is 14 in kitty years, she is 105 or something like that. Still spry. We could learn alot from cats.

What should I do with myself this summer?