2015年3月26日 星期四

"The Plague" by Albert Camus (1947)

"...perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction and misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city."

"The Plague" is one of those books that I'd been meaning to read for decades.  Likewise Albert Camus, an author that I've read so much about, was largely a stranger (if you'll forgive the pun) to me until I read this book.  Having just finished "The Plague," I can say that his reputation is entirely justified.

This novel is the story of a pestilence which envelops a small town in French North Africa on the eve of World War II.  Many of the details in the book are autobiographical, and the narrative shines with Camus' unique understanding of human nature.  It is a book with a very French sensibility, but Camus infuses it with a universality that makes it very accessible.

That said, it is extremely depressing.  It's not as depressing as Jose Saramago's "Blindness," which I read last year, but it is nevertheless a downer.  Anyone who has waded through Sartre, one of Camus' contemporaries, will have some idea of the bleak nature of this book, but those who haven't will probably find it a bit off-putting.  The plague takes hold of the town very early in the book, and its hold is unrelenting until the last few pages.

I'm eager to read Camus' "The Rebel," which is apparently his favorite of his own books.  I think there is a lot to like in his approach to fiction, and "The Plague" is definitely a well-written and thoroughly engaging novel.  Just the same, you'll probably feel slightly exhausted after reading this trial of the human spirit.  It has lessons to teach, yes, but these lessons require a bit more fortitude from the average reader.

2015年3月20日 星期五

"The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman (2007)

"The Rocky Flats asphalt where drums of radioactive oil spilled was also scraped and shipped to South Carolina, along with three feet of soil.  More than half of its 800 structures were razed, including the infamous 'Infinity Room,' where contamination levels rose higher than instruments could measure.  Several buildings were mostly underground; after the removal of items like the glove boxes used to handle the shiny plutonium disks that triggered A-bombs, the basement floors were buried."

What would happen if everyone on Earth disappeared tomorrow?  How would nature go about repairing all the damage that we've caused?  Could endangered animals repopulate themselves in a world without humans?  And what sort of human artifacts might they encounter in our absence?

In "The World Without Us" author Alan Weisman attempts to answer all of these questions, and in so doing assess the impact humans have had on the natural world.  Most of the chapters conclude with a kind of eulogy for the city, infrastructure project, or type of environmental damage that will "vanish" in the wake of humankind, and this eulogy also suggests how the biosphere might regenerate itself without us.

"The World Without Us" is a well written book, but as an argument it leaves a lot to be desired.  Many of the details surrounding the degradation of cities, factories, and dwellings were of course unknown to me, but learning about these details wasn't very enlightening.  I suppose that I now know which parts of my house will survive a mass human extinction, but what of it?

Maybe I am just too anthropocentric for my own good, but I fail to see the point of "The World Without Us."  Perhaps there is a certain poetic fascination in this kind of speculation, but to me it all seems rather morbid.  As a human being, it is only a future containing human beings that I can relate to.

A world without us is something I'd prefer to avoid, and this book offers neither plans nor suggestions that might help us avoid such a tragic fate.  It is for this reason that I consider "The World Without Us" to be a rather pointless exercise, devoid of the hope for humanity that might have given it greater import.

2015年3月14日 星期六

"No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy (2005)

"Anything can be an instrument, Chigurh said.  Small things.  Things you wouldn't even notice.  They pass from hand to hand.  People don't pay attention.  And then one day there's an accounting.  And after that nothing is the same.  Well you say.  It's just a coin.  For instance.  Nothing special there.  What could that be an instrument of?  You see the problem.  To separate the act from the thing.  As if the parts of some moment in history might be interchangeable with the parts of some other moment.  How could that be?  Well, it's just a coin.  Yes.  That's true.  Is it?"

I've read most of Cormac McCarthy's books, so I suppose you could describe me as a fan.  I started off with "The Road" - a book I didn't even like that much - and from there moved on to his Border Trilogy.  I think he's one of the best writers working today.

Like several other Cormac McCarthy books, "No Country for Old Men" was adapted into a film of the same name.  The film version was directed by the Coen Brothers.  It's a great movie, and quite faithful to the book.

If you haven't seen the movie, "No Country for Old Men" begins with a hunter discovering a bag full of money in Texas.  Afterward he attempts to escape the sinister individual attempting to reacquire that money.  Later on a local sheriff becomes involved, and matters become more desperate as the hunter flees across the border into Mexico.

It's an excellent book, but that's no surprise.  If you've read the Border Trilogy, and if you've seen the movie version, you probably figured that out already.

2015年3月10日 星期二

"Who Owns the Future?" by Jaron Lanier (2013)

"The endgames of contests between Siren Servers are not meaningless.  Siren Servers are not interchangeable.  While they all share certain traits (narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry), they also represent particular, more specialized philosophies.  The requirements of being a Siren Server leave enough room for variation that contests between them can be collisions of contrasting ideas.

"Facebook suggests not only a moral imperative to place certain information on its network, but the broad applicability of one template to compare people.  In this it is distinct from Google, which encourages semistructured online activity that Google will be best at organizing after the fact.

"Twitter suggests that meaning will emerge from fleeting flashes of thought contextualized by who sent the thought rather than the content of the thought.  In this it is distinct from the Wikipedia, which suggests that flashes of thought be inserted meaningfully into a shared semantic structure.  The Wikipedia proposes that knowledge can be divorced from point of view.  In this it is distinct from the Huffington Post, where opinions fluoresce."

I know that it's not fair to judge a book by its cover, but I had high hopes for "Who Owns the Future?"  The blurb on the back of the book jacket displays a wonderful sense of paranoia, and the picture of the author, shadowed and dreadlocked, promises the kind of weird, conspiratorial fun that the Loompanics catalog was often celebrated for.

Looks, however, can be deceiving.  As books on the future of technology go, this one didn't blow my mind the way I hoped it would.  Instead it offers a fairly straightforward (if overlong) report on the state of the information economy.  It also proposes ways in which we might monetize personal information.

"Siren Servers," by the way, are online concerns that have an inordinate amount of power over how we use the Internet.  Companies such as Google and Amazon would be Siren Servers, as would national security organizations.  These Siren Servers concentrate wealth within a powerful elite, and are able to do so through the information that we (often foolishly) provide at no cost.

I think the first half of this book is worth reading.  It offers an insightful view into the workings of the online world, and the ways in which our use of sites such as Facebook influence our behavior.  The second half of the book, however, grows a bit too speculative for my taste.  It's not that the author doesn't offer some interesting solutions to the problems of disenfranchisement, loss of privacy, and lack of transparency, but it's too easy to imagine obstacles between ourselves and the future meritocracy he proposes.  Monetizing the common man's information, I think, would prove a herculean task.

2015年3月4日 星期三

"Counter-Clock World" by Philip K. Dick (1967)

"'What a thing to look forward to: childhood.  Being a baby again, being helpless, waited-on.  Every day I try to be more grown up; I fight all the time against it, the way ladies used to fight being old, getting middle-aged, fat, with wrinkles.  Well, I don't have to worry about that.  But see, Sebastian will be an adult when I'm still a child, and that's good; he can be my father and protect me.  But you're the same age as I; we'd just be children together, and what's in that?'"

"Counter-Clock World" is an expanded version of a story that first appeared in Amazing Stories.  It was published during a very productive period in PKD's career, between "The Unteleported Man" (a.k.a. Lies, Inc.) and "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch."

In a future 1998. a phenomenon known as "The Hobart Phase" is making time run backward.  People age from death to birth, they disgorge meals they've already eaten, and they unsmoke packs of cigarettes.  In the midst of this phenomenon Thomas Peak, a messiah figure, returns to life.  Uncertain as to the true nature of his message, several factions compete to acquire him.

It's a really short book, so I can't hold too much of a grudge against it, but PKD wrote much better.  The biggest problem with this book is causality, because aside from very trivial matters the world of "Counter-Clock World" seems to be moving firmly forward.  And how could it not?  Otherwise it wouldn't make sense as a story, and it would have been even less satisfying than it is.

Even without the causality issue, this book is a disappointment.  There is no real climax to the story, and no adequate resolution to the characters' dilemmas is ever reached.  The love triangle (or perhaps I should say love quadrangle) at the center of the story seems forced, if not unlikely.  To find paper-thin characters in a PKD novel is of course nothing unusual, but in this instance he fails to make them resonate within a larger, slightly surreal reality.

Completists will naturally seek this one out, but if you're new to PKD I could recommend a host of other, better written novels.  Counter-Clock World just isn't very good.

2015年3月1日 星期日

"The Contest of the Century" by Geoff Dyer (2014)

"One of the jobs of a military is to plan for worst-case scenarios.  The U.S. military conducts regular war games to test how conflicts with potential adversaries such as China might play out, and in recent years these have delivered some disturbing conclusions."

In "The Contest of the Century," author Geoff Dyer discusses the fast-changing nature of U.S./China relations.  From his vantage point as a foreign correspondent living in China, he outlines the development of crucial disparities between the two nations, and offers solutions for possible difficulties that may arise between them.  At almost 300 pages, it's far from an exhaustive treatise on the subject, but it does raise some interesting points.

The first half of the book outlines the military situation.  China finds itself in a headlong race to catch up with the U.S. navy, for a multitude of military and political reasons.  Much of this section describes China's maritime claims and sphere of influence, and also how the U.S. might both adapt itself to China's military posture and continue to be a player in Asian politics.

The third fourth of this book is an exploration into China's political situation.  China's view of history is discussed, as is its inferiority complex with regard to certain Western political achievements.  China is a country that is desperately trying to expand its influence in other parts of the world, yet its non-interventionist stance is often at odds with this attempt.  Recent conflicts in places such as Sudan, says the author, have only made this conflict of interest more obvious.

The last fourth of this book takes on the heady subject of economics.    Globalization and China's attempt to push the renminbi as a global currency are outlined, as are the origins of U.S. dominance within international finance.

"The Contest of the Century" is a well-written, thoughtful book with a couple of huge holes in it.  The first of these holes is about the size of Taiwan, while the second is about the size of Xinjiang.  I fail to understand how one can attempt to map out the complex relationship between China and the United States in the absence of these two territories.  Perhaps the author (or his editor) thought that including such material would have confused its intended audience.  Yet omitting this discussion begs a number of very important questions.

I also have the feeling that the author's Chinese isn't quite up to the task he sets himself.  On occasion his translations of common Chinese phrases is somewhat bizarre ("辛苦了!" becomes "Thanks for your suffering!"), and there are no Chinese-language works sited in the bibliography.  This might seem a minor point, but I think the author's command of Mandarin is crucial to his understanding of China.  An insufficient understanding of Chinese points to a filtering of the subject matter through Western sources, Western people, and the English language itself, and this may be the very same kind of bias which the author claims he is trying to avoid.

Overall I would recommend this book with a few reservations.  It's an easy, often insightful read, but those who've read other, recent books on the subject may want to give it a miss.