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Advance Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

September 21, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s no secret that I love science fiction. I haven’t reviewed many science fiction books on this blog (with the notable exception of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, an excellent read), but I have a treat today.

I have a UAC (Uncorrected Advanced Reading Copy) of The Genius Plague by David Walton. The books official release is on October 3, 2017, and I highly suggest that you spare the $14.95 list price (though I’m sure Amazon has it cheaper) to read this book. It’s published by Pyr Science Fiction & Fantasy, an outfit that has been producing some really great work by amazing authors.

I’ll provide a much more in-depth review of the book when it is released, but for now I want to give a shorter advance review. So, first off, I want to say that Walton does an excellent job highlighting real science involved with mycology, as the book is about the spread of a fungus from the Amazon that enhances the intelligence of the people that it infects. In nature, this is seen in species of fungus like cordyceps, which Walton references without naming. Incidentally, the video game The Last of Us features zombies created by cordyceps infection in humans.

Walton obviously writes from a place of deep knowledge, and where he doesn’t have specialized knowledge, he does a fairly decent job with researching. The scientific aspects of the book are believable, as are the sections involving the NSA and Alzheimer’s. I won’t lie: by the time you get to the halfway point of the book, you’re turning pages without being aware of it. Walton has a gift for pacing and knowing how to construct a narrative such that you’re sucked into the novel and reading with increased fervor the deeper into the story you get.

He also has a talent for writing believable characters, for the most part (I’ll talk about some of the issues in the longer review). The dialogue he writes is often engaging, with such gems as “Good to know there’s someone waiting in the wings in case I turn into a fungus zombie.” I laughed out loudly at that line. Another thing that I like about the book is how cryptography plays a role in the action, and Walton does an interesting job of making that fresh.

The Genius Plague is a quick, but excellent read, and deserves a place on the shelf of any lover of science fiction literature. Tentatively, I rate if 4 out of 5 stars (for reasons which I’ll explain in my expanded review).

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Book Review: Hiding in Unnatural Happiness by Devamrita Swami

September 9, 2017 Leave a comment

One day some weeks ago I was walking own South Street in Philadelphia when I was approached by this very nice young woman. She asked me if I was interested in yoga (answer: dubious), and we talked about yoga, meditation, and how they can help deal with stress. It was a fascinating discussion and I really enjoyed it. Before she continued on her way she handed me a book that I have since read and digested.

Somehow you know that you won’t be able to get the information you need from the mainstream scholastic knowledge factories and their assembly lines.

At its core, Hiding in Unnatural Happiness by Devamrita Swami is a religious tome with philosophical trappings. It makes bold metaphysical claims, and builds a case for the author’s particular beliefs system while simultaneously bashing others (most specifically materialism). Despite the author’s attempts, however, it falls short in several ways, making Hiding in Unnatural Happiness more of a polemic than a positive case for Krishna spirituality or Bhakti Yoga. I tried to approach this text with an open mind, but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I approached the final pages. As the above quote demonstrates, Swami was not above poisoning the well against institutions like universities, which, in my mind, gets us off to a really bad start.

The first issue with the book is that it uses a lot of ink making grandiose claims, which I think are meant to be awe-inspiring. They are, however, empty rhetoric. Personally, I was left asking what things like “enter a dimension of nonmaterial equal opportunity” (pg. X) meant, because the meaning isn’t immediately obvious. Further, throughout the text Swami uses the term “spiritual technology,” which he never defines nor, in my opinion, does he sufficiently contextualize it. A brief perusal of google shows me that the phrase “spiritual technology” has no fewer than 202,000 results, which Scientology and the “Church of Spiritual Technology” being among the top hits. I have to subtract an entire star rating from Swami for this at the start since it is central to the point of the book. Vague and ambiguous language makes it hard to understand what he’s actually talking about.

What makes the vagueness of those phrases particularly damaging is that Swami is truly a gifted author. His intelligence shines through the pages, especially when he writes such sentences as “…never seek fulfillment in matter and its kaleidoscope of impermanence and hallucinogenic assurances.” And as you progress through the book, Swami makes several insightful comments–and asks vital questions about–current events. He writes knowledgeably about ethical concerns with machines and technology, and brings up many pertinent issues with humanity’s relationship with its environment, focused on such things as global warming and deforestation.

But it’s obvious that Swami is pushing a specific philosophy, and it’s almost completely at odds with my own. Regardless of our differences, I do sense that Swami writes from a place of genuine compassion and concern, and that’s an extremely valuable perspective in a world where it’s easier to be angry and close yourself off from other people. Hate, it seems, is infectious, and we cloister into doxastic communities that reinforce our worldview to protect us from having to deal with other perspectives. And that’s why I took the time to read this book: it is very important to me combat my own epistemic closure.

Now, back to the opening quote and why it is problematic for Swami and this text. It follows a pattern that is, in my opinion, at least partially responsible for our culture’s contempt for expertise and subject matter authority. It is true that some universities have an “ivory tower” problem, and some academics do play dumb games with “gate keeping,” creating inaccessible jargon that forms the narrative currency of their ideas. However, Swami dismisses a very important part of scholastic knowledge, and reducing universities to assembly lines cheapens the gains that we’ve made with human knowledge. His education at Yale is a testament to this, and further, he wouldn’t have the vocabulary to talk about the current problems he touches on without scientific and academic discourse.

But I think it’s worse than that. I can look at the periodic table of elements and feel a very profound connection to the universe. While it might not make sense to some, to me the table shows a greater organization of the matter within the universe. It is this kind of materialism that the book, at times, rails against, and by elevating nonmaterial–or what Swami calls nonmaterial–it overlooks the brilliance of the universe one can see when one understands the interconnectedness of the matter that makes up the universe. If I look out of my window I see trees, which are held up by the rigid nature of the cellulose that forms the walls of the tree’s cells. Cellulose is comprised of the sugar glucose, connected in a specific and repeating pattern. Glucose is an important energy source for us, and is the primary energy sources for our brains.

So in a lot of ways I feel that Swami’s philosophy is closed off to a truth of the universe that can be provided by an understanding of and appreciation for the material world. In some ways this understanding can create a feeling within you that could be described as spiritual. And I think this results in the book underestimating the philosophy of materialism that includes a less concrete and more abstract view of the place of matter and how it functions in nature. No need for spiritualism here; a very similar feeling can be created merely by marveling at the splendor of the physical universe.

Certainly, withdrawing from the world has its value.

Swami talks about transformation of the self, and divides proponents into two camps: “other-worlders” and “this-worlders.” Other-worlders call to mind an old idea from antiquity called “contemptus mundi“: he writes that they have “their eyes on the prize,” and that our lives on Earth are merely a stop along the road of our existence. This world isn’t the one that matters, it’s the after-life, so the affairs of this world are ultimately unimportant.

I’m more interested in the this-worlders, and indeed, this is the school of thought that I personally identity with. He writes that this-worlders “live to embrace our existence on Earth…they plant their feet and keep their vision firmly on the ground–right here and now–in the belief that human vigor and aspiration focused on terra firma can improve life for billions of unfortunate people.” I think Carl Sagan does much more justice to the idea than Swami does:

As an atheist, a methodological empiricist, a naturalist, and largely a materialist I am a “this-worlder.” I don’t think that there is any ancient text that has the answers for the problems that we face today. I don’t think that they can offer us any wisdom that we don’t already have. I don’t believe that humanity has lost anything, and that we’re somehow lesser than we were before. It’s easy to think that there is ancient wisdom because the world changes so quickly today, and it’s incredibly hard to keep up. No matter how fast you run you can’t keep track of all of the information you’re exposed to. In fact, according to Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google,  we create more information every two days than all of humanity did up to the year 2003. In other words, every two days we create as much information as we did from the earliest history of humanity up to the year 2003. Every two days! And Schmidt said that back in 2010, and this trend has only accelerated since then.

It’s hard not to get lost in that. But I’d like to think that, rather than vainly lapping at the surface of a tempest of information, trying to keep our heads above water, we should figure out how to make use of this data to make the world a better place. Figure out what you can do to help, in your own way, to reduce suffering and make this world more livable for the people of tomorrow.

The Gita invites us to drink at the fount of sacred activism: the precise spiritual technology for truly being in the world but not of the world.

The problem with “sacred activism” (whatever that is), as Swami describes it, is that it seems to be a contradiction. How can you be in the world but not of the world? Sure, he may be speaking allegorically, but his writing in this area is dedicated to someone who is focused on some concept of spiritual transcendence. He seems to acknowledge the tension in the idea because he notes a concern about being too connected to the material existence. I have no real comment on the spirituality he’s expressing other than to note that, as far as I’m concerned, it is of no interest and certainly isn’t thoroughly evidenced.

I would say, from my perspective, that there is an undercurrent of contempt for the world in the expression above. Why wouldn’t you want to be of the world (in my mind, the term “world” means the universe). In fact, my very connectedness to the world is why I care so deeply about it. I am made of star stuff, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. The constituents of my body, and the things I have learned, exist within the universe and are inextricably a part of it. I am the universe made human, providing a way for it too look at itself. To understand itself. This isn’t, strictly speaking, an idea that comes from my philosophical positions on naturalism and materialism, but it comes from what I see to be an essential truth of our existence. The universe isn’t literally conscious and it has no motivations; however, we are, and we do. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson says it best:

But I think Swami’s way of thinking has elements of misanthropy. On page 12, he writes, “Twenty-five hundred years ago, the classic Green philosopher Socrates declared, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But the so-called ‘civilization’ that dominates the world today is confident that it has proven the wise man wrong. Commandeering the best intelligence, contemporary human society enforces the grand solution: make money and indulge your senses on a global scale–lasting peace and prosperity will somehow follow.” To me this reads like sneering contempt for society, and I find this not only insulting, but dead wrong. It’s a straw man that rests upon claims about society that he could not possibly know. Further, he doesn’t do anything to support the claim that the “civilization” that he writes about has proven Socrates wrong, or that it would even want to.

It seems, in fact, that he constructed this straw man specifically to knock down to make room for his own philosophy. On page 13, he writes, “Since we, as bodies of matter housing particles of spirit, are energies of the Supreme, our human existence has a built-in prerequisite.” First, he never defines what “particles of spirit” are, nor does he define what “energies of the Supreme” means (which is especially annoying to me because that is a use of the word energy that is atypical and does not make sense to me). It seems that what’s happening here is a reduction of humanity to make this spirituality seem bigger than it is.

Swami isn’t above cherry-picking, either. On pages 15-16, he talks about the suicide of Robin Williams, and specifically about the role unhappiness played. What Swami doesn’t mention is that Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, a brain disease that gets progressively worse as Lewy bodies build in vital brain tissues. It is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and often manifests as paranoia and cognition issues (such as forgetfulness and difficulty reasoning). Swami frames Williams’ suicide not as a matter of progressively worsening mental health as a result of abnormal protein deposits in the brain, but a matter of unhappiness. He even quotes Williams on the Letterman show where he intimates he is personally unhappy. Swami then connects that with “our failure at material enjoyment.” I suspect that he picked Williams specifically to drive home his fame and wealth, and how that didn’t provide him happiness or fulfillment.

Another such example is on page 90, where he quotes Steve Jobs about rejecting dogma and following your own path. He does this in an attempt to delegitimize a materialist understanding of the “self.” I find this tragically ironic, given that Steve Jobs died as a result of his drinking fruit juices, getting acupuncture, and visiting “spiritualists” (all forms of crackpot “alternative medicine“) instead of using science-based medicines and surgeries to treat his pancreatic cancer. The kind of pancreatic cancer that Jobs had was extremely responsive to surgery and traditional evidence-based oncology solutions in mainstream medicine, and had he not delayed seeking these legitimate, proven, and materialist treatments it is very likely he’d still be alive today. Sometimes, my friends, the status quo is good.

Finally, he quote-mines Stephen Hawking, who he quotes on page 90 as saying that “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.” He does this to lead into a bit where he asked audiences how many feel “comfortable with that bleak materialistic proclamation of their identity.” Obviously many don’t feel comfort. It’s not hard to see that this is poisoning the well against materialism, and is in fact fallacious. The quote by Hawking is taken out of context from an interview he gave with Ken Campbell in 1995, for episode three of the show Reality on the Rocks, entitled “Beyond Our Ken.” The entire interview is embedded below, and I very highly suggest you watch it to get the full scope of Hawking’s statements.

So what Hawking actually said was, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies. We are so insignificant that I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit. That would be like saying that you would disappear if I closed my eyes.” Hawking was talking about human beings in relation to the vast scope and majesty of the universe, essentially reminding us that, hey, we gotta keep our egos in check. We’re small beings living on a small planet in a massive universe. We don’t know everything, we can’t know everything, and nobody has all the answers and anyone who says that they do is lying to you. The best we can do is to create predictive models of the universe that conform to the evidence we collect through scientific endeavor (a central tenet of Hawking’s model-dependent realism). We are not the center of the universe, and the universe was not created for us. To think otherwise is to be massively egotistical and narcissistic.

In Hawking’s interview, he specifically inveighs against relying on common sense. This is also a treatise against relying on emotional responses to ideas to come to conclusions about the nature of our existence and the universe. Swami takes a quote from Hawking out of context in an attempt to manipulate us to have a negative emotional response against Hawking and the idea he’s espousing, priming us to accept his spiritualism without him having to do any of the hard legwork to actually support that spiritualism. Swami’s rhetoric is exposed as empty.

There are many more such problematic issues throughout the book, but to list and explain their wrongness would make this long review drag on unbearably. Suffice it to say that Swami makes many outstanding and strong claims, but provides no support for them. In other instances he poisons the well against materialism, technology, or science further than he had in my above examples. Needless to say, I am unimpressed and consider it to be intellectually dishonest.

Let’s dance amidst our tears.

It’s pretty evident by now that I’m growing increasingly hostile to Swami’s treatment of materialism and the sciences (specifically, what our scientific discoveries entail about the universe). It’s a common aphorism within the community of science proponents that, as time goes on, science pushes into the domains that were once the realms of philosophy or theology. This includes such topics as the origins of life, the workings of the mind, and the creation of the universe. To argue against scientific models of these ideas requires first grappling with the data, the math, and experiments that gave birth to the models. Second, one must then provide a framework to build upon their own idea, and then, to convince a materialist or methodological empiricist, provide evidence and a framework to test the soundness of the claims. Most of the time people are happy to take the first step in some minor way, usually by attacking straw men of the models (often based on honest misunderstandings of the models). It’s rare to see someone get to the second step, which is why evolution and big bang cosmology still reign supreme. What stands out most in my mind is how Intelligent Design proponents try to tear down evolution, and then act as if their naive arguments automatically make ID an acceptable alternative. Even if they could disprove evolution (and they haven’t), it would not make ID any more valid (and it isn’t valid at all) without doing the legwork to support it with data, logic, and a model to make predictions.

So what does this have to do with Swami? On page 92, he writes with respect to a “material body” coexisting with a “nonmaterial self” that “We would have to face up to a universe that buzzes with both physical and nonphysical energies. To committed materialists, that acquiescence would be not only outlandishly spooky but also totally revolting.” Of course, the first question I have is what is nonphysical energy? Swami never answers this or even pretends to provide context. I think he just takes it as a given, based on his spiritual texts. I’m sure there’s some meaning that he accepts, but my second question would be how can we demonstrate the existence of nonphysical energy? It’s one thing to claim it, it’s another thing to demonstrate it.

And that gets us to my next response: as a materialist, I would not find this spooky or revolting. It would be, to me, simply a puzzle of logic and reason that scientific methodology would help us solve. You start by asking questions (what is nonphysical energy, how can we know it exists, does it react to physical energies, and if so, how? Can we detect it? If not, how can we meaningfully say that it exists?), and then you formulate potential answers and predictions. Next you design experiments to see if those answers and predictions are valid, and if they are you confirm the results. If not, you go back to the drawing board and design new experiments or come up with new explanations. If the data checks out across several reproduced experiments, you formulate a model that provisionally explains the phenomenon. The fact is that if I accepted the idea of nonphysical energy, I would want to know more about it. I wouldn’t cower from it for find it revolting.

Swami’s writing on this gets more problematic. He contends, “…let’s grant that it might be creepy to entertain the idea that a material reality coexists with a nonmaterial reality…How spooky and miraculous is it to posit that from inanimate matter arises the strange stuff known as conscious awareness? Have you seen it? Can you demonstrate it in a laboratory? Operating from the confines of a typically restricted perspective, we would have to say that if this one is spooky, the other one is spooky, too.” This is an equivocation between two different things through the use of the word “spooky”: material explanations for the emergence of the human mind, and nonmaterial (read: spiritual or theistic) explanations for same. The reason to do this is to try to put both concepts on even ground, so the likelihood of either explanations being correct seems similar.

The problem is that the likelihoods are not similar. They’re not even in the same order of magnitude in similarity. He wants to establish doubt about material explanations by asking if we’ve seen consciousness, or if it can be demonstrated in a lab. Swami does this because his preferred explanation actually has this flaw. But to answer his questions: yes we can see it, and yes we can demonstrate it in a lab. We can see consciousness the same way we can see wind or the magnetic field. We see how it interacts with the world around us. The material explanation needs merely a substrate for the consciousness and the ability to see how it interacts with the rest of the physical world. Since we have the brain (the substrate), and since humans have such interactions, we can then start to explore how it works in a laboratory setting–we can start to see it like holding a magnet by metal shavings. fMRI scans of the brain can show what parts of the brain are activated when we act, or what parts are activated when we respond to stimuli. Through repeated tests and experiments, we can correlate brain activity with action or stimuli and begin to make causal claims about them.

It comes down to the basic biology of the brain. There are some 86 billion to 100 billion neurons in the human brain, and up to 100 trillion connections between them, called synapses. The shape of the brain also influences its function, one example that confirms the old saw in biology that “function follows form.” We have several examples in the history of psychology that demonstrates that personality is directly related to the brain. The most famous of them is that of Phineas Gage, who underwent a complete personality change after suffering severe traumatic brain injury. But beyond that are split-brain patients, who really put to the test the brain/mind connection.

And at this point we must ask: what does Swami have that puts his nonmaterial explanation on equal footing? I content he has nothing, and indeed, he offers nothing in the book to elucidate this. What do I benefit from adding a mysterious and as yet unexplained layer to my model of how the mind emerges from the vastly complex chemical, electrical, and structural interactions of the brain? Further, how does Swami demonstrate that his particular version of this layer is preferable to other competing ones from other spiritualists or religions? I don’t know because he doesn’t offer an explanation.

There are two final points I want to make before I conclude this review. The first is that Swami often speaks of intuition and common sense, which are definitely valuable in their respective domains of human activity. But what he doesn’t do is talk about how each of these can be unreliable pathways of finding the truth-value of claims and models. Two examples spring to mind: 1) adaptive bias, which essentially argues that our brains have evolved to be prone to types of cognitive errors that aid survival, but can also create faulty models of reality because thinking rationally or truthfully is not favored and 2) optical illusions, such as the following graphic, in which A and B are the same color, but when we look at them in context that appear to be different shades of grey.

The second is that, referring back to his quote-mine of Hawking, he writes that “The Materialistic theory that conscious awareness arises from chemical scum is a fantastical claim, dogmatically religious. If you can be open to that, then why not consider Krishna’s contrary contention, founded upon common sense?” First, he misrepresents his own quote-mine because that is clearly not what he quoted earlier, and it changes the meaning of his original quote. It’s also telling that he uses the emotionally manipulative language “chemical scum” to make this point, which allows him to then say that it’s “fantastical” and “dogmatically religious.” Yet, when you read the text in full, he never actually justifies this claim to any significant extent. He relies, in fact, on incredulity and appeals to common sense based on poisoning the well, misrepresentation, quote-mining, selective exclusion of contrary facts, and slights-of-hand to put materialism and nonmaterialism on equal footing. It’s vitally important that he manipulates readers to see material explanations as fantastic and dogmatically religious, because his claims are themselves fantastic and dogmatically religious–they’re based on his religious beliefs and spirituality.

So where does this leave me? I had gone in with the expectation of being treated to a religious text, steeped in eastern philosophy and the Krishna belief system. And I got that. What I didn’t expect was the long list of problems that were included, some of which I detailed above. Ultimately, they combined to make the book an unimpressive affair, with intellectual dishonesty and fallacious reasoning strewn throughout. I did learn things about the religious beliefs of the author, and to be sure, he speaks from a place of concern, compassion, and deeply-held spirituality. However, I am not able to overlook the various and fatal flaws of the book. My skepticism is not assuaged, but justified.

For that reason I give Hiding in Unnatural Happiness 1 out of 5 stars, and do not recommend it to a general audience.

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States 1492-2001 by Howard Zinn

August 17, 2017 Leave a comment

After all, the lies did serve to keep something from somebody, and the somebody was us.

History, as the old saw goes, is written by the victors. It is inexorably a subjective enterprise, based on perspectives and biases the authors of history cannot completely shake. In an effort on my part to get a more complete view of American history, as well as to question some of my own perceptions and notions, I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

The book covers American history from 1492 to 2001, discussing important events and developments as you might expect, but it eschews the practice of following the “great and powerful” and instead focuses on the poor, the oppressed, and the average. Or, to be short, everyone from the slave to the proletarian. This perspective is refreshing, and it causes one to read the text critically and to question it. Zinn welcomes such a reading, and offers sources and citations to back up many of his claims.

He constructs a new narrative of American history with this book, and paints a stark picture of manipulation, control, and loathing of the people from those in power. Do not, however, think that this book is anti-American. Such a conclusion of its content is both a disservice to the study of history and to an honest appraisal of America’s legacy. I believe, rather, that it is loyal to the enlightenment liberal philosophy that the United States is founded on and is on display in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. While this challenging of traditional historical narratives is good and welcome, the book isn’t without its own problems.

Zinn himself acknowledges his own bias, but he also admits that he is not troubled by that because he sees his work as a counterbalance to other narratives, which are as biased or more biased. This impressed me, because authors don’t often admit that they’ve crafted a narrative with a specific agenda in mind. To be sure, I disagree with a number of Zinn’s conclusions. However, his vital work proposes something radical:  what about the people we don’t hear about? What about the voices that history doesn’t amplify? What about the soldiers, the farmers, the settlers, or the slaves?

A People’s History of the United States is a lengthy book with many themes, far more than I could possibly hope to cover in one short review. I would like to focus on three specific areas: the people, resistance, and power.

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between the rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless ‘reforms’ that changed little.

I could rattle off a list of modern problems related to prison and analyze each one: for-profit prisons with inmate quotas, the school-to-prison pipeline, judges found guilty of taking bribes for sending young Americans to these for-profit prisons, the lack of public defenders for poor defendants, accusations of modern slavery in forced prison labor that is a billion dollar industry, and the so-called “affluenza” and the differences in treatment between the haves and have-nots that the Ethan Couch case brought to the public’s attention.

What we see today are but links in the long chain of injustices. The prisons, as Zinn writes, are microcosms of the American system for many people. Poverty is a trap, and clawing out of it grows increasingly difficult. The divide between the wealthy and the rest of us grows, posing a threat to our government. Many people are aware of the recent study that attempted to demonstrate that the US is an oligarchy, not a democracy. Corruption, control, and manipulation (for instance, false news implanted to muddy the waters of vital current issues and facts) are things we deal with day-to-day. Zinn’s book weaves issues like this into a narrative that starts before this country’s founding to the present, where the threads are still being tied.

Past problems are being reignited as dark forces gather in American cities, spewing dangerous philosophies of violence and racial supremacy. Voting rights are under attack and being rolled back, sometimes with implicit racial motivations. It’s impossible to read Zinn’s book and not connect it to current events, and consume it from our present perspective. And I think that this is one of his goals: he wants us to understand the living history of the country, and connect the events of the past to the struggles of today.

As part of that, Zinn writes on how voting and access to the ballot were methods of control, in some way. It’s hard to argue against his case, the basic premise of which is that it channels energy that might be spent in a more active resistance toward the act of voting and the process of elections. Sure, there is power there and we do get remarkable outcomes, such as the election of Barack Obama to the Office of the President of the United States. However, that power has limits: purging of voter rolls, gerrymandered districts that water-down the power of certain voting cohorts in favor of one political party, etc. A common theme throughout his book is that more active resistance–marching, picketing, strikes, unionizing–result in greater change.

…their condition would not be changed by law, but by protest, organization, resistance, the creation of their own culture, their own literature, the building of links with people…”

At it’s heart, A People’s History of the United States is about how the faceless people of history banded together to affect change. It wasn’t through legal means, like courts, though that may have codified things later (like this legislature, it’s reactionary). It also didn’t occur through legislation or voting. The name of the game was protest, resistance, and creating common cause among forward-thinking and decent people. People are stronger together than they are individually, and this was exemplified by the gains made by organized labor, civil rights groups, and others in the face of overwhelming power.

The Civil Rights movement won important victories in courts, legislatures, and through the ballot box, but those victories wouldn’t have been possible about the whirlwind of pressure that the movement brought to bear. I suspect that Zinn would write similarly of the LGBT movement for marriage equality and civil rights protections. Protests, marches, and sit-ins were the most visible aspects of advancing the agenda, but underlying that was a culture, literature, and an active community that supported the people within it.

Those in power were not so much at the forefront of the great events of American history so much as captured by them. We know of Lincoln’s reticence to free the slaves, but the inexorable pressures of his time forced his hand. You’re left to wonder just how much outside pressure–such as those brought by oppressed peoples–forced the action of other leaders, and how less progress we might have made if it weren’t for the people who made the necessary sacrifices to change things.

We owe Saddam a favor. He saved us from the peace dividend.

Another theme that you see repeated throughout the book is this idea that those in power have a kind of loathing for the common man. And it’s not hard to see such loathing when it comes or our spending priorities or the ways in which we abuse people. You don’t have to reach far into the past for such examples: abuses at the Standing Rock protests and Jim Crow spring to mind. But when you do look farther back you see the Trail of Tears and you see chattel slavery. Zinn approaches these subjects unflinchingly, and doesn’t try to apologize of downplay the long term harm of these policies.

The quote above refers specifically to the concept of the peace dividend, a supposed increase in domestic spending as a result of cuts to defense spending that was originally to occur after the end of the cold war. There’s an argument as to whether or not it happened, but if you look at defense spending after the collapse of the Soviet Union compared with defense spending in the mid-1990’s and even today, you see a sharp increase.

And to keep that spending intact while simultaneously lowering taxes, we cut domestic spending. We slash welfare, healthcare assistance, important services, and infrastructure spending. Our roads and bridges are crumbling to nothing while private defense contractors rake in record profits. Even with all of that, politicians campaign on increasing defense and military spending. Zinn points out that this has been a pattern in our domestic policy for decades, and the most vulnerable among us suffer.

Just recently, a story was published on the website Mother Jones, detailing how one hundred thousand students in New York City public schools were homeless. That’s 100,000 kids. How can a country as wealthy as the United States–a country that spends more than any other country on bombs, bullets, guns, and gigantic $18 billion aircraft carriers–allow that many kids in a single city to be homeless?

And indeed, the books paints a portrait of a country suffering from such economic disparity for almost as long as its founding. But it’s not all criticism and doom-and-gloom. Zinn also writes about the rich cultures produced by common struggle, and writes that our history of pushing forward, no matter what, gives us hope for the future. And that’s an important message to hear, especially after recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This review wasn’t a true book review so much as it was my own thoughts about how this book relates to current events. Like I said before, I think this is one of Zinn’s goals. It’s a well-research, well-cited book that weaves a complicated narrative of history from the perspective of those not in power. I would ask that if you do read it, you approach it with an open mind, and to try to question your own notions about American history.

I give the book 5 out of 5, and acknowledge its flaws while recognizing its status as a vital must-read for any fan of history.

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 2 (“The Year of the Rat”)

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, folks!

To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.

For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).

This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.

Read more…

Book Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

February 3, 2017 Leave a comment

“I’ve seen so many versions of you. With me. Without me. Artist. Teacher. Graphic Designer. But it’s all, in the end, just life. We see it macro, like one big story, but when you’re in it, it’s just day-to-day, right? And isn’t that what you have to make your peace with?”

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a novel that is particularly concerned with two important questions: 1) Who are we? and 2) What if? Like any good science fiction novel, it uses science (in this case some really abstract concepts from quantum physics) to explore not possible consequences of the science, but the ways in which it impacts humanity. Basically, science fiction explores how these concepts relate to us.

The novel opens with Jason Dessen, his wife Daniela, and their son Charlie in their home on family night. Jason contemplates the choices he’s made in life leading him to this point–having a wife, a son, and a mediocre job as a small college physics professor–when he could have stuck with his career and made world-changing discoveries. There’s regret, yes, but I also suspect resignation on the part of himself and Daniela, who also gave up her dreams for her family.

Jason goes out to congratulate an old friend, Ryan, at a local bar for winning the Pavia Prize, awarded to people who make breakthroughs in science. On the way back home, he’s held at gunpoint, kidnapped, and taken to an abandoned power plant where a mysterious man drugs him. He awakens in a hangar he doesn’t recognize, surrounded by people who are familiar with him but who he doesn’t know, and later learns that he invented a kind of machine that allows a person to travel between different universes (along the lines of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics).

“I don’t know. I could see it getting to the where it didn’t feel real anymore. Because it isn’t. The only thing that’s real in this moment is this city. This room. This bed. You and me.”

What I appreciate most about this novel is how it takes complicated ideas and weaves them seamlessly into an extremely compelling narrative, following Jason (or the Jason that is the most familiar to us), as he deals with the situation he is unwillingly thrust into. The complicated ideas don’t weigh the novel down or make it hard to understand; it flows naturally from the characters’ dialogue. In this, Crouch creates a novel that is, at its core, a thought experiment. Given the idea that for every decision we make universes split off to encompass every possible outcome, and given a kind of technology that allows people to travel to these other universes, how might humans use this technology and how might they interact with it?

In a word: badly. But Crouch’s exploration is deeply illuminating because it shines a light on us. When Jason explores “his” house in another universe, he takes stock of the many differences between that house and the house he actually lived in. “In my house…” sets up a contrast between what he knows and what he’s currently experiencing. He wonders if he’s going mad, or if someone’s playing a prank on him, but he cannot square his knowledge with his current experience.

As the novel progresses, Jason visits different universes where he sees several different versions of himself, of Daniela, and of Chicago. He acknowledges that, the more he travels, the less he thinks he understands about himself. “As I shave my beard, the questions of identity keep haunting me.” In one universe, another Jason drops money into this Jason’s collection box, and narrates, “There’s no danger. I’m unrecognizable.” If there are an infinite number of other universes, with infinite other Jasons, what do you really know about yourself? Throughout the novel there’s this theme that your decisions make you who you are; the Jason we’re familiar with made certain decisions that made him a family man, and the Jason that invented the device that allows travel to other universes made other decisions. So which Jason is the “real” Jason?

There’s probably no way to answer that question, because the question itself is absurd. They’re all the real Jason, but they come from different contexts and they have different histories. They’re not only the result of decisions that they make, but of the history and developments in their universes that are different than our universes. None of them have any kind of priority over any other, and this fact assaults our sense of self and the idea that we all hold that we’re special and unique. Jason has to come face-to-face with the fact that there are versions of himself that are capable of great evils in desperate circumstances.

Further, it turns out the being able to travel the universes depends on your own conscious and subconscious mind. Essentially, your thoughts and emotions direct your travel in the space between dimensions. In effect, by exploring the multiverse, you’re actually exploring yourself.

I suppose we’re just trying to come to terms with how horrifying infinity really is.

Dark Matter has an interesting structure. Most of the narrative is first-person perspective in the present tense, from the point-of-view of Jason. However, the story shifts to third-person when we move to the original Daniela and her time with “Jason2,” which is an interesting shift that makes Jason2 feel really alien–like an altogether different person. Jason’s narration has a very stream-of-conscious feel to it, which reinforces the present-tense, and really makes you as a reader feel the emotions, fear, or sense of panic that the character feels.

Crouch’s writing style is descriptive without being too detail-oriented. It’s original and engaging, and unlike Inferno, it uses ellipses and dashes sparingly and only when they’re called for. The way he describes characters is fresh and real. For instance, “Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem architecturally impossible.” His writing style also has hints of a wry sense of humor, such as the following sentence: “Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated before Daniela–a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee, and essential oils.”

The pace of the novel almost never falters, and I found myself losing track of time as I turned the pages. You really lose yourself in the story, and in the images that Crouch draws through witty writing and a profound imagination. During Jason’s travels through the universes, Crouch uses what I call the “ampoule countdown,” tracking the number of trips Jason has left to make. That combined with the truly infinite nature of the multiverse creates a sense of utter hopelessness, especially as we see Jason struggle to figure out how to tune his mind and emotions so that he can find his way home (and fail desperately).

Overall, Dark Matter has a solid story, excellent writing, characters that are fleshed-out and real, and an original idea with a fantastic twist ending. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, and by the end of the story you find yourself questioning your own sense of identity.

I give Dark Matter a 5 out of 5, and highly recommend it to anyone who lives mind-benders, techno-thrillers, or science fiction.

Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

January 30, 2017 1 comment

inferno-coverEvery now and again I decide to venture out of my bubble and read something that’s not exactly typical of my usual literary fare. In the past, Dan Brown had been able to tell a relatively entertaining tale (if not reliably researched or well-written), so I took up Inferno with the hope that Brown would live up to his mediocre writer / good storyteller reputation.

I can tell you that he did not. Inferno, despite being a decent page-turner, didn’t really leave me wanting to read more about Robert Langdon. Actually, about three-quarters of the way through I just wished it would end. Unlike his previous books (with maybe the exception of The Lost Symbol)Inferno feels like it drags on forever, with serious disruptions in the pacing of the plot throughout with endless description of setting that, in some areas, seem completely extraneous. Indeed, it is obvious that this was a book conceived from the ground up as a movie.

Let’s start from the beginning: Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, wakes up in a Florence hospital with a bullet wound and amnesia. Soon, he is being chased by an assassin, and helped by the beautiful Sienna Brooks to figure out how he got there and where he was going. Pretty standard Dan Brown fare, honestly. The assassin works for a mysterious group called the Consortium, headed by a man only known as the Provost, who are trying to keep Langdon from accomplishing his goals aboard the good ship Mendacium, which essentially means falsehood or illusion (sigh…obvious symbolism is obvious). Yes, he did simply call the antagonists “the Consortium” and “the Provost,” in a fit of what I can only describe as a habitual lack of originality. Just to knock it up a notch to pathological, the Provost, in several instances, steeples his hands when he talks as bad guys are wont to do.

Before I tear into this book, I want to talk about something from TV Tropes. An official entry exists for the term “Dan Browned,” and TV Tropes describes it thus: “Have you ever picked up a work by a creator who claims (or strongly implies) that his writing is based on thorough and careful research, only to discover what you are actually holding is a steaming pile of lazy assumptions or outright lies?” You can find a page on the website here dedicated to Dan Brown’s loose history with fact. So anything that Brown asserts as true in the book should be taken with a grain of salt as a general rule.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but it should be noted that for as much grief as I’m about to give this book, I think that Brown still somehow manages to create a book that, for the most part, is a page-turner that manages to keep your interest. Further, he peppers his novels with these little insights and discoveries that let you feel like you’re in on them.

First off, I think Brown’s writing is getting worse. Or, at least, from what little I remember of my readings of the other three Langdon novels, it seems to be getting worse. Maybe lazier is a better word. On the first page, Brown sets up a pattern that will be repeated ad nauseam: he overuses ellipses and uses esoteric words like dolant and chthonic. This takes me out of the action and makes me aware of the act of reading, and I think it makes the book poorer. Later, he’ll start other annoying writing eccentricities: the overuse of italics to express inner monologue, the overuse of dashes to add information (which creates jarring, awkward sentences), and perhaps most annoying of all the overuse of the interrobang (!? or ?!, Brown uses them interchangeably), making the dialogue come off as a college freshman’s creative writing project you just have to read, man.

Here, I’ll ding myself for the overuse of the word “overuse” just to maintain consistency.

Unfortunately, the problems with Brown’s writing don’t end there. Apart from the problems already listed, a lot of it is clumsy and awkward. Take, for instance, this horrid image: “…a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BWM motorcycle…” Unstraddled? I searched high and low for other references of the existence of that word and the only things I could find after strenuous google searches were other people discussing Brown’s use of this word. Look, we’re not dealing with Shakespeare-level creativity here, and I don’t think Dan Brown is anywhere near justified in using a “word” like unstraddled when the English language is replete with good words to describe the action he intended. Now excuse me while I get off my high horse, dismount my stool, hop down the stairs, and go for a walk.

Brown’s work also suffers from the “show, don’t tell” problem. Often he uses insipid words like “surreal” and “unique” where detail would not only enhance the flavor of the text, but offer more memorable descriptions of the events, locations, and character attitudes. Another instance of the “show, don’t tell” problem is exemplified by the following sentence: “Sienna quickly outlined a plan. It was simple, clever, and safe.” Okay, Dan Brown, I’ll just take your word for it. There’s no need for me to have the ability to judge that on my own as a reader with a brain. That can judge things. You know, like I’m judging you right now. I have a suggestion. It’s simple, clever, and droll. Write better.

Another issue I have with his writing style is that he breaks everything up into small, easily-digestible chapters, as if he’s spoon-feeding the reader. Sure, this may contribute to his ability to turn mediocre novels with terrible writing into page-turners, but after a while it gets about as irritating as the muscle fatigue I experienced rolling my eyes. Chapter eight is one page, front and back! One page! For the sake of all that is good and just in the world, stop that man from splitting a book that could be trimmed by about one hundred pages into 104 chapters and an epilogue.

As I skim my notes I become aware of another damned pattern: repetition. At one point I wrote, “Yes, we know the Consortium does shady things. Yes, we know they fulfill tasks.” And perhaps that repetition was contagious: “we know, already,” “this is such a goddam repetitive novel. We already know,” “This is getting tiresome,” “and now we get Vayentha telling us what we already know,” and finally “Chapter 64 is pretty much a rehash [spoilers removed]…We know what’s on the video! Come on.” The repetition is actually present throughout the entire novel and, had I wrote notes on all of it, I would never be able to finish this review.

Worse than that, however, is that this idiosyncrasy of Brown’s writing spares not his characters. He constantly refers to one character by what he’s wearing and his damn skin rash (“the man with the rash”), when his name would suffice. Nobody is going to forget that man’s damn rash or his nerd glasses or his ugly paisley tie. A violent twitch developed in my eye from how often Brown called the Provost some variation of a “deeply tanned man.” I am the deeply annoyed man.

Brown seems to abuse his characters more severely than George R.R. Martin. Langdon’s relationship with women in the book should be held up for ridicule by teachers of creative writing. Two of the most powerful and intelligent women in the book, Sienna Brooks, his young, blonde companion, and Elizabeth Sinskey, the director of the World Health Organization, describe Langdon as handsome several times. Perhaps the most egregious example of Langdon’s supernatural powers of attraction over woman is the following: “She knew it was probably just adrenaline, but she found herself strangely attracted to the American professor.” Uh-huh. Strangely, I am not surprised. Brown’s stories always follow the same pattern. Langdon teams up with some attractive, professional woman, and we learn later–big surprise–that she’s got a troubled past, holds Langdon as an object of desire (and is held as an object of desire in the narrative), and holds secret knowledge.

And Langdon himself doesn’t come out from under Brown’s overbearing weirdness unscathed. Even as he struggles to figure out what the hell he’s doing in Florence, he whines about losing his damned Mickey Mouse watch. Langdon even comes off as a pompous hipster when Brown writes, “As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.” Danny boy, buddy, don’t character assassinate the man responsible for that fat bank account. You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re…going to give Langdon a weird relationship with penises in statuary, aren’t you? Langdon’s going to focus on it and even note how he cringes at a “penile grip” in a famous statue. *Sigh*

The predictable twist ending doesn’t really pay off in any significant way, and I even had to backtrack to make sure that my impressions of the events were colored only by my own assumptions. In that, Brown was actually kind of clever because he sort of pulled off a trick to impart Langdon’s amnesia onto you, the reader. But, like I said, it doesn’t pay off because it feels cheap and doesn’t really seem to hang together well. Eh, don’t listen to me about that. I’m still deeply annoyed about that goddamned deep tan.

All in all, I give Inferno 2 out of 5 stars. Despite the many issues the novel has, it does manage to eek out a passable plot that manipulates you into turning the page.

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 1 (Introduction)

January 11, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Of course, I say that every time I come back from a long hiatus. I am a terribly inconsistent blogger–I admit this freely. Somehow this blog keeps calling me back, year after year, no matter how long I let it languish. I think I like to delude myself into believing that I have an audience for my ramblings.

Anyway, I wanted to start off 2017 by reviewing a book that my fiance got me for Christmas. Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, features short stories by some of Chinese science fiction’s most preeminent authors. In his introduction, Liu attempts to explain to an English-speaking audience the complex, bold tapestry that is Chinese science fiction, inveighing us not to see the themes and narratives merely through a “Chinese” lense, but a human lens.

While there are some pretty serious cultural schisms that can make the stories somewhat hard to access for an average American reader (me), the stories are nonetheless masterfully written (translated) and serve as an adequate introduction to a vein of science fiction that hasn’t been availble to Western readers in the past.

Since Invisible Planets is split into short stories told by a handful of the most well-known Chinese authors, I plan on splitting my review into several parts, one for each of the short stories. While I cannot come close to anything approaching a knowledgable review of the book, I hope that by sharing my thoughts I can interest other Western readers and bibliophiles.

I started reading this book already a fan of Ken Liu’s skill for translation. I had previously read his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End. Liu’s understanding of the conundrum of trying to define literature is one that I share; indeed, when attempting to define how Chinese science fiction is different from English science fiction, Liu concedes “that the question is ill defined…and there isn’t a neat sound bite for an answer.” The genre is broad and diverse, even within languages.

So what is Chinese science fiction? I suppose that depends on the reader. Liu purposefully selects authors who have a broad range of approaches to science fiction, from their writing styles to the tropes that they employ. Liu grants us a huge boon in this strategy as it allows the reader to try to piece together a view of Chinese science fiction for themselves instead of relying on an easy answer Liu may give. Keeping in mind, of course, that as an Anglophone your idea is either woefully incomplete, wrong, or likely both. But in trying to understand a well-known and loved genre in Western literature taken up by another culture I believe it is best to try to learn what it is for yourself, without the bias of having a simple answer spoonfed to you.

Liu states that “The fiction produced in China reflects the complexity of the environment.” I believe that this is true of fiction produced in any culture or society, be it one comprised of many, many facets like China; or one as diverse and well-worn as America. In any case, the stories in Invisible Planets are best taken as individual pixels in a larger picture–be careful that you don’t read too much into them, but at the same time be mindful about their place in the grand scope of not only Chinese literature, but human literature. Because these stories are indeed human, even if they seem, to a Western reader, a little alien.

This exposure is one sure way to help bridge the gap between East and West. Exchanging not only ideas, but perspectives, is how we tear down the walls between us. Liu is ever mindful of the bias we Westerners may bring to these stories, and they’re mostly things we bring with us without conscious awareness. It’s probably impossible to completely divorce your perspective from the culture in which it was fostered, and that becomes apparent when you feel like you can’t quite grasp everything the story is doing–like you can’t see the whole picture that’s being painted for you. It’s easy to fill the gaps in your understanding with your own biased views–and to a large extent, I believe, this is not wrong so long as it doesn’t overtake or replace the perspective of the author.

The limiting factor in all of this is, however, the quality of the translation. Liu has proven himself capable by his admirable and skillful English adaption of Cixin Liu’s works; even so, there is always something lost–some flavor of meaning that doesn’t quite make the jump from language to langauge. I suspect that this is especially pronounced in Asian languages like Chinese, which are not based on letters put together to make words like English. The logic of the language is different, and thus when the stories are made to be told in a completely different language with a vey different logic, some of the perspective is lost.

But the effort to translate, and to read, and to try to grapple with a new perspective is worth these small losses. And the journey is an extremely rewarding one. The first review will be on Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,”  and the stories will proceed from there based on the order in which they appear in Invisible Planets.

So, dear reader, grab a cup of Earl Grey and curl up with a warm blanket. We’re going to get a small window into a literary world that rarely gets translated to English.