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Some Books I’ve Read Recently

(In reverse chronological order:)

Shogun, James Clavell. It’s not a bad story, really; it’s extremely detailed, and he does a good idea of giving an impression of 16th century Japan. I just couldn’t get past the fact that he absolutely butchered the Japanese language, which he scattered throughout for a well-intentioned but disastrous attempt at verisimilitude. If you’ve never studied Japanese, you probably won’t even notice. If you have, though, the errors are of the sort that even a month actually studying the language should have cured. It bothered me, perhaps disproportionately much, that his only linguistic research seems to have been to pick up an old Japanese-English dictionary and translate English word by word.

Stranger Things Happen and Magic For Beginners, Kelly Link. Books like these are dangerous: I get sucked into their world and barely notice when things start happening in the stories which are quite impossible in real life. For a few hours after finishing, I found myself walking carefully and avoiding the use of heavy machinery while I re-established from scratch the premises of reality.

The Star Beast, Robert Heinlein. This one’s an old favorite from my youth. These days, I find myself wincing at certain characterizations, but it’s fairly clear that Heinlein meant well at least. If you can get past that and the unfortunate fact that he completely failed to predict modern electronics in any form, this remains a fun work of juvenile science fiction.

An Island to Oneself, Tom Neale. Every so often I find myself drawn to books with the theme of isolation. This one is a true story of a man who, just after World War II, voluntarily went to live alone on a small atoll in the Pacific. His mindset and way of life seem utterly foreign to me, but it is through outliers like his that it is possible to better understand the human condition.

The Dark Side, Jane Mayer. A look into the American use of “black tactics,” particularly torture and indefinite incarceration, since 2001. I can’t help but be outraged that we as a society have condoned these things, and this book looks carefully through the public records and pieces together the facts in a particularly damning manner. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to change any minds; the discussions at work suggest that people who think such tactics are necessary have already decided that no matter what the US does, no matter its efficacy or effect, it cannot be wrong so long as the intent was pure.

The Scar, China Mieville. I read this book because it was recommended as a prime example of world-building. As such, this book is a feat: its world is thorough, self-consistent, well-developed, diversified, and nearly plausible. Most importantly, it avoids getting in the way of the story. The downside is that we see far too little of some of the most interesting bits, some characters are never fully explained, and the single most important difference between the story-world and ours gets less and less credible the more fully it is explained.

A Brief History of Time, Steven Hawking. I figured it was long past time I got that book out of the way; it’s been assumed background knowledge for my demographic group for ages but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I was surprised at the level of detail Hawking was willing to go into, but also somewhat dismayed: this most recent edition was updated a decade ago, and there’s no obvious path from the book itself to the current understandings of physicists. With the Large Hadron Collider coming online soon, it would have been wonderful for Hawking to explain exactly what the experiments they will carry out there intend to prove.

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler. These books are simultaneously astonishingly dark and chillingly prescient. They depict an altogether too plausible dystopia in a crumbling United States–and, at the very end, brilliant hope that no calamity lasts forever. They also include the only type of religion that I’d consider joining.

Saturn’s Children, Charlie Stross. This really feels more like a spy novel than science fiction; at first it’s almost incidental that the characters are all AIs living in robot bodies after the accidental extinction of humanity (and subsequently all macroscopic biological life on Earth). Then again, it’s not incidental at all: these robots are formed in the image of humanity, and know it. This is a fascinating book, and I haven’t even touched the matter of its plot.

That’s what I’ve been reading for the last month or so. I expect the pace of novel consumption to drop fairly significantly in the upcoming few months as I focus on Japanese, but I’ve still got a few on hold for the moment. We’ll see how quickly those end up being read.

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