Category Archives: Literature

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Time

An evolution-themed sci-fi novel, recommended to me by Tom Palmer. It is excellent. Humans terraform a world, intending to seed it with an evolution-accelerating nanovirus and populate it with monkeys as an experiment. But a Luddite revolution means that while the virus reaches the planet, the barrel of monkeys does not. Only a single human survives the battle, and she goes into hibernation for thousands of years in orbit around the planet. The virus instead works on the spiders that had already been seeded there and, to a lesser extent, ants. They grow their own civilization, which increases in complexity and sophistication throughout the novel in ways both very familiar and very alien.

Meanwhile, the Luddite revolution on Earth presages the end of civilization there, an Ice Age lasting millennia, what’s left of mankind slowly rebuilding civilization over several more millennia, and once again becoming a space-faring race. While not quite as sophisticated as the original Empire, things go south again, and life on Earth is no longer an option. A colony ship containing the last humans in the universe finds its way to the terraformed planet’s system after two thousand years’ hibernation, not knowing what had happened before, in response to a distress beacon left by the original terraformer. The two species’ civilizations then meet.

The chapters go back and forth between the human and spider civilizations, so both of their trajectories are always in the reader’s mind, and Tchaikovsky tells each from the perspective of that species. Along the way reader, author, and characters explore larger themes such as evolution, the origins of life, the handing off from one generation to the next, the desire to survive, and seeing things from the other fellow’s perspective, too. It’s a little on the long side, but I could not put this book down. Highly recommended.

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Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations

Follows the volatile fortunes of Pip, an orphan taken in by his abusive sister and her kind husband, a blacksmith. While still a child, he also spends time working in the household of a reclusive wealthy woman, and begins an apprenticeship to become a blacksmith. From these humble beginnings he is gifted a sizable fortune from an unknown benefactor. This places, ahem, great expectations on Pip to reject his lower class origins and become a gentleman.

Pip finds neither success nor happiness in his new life, and eventually falls into debtor’s prison. What struck me the most about this novel is how Pip redeems himself at the end: not by re-embracing stereotypical Dickensian poverty, but by pursuing the bourgeois commercial virtues.

Wealth, honestly earned, is a good thing, Dickens surprisingly argues. Pip joins a company started by one of his longtime friends, works hard and lives frugally, climbs the ladder and pays off his debts, and repairs burned bridges in a happy ending.

It reads a bit like a soap opera, in part because it originally appeared in serial form over the course of about a year, necessitating frequent cliffhangers and plot twists. Also, Dickens can be saccharine, and Pip comes off as a bit of a twit sometimes, as does Estella, his aloof love interest.

But contrary to Dickens’ popular anti-market reputation, he lauds Montesquieu-style doux commerce at the same time he disdains ancien régime noble wealth. Many people forget there is a difference between the two.

The values Dickens praises in Great Expectations are the same ones that made modern prosperity possible. This is a major thesis of economic historian Deirdre McCloskey’s work. The post-1800 Great Enrichment was possible because cultural values and the tone of conversation among regular, everyday people went from relatively bourgeois-hostile to relatively bourgeois-friendly.

Culture influences social institutions, which in turn influence economic processes. Dickens, probably unknowingly, was part of the process. Pro-bourgeois novels such as Great Expectations are one reason you can reasonably expect to see your 80th birthday.

Remember this the next time one of your more pedantic friends poo-poos novels, movies, and other pop culture. That stuff is important, not just enjoyable.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch

A clever and wickedly funny novel by two famous collaborators, combining a comedy-of-errors plot with literally irreverent satire. An angel and a demon become good friends, and come to enjoy life on Earth, despite its many foibles. They are dismayed when the time for Armageddon draws near, and scheme behind their bosses’ backs to put a stop it.

Meanwhile, a baby-switching accident at a British hospital leads to the Antichrist being brought up in the wrong town by the wrong family; he turns out to be a normal 11-year old boy, though with some fairly major quirks.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse also put in amusing appearances, though Pestilence retired after modern vaccinations were invented. He was replaced by Pollution, whose youth and incompetence grate on the others. I get the sense Kevin Smith drew more heavily on this book than he should have for his movie Dogma.

The book also contains the famous line, “[C]ourting couples had come to listen to the splish and gurgle of the river, and to hold hands, and to get all lovey-dovey in the Sussex sunset. He’d done that with Maud, his missus, before they were married. They’d come here to spoon and, on one memorable occasion, fork.”

Andy Weir – Artemis

Andy Weir – Artemis

A heist story set on a moon colony, by the author of The Martian. Plenty of smart-alecky humor, and an entertaining way to learn some science about gravity, vacuums, and explosives. There is also a surprising amount of economics content, ranging from private currency to rent-seeking to spontaneous order. Might be good supplemental reading for an undergrad-level econ or physics course.

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

Rather different from the Mel Brooks version. It is also structured similarly to the movie Inception. It starts with a sailor’s letters to his sister during an Arctic voyage. He happens upon Frankenstein, who tells his story to the sailor, who relates it in his letters home. Frankenstein runs into hist monster in the middle of his story, who then tells his story to Frankenstein, who relays it to the sailor, who re-relays it in his letters home. From there its works it way back up one level at a time, back to Frankenstein’s story, and ends with the sailor’s letters, written in his own voice.

There is also an unattributed cameo appearance of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian calculus, which was gaining fame right around Shelley’s time. Frankenstein is also regarded as one of, if not the, very first modern science fiction story. It’s a good story, too, with many poignant turns of phrase.

Ken Kesey – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ken Kesey – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

This novel likely played a role in the move away from institutionalization for mental health patients, and more humane treatment for those who genuinely needed it.

It is also a parable for the hierarchical, rules-for-rules’-sake approach to life versus a more free-spirited approach. Both are bad in excess, but the one personified by Nurse Ratched is inarguably worse.

Joseph Heller – Catch-22

Joseph Heller – Catch-22

The funniest thing I’ve read in years. In the book, Catch-22 is a fictional rule that fighter pilots cannot fly combat missions if they are insane. But asking out of a mission is proof of sanity, so such pilots therefore must fly combat missions. Similar plays on logic occur throughout the book, making the Abbott and Costello-style back-and-forths even funnier. Other hijinks range from typical young male bawdiness to hilariously petty infighting among the commanding officers, to some of the pilots making some money on the side by using military aircraft to make trade runs to nearby cities, even cornering the markets in various commodities.

The rampant mirth and cynicism only magnify the poignant and tragic scenes, making the book’s anti-war message hit home on multiple fronts. The light makes the shade even darker.