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Song of a Traveller: the courtesan's salon - [Book Reviews] Dueling Australian librarians, magical Japanese sheep, hackers with djinns
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[Book Reviews] Dueling Australian librarians, magical Japanese sheep, hackers with djinns
Still working my way through the review backlog! But I got most of the books I didn't like out of the way in my post of a few days ago, so these are all but one books I would lend someone I liked. [grin]

After having enjoyed Ramez Naam's debut "Nexus" some months back, I was interested enough to go read the sequel, "Crux". I think I had enough carryover from the first book to stop going "brains don't work that way!" and maintain more of a suspension of disbelief for his head-hacking posits. "Crux" focuses on the ways in which governments and human systems of control seek to exploit the usability of Nexus, and how that conflicts with the peaceful sharing intentions of the technology's pioneers. In that way, it's kinda like a Bourne plot... "secret government agents are after you!" has driven many an action genre piece. But there's also a lot of Singularity-flavored thinking in there, with an explicit cyborg/"posthuman" plot. (I am biased by really hating the phrase "posthuman". Humanity isn't something one just gets over one day. But I didn't hate the characters or the way Naam handles it; that's all my peeve vs. the implications of the phrase.) While I was pretty displeased at his handling of one character near the end, that's not enough to sour me on the book entirely, and I really want to see where he goes with Ling Shu. Like its predecessor, three and a half personality uploads out of five. (It would have been four, but ooooh that thing he did with that character!)

justbeast gave me the turned-out-to-be-fantastic recommendation of "Souls in the Great Machine", the first of Australian author Sean McMullen's far-future trilogy. ("The Miocene Arrow" is the second. Still waiting on the third to arrive.) In this world, humanity's terrible war in our modern day had far-reaching effects. Any mechanized vehicle longer than 30 meters, sizable use of electricity, or anything like an internal combustion engine gets shot down from space. In addition, most lands are subject to varying sweeps of the Call, where any animal larger than about 30 lbs will walk mindlessly in the direction of the Call until either it dies, is stopped by a wall or something that impedes progress, or the Call passes over it. As you might imagine, these worldbuilding strictures make the far-future civilizations interestingly different. Australia is sort of desert-steampunk, ruled by a plurality of ambitious dueling librarians and engaged in a series of revolutions in technology. North America has small havens in the mountains, and rather than being driven by wind-powered trains, has diesel compression engines and aircraft just under the limits permitted. Separate fiefs are held by chivalric airlords. And then the wars over genetic engineering start. [grin] They're the best sci-fi I've read recently for having innovative and interesting worlds, I liked the hat-tip to the early days of computing, the characters are well fleshed out and generally likable, and the plots were pleasingly unpredictable. I was also delighted that many of the world-moving, planet-changing characters were women; if they made movies out of these books they'd pass the Bechdel test easily and often. A pure delight despite some of the premise being a bit far-fetched; four Spock flashbacks out of five.

The one book I didn't like (and was warned that I wouldn't, but I read it anyway) was G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen". I *wanted* to like it; I was pretty excited about the author's reimagining of Miss Marvel and have been following some of her writing there with pleasure. But with a lead character who's allegedly an amazing hacker, nothing he did made any kind of technical sense, and the constant flow of "computers don't work like that!" was really disruptive to me. I recognize that it's fantasy, but I think it's fantasy for the nontechnical person. I did enjoy the setting and the code switching between cultures that went on, but between not believing in his skills and feeling like the protagonist was rather more dense and self-centered than I liked, I just didn't find a lot to love in the book. I want a book about Dina instead. Two cups of mint tea out of five.

In contrast, I very much enjoyed Murakami's early work "A Wild Sheep Chase". Fantastic, lyrical, hilarious, it was just the kind of absurdity that I particularly appreciate. I regret that my Japanese is not better; I would have loved to read it in the original and see how many of the bits I particularly appreciated were the same in nuance. (I am totally adding this to my list of future goals, though!) I also enjoyed the little glimpse at Hokkaido; I don't know that much about the history of that region of Japan and have a couple nonfiction books of the sort on my reading list. I might read through all of Murakami in chronological order, but I think it more likely that I'll just skip to his running book next. Four mysterious ovine spirits out of five.

When I discovered "Mountain Weather: Backcountry Forecasting and Weather Safety for Hikers, Campers, Climbers, Skiers, and Snowboarders" at REI, picking it up was a no-brainer. I'm out there pretty often; I will happily take any knowledge or improvements in how I should make my go/no-go decisions. Meteorologist and avid outdoorsman Jeff Renner does a pretty good job of outlining the basics of how storms and problematic weather forms (most of which I already knew), and then tries to lay out some simple rules for figuring out what's going on. It's a challenging set of problems to make simple rules for, though -- I've definitely had experiences where I had a day-old forecast that was clearly insufficient and yet better than nothing, cases where I could tell that the weather had changed but I wasn't sure what to expect next, and a whole lot of looking at snow slopes and trying to figure out how bad things were from what I knew about recent weather. The guidelines (and weather forecasting in general) are a lot more actionable if you're spending several days in the same place so you can get that continuity of "and then what happened?" so essential to avalanche forecasting. But if you're a day hiker and itinerant like me, you're basically never going to have that. ("Did it rain here yesterday?" "Well... it rained in Seattle, 60 miles away and with some mountains in between... and the system came from the south... but we're on the east face of this mountain... which is southeast of Seattle... aaaaaagh!") Sometimes historical local data is available, but often it isn't, and that does make things riskier. That's not the fault of this book, of course... the author is aiming for a more informed and better readership, even if the results of being more informed are to feel surrounded by risk and depressed at all the things you don't know and probably can't find out. So, useful but kinda discouraging because it is a hard problem; four mixed front enlightenments out of five.

The bestselling authors of "Thinking Strategically" revised their work and produced "The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life", aimed at a popular audience. It's a good introduction if you're not familiar with the field, but it also brings out a number of things that I find frustrating about the field. Even in explicit discussions of non-zero-sum games, there's an underlying assumption that you are an individual actor out to win the game for you. If your best outcome also comes from helping other people do well, great, but if you do better long term by cooperating until the very last round and then cutthroat, well, that's what's best for you! (But like Vizzini, a rational actor would know that, so they cooperate until the second to last round, but your opponent would know that you know that, so they cooperate until the third to last round.... and so on.) It's interesting if you're a programmer, but it gets frustrating if you're a neurologist or a behaviourist or an ethicist. So despite being a widely spanning introduction to a good number of fundamental concepts of game theory, I was left with the sense that people who read this book and only this book will be like the pickup artists of strategy... they'll have a few tricks that will allow them to feel like they've "won" and that they know the secrets of successful negotiation now. So I want to recommend this book, but only to people who will also read other books which do not presume Homo economicus. Hardly the fault of the authors, they do point out where peoples' actual experimental behaviour deviates from what a good programmer/mathematician/strategist would optimize for... like the weather book, it's just a hard problem to bookify. Three and a half "and also read something else"s out of five.

I bought Dave Egger's "The Circle" because I hadn't read any good cyberpunk in a while, and I had hoped from the description that it would be a modern day social media novel in that genre. (Naam for bioengineering, Egger for social engingeering?) Given my political tendencies, I expected this book to be a thoughtful exploration of what we as a society are doing by sharing so much about ourselves, how it shapes our interactions, and how irrevocable that is. I didn't expect to do most of the reading with my shoulders around my ears; the culture of the Circle company felt like it was written to give me personally the heebie-jeebies. I suspect many other privacy geeks would feel the same way. Aaaaaah! One of the people I normally push books upon when I am done with them... I actually asked him, as much as I could without giving away spoilers, if this was something he would even want to read. (He's like me but more so there.) It's trenchant social commentary, but it wasn't the revolutionary thinking many of the critics are lauding him for... it's more like "aaaand here are the consequences that my friends have been wargaming for twenty years". So good on him if he gets more people thinking about that, but it feels very arrogant to think that there aren't already tons of people thinking about that. Three unsettling heebies out of jeebie.

Back to things I straightforwardly loved, John McPhee's "The Control of Nature" had me at Atchafalaya. [grin] Everyone recommends him and I can't think why I didn't try him long ago. ("You're one of today's lucky ten thousand!") After "The Emerald Mile" from last batch, I thought I was on a dam kick -- I knew something about the Old River Control, but not with the personal touch that McPhee brings to it. (I also want him to write a post-Katrina update now, and I want to go find my friend who was with the Army Corps of Engineers down there and ask him about his time serving.) I also wanted to get this book read before my trip, given McPhee's coverage of Iceland's attempt to save a town from being overrun by lava with high pressure hoses and seawater. I now appear to be on a volcano kick. [grin] Your recommendations for good volcano books gleefully accepted. I will certainly go look up the rest of McPhee's work; four and a half submerging islands out of five.

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manintheboat From: manintheboat Date: August 27th, 2014 03:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Alif. I thought I disliked it because I'm not a programmer :) LOL.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: August 27th, 2014 05:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
I read it because of that discussion! And yeah, heh, nope.

I find that I generally dislike books that are written for programmers to like them, so don't feel bad. I'm the only hacker I know who hated "Cryptonomicon", though I have liked other Stephenson before and since. (Basically, if he's writing about near future or now, I probably like it. If he's writing about before now, I probably don't.)
varina8 From: varina8 Date: August 28th, 2014 04:38 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm always happy to see the McPhee love spread. Coming Into the Country is another longtime favorite of mine. I suspect it shaped much of my thinking about Alaska and the PNW. I have a copy of his Looking for a Ship, written in 1990 and still on my to-read shelf. You're welcome to borrow it.
katestine From: katestine Date: August 29th, 2014 01:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
People who assume Homo economicus don't actually do that well in negotiation or business, so only reading that book sounds very Darwinian to me.

What =do= you recommend for someone who doesn't want to assume Homo economicus? I'd probably suggest Blink and Nudge.
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