Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: Darwin's Radio

Greg Bear
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


I really enjoy Greg Bear’s books. His writing is straightforward and his ideas are original and satisfyingly weird. He’s like the Stephen King of sci-fi. This particular book isn’t overwhelming, but it does have a Bear-ishly unique plot and is fun to read.

Since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, there has been a debate over the extent to which evolution happens gradually and the extent to which it is punctuated by relatively sudden leaps. In Darwin’s Radio, not only does evolution occur in sudden leaps, but the leaps can be very dramatic, with an entire species reaching a new stage of biological development within a generation or two.

This includes humans.

The book begins with the discovery of the frozen, mummified remains of a prehistoric family – a man, a woman, and a baby – in the Alps. At first, the paleontologist who discovers them thinks they are Neanderthals. But it turns out, upon further investigation, that the baby is Homo sapiens and that the adults were Neanderthals who appear to have physically changed into Homo sapiens shortly around the time their baby was born. It looks as if the parents literally shed their skin to reveal the new evolutionary form. It also looks like these three early humans were murdered.

(Note: I’m assuming that at the time this book was written the scientific consensus still was that Homo sapiens evolved from Neanderthals. In order to get into the story, you just have to go along with that.)

At the same time that all this prehistorical investigation is going on, something strange is happening to contemporary humans. A new flu-like retrovirus is spreading around the world. Men can be carriers but only women get infected. When a pregnant woman contracts the virus, it makes her abort the fetus. This is very upsetting, of course, and people start panicking. What it takes people a while to realize is that before the fetus aborts, it itself ovulates and leaves behind a new viable fetus… with six extra chromosomes than normal... that continues to develop.

And then, even weirder, when a man and a woman are about to have a baby from one of these new extra-chromosome fetuses, they both start to change physically. Their vocal chords and sense of smell get more sensitive and their facial skin starts peeling off, revealing new patches that change color with emotion.

A biological researcher investigating the retrovirus eventually hooks up with the paleontologist who found the mummies and they put two and two together. They develop the theory that a Homo sapiens gene existed all along in early hominids, in the form of a dormant retrovirus. At some point some kind of species-wide biological clock determined that it was time for the next evolutionary step and activated the virus in the Neanderthals. It caused them to have Homo sapiens babies and caused the parents to change form too, to match their children. Because they were different, these new-form humans were likely feared and persecuted and sometimes even murdered by their earlier-form relatives.

And this is also, of course, what is happening to modern humans. The biological master clock has activated another dormant part of our genetic code. When the first few extra-chromosome babies are born they, too, have sensory patches of color on their faces and they can communicate with their parents in an almost empathic or telepathic way. They are a new stage of human. And they, too, are feared and persecuted by regular old-style humans, and are forced to go into hiding from their families and neighbors and the government. (Setting us up nicely for a sequel, Darwin’s Children.)

My main problem with Darwin’s Radio was that I didn't really like the main characters very much - either the paleontologist or the biologist working on the retrovirus or the modern evolutionarily advanced families. They seemed more like tools for telling the story rather than real rounded personalities. Fortunately, however, the basic ideas were cool and well-developed enough to carry me through the book in spite of the people not being very appealing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Review: Resurrection Men

Ian Rankin
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ – – – –

This might have been one consecutive British mystery too many. Or maybe I’m just missing my sci-fi. But I was extremely, extremely impatient with this book.

I have identified five primary irritants.

First: the plot. It didn’t hold my attention. In the semi-complex story, the main detective/hero, D.I. John Rebus, is sent to remedial detective school undercover, on a thin pretext of insubordination, to investigate other detectives also attending the school who are suspected of corruption. While there, Rebus manages to solve three cases simultaneously – he ferrets out the truth about the officers’ corruption; he and the corrupt cops solve a real-life cold case as part of their class work; and, through phone calls and quick off-campus visits back to his station, Rebus helps a protégé investigator solve the murder of a local art dealer. I didn’t care about any of these three cases enough to really want to keep reading.

Second: the main character. A blurb on the back of the hardcover first edition of this book describes detective Rebus as one of the most "rounded, warts-and-all characters in modern crime fiction." Maybe by “rounded” they meant “ill-defined.” I never got a consistent sense of his personality. Sometimes he was taciturn, gruff, and rebellious against authority, like Mike Hammer. Sometimes he was pained and wrestling with inner demons, like Matt Scudder. And other times he was light-hearted and sarcastic, readily volunteering advice, like Adela Bradley.

Third: ridiculous, gratuitous, contrived nicknaming of secondary characters and even some of the darned buildings. A sampling:

James "Jazz" McCullough
Morris Gerald "Big Ger" Cafferty
"Dicky" Diamond, a.k.a. "the Diamond Dog"
Eric "Rico" Lomax
Eric "Brains" Bain
John "Perry" Mason
George "Hi-Ho" Silvers

Fourth: jarringly unnecessary explanations of un-witty banter. For example:

"They got a picture of me? Was it my good side?"
"I wasn't aware that you had a good side."
A low blow, but he let her get away with it.

Thank you for helping us out by telling us that was a low blow.

Fifth: the author constantly trying to impress us with detective Rebus's record collection. While sitting in Rebus’s car or apartment, the secondary characters always manage to find themselves going through his records or CDs. This allows them to make studiedly casual references to long lists of offbeat and/or obscure bands (Cocteau Twins, Massive Attack, R.E.M., Arab Strap, Jackie Leven, Bad Company). Okay, I get it, Rebus has an eclectic, educated, wide-ranging taste in music (and, therefore, so must the author). He’s practically as cool as Quentin Tarantino.

To be fair, there were two things I liked about this book. (1) It takes place in Scotland. (2) There is a preamble at the beginning of the book explaining the British police ranking system (D.S., D.I., D.C.I., etc.) which I'd always been confused by. That explanation has helped me a lot in understanding the relative positions of officers in great British TV mystery series like Foyle’s War and Cracker.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Couple of Points re Obama’s Tax Proposal

A couple things that I don't think have been covered sufficiently, either because they're too subtle for the day-to-day news cycle or because Obama has failed to communicate them; probably some of both.

1. The so-called “Bush Tax Cuts,” as enacted, are scheduled to expire on December 31, 2010. That was the law that President Bush pushed for and signed. He may have wanted and expected the tax cuts to be made permanent at some point, but that's really neither here nor there. You don't get credit for good intentions, or you shouldn't, anyway. If people (with incomes less than $250,000) are paying the same marginal tax rate in 2011 that they did in 2010, that's Obama's doing, not Bush’s. I suppose it's too much to request that such a policy be referred to as the “Obama tax cut;” anyway when even Democratic partisans fail to do so it’s probably not gonna happen.

2. The phrase “allow the tax cuts to expire for those making more than $250,000” makes it sound like people with income in that range are going to lose the entirety of their Bush-era tax cuts. Not so! It just means that they’ll no longer pay the lower Bush-era rates on the dollars above $250,000. Dollars 1 through 250,000 will still be taxed at the lower rates, which means that if Obama follows through on his campaign promise, this cohort will still get a substantial tax cut. Smaller than the tax cut that Bush gave them, sure, but larger than the zero tax cut they’d have if Obama does nothing.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: Foundation's Edge

Isaac Asimov
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

…for all of Isaac Asimov’s other Foundation novels.

This is one of the last books in Asimov’s Foundation series (one of the most excellent and significant bodies of work in science fiction). It is hard to describe this book without giving away a lot about the previous books in the series.

This book also incorporates elements of Asimov’s Robot series (yet another excellent and seminal work).

And, because the Foundation series deals with thousands of years of galactic history, it is hard to describe this book without going into a ridiculous amount of back story, which I’m not going to do here.

Clearly, then, the only thing to do is to read all the Robot and Foundation books, in the correct order, and then to read this review, and then to read Foundation’s Edge. (To help you in this worthwhile pursuit, a complete chronology of Asimov’s books can be found here.)

In the 1950s, Asimov began writing a series of books telling the story of the development of humanoid robots in our near future (the Robot series). He simultaneously began a separate series of books about the rise and fall and rise again of a galaxy-wide empire ruling millions of inhabited worlds in our very far future (the Foundation series). He wrote Foundation’s Edge about thirty years after finishing the last of the original Foundation and Robot novels but he intertwines elements of both multi-ologies in this book in his same familiar, clear style as if there had been no break at all. This is a testament to the solidity of the characters, worlds, and concepts he created.

The Foundation novels are built around one main character, Hari Seldon, and the science of psychohistory that he developed. Psychohistory is sort of a combination of mass psychology, sociology, and complex mathematics. With it, Seldon is able to predict the future of society; and what he forecasts is the inevitable decline of the decadent galactic empire which rules at the time he is alive, followed by a painful, chaotic period of several thousand years of division and war, and then the rise of a second (more benevolent) empire bringing peace and stability back to the galaxy. The violent interregnum has the potential to last from one thousand years to thirty thousand years, depending on what people do. So Seldon sets up a foundation of scholars and directs them to guide humanity towards the choices that will shorten the period of chaos as much as possible. He also records a series of holographic animations of himself to be played at key times in the future so he can help guide humanity himself even after he is dead. The Foundation series follows the playing out of this “Seldon plan” across hundreds of years of ups and downs and dangers.

One strange thing about the Foundation series is that there is usually very little action. Often the major crisis in each book involves the characters working to prevent something from happening, rather than to make something happen. They usually center on a skeptic who challenges the assumptions of the majority and who has to use logic and persistence to turn the others around. But it is Asimov’s particular genius that he makes this kind of story interesting and keeps the pages turning.

It helps that the whole concept of psychohistory is awesome and the character of Hari Seldon is enduring and appealing*. And because Asimov covers thousands of years of history in his various novels, he has to invent a ton of other characters, not to mention worlds and governments and advances in technology, and he always does it with extraordinary clarity, believability, creativity, and humor.

Foundation’s Edge takes place 500 years into the chaotic interregnum. The original First Foundation (of regular people) and the Second Foundation (of telepaths) appear to have things well in hand. Things are going perfectly in accordance with the Seldon Plan. Maybe a little too perfectly. People in both foundations grow suspicious that someone is manipulating all of them to align with the Plan, depriving them of independent action. Eventually, their investigations center on a mysterious lost planet, Gaia, which may or may not be the original Earth, and which may or may not be able to control and/or destroy the entire universe.

This book was a mixed bag. It exhibits all the good characteristics of Asimov’s work. It also exhibits his tendency to give his characters silly names and to include a number of pert young women who are attracted to older, professorial-type men.

I liked the First and Second Foundationers, their slow realization that they are being manipulated, and their search for the source of that manipulation in the first half of the book. But the second half was unsatisfactory. I didn’t really like what Gaia turned out to be. And I didn’t buy the climax of the plot, where there was a multiple-choice decision that had to be made to determine the fate of the galaxy and only one guy in the universe could make it. It was a little thin.


* In fact, Nobel-Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman admits here that part of the reason he went into economics is because it is the closest thing we have to psychohistory.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Google Instant Search

Is this a joke? What sort of Taylorist keypunch hell are we living in where we are supposed to leap at the chance to “save 2-5 seconds per search?”

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Platonic Ideal of Music Videos

There need not be any further attempts in this medium.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Book Review: No Enemy But Time

Michael Bishop
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

I do so love a good time-travel story.

In this one, a top-secret 1980s U.S. Air Force experiment sends the main character, Joshua Kampa, back to Paleolithic East Africa – the time and place of his lifelong recurring dreams.

The book is told in two alternating streams. One stream is Joshua’s back story, which fills you in on his birth in Spain, abandonment by his birth mother, adoption by USAF personnel, and education in the United States, right up to the point where he gets chosen for his time-traveling mission. The other stream is the story of Joshua’s present, in which he is sent two million years back in time, meets up with a group of Homo habilis and lives with them for almost two years.

To get the negatives out of the way first: I did find the last part of the novel a little unsatisfying (from the time Joshua decides he wants to leave the Paleolithic on through to the end of the book). It suddenly picks up tremendous speed and then stops with a whump. I was expecting either more resolution of outstanding issues or fewer new outstanding issues raised so close to the end. But this end section is a very small portion of the book.

The ending also has a little bit of deus ex machina to it. But, to Bishop’s credit, he comes right out and admits as much to the reader.

I also had a little bit of a problem buying Bishop’s mechanism for time travel. The idea is that a tiny number of people in the world have the gift (or curse) of extremely visceral recurring dreams about a single particular place and time, like pre-Columbian South Dakota or Dachau in the 1940s. Often they have had this dream “attunement” since childhood. A scientist in the Air Force has developed a machine that will tap into the unconscious of these dreamers and allow them to physically appear in the place and time of their vision. I realize that time travelling is thin in and of itself, but having the vehicle be driven by the chrononaut's dreaming ability seemed a bit thinner than thin.

If you can get over these drawbacks, which really are minor, you’re in for a very good read. The way Bishop writes it, life in the African savannah two million years ago was scary and brutal but also beautiful. The details of early hominid group behavior were completely believable to me. I liked how Joshua changed as he learned more about the individual "habilines" in his group, was accepted by them, and grew to love them. As with the characters in The Doomsday Book, I grew to have a lot of respect for Joshua’s Paleolithic friends and the way they dealt with the world without 21st-century knowledge and technology. By the end I felt like his present-day family and co-workers were less sympathetic, less sensitive, and less interesting than the prehistoric ones (which I think Joshua would have agreed with).

And the aforementioned dreamer-as-pilot setup did provide an excellent way around the Grandfather Paradox – the chance that you could change something in the past that would royally screw up the present. Because the Earth moves around the sun, and our solar system moves within its galaxy, and our galaxy moves within the universe, the location of Earth as it was in the past is somewhere far, far away in space. With Bishop’s mode of time-travel, the chrononaut is sent back to the time and geographical location of his attunement, but not back to its spatial location. So Joshua is sent back in time to the paleolithic but remains in the same spatial location as his present Earth – making it technically a different past, a “simulacrum” of the actual Paleolithic. That way, there is no danger of him going back in time and stepping on a butterfly or killing his own grandfather or any of the other innumerable paradoxes one could imagine.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Wherein I Register my Exasperation with the Folksy Alan Simpson

I really don't care that Alan Simpson used the word "tits" in his description of Social Security as a "milk cow with 310 million tits." Yeah, I realize that he was being jerkily provocative. He knew that his rough language would result in a satisfying amount of pearl-clutching, while meanwhile he could hide behind an ersatz farm-boy "well out in the barnyard that's how we pronounce 'teats'" line.

The plain truth is that Sen. Simpson has made a tidy post-Senate career out of fronting as a sort of affable country dumbass. In the mid-1990s, while he was cooling his post-DC jets at a Kennedy School sinecure here in the People's Republic of Cambridge, he even had a local TV show on WGBH with Robert Reich called "The Long and Short of It." Ha ha, see, because Simpson is very tall while Reich is very short.

Anyway, the long-term (i.e. 75-year) shortfall in SS amounts to 0.7% of GDP. Not exactly a huge item, compared to other recent liabilities taken on by the US Govt, including a couple of wars and two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy in 2001 and 2003. In fact, it turns out that the long-term cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for the plus-$250K crowd is roughly equal to the long term shortfall in SS. So, allow tax rates to return to those ruinous Clinton-era levels for the top 3% or so, devote the resulting dough to SS, and bada-bing, SS "crisis" solved for another 75 YEARS.

Speaking of which... did you know that the US Defense budget is scheduled to "go bankrupt" in about one month? ONE MONTH! Geez, according to current polling I guess it's more likely that E.T. will be dispensing my Ham Squishee at the Quik-E-Mart than the Defense Dept. will be fully funded for FY2011.
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