Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Reviews: Watts, Martin, Roberts

Mirrors of some recent Goodreads reviews:

Peter Watts, Blindsight (2006)
★★★★

Nasty, woebegone, butch and relentless hard SF (maybe "hard" in the sense of "difficult"), with a slight pulpiness to it. If it was adapted into a high concept puppet show the puppets would all have to be constructed from beetle carapaces. Rather spooky in parts. There's a lovely sustained twistiness to the plot, without it slipping into a lot of for-the-sake-of-it Big Reveals. The characters may not be very, uh, relateable but that just assists the dizzying ricochet of readerly sympathy, bouncing off every surface. It becomes part of the twistiness: plenty of sympathy, just nothing for it to fasten to.

A kind of overarching theme -- alluded to in the title -- is the conceptual disentanglement of sentience from intelligence. The novel argues that you can have intelligence without sentience. Searle's Chinese Room and [Chalmer et al.'s] zombies are the thought experiments which supposedly demonstrate the conceivability of this notion, and neuroscientific experiments -- the selective sighted behaviours of the cortically blind, for instance, and the trollish legacy of Benjamin Libet's notorious discovery of "commands" generated in the brain slightly before conscious volitions -- supposedly furnish some empirical rudiments.

This theme has been beautifully and intricately turned out in Blindsight in a number of conceits and plot points, but my hunch is that some of this deftness involved knowing what to fudge or blur, and I wasn't always convinced that terms like sentience, intelligence, empathy, understanding, meaning, awareness, mind and sympathy were really being interrelated in a philosophically robust way, or that they together comprised a sufficiently fine-grained and rich vocabulary to pull apart the problems they raise. For instance, you might be left thinking that sociopaths don't have qualia. Or that sentience is a kind of primitive concept that can't be any further broken down (I think it kind of can -- intentionality, qualia, nonextension, self-perspectival organisation, transcendental unity of apperception, phenomenal structure, dynamic flow, affordance, all kinds of narrative, memory, self, etc.). Or, more generally, you might end up feeling that the concepts of intelligence and sentience are intelligible using only philosophy, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, without help from the humanities, social sciences and applied psychology. Watts documents his sources in the end notes: I guess I know where to look if I want to take my skepticism further!

[I do think the "Imagine you are" motif is particularly adroit, especially with the ambiguous "It-narrative"-esque permutation where "you" are a deep space probe. It might be interesting to compare Watts' approach to consciousness with Daryl Gregory's in the short story "Second Person, Present Tense" (2005), which posits a drug that -- more-or-less -- temporarily decouples sentience from intelligence.]

The disenchanted vampire conceit is ingenious. The Crucifix glitch (a sort of Langford Basilisk / Stephenson Snow Crash glyph) -- I guess that means your cleric has to hold that holy symbol VERY steady? Or rotate it till the seizure clicks into place. Are vampires OK with tall straight trees on the horizon? [Watts doesn't secularise the aversion to garlic or running water, or provide a scientific rationale for why the Cullen family are so cool, so there's everything to play for.]

It's also an excellent touch having the super-linguist tasked with first contact tell the ominous aliens they can suck her big fat hairy dick. [I really felt like I was there on the mission.]

Good evil aliens with gassy bones and no genes.

Four stars and an Oasa Emitter.

[Blindsight is available free under a Creative Commons license].

Felix Martin, Money: The Unauthorised Biography (2013) 
★★★

Maybe I was a little harsh on this book, having just finished David Graeber's excellent Debt, The First 5,000 Years, which has a few overlapping themes. Martin doesn't quite have Graeber's knack for making the water visible to the fish who swim around in it. But this is still an engaging and sometimes captivating account of a potentially dull and inaccessible subject.

I most enjoyed the early chapters (about the origins and conceptual prerequisites of money) and the later chapters (about the shifting relationships between policymakers and the disciplines of finance and macroeconomics, and about the economic crises of the past few years).

In the middle, I would have liked to hear a bit more about the links between money, value and precious metals. I'm not 100% sure I understood John Locke's monetary naturalism -- I got the sense (especially after the final chapter) that it was intended as some kind of antidote to seignorage, but I couldn't place my finger on how or why, and Locke just came across as a bit stupid. My hunch is that the Locke episode is a rare instance of Martin allowing the storytelling to get out of control -- a convenient villain is invited to move the plot forward.

Very busy bees may just want to look at the last chapter, which is a dialogue with an imaginary skeptic and summarises the whole book, making it feel a bit less like a history and a bit more like an argument. The skeptic accuses the author of being a revolutionary; the author says the changes he endorses may be radical, but that they are to prevent revolution, not to start it.

Minor niggle: most of the endnote links didn't work on my Kindle edition. [Kindle might not be the best way to read this, TBQH. It's a bit of a flip-back-and-forth-fest].

UPDATE: Having read quite a few more books about money now, I feel inclined to give this one an extra star after all. ★

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass (2012) 
★★★★★

I wanted to write a more substantial review (or even a big post on detective fiction and SF alas), but other stuff is piling up, so here’s a quick impression. V. v. slight spoilers ahead.

This is something of a concept novel, pursued with much acuity and panache. Roberts claims to be braiding together the two so-called Golden Ages of genre fiction: the Golden Age of crime fiction (roughly the interwar period) and the Golden Age of science fiction (roughly just afterwards). The Golden Ages are here to inspire, not to invigilate – Jack Glass does contain much which would be anachronistic in either period, and overall the feel is quite contemporary.

Just for instance: the Jac of the first, rather gruesome act, is a pretty much a stock figure of TV and Hollywood’s “stuck in this hellhole” trope. He’s the quiet, isolated scrawny one who survives because of his smarts and his audacious will to survive. He is stubborn (as stubborn as a jackglass).

He’s Omar Little in The Wire proactively ass-shanking an inmate in the luncheon line. He’s anyone who survives a Saw puzzle. He is Hannibal Lector escaping his maximum security asylum in Silence of the Lambs in a mask made from a guard’s face, or cleavering off his cuffed hand in Hannibal. He’s Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects. He is Rorschach in The Watchmen growling, “None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you. You're locked in here with me.”

Jac is also legless: compare for instance the immolating longbow of hitherto soft touch Gizmo in Gremlins II, plus also any number of physically disabled badass ninjas from Hop-Frog to Forrest Gump to Peeta Mellark.

After the first arc resolves itself, the tone lightens, and the book begins to bristle with jokes, little lyrical set-pieces and charming allusions, both overt and deniable.

For instance. Jac was to be stuck on the asteroid for eleven years. Why eleven? The book's gorgeous (prize-winning) cover – stained glass rocket ships – reminds me a bit of a playing card. Jacks carry a rather tricksy aura in cards. Hesitate, as you scoop that cityscape of poker chips into your chest, and ask what the heck something called a “Jack” is doing next in line to a Queen – shouldn’t it be a Pope or a Princess or something? He’s not exactly the royal fool – i’faith, the Joker fills that role. So what is he? Jacks used to be Knaves. It’s possible “Jack” comes from Jass, the Dutch word for Knave. Posh English people called Jacks Knaves until quite recently. Maybe some still do. Jacks blend in disquietingly well with the royal party. Indeed, the name change was partly driven by desire to disambiguate King and Knave – previously indicated by the letters “K” and “Kn.” Jack-of-all-trades – even the regal trade of no trade at all? Anyway: I reckon eleven years because the official value of the Jack card is between that of a Ten and a Queen.

Later on there seems to be a sort of pun on "red hair ring."

There are three main puzzles in the novel, fairly ingenious, and relying on outlandish technology and circumstances to varying degrees. I wasn’t completely convinced by the dream sequences, although there are precedents for that sort of thing in the crime fiction of the interwar period. Indeed, Roberts checks some very well-known boxes – the locked room, the clearly demarcated list of suspects, the missing murder weapon, the multiplicity of motives – but he has obviously read widely within the genre, and his devices and allusions are not confined to the impoverished view of the genre as a set of camp, arid formulae, uninterested in realism and hermetically isolated from psychological and socio-economic categories (check out e.g. Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944)).

I was particularly interested in the central role of revolutionary upheaval in Jack Glass, a theme fits neatly on the end of interwar crime fiction’s tendency to question the validity of officially available forms of legal justice and social reconciliation. Roberts confesses that his emphasis was upon Golden Age crime fiction. That makes sense to me, because although this is obviously science fiction – there are lasers and so forth – is it really Golden Age? The shibboleths were probably hushed and a little garbled here. The "eat your severed penis!" bit breaks the 1950s mood. We do see some problem-solving of a technological nature, and Roberts does evince a judiciously respectful attitude for physics, and in particularly does not lightly transgress the speed of light. The action does takes place on a grand scale, and features techno-scientific achievements of a sort associated with a sense of wonder in among gullible ingénues. But there just weren’t quite enough details of science and engineering to persuade me that this really was “hard SF,” and the “worldbuilding” bit (OK, that's a 1970s term) seemed to depend too much on an appendix which, rather inevitably, felt a bit tacked on at the end.

That’s not to say I necessarily wanted more technoscientific data or sociological exposition. They might have spoiled the crime side of things. Perhaps Roberts is sloshing together two immiscible substances? Among Ronald Knox’s rules of fair play, we find: “No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.” It's a bold attempt nonetheless. There are also some moments where the two genre’s characteristic epistemological preoccupations interact in intriguing ways. For instance, one of science fiction’s preoccupations is the mental life of the radically (or just very) Other, and one of crime fiction’s preoccupations is the relations among the everyday, the uncanny and the impossible. When a character who is unused to gravity comes across a corpse, she is shocked by the way the blood presses flat against the ground, rather than hanging in the air in spheres as it normally would. This functions as a sort of clue, since gravity turns out to be a key feature of the murder ...

All in all, gimmicky, but I wished it would never end.

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