August 31, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, August 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Max Gladstone, Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise
To say that these are fantasy novels set in a world where magic works like the law, and magicians are organized accordingly, makes them sound like bad comedy. They are (in parts) very funny, but Gladstone takes this premise and makes the magic wonderful and terrifying, and tells stories with real moral and even political weight. (It's not an allegory of our world, exactly...)
Update: Further to the series.
V. E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows
Mind-candy fantasy, featuring parallel worlds and outbreaks from a dungeon dimension. (The fact that the parallel worlds are specifically parallel Londons will not, I hope, come to seem hopelessly dated after the Brexit folly.) The first book is very enjoyable, with a temporarily-satisfying ending; the second frustrated me solely because it ended in media res.
Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
Mind candy; as the title suggests, a reaction to Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. There is potentially a lot to say here about writers reacting to earlier ones with strong artistic visions, especially when the compelling parts are as tied to the repugnant, monsters-from-the-id parts as Lovecraft's were, but perhaps another time. Suffice to say that this one threads the needle of being at once respectful of the source work, arguing with it on fair terms, and being enjoyable as fiction in its own right. (I'd really like to know what happens after the ending, in both the dreamlands and the waking world, but it's better writing to cut off where Johnson does.)
Joe Zieja, Mechanical Failure
Mind candy; a pitch-perfect parody of a certain sort of military science fiction.
Manuel Lima, Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information
While this is very pretty eye candy, it is, sadly, only good as eye candy. Lima's scholarship is unreliable [*], but that could be forgiven if he had good advice. Unfortunately, his principles for designing visual displays of networks are hopelessly vague [**], and there is no substance to his examples --- no "see, that's why this one is good", or "notice how this could be improved by doing such-and-such". His "syntax" of network design patterns is merely a list of types, and not an actual syntax or grammar. Worse, it's just a list, without even hand-waving justification for his division into types rather than another, or even advice of the form "this sort of diagram works well for these goals, but not under such-and-such circumstances". A dedicated reader might be able to reverse-engineer something of Lima's taste in pretty pictures of graphs (for the record, I like almost all of his pictures as pictures), but anyone looking for actual guidance, let alone insight into networks, had better go elsewhere. I wish I could offer pointers on where to go.
*: As a tiny example, though one which would would have been trivial to get right, Aristotle did not live "ca. first century CE" (p. 230) --- nor for that matter did he write a book called Metaphysics (ibid.), though I admit that could just be a sloppy way of referring to books he did write.
More telling is p. 44, where we are told:
In The Tree of Life, Guillaume Lecointre and Hervé Le Guyader provide two additional views associated with the widespread concept of trees finalism and essentialism. Finalism, as the name implies, envisages a world where everything flows towards a predetermined final goal. Essentialism has an absolute understanding of the nature of being, in which every entity has a set of properties belonging to a precisely defined kind or group. It sees the essence of things as permanent, immutable characteristics — a fundamental rule for the enduring tree organization. If finalism describes the unidrictional course of trees, essentialism alludes to their inert branches, which never shift or interact. Given that centralism, finalism, and essentialism form the basis of a common tree arrangement, we might also describe it as an authoritarian, undirectional, and stagnant model.
In the very same chapter, on p. 66, Lima reproduces, favorably, Darwin's famous single figure from The Origin of Species. That figure is the graphical depiction of a view of life which is, at least to all appearances, historical, indifferent to final causes (indeed, arguably, actively hostile to them), multi-directional and anti-essentialist. It is also, of course, a tree. What makes Lima useless as an intellectual guide is not that he records both the (rather absurd-sounding) opinion of Lecointre and Le Guyader [***] and describes Darwin's tree, but that he lacks the critical sense to notice that there is even a tension between the ideas in the paragraph I quoted and the use of trees in evolutionary biology, much less resolve that tension (e.g., by arguing or even just claiming that Darwinism really is, despite appearances, finalist, essentialist and stagnant), or adjudicate between those views. He has obviously read widely, but he's not a wide-ranging thinker, because he hasn't really thought about his readings. ^
[**]: For the record, here are his principles, from Chapter 3 (pp. 82ff):
  1. Start with a question.
  2. Look for relevancy.
  3. Enable multivariate analysis.
  4. Embrace time.
  5. Enrich your vocabulary.
  6. Expose grouping.
  7. Maximize scaling.
  8. Manage intricacy.
Many of these are unexceptionable, but also too vague to be of any use. (Who is in favor of irrelevancy, or unmanaged intricacies?) He says all the right things under his first principle, about how good data analysis starts with a real question to be answered rather than wanting to do something with a data set. But I find it telling that he never takes any of his positive-example graphs and shows how they help answer any question at all. ^
[***]: I should add that I haven't read Lecointre and Le Guyader, so I have no idea whether Lima is accurately interpreting them. His accounts of authors I have read hardly inspire confidence on this score. ^
Elizabeth A. Fenn, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People
Fascinating, but it only goes up to the 1830s, when the Mandans were almost completely wiped out by smallpox. We get glimpses of the later history, but I wish Fenn had brought things closer up to the present.
Lois Conner, Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial
Lovely, lovely pictures.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity; Networks

Posted at August 31, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

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