Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

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Reading Wednesday

Recently read:
  • Lady of mazes by Karl Schroeder. (c) 2005 Karl Schroeder, Pub Tor 2006, ISBN 0-765-35078-5.

    rysmiel was really enthusiastic about this so I borrowed [personal profile] jack's copy, and I'm glad I did. Lady of Mazes is very much a descendant of classic far future SF where post-humans have colonized the galaxy and mostly done away with physical problems like hunger and disease. Schroeder's post-human societies are very interestingly drawn, and it's definitely societies plural, we encounter various groups that are quite alien to eachother, it's not all one pan-galactic culture. LoM really explores the ramifications of having unlimited smart matter and unlimited computing power, and which human problems still persist in this techno-Utopia as well as which new ones emerge. The conflict doesn't feel forced because the story demands it, it's a consequence of the tech, and indeed one of the themes of the book is that tech exists within a society and you can't separate out technological development from ideology.

    I found the last part of the book less compelling than the beginning. I really liked the detailed exploration of Livia's home world, and the invasion and her and Adam's escape from the invaders and desperate flight to a world with an entirely different culture and set-up. But the final section with the return to Teven and the battle between various powerful trans-human beings lost my interest, it got too far into abstruse philosophical issues and it seemed like everybody was doomed almost no matter who won. Or at least, everybody I could be remotely expected to care about, in some sense the ending is a kind of Singularity and what happens after is unrecognizable to a contemporary human. To me, that kind of trick isn't really preferable to just the world being flat-out destroyed, when throughout I've been rooting for the protagonists to "save" it.

    I mentioned when I first started reading this that it was addressing the rather hackneyed debate between illusory happiness and meaningful freedom, but as the book progressed it brought up some interesting twists on that dichotomy. It doesn't come down on one side or the other but values diversity and adaptability, even at the meta-level, which is a non-answer that suits my way of thinking.

    The concerns of the book are very twenty-first century, in some ways, everybody is jacked in to the virtual world of "Inscape" and don't know how to cope when this becomes corrupted. It takes the idea of tech-enhanced consensus reality as a given, though, and doesn't moralize too much about people who care about virtual things at the expense of "reality"; the characters and narrative voice make it clear that there is no unmediated reality. I also really liked the idea of the Good Book as a complex algorithm that runs only on humans and human behaviour patterns, and the emergent stuff arising from that. A bit like an updated version of Asimov's Psychohistory, I suppose, and in general a fun SF concept to play with. LoM certainly has a sense of scale, it's more than just a pre-Modern travelogue with space trappings.

    I think I possibly read LoM too fast, especially the last section. It's doing something pretty subtle and clever with its exploration of imaginary far-future tech and I didn't really pay close enough attention to understand it fully. But overall it's a pretty good example if you like this sort of thing.

  • The Mind-Body problem by Rebecca Goldstein (c) 1983 Rebecca Goldstein, Pub Penguin Books 1993, ISBN 0-14-017245-9.

    This one I chose for the Bringing up Burns challenge item a book you pick solely for the cover. In practice that meant that I wandered around Oxfam homing in on books that have reproductions of interesting art, rather than stock photos or genre-typical typography. Which works because I generally like the sort of books that are marketed with art reproductions on the covers! Anyway, I eventually went for a book based on a rather intriguing nude, which the colophon tells me is a 1955 work by Balthus entitled Figure in front of a mantel. I didn't realize until after I'd bought it that it is in fact a Jewish-themed book, one I'm not sure I would have chosen if I'd been following my usual strategy of reading the blurb rather than just looking at the picture, but I might have done.

    It's one of those almost stereotypical middle-brow American novels about a bunch of academics having unhappy marriages and affairs. But I think it's more interesting than some of that genre because it's not really about the relationships, it's about the culture of academia, and also about Jewish identity to some extent. The protagonist, Renée, is someone brought up in the New York Orthodox community, whose academic brilliance gives her a way out of that milieu but who then struggles to find her own identity once she's given up religion. The protag has in some ways a similar bio or at least CV to the author, according to the cover, both studying philosophy at Barnard and Princeton. She's a metaphysicist lost in a sea of Analytic types, and as the author is herself a philosophy academic, I assume her explanations of philosophical controversies are somewhat accurate, though this does sometimes get a little bit annoyingly infodump-ish.

    The most interesting part of the book was the idea of a "mattering map", to do with what different people hold to be important, and how much they judge other people according to their own idea of what matters. Like, people who are passionate about music often don't really look down on unmusical folk, whereas people like most of the characters in the book who really really care about perceived intelligence are often also very hierarchical and judgemental about academic success. The conceit of the novel is that Renée marries a "genius" mathematician, partly because his reflected prestige brings her influence she's not achieving through her own modest academic achievements. Everybody around them like Renée herself places a high value on intelligence, and this gives them a skewed view of the world, which is explored interestingly.

    The Jewish parts of the story I rather disliked. I mean, it's not terrible or anything, it's clearly coming from an insider perspective on certain types of American Jewish culture. But it has a lot of that weird attitude I associate most strongly with Philip Roth, of essentially whiteness envy, all the Jewish characters obsess over not getting the advantages in life that WASPs get. And it's specifically white people, literary Jewish characters with this Roth-like attitude are always going on and on about people who are blond and square-jawed and white white white and how all their problems in life are caused by (prejudice against) swarthy skin and dark curly hair. And there's weird gender anxiety too, Roth's male characters always see themselves as weedy and effeminate and unable to assert a properly masculine dominance, especially over Jewish women who are strident, bossy and generally don't match the white middle class feminine ideal.

    I mean, Goldstein clearly doesn't just completely accept this view of ethnicity, the narrative very much mocks the fact that both Jewish and non-Jewish men consider it a compliment to tell Renée she doesn't look Jewish or could pass. But something about the characterization seemed rather fetishized to me; Renée's descriptions of herself fall into the omniscient breasts problem more typically found with male authors, and the narrative told me more times than I really wanted to hear that she has light skin and fair hair and is tall and thin and how she's totally beautiful like a white woman. And every other character's appearance is described in terms of how close they come to the white ideal, even while the narrative is conscious that this is a white ideal and not a universal one.

    Renée has rejected religion and there are the usual snide remarks about arranged marriages and cultivated sexual ignorance that you often see in novels by and about ex-Orthodox women. Equally she despises what she describes as "goyish Jews", people including her husband Noam who are ethnically Jewish but know nothing about Jewish religion or culture. So there's a sort of sentimentality about certain aspects of her ethnic background, her father was wonderful chazzan (synagogue cantor), Shabbat is such a precious holy time, Jewish food is delicious etc, but absolutely no will to engage with Judaism in any kind of personal way, just complaining about being cut off from her culture of upbringing and also complaining about how bad her upbringing was.

    For me the basic problem with the book is that Renée is not a terribly likeable character. In some ways she's probably not supposed to be, she's meant to be sympathetic but also the point of the story is her personal growth and learning to be somewhat less of a self-centred bitch. There's a kind of generally feminist stance, and undoubtedly it's true that women are disadvantaged both in academia and in typical marriages. Still, nobody forced Renée to marry Noam as a way of dealing with her anxiety at not having a career that lives up to her potential when she was a brilliant student winning all the scholarships and fellowships. The book seems to both criticize and at the same time buy into the whole status-fixated academic hierarchy, and I wish there had been more of Renée's character development really supporting what the text says, but doesn't really show, about how trampling on everybody else to achieve academic glory isn't really the meaning of life.

Currently reading: The Fresco by Sheri S Teppper. This is for the Bringing up Burns challenge item a book your friend loves, and the book was given to me as a Christmas present by [personal profile] cjwatson. I've been reluctant to pick up anything of Tepper's because I have formed the impression she has some pretty scary views, can't remember if I got that from people talking about her or summarizing her books or essays and excerpts in her own words, but on the positive side, I know she's also a very famous feminist SF writer.

I'm about half way through The Fresco and enjoying it so far as an alien contact story. I like the main character, Benita, a middle-aged Hispanic woman with a lot of integrity but not too implausibly special otherwise. I like the aliens, they're a reasonably good example of very technologically advanced beings with almost magical powers, which is not always what I want from an alien contact story but works when it's done well. I like the way that their voice is reasonably fluent in English while being plausibly foreign; they don't speak in linguistically implausible broken English or have a magically perfect translator device, but rather they speak like intelligent and advanced non-native language learners, which is a difficult thing to imitate consistently.

What I don't like is that the book is too much enmeshed in American culture wars that I find it hard to care about. It seems to assume that American Liberal or Democrat-voting values are synonymous with moral rectitude. Sexism bad, environmentalism good. Yay reproductive and sexual freedom, yay free speech (although the narrative seems to really really hate the ACLU, for some reason), down with religious hypocrisy and cargo-cult militarism. I kind of cringed at the aliens' judgement that Afghanistan, Israel and Serbia are the most terrible places on earth but the US is mostly a good society that just needs a few minor things sorting out, because of the way it so perfectly matches the judgement of a typical American lefty. There are a lot of unsympathetic characters who are given the viewpoint for a chapter or so, but I don't think Tepper succeeds in really empathizing with them, from the people working for companies that destroy ecosystems for short-term profit, to the evil Republican senator who doesn't care how many people he hurts as he advances his political career. They all just come across as straw-man versions of everything that blue-Americans are against.

Also, I may be biased by my previous impressions of Tepper but I am detecting more than a whiff of eugenicism in the book. I am just hoping that the aliens are going to turn out to have something to learn from the (nice liberal American) humans, and they're not just a way for the author to imagine powerful beings descending to earth to impose her own political views on the planet.

Up next The next item on my Bringing Up Burns challenge list is a book published this year which gives me a good excuse to read one of the award nominees. Probably The Three-Body Problem rather than Ancillary Sword, as I'm travelling for a few days and the former is already on my e-reader.

OK, wrote this on the train yesterday, it's actually Thursday by the time I've got online to post it.

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Tags: book, reading wednesday

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