The Library of Babel: May 2003

This page contains the archived copies of book log entries for May of 2003.

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May 28, 2003

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Bryson is best known for his travel books, A Walk in the Woods chief among them. As anyone who has read his books knows, he's both a very good writer, and a supremely un-technical person. By his own admission (in Notes From a Small Island), this is a man who is utterly flummoxed by automobiles.

So when I read that Bill Bryson had written a science book, I knew I had to read it. Pop-science writing is a hard thing to do well, and books frequently fail because they're pitched just over the heads of the intended audience. If ever there was a writer sure to avoid that pitfall, Bill Bryson is the guy. And given his past record, he's unlikely to run afoul of the other great pitfall of science writing, overly dry prose. Even the dullest passages of Bryson's other books positively sparkle next to most bad science writers, so if nothing else, a Bill Bryson science book would have to be lively...

The real question was whether his lack of technical savvy would be too great a handicap to overcome. Happily, it turns out not to be an insuperable obstacle, possibly thanks to the efforts of the "saintly, patient experts" he consulted in the course of his researches. There are a few stumbles-- he has a weird fear of scientific notation which leads him into Saganesque "biiiilllyuns of biiiilllyuns" gibberish from time to time, and there are one or two glaring math errors-- but by and large he does a good job. He manages to fill some of the numerical gaps with colorful analogies, and isn't afraid to lift long chunks of explanation from experts. Some of the physics descriptions are simplified almost to the point of deception, but he basically avoids that trap, and the sections on biology and geology are on firmer footing (that, or I just don't know those fields well enough to catch the mistakes...).

The real strength of the book, as with most of his travel books, lies in Bryson's ability to enliven a story with some bit of colorful historical trivia. The history of science is full of odd an eccentric characters, and he does a marvelous job of bringing them to life through small anecdotes that break up long lectures, but somehow don't impede the flow of information. To choose an example almost at random, there's the story of Swedish chemist Carl Scheele:

Scheele was both an extraordinary and extraordinarily luckless fellow. A poor pharmacist with little in the way of advanced apparatus, he discovered eight elements-- chlorine, fluorine, manganese, barium, molybdenum, tungsten, nitrogen, and oxygen-- and got credit for none of them. In every case, his finds were either overlooked, or made it into publication after someone else had made the same discovery independently. He also discovered many useful compounds, among the ammonia, glycerin, and tannic acid, and was the first to see the commercial potential of chlorine as a bleach-- all breakthroughs that made other people extremely wealthy.

Scheele's one notable shortcoming was a curious insistence on tasting a little of everything he worked with, including such notoriously disagreeable substances as mercury, prussic acid (another of his discoveries), and hydrocyanic acid-- a compound so famously poisonous that 150 years later, Erwin Schroedinger chose it as his toxin of choice in a famous thought experiment (see page 146). Scheele's rashness eventually caught up with him. In 1786, aged just forty-three, he was found dead at his workbench surrounded by an array of toxic substances, any one of which could have accounted for the stunned and terminal look on his face.

This isn't a book that will impart enough knowledge to get you very far in following the intricacies of modern science-- Bryson pretty much punts whenever he's confronted with the very latest theories-- but it's just detailed enough to be interesting, and just comprehensive enough to give you a rough idea of what sort of things we know about the world around us. And, more importantly, what we don't know-- he positively revels in pointing out the huge gaps of unknown territory yet to be explored, and glories in the sheer wonder of the exceptionally improbable universe we find ourselves exploring.

If you work in science, this would be an excellent book to give to relatives who haven't the foggiest idea what you do. It would also be a great book to give to a (fairly bright) kid who shows an interest in science-- he's not much on the technical details, but Bryson does a wonderful job of capturing the sense of wonder involved in the scientific enterprise, and making science seem like a terrifically fun career to pursue. It's a good read all around, and I recommend it without hesitation.

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May 19, 2003

One For the Morning Glory by John Barnes. Another day, another re-read. I'm halfway through two new books, but some recent conversation or another reminded me of this book, and I picked it up a few days ago when I needed something light to read.

It's a short book, an easy read, and delightfully odd:

After that long moment of gazing at each other, the Prince laughed and began a merry song, an old ballad of how a gallant woodman crossing a bridge in the fog had lost his way, thought he faced a great giant, boldly drawn his trebleclef, and fought with the terrible being on the narrow bridge, only to discover that the bridge was the highway, the giant a windmill, and he himself only the dream of a butterfly who had been unable to imagine a Chinese philosopher.

The tune was jolly, so Wassant joined in after a moment, and then all the men took it up, singing in a rough four-part harmony that was traditional among entourages of fighting men in the Kingdom, who needed only a dashing officer singing lead as an excuse to burst into song.

It's a weird and wonderful little book, telling the story of Prince Amatus, who at the age of two drinks the Wine of the Gods, and loses his left side (it's totally absent, not just invisible, though, oddly, this doesn't prevent him from getting into all manner of adventures. Clearly, a Story is afoot, and what's more, all the characters know it, and carry out their fairy-tale roles with great aplomb.

The book is full of delightful little touches: from the marvelous names (a minor character named Pell Grant, the stalwart Sir John Slitgizzard, Deacon Dick Thunder and his well-organized band of robbers-- married robbers, mind you) to little background details like the weighty tomes Highly Unpleasant Things it is Sometimes Necessary to Know and Things That Are Not Good to Know at All. Common words (see "trebleclef" above), and others not so common, are redefined for no clear reason-- people fight with trebleclefs, pongees, pismires, and escrees, and dine on haunches of roast gazebo-- but that only adds to the fun, as when the Prince and his companions meet at the Sign of the Rambunctious Gazebo...

The most surprising thing about this book, though, is its source. John Barnes is best known for writing some deeply unpleasant science fiction-- the cover proudly proclaims this to be a book "From the author of Mother of Storms, a disaster novel that it gritty in the same sense that staring into a sandblaster is "gritty." This is an author whose works prompted someone on rec.arts.sf.written to devise the rule that "John Barnes books containing forcible sodomy are bad, while books not containing forcible sodomy are ok."

And yet, he wrote this delightful little fantasy romp. I can't think of two more wildly different books by a single author than the unremittingly ugly Mother of Storms and this (I haven't read Kaleidoscope Century, though, which I'm told is even worse...). I can't imagine what somebody who really liked Mother of Storms would've thought on reading this, though I would guess that some expletives probably had to be deleted.

It's a mystery to me. A deeper mystery, and one that I'd badly like to see solved, is "how can we get John Barnes to write more books like this one?" I'm not wild about his other books, but this is really good stuff.

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May 14, 2003

Jhereg by Steven Brust. This was the first Vlad book published, so it has more incluing than some of the later volumes, but no lack of glorious First Person Smartass narration:

We were all friends here. Morrolan carried Blackwand, which slew a thousand at the Wall of Barritt's Tomb. Aliera carried Pathfinder, which they say served a power higher than the Empire. Sethra carried Iceflame, which embodied within it the power of Dzur Mountain. I carried myself rather well, thank you.

I love this stuff. Oddly, though, I ended up reading it again for about the seventeenth time because of work.

I acquired advisees this year, three freshmen who I'm supposed to steer down the proper collegiate path over the next couple of years. I am, of course, encouraging them all to be physics majors, but in addition to that, I talk to them about all manner of everyday stuff.

Including books, of course. And when I discovered that one of the three reads fantasy novels, I immediately recommended Brust (he's exactly the right type of person to get hooked by the Vlad books). On recently merging libraries with Kate, we ended up with extra paperback copies of most of the Vlad books, so I dug out the copy of Jhereg and gave it to him last week.

I ran into him today in the hall. The first thing he said to me was "Are there more of these?" Followed by "Awesome!" when I told him there are nine so far... I'll bring the spares of Yendi and Taltos in tomorrow...

Of course, prior to handing the book off, I had it in my office for a few days. So, of course, I started reading it in idle moments. And shortly after passing that copy on, I came home and dug out the copy we're keeping. They're that addictive... I'll be lucky if I can keep from tearing through the rest of the series again.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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May 2, 2003

The Crow Road by Iain Banks. I was somewhat surprised to realize that this will be the sixteenth Iain Banks book put on the shelves of books that have been read (as opposed to the unread/ to-be-read/ bought-it-years-ago-and-am-never-likely-to-read-it-but-can't-bear-to-get-rid-of-any-books-ever shelf). That's not a record or anything-- we've got way more Rex Stout than that, more Pratchett than that (though those are scattered around a bit), and Brust is in the same neighborhood. It's just that Banks is a somewhat weightier read than the other authors in the mid-teens.

I bought this one a couple of years ago, in Bordeaux, France, of all places, but somehow never got around to reading it. Of course, the opening paragraph is the stuff of legend:

It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

How I managed not to continue with this, I'm not sure.

Surprisingly, this is one of the rare examples of the Nice Iain Banks. Death figures prominently in the story-- I seem to recall it being described as "four funerals and a wedding"-- but none of the deaths are gratuitously nasty. It's hard to believe this is the work of the same twisted individual who wrote The Wasp Factory and Complicity, to say nothing of the deeply unpleasant A Song of Stone.

And yet, there's a wit to it, and a dark humor that is unmistakably Banks. Most of the books is told from the point of view of Prentice McHoan, the aimless middle son of an affluent Scottish family, and his cynical take on the world generates one good quip after another. Other bits focus on other members of Prentice's family; these don't have the same kind of biting wit, but instead have a sort of clever warmth that's really quite charming.

It's a very Scottish book, meaning that some parts of it are incomprehensible to benighted Americans like myself (and also that the sex-and-drugs bits read sort of like a less squalid Irvine Welsh, without the annoying phonetic dialect), but on the whole it's a pretty easy read. Categorizing it is a little trickier-- it's partly a sprawling family saga, and partly a shiftless coming-of-age story (Banks does Nick Hornby), but there's also an odd romance, and a murder-mystery plot tacked on near the end.

The book covers a large chunk of time, and quite a bit of space, and ends up not being entirely coherent. The ending feels oddly rushed with the murder-mystery bit feeling tacked on to spice things up a bit. There's also some peculiarly British political ranting that struck me as a little dated (what I could follow of it, anyway), a fairly ham-handed bit passionately advocating atheism, and I really could've done without the "signalling" scene at the end.

What it lacks in plot, though, it makes up for in writing. Banks is an extremely clever author, and can make even fairly mundane family troubles seem fascinating (and Prentice's family troubles are not what you'd call mundane). This is a fairly ragged book, especially compared to the highly polished Look to Windward, or the tightly controlled Use of Weapons, but Banks's writing chops are clearly on display.

I wouldn't rank this with his best-- it's a little too raw to stack up with the best of the Culture books-- but it's also not the sort of brutal assault on the reader that led to such entertaining review blurbs for The Wasp Factory. If you want to see Banks plying his craft, but aren't in for deeply disturbing violence, this is well worth reading.

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Begun: 7 August, 2001