Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Changez is a brilliant young Pakistani in America who graduates from Princeton, begins a love affair with an American woman, and finds a well-paying job in the world of finance. But he is already becoming dissatisfied with his work, feeling he is aiding and abetting an American domination of the world that he feels very uneasy about.

Then September 11, 2001 comes. Then relations between Pakistan and India deteriorate and nuclear war on the subcontinent appears likely. Changez grows to hate what he sees as U.S. interference in South Asia (and everywhere else). Meanwhile his girlfriend vanishes into her own difficulties and suicidal thoughts.

Less is more. Mohsin Hamid leaves a lot unsaid.The Reluctant Fundamentalist uses a frame story, in which Changez is relating his story to an American businessman (government agent?) he meets at a Lahore market. The exact nature of the American acquaintance is left up to the reader to decide, as well as whether Changez is an completely reliable narrator, particularly as he tells the latter part of his story, after he has entirely renounced his adoptive country.

I write this blog post having deliberately avoided reading any online reviews or reactions to Hamid's novel. So much is left unsaid, and there is so much room for the individual reader's interpretation, that I feel as if once I read what others had to say my mind will be no longer pristine. (I'll almost certainly succumb to temptation once I finish writing this.)

If I make this novel sound impossibly vague, I don't mean to. It's good exposure for Westerners to the non-Western, perhaps even anti-Western point of view. Just because you try to understand a particular viewpoint doesn't mean you have to agree with it. (And of course, anyone who automatically assumes Changez = Mohsin Hamid is making a grave mistake and needs to go back to Reading Fiction 101.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Zhuang Xiao Qiao, Z for short, arrives in London from her home in Zhejiang Province, China to spend a year learning English. Naive and with limited language skills, Z soon begins an affair with a much older nameless Englishman who happens to be something of a drifter.

Her English improving by the day, Z and her English lover spend several months together, although they also grow to quarrel quite often. With her nameless lover's blessing, Z takes off to spend a few weeks traveling around Europe alone, during which time she has an affair or two (or three). She and the Englishman are clearly not meant to be together. Z returns to China at the end, with much improved English and with a much broader worldview.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers would have annoyed the hell out of me if the author were a Westerner, even a Westerner of Chinese descent. Z's early thoughts on the English language and what it implies about cultural differences struck me as unconvincing, more likely the product of a Westerner imagining how a Chinese person might think than that of an actual Chinese person. As it happens, though, Xiaolu Guo was born and raised in China, thus rendering my objections on those grounds rather silly.

Guo writes her novel in Z's broken English, with the linguistic proficiency growing more with each passing chapter as Z's linguistic ability grows. The book is modest and relatively short. It's hardly the most consequential book I've read this year, but it's well-done, and Guo has hit what she aimed for.

Monday, June 27, 2011

In which I think too much

Interesting episode of Planet Money on Friday about efforts to get Americans to start using dollar coins. The gist of it is, the government keeps minting dollar coins, Americans are deeply unenthusiastic about using them, and now the Fed is sitting on a gigantic trove of coins that nobody wants.

I live in Taiwan, where there's a commonly used coin equivalent to US$1.50 and the lowest denomination bill is worth US$3. Up in Japan, the lowest denomination bill is worth about ten US dollars, and they've got a commonly used coin worth half that. It's obvious that Americans are only going to really start using dollar coins once the government stops printing dollar bills, giving people no choice. If that happens, somehow I suspect there will be a great public outcry, fueled by populist rhetoric either impossibly vague ("It's shameful that we let the government take away our dollar bills, because... of reasons we haven't thought of yet") or preposterously insane ("This is just the next step towards A NEW WORLD DICTATORSHIP").

Personally I don't care much if we switch over to dollar coins or not. Then why am I writing this post? Because I'm curious. The fact that they've gone to such great expense to stoke public enthusiasm for dollar coins, and they've failed utterly, makes me wonder if this is something else you can chalk up to the vague old concept of American exceptionalism, along with our not using the metric system (which to be honest I'm also somewhat indifferent about) and our embarrassingly deficient public transportation (which I do care about).

Is there an underlying pattern here? Or should I not try to connect the random dots?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester

Krakatoa is, of course, a volcano south of Sumatra and west of Java that violently exploded in 1883.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded is a book by Simon Winchester which offers us the following parallel stories, which go far beyond the scope of Krakatoa's mere Wikipedia article:

- The establishment and rise of the Dutch empire in Southeast Asia, and a description of the Dutch East Indies capital of Batavia (now Jakarta) in the late nineteenth century, on the eve of the eruption;

- The story of European science concerning the Indonesian archipelago, including a great deal on Alfred Russel Wallace, of Wallace Line fame;

- An overview of the science of plate tectonics as it relates to the eruption;

- A history of the science of plate tectonics, from its beginnings in the 1920s when it was espoused primarily by one tireless scientist (Alfred Lothar Wegener) to the 1960s, when it finally won wide acceptance due to overwhelming evidence;

- A brief run-down of events in the Dutch East Indies after the eruption, which included increasing violent rebellion by locals against Dutch rule, and how they may have been helped along substantially by Krakatoa;

- And a history of global telecommunications, as it developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Krakatoa was the first major calamity to be reported worldwide in real time; in addition, the eruption caused disturbances in air pressure that were recorded on scientific instruments throughout the world. This may have contributed to a nascent sense in Westerners' minds that the world was one interconnected village.

This was my fourth Simon Winchester book, and by far the most impressive. Of my previous Winchester books, The Map That Changed the World is an excellent biography and a decent history of 19th-century geology. Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, on the other hand, is almost embarrassingly first-person. The Professor and the Madman is very well-done. It's not a lesser book than Krakatoa; it's only less awesomely ambitious.

Winchester is one of those pop nonfiction writers, like Malcolm Gladwell, who is well-known and idiosyncratic enough to be easily mocked or spoofed. But a few months ago in Slate, Nathan Heller wrote a pretty fair analysis of why Winchester is so popular. He didn't mention Krakatoa, but his thoughts apply to this book as well.

Here's a final thought: as I mentioned, Krakatoa was the first major natural disaster which got reported around the world in real time. There hasn't been a comparable volcanic eruption since 1883, but utterly massive eruptions probably happen more often than we think. There's pretty good circumstantial evidence (which Winchester delves into) that Krakatoa erupted even more violently in 535. More recently, elsewhere in Indonesia, in 1815, Mt. Tambora erupted and dumped so much ash into the atmosphere that crops failed in Europe and North America and people starved. We human beings are terrible at putting things in historical context. If another titanic eruption happens within the next few years, a disaster on the scale of the Boxing Day tsunami or the Tohoku earthquake but with global effects, how is our news media going to flail about trying to explain it? How are politicians going to react? How are we going to react?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The 2012 Republican Veep

It's still a year before political pundits come out with their guesses as to who the Republicans will pick for Vice President in 2012, but I am beating them to it. And I'm not analyzing the prospective candidates on their merits. I'm deliberately being as shallow and image-centered as possible. I bet my shallowness is just as accurate as well-paid pundits' more intelligent-sounding prognostications.

I figure Mitt Romney is destined to win the nomination. But most of what I have to say also goes for other Prez candidates.

First of all, I bet the Republicans won't nominate two generic-looking white men in suits. It's an image thing. Generic-looking white men in suits include: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry. That is not intended to be a complete list of Republicans who are generic-looking white men in suits.

So, I just don't see a Romney-Santorum or Perry-Pawlenty ticket. Not gonna happen.

Second, I suspect there are going to be sexist fears against nominating a VP candidate who would possibly remind voters of Sarah Palin. The chief victim of this will be Michelle Bachmann. I say it's sexist because Bachmann doesn't look much like Palin, nor does she talk like Palin. But she's after the same segment of voters who would vote for Palin, and she's got the same XX chromosomes, so the Republicans will be fearful of nominating someone who they think will be perceived as Palin Mk 2.

I should say that if Bachmann or another woman wins the Presidential nomination, that will be enough of a departure from earlier tickets that all image-based calculations are off and this entire post will be rendered null and void.

So now I've got these two assumptions:

- The Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees will not resemble each other physically.

- If Bachmann is on the ticket, she won't be there as Veep.

If both spots on the ticket are taken by men, the party will aim for two men who look very different from one another. If the top spot is taken by Romney or another generic-looking white man in a suit, the VP slot will go to someone who is not a generic-looking white man in a suit. It might go to a white man who bears an easily caricatured physical characteristic that sets him apart, like being very fat (Chris Christie) or very bald (I'm sure there are potential choices, but I'm blanking).

Or it will go to a person white America considers 'ethnic'. They may figure picking a black person will seem like too-obvious pandering. I think they're most likely to pick someone of an ethnicity that has never seen a national ticket before. They'll make history that way. Ideally they'll find someone adored by the conservative wing of the party, but who they consider charismatic and attractive and won't scare away moderates.

Bobby Jindal. Marco Rubio. It'll be one of those two. That's my super-early prediction, based on shallow logic that I stand by.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Isle of the Dead by Roger Zelazny

Francis Sandow is:

1) Enormously, obscenely, filthily rich, and living in preposterous comfort on his own planet in a galaxy filled with aliens;

2) The only homo sapiens alive who actually remembers the 20th century, as he spent most of his early centuries cryogenically frozen on one starship after another, and thus lived long enough to reap the benefits of radical life extension technology once it was invented; and

3) The avatar of a god in an extraterrestrial pantheon. When the book introduces this point you need to PAY ATTENTION because it turns out to be really important later, unlike some of the scenery setting early on which doesn't serve much of a purpose beyond giving some local color to the universe.

Isle of the Dead was my first-ever Roger Zelazny novel, picked up in a used bookstore when I recognized the name and thought, "Zelazny? Sounds familiar. I think I ought to read him".

It's only 190 pages, but it packs more weird ideas than most SF novels three times its length. It could so easily have been padded out, and in today's market it almost certainly would've been. Heck, if I found out that Isle of the Dead had originally been 600 pages and its current length was a result of merciless editing, I would've believed it. As it is, I feel like I've read a delightful artifact from an earlier time when being succinct was nothing to be ashamed of.

The last two used SF paperbacks I read, the Harrison and the Sheckley, were both written as light fluffy comedies, and I'm not dissing that. I like light fluffy comedies. Zelazny, though, delivered a short little novel written with some mighty literary style. That meant I couldn't just breeze through it as quickly as I'd planned, but I'm not complaining. Zelazny has impressed me, and now that I have a better idea of what to expect from him I'm looking forward to reading some more.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman

Hsun-ching is an orphan, growing up in the care of the elderly monk Wei-ching. Wei-ching has made a lifetime study of Buddhist texts, but there is one that has eluded him: the nearly legendary Laughing Sutra. Only one copy is known to exist, and it is in far away America. Wei-ching is too old to make the trip, so his young apprentice Hsun-ching, after nearly a decade separated from his master due to the unpredictable vagaries of the 20th-century Chinese history they're living through, decides to travel to San Francisco in his place.

Accompanying him on this Journey to the West is the immortal, immensely strong Colonel Sun, who missed most of the 20th Century lurking in his cave behind a waterfall, but who proves himself surprisingly adaptable...

I first encountered author Mark Salzman through his memoir Iron and Silk, his tale of living in Hunan in the early 1980s. I've only made short trips to the People's Republic myself, never venturing beyond Beijing, Hong Kong and Macau, but I have an appetite for historically recent tales of life there. The 1980s were a time when China was just beginning to cast off the insanity of the 1960s and 1970s, and Salzman relates tales of official paranoia and bureaucratic obstructionism as well as anyone who was in China at the time.

Now, The Laughing Sutra is a work of fiction. It is a comedy, often a dark one, and is downright chilling in its early sections when the Cultural Revolution is dealt with unflinchingly. The latter half of the book, set in the United States, is much lighter, crossing almost into sitcom-style comedy territory, but the book works well as an overall unit. Intended for Western readers, The Laughing Sutra has a good deal to teach about late 20th century Chinese history, certain strands of Eastern philosophy, and the pragmatism with which, it seems, Chinese culture can interpret and react to Western culture if official propaganda and existing assumptions are overcome.

And, of course, there's a retelling of the "Journey to the West" (often titled "Monkey" in English translation), one of those literary classics that's as famous as Shakespeare on one side of Eurasia and almost unknown on the other. That story inspired this one.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

A group of academics in a sixteenth-century Islamic school discuss the laws of optics. Saint Augustine is at his lectern, in a rough eleventh-century drawing. An ancient Greek woman reads her scroll by unrolling with one hand and simultaneously rolling up the other end with the other. A fifteenth-century illustration shows a stern teacher with a briar, ready to discipline the student who is reciting before him. And there is an edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare in CD-ROM form, from the 1990s.

These are all illustrations from just one short section of Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading. These illustrations are not gratuitous. Every one of them is referenced naturally in the text, and is described with Manguel's intelligent and perceptive eye.

Manguel has filled his book with fascinating historical anecdotes and insights. Which is not to say that he has merely slapped together a collection of factoids and tidbits. On the contrary. Manguel, more erudite and better-read than I will ever be, has composed chapters with themes ranging from the evolution of the physical shape of the book, to individuals who have valued books to the extent that they have become compulsive book thieves, to the challenges of translating poetry.

Future generations will be able to precisely date Manguel's book by the references to technology. Mention is made of books being stored on CD-ROM, and there is a short bit on hypertext, but there is no discussion of how the Internet has impacted people's reading habits. One would correctly estimate the year of publication to be around 1996.

One way in which the Internet may have a long-term impact that no one (except perhaps for Marshall McLuhan's ghost) could have predicted in 1996 came to mind when I came across the chapter on reading out loud. Pliny the Younger lived during a time when poets were expected to give readings before flocks of their adoring public; far more people knew these writers' works through having them read to them, in fact, than through reading them on their own. In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens gave hugely popular performances in which he read from his novels. From our vantage point, we see these performances as publicity stunts meant to promote his main product: the novels themselves, in printed book form. But Dickens was by all accounts a masterful public showman, and it's likely that for many of the attendees, his readings were his main product, and if you could buy printed text versions to take home with you, they were primarily expensive souvenirs.

This form of entertainment has largely died out. I can't think of anything quite similar in today's live performances. And with the advent of television in the latter half of the 20th century, it was widely assumed that texts being read aloud was dead as a form of mass entertainment.

Then, in the fifteen years that have passed since Manguel's book was published, the Internet exploded and things changed. I didn't even know the word "podcast" until 2006, but now we're at the point where no individual human being has the time to keep up with every audio fiction podcast that caters to people with an appetite for SF/fantasy/horror/weird fiction, just to name one of several possible genre examples. These exist because there is a demand for them. This isn't a bubble -- I predict the market will continue to grow.

It seems all it took was the smashing of the barriers of distance and geography, and people's instinctive desire to have stories read to them was re-awakened.

Some other assorted tidbits that stuck in my mind, in no particular order:

- In the fourth century, St. Augustine wrote of watching St. Ambrose read, and thought it quite notable that Ambrose read silently -- his eyes took in the text and he understood every word, but he did not make a sound. Reading out loud was the norm in the West, and would remain so for several centuries more.

- Late medieval schools in Europe were horrors that would make a modern critic of rote learning cry out in despair. Memorization was the order of the day, not learning. And while this might be somewhat justified as it was a society where books were rare and precious and an educated person was expected to have accumulated huge amounts of memorized knowledge, one prominent product of the system, Jakob Wimpfeling, said that his former classmates generally "could neither speak Latin nor compose a letter or a poem, nor even explain one of the prayers used at Mass".

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Technicolor Time Machine by Harry Harrison

Barney Hendrickson is a third-rate movie director working at a third-rate studio that's about to go under. Help arrives in the form of a time machine invented by local eccentric scientist Dr. Hewitt. With the help of the time machine - which looks just like how a Hollywood time machine should look, because it was fancied up to serve as a prop in the mad scientist movie the studio was just finishing up on - the studio plans a Viking epic to be filmed on location in the Orkneys and in Vinland in Viking times. Hilarity ensues, but the movie is completed, and Barney Hendrickson inadvertently becomes famous.

Fortunately Harry Harrison wrote the 1967 novel The Technicolor Time Machine as a very broad comedy, and it's clear from the start that the sense of general preposterousness is fully deliberate. Harrison's got a long career writing comic SF; he's probably best known for the Stainless Steel Rat books, of which I've read the first three. They're pretty good examples of the "ludicrously competent interstellar hero thwarts the bad guys and saves the day" genre. He also wrote the book the movie Soylent Green is very, very loosely derived from.

The Technicolor Time Machine is amusing, although much of its humor is a satire of the Hollywood of the 1960s, already somewhat out of date and getting more so all the time. (In fact, I'd wager that with the accelerating evolution of entertainment media, the next 15 years might well alter the business side of how movies are made more than the past 40 years have. Kids these days won't understand the older generation's satires of Ye Olde Hollywoode.) And characters like L. M. Greenspan and Ruf Hawk are comedy tropes you've surely seen a dozen times before.

So what about the science fiction side of things? The book's got some neat moments, but it doesn't really do anything new or mind-blowing with the time travel trope. Yes, I remember it was published in 1967 and Back to the Future was still nearly two decades away, but written science fiction has always been more imaginative and daring than its celluloid cousin, and Robert A. Heinlein's rather more mind-blowing short story "All You Zombies" predates this book by eight years. To sum up: use of time travel trope, competent but not extraordinary.

And what's with this piece of dialogue toward the end of the book?

Barney clutched the paper. "Let me get this straight. Are you telling me that I can make the film after the deadline, then return to a time before the deadline to deliver the film?"

"I am."

"It sounds nuts."

"But Barney's been zipping back and forth in a time machine for the WHOLE DAMN BOOK!" said the reader.
That last line was my addition.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

There's an old observation that novelists who honed their craft in universities tend to write an awful lot about middle-aged academics contemplating adultery. With that in mind...

At the center of Zadie Smith's On Beauty is Howard Belsey, a middle-aged academic teaching in the humanities at Wellington College, a fictitious liberal arts college on the outskirts of Boston. The nice thing about Boston is that it's got so many well-known academic institutions already that you can give it another whole college without worrying about changing its character. Wellington's got a reputation in this universe as a den of left-leaning academics, and Howard, a British art history professor who married an African-American woman and has three mixed-race children, is everyone's dream caricature of a liberal academician. His archnemesis is Montague Kipps, a Jamaican-born black British academic who is going to be lecturing at Wellington this year. Professor Kipps is a well-known leader in reactionary political circles and a darling of the American right. He has brought his wife Carlene and one of his two children with him. That's where I'll arbitrarily stop, before I get further into the tangled connections between the many major characters.

On Beauty is at its most amusing when accurately (I imagine) satirizing liberal arts academia. It also deals well with issues of cultural identity, particularly circling around Howard's teenage son Levi. Zadie Smith has a great ear for dialogue, particularly characters who are rather less than articulate (Levi) or characters who are ridiculously full of themselves (too many to mention). I also have to applaud Smith's very, very British sense of humor in creating social awkwardness for your dignified characters.

That said, I got a strong impression that the characters, as realistic and entertaining as their dialogue can be, are really just game pieces being moved around the board. You must remember that the universe of On Beauty contains no more than two dozen or so actual people, who bounce off of each other in a slow sort of Brownian motion. Just keep that in mind, and your mind won't be blown by the coincidences that dog this story, particularly the big one in the final section, involving a painting.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Robot Servant

Tyler Cowen's got a good column up arguing in favor of seeing driverless cars on the road. Taking a wider view, he says that regulations and the way our society works will hinder adoption of this technology in the interests of "safety", even if widespread adoption of driverless cars means many lives spared.

In a related blog post, he adds:

1. I couldn’t fit it in the column, but it is an interesting question why there is no popular movement to encourage driverless cars. Commuting costs are very high and borne by many people. (Here is Annie Lowery on just how bad commutes can be.) You can get people to hate plastic bags, or worry about a birth certificate, but they won’t send a “pro-driverless car” postcard to their representatives. The political movement has many potential beneficiaries but few natural constituencies. (Why? Does it fail to connect to an us vs. them struggle?) This is an underrated source of bias in political outcomes.

Well, bear in mind that 99% of the populace has no idea this technology exists yet. I didn't realize it myself until just three months or so ago, when stories about recent technological advances began appearing online. And if you're still unfamiliar with this technology, this short (4-minute) presentation by Sebastian Thrun at TED is a decent introduction:

Make people aware of these cars first. Then start worrying about why people don't seem to care.

2. In the longer run a lot of driverless cars would be very small. Imagine your little mini-car zipping out and bringing you back some Sichuan braised fish, piping hot.

Excellent. At that point they cross the line in people's consciousness from "driverless car" to "robot servant". I would like to request that by the time I am in my 40s they be widely available and the price of a high-end mp3 player today. Cowen's got a good point that the line between "driverless car" and "robot servant" is entirely arbitrary and invented by humans.