Tangled Bank

From the closing paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

My own “tangled bank” is the little strip of land between Gus Ryder Pool and the lake. I find it endlessly fascinating to check on during lakeshore walks. It’s amazing what you can see when you look closely. Here’s what was going on when I visited it Sunday evening. Continue reading Tangled Bank

What I’m Reading, #18-20

Philip José Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)

This came in an omnibus edition with the next Riverworld book, The Fabulous Riverboat, but I disliked TYSBG and felt no compulsion to read on. It’s got a delightfully cracky premise but also a barrage of the crassest and most worn-out stereotypes imaginable, plus an unengaging hero (the Victorian explorer Richard Burton, who may carry a romantic, adventurous air for some, but for me just exemplifies imperialism, Orientalism and basically everything I fucking hate about the era). And I hear the series goes downhill, so yeah. It kills me to return a library book unfinished, but sometimes it’s justified.

Stephen Jay Gould, The Lying Stones of Marrakech (2000)

Collected essays, mostly dedicated to exploring various episodes from the standard boring-white-guy history of science with unusual nuance. Gould takes special care to debunk standard narratives of scientific progress, emphasizing that scientific breakthroughs are just as much a matter of shifting preconceived worldviews as making new observations. (In fact, the most radical discovery may still be overlooked or misinterpreted if we are overly constrained by our conceptual frameworks.) Among many other things, he examines Galileo’s colossal misinterpretation of the rings of Saturn, how Lamarck came to embrace a model of common descent, and the various cases held to be examples of observable evolutionary change. He also discusses the interplay of science and social issues in eugenics, chemical warfare, and cloning. There are weak bits—some incongruous obituaries and blurbs, his own prejudices and Baconian “idols”, etc.—but in general I think this is a must-read. I can’t help but feel that if Gould’s subtle, gently subversive, and self-questioning approach, not Dawkins’s harsh reductionism, had taken root in the public mind, the world would be a much better place.

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

The other night in a dream I found myself in the rain on a city street in an unfamiliar part of town, around midmorning, with an appointment at least a few hours away. I had this book in my bag, a lot of change largely in toonies and loonies (the easier to spend on frivolities), and nothing to do till my appointment—the perfect pretext to sit in a café having tea and pastries and reading. Then I realized that, since I did not want to loiter but had a lot of time to kill, I could go to another café afterwards. Multiple cafés! (In the dream and out of it, this is the purest, most delicious indulgence I can think of.)

My appointment got postponed, and postponed, and I came to feel that I had no need to rush. So I set off through the grey drizzle of an eternal weekday midmorning to sit by the window in an infinite series of cafés waiting for an appointment which might serendipitously never arrive, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and drinking tea forever.

It was like a Kafka story, but with a happy ending. It’s too bad I don’t have more dreams like that.

What I’m Reading, #12-17

12. John Scalzi, Old Man’s War (2005)

Thought I’d re-read this, as Tor.com readership recently voted it best of the decade. I don’t think it’s nearly that good (especially compared to contenders like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Blindsight), but it’s funny, poignant, and almost consistently enjoyable — and this is coming from someone who doesn’t normally touch military SF (aside from Bujold).

13. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

You can tell I’m getting close to exhausting the library holdings when I start dipping into its meagre stock of popular science books. Bryson is an entertaining writer, but geeks won’t learn anything new here. I would recommend this book as a starting point for people who have never taken a science class, ever, even in public school — with the caveat that they watch a whole lot of Mythbusters and keep Wikipedia open, because there is an irritating amount of myths, massive oversimplifications, and outdated material.

14-17. Scott Westerfeld, Uglies (2005), Pretties (2005), Specials (2006), Extras (2007)

Tore through this YA dystopian series set in a city-state where everyone is beautified and promoted to a life of carefree luxury on reaching sixteen. Through the hero, a teenage girl named Tally, we get a whirlwind tour through various social classes: insecure young Uglies, rebellious runaways, vapid Pretties, the covert ruling class of Specials. Extras portrays a “reputation economy” a little like the one in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, but actually done well. The big reveal at the end of the series is totally bogus, but it’s a well-established genre tradition, so I can hardly nitpick.

The Uglies books are especially interesting for a couple of reasons. First, while most dystopias are portrayed as more or less immutable thought-experiments, throughout the series we see Tally’s society changing quite radically in response to inside and outside pressures. The story also deals extensively and unusually thoughtfully with themes of the body, dis/ability, “nature”, and medicalization.

What I’m Reading, #7

Terry Pratchett, Nation (2008)

Nation is the kind of book that is delicious to read, but has a nasty aftertaste. It’s set in a nineteenth century different in several respects from ours. (For one, most of Australia is apparently underwater; the Pacific Ocean is the Pelagic Ocean; North America is known as the “Reunited States”; there’s no Queen Victoria, but there is a King, and he’s just died in a flu epidemic raging across Europe.) Mau is a young Pelagic Islander man — or rather, he would be a man, if a giant storm hadn’t wiped out everyone else on his island right before his initiation ceremony. But, as the ancestral spirits tell him, as long as he lives, the Nation lives, and so he begins rebuilding a society with an ever-growing number of survivors who land on the island.

The first of these is Daphne, an English girl who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck, and so there’s a lot of incredibly conventional “prim, sheltered young lady learns to live a little” stuff. There’s also the tiresome “sheltered white person meets brown people for the first time and learns that their fellow white people are the real savages!” thing. And then, of course, there’s the really overplayed conjunction of the two, all served up with a heavy helping of Terry Pratchett’s trademark Dreadfully Twee Capitalization.

It’s still a good yarn — I read it in a single sitting, I laughed, I cried, there’s a decently “deep” theodicy subplot — but the smug back-patting we’re all nice white people here factor only increases, culminating in an plot resolution that completely destroyed the story’s believability for me. Spoilers ahoy. Continue reading What I’m Reading, #7