Sunday, August 30, 2015

Book Review: 'seveneves' by Neal Stephenson

seveneves (2015)
Neal Stephenson (1959)

 867 pages

In one of my recent book reviews I recalled the 50-page-rule --- that a book should be given 50 pages before deciding whether or not to finish it. As I read Neal Stephenson’s seveneves, the rule most definitely did not come into play; I was hooked from the opening line, and when I first checked on my progress I was already 57 pages in, fully engrossed in the world he creates.

Set just a few years into our future, the book opens with, quite literally, a bang: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparently reason."

The explosion leaves behind seven large fragments, plus a cloud of smaller bits and pieces, and, once the initial shock of the dramatic change in mankind’s view of the heavens subsides, appears largely non-threatening. Within days, however, scientists begin to understand that the new arrangement in Earth’s orbit is not as stable and benign as originally thought, and the situation quickly devolves into an inexorable countdown to disaster, leaving humanity in a struggle against time and odds for survival. With a hard, if not precisely defined, deadline in place, the nations of the world organize their citizens around a dramatic build-up of the International Space Station (ISS), to create a refuge for humanity in space.

Stephenson has divided his story of the legacy of the moon’s explosion into three parts. The book opens with the initial disaster, and the reactions of the world’s peoples to the rapidly approaching deadline the Earth faces. The second part slips ahead to the moments immediately before the cataclysm, and continuing on into the first several years after it, as the contingent of humans in space attempt to achieve a sustainable existence from which the human race can again develop. The final third of the novel jumps to the far distant future, to what has developed from the humble re-beginnings of the first post-apocalyptic years.

Starting from a simple premise --- Earth’s people forced to find a way to survive an apocalyptic event by creating a viable, sustainable presence in orbit above the Earth --- Stephenson creates a truly epic vision of our future. He presents a rousing story of action and adventure, as the main characters careen from one predicament to the next, trying to avoid potentially species-ending disasters while they create their future home in space, and then, several millennia later, as they look back toward a radically altered Earth. Fortunately, however, Stephenson does not just settle for an easy, mindless thrill-ride in his novel; instead he works into his story significant detail, through descriptions of the psychological and physical realities faced by the characters. This was a choice that surely complicated the preparation and writing of the book, but adds tremendously to the drama of the telling.

The psychological aspects are perhaps the less surprising of these, given the pre-ordained apocalypse that no one on Earth can ignore. Beyond the obvious issues for those doomed to a certain death, and others crammed into a small space struggling to survive, Stephenson broadens the story to include the kinds of political and social maneuvering and intrigue apparent in even the most superficial review of our daily news, with of course the pressure cooker of an apocalypse to heighten the stakes. Human nature also survives the apocalypse largely unchanged, in Stephenson’s view of the future, complicating a future that may look on the surface dramatically different than our present, but in which not unfamiliar conflicts play out. All of this makes a spicy addition to what would otherwise have been a quite run-of-the-mill science fiction tale.

Stephenson’s novel truly shines, however, with his descriptions of the science of what occurs in the novel, the physics and engineering behind much of what happens. Not satisfied, for example, to simply describe the shifting of a space craft from one orbit around the Earth to another, he explains the many challenges that such a seemingly simple maneuver entails, the why behind the significant planning and energy required. Taking what could easily have been distracting asides, Stephenson works them into the flow of the novel, so that, even if a reader might not be interested in such details per se, the understanding provided actually adds to the intrigue and tension of the moment. And for readers are interested --- in the challenges of living and working and maneuvering in space --- the story becomes a fascinating exploration of what may be possible just short decades into our future (if, hopefully, without the need for an apocalyptic event to make them manifest.)

For most of the novel Stephenson pulls off this tricky integration of added scientific detail into the story. I will admit that one place it felt a little forced was in his description of weapons of the distant future; those few pages felt more inserted than most of the other such topics --- less seamlessly incorporated into the story. But, that quibble aside, I found the novel doubly compelling for having the added level of authenticity.

Fans of science fiction, and particularly post-apocalyptic fiction, will find a lot to enjoy in Stephenson’s engaging novel. With fast-paced action that keeps you pushing ahead for more, and nitty-gritty details that give you a feeling of intoxicating plausibility, it will be hard to set the book down once you start it.

Other reviews / information:
In an interview in the Seattle Times, Stephenson is asked the question that will be on every reader’s mind when they finish the final page of seveneves:
Q: The end of “Seveneves” cries out for a sequel. Do you have one in mind?

A: There’s nothing currently in the works. A lot depends on what happens in the next few months, how people respond to the book, if there’s any interest in doing media adaptations. All science fiction and fantasy is about building worlds. When I was a kid, I remember reading Frank Herbert’s “Dune” for the first time. (There’s) a glossary of some of the unfamiliar terms used in the book. At first it was off-putting, though now it’s commonplace … by the time I had read through the glossary, I had a picture in my head of the way that this world works. It’s not just one story, it’s a whole world. … Almost any successful fantasy or science-fiction book is going to leave you with the sense that there could be more. 

Read quotes from this book

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book Review: "The Influencing Machine" by Brooke Gladstone

The Influencing Machine (2011)
Brooke Gladstone

Illustrated by Jeff Neufeld

170 pages

Brooke Gladstone edits and, along with Bob Garfield, hosts the engaging and informative weekly National Public Radio program On the Media, which analyzes how the media reports stories, as well as the complex relationships between the media and its audience, advertisers, and government leaders. In 2011, building off of her many years of experience on the show, Gladstone released a graphic nonfiction book, The Influencing Machine, in which she reviews the long history of the media. She tells the story using a comic book format in which she herself appears as a character, serving as our guide as she distills down for the reader how the media has evolved, and the variety of psychological biases that challenge reporters as they do their work.

The story opens with a summary of the history of the media, starting in the ancient societies of Guatemala and Egypt, where rulers put in place people responsible for documenting their deeds. After brief stopovers in Roman Empire and seventeenth century Europe, Gladstone quickly focuses in on “The American Exception,” tracing the early development of the press in the American colonies, its growth in the newly formed United States, and on up to modern times.

As she traces the development of the press in the US, it becomes clear that this represents a kind of history of the country itself; we discover that many of the contentious issues playing out today between the press and the government have their origins in the early years of our Republic. So, for example, the Sedition Act signed into law by President John Adams in 1798 during an undeclared naval war with France empowered the government to restrict speech that it felt maligned its policies and officials. Though the act was allowed to expire a few years later under Thomas Jefferson, similar acts have reappeared every few decades, whenever the government has felt threatened by too much free speech.

Gladstone goes on to describe the conflicted relationship the press has had, and continues to have, with its audience. She points out that levels of public trust in the media have varied widely over the course of the republic, and that recently, aside from a brief spike after 9-11, have reached painfully low levels. The reason often given for this low opinion of the press is that it is politically biased --- generally expressed as being too liberal.

The real problems for the media, Gladstone claims, are a host of other biases, which she examines in successive, short chapters: Commercial Bias (novelty sells), Bad News bias (threatening events sell), Status Quo Bias (resisting change sells), Access Bias (reporters enjoy contact with powerful figures), Visual bias (pictures sell), Narrative bias (stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, sell), and Fairness bias (bending over backwards to appear balanced sells). She notes that it can be all too easy for the media to fall into these various biases, often under the claim of giving the public what it wants. As she makes clear, however, each of these biases serves only to pervert and distort the reporting being done.

In an extended section she looks at how the negative effects of these existing biases become strengthened in times of war, as reporters struggle between their role as journalist and their role as citizens, and the government and the military balance the need to get the story out that they want told, while keeping secret what they don’t want revealed. Gladstone takes examples from the U.S. Civil War up through the War in Iraq to describe how the press, the government and military have performed a complicated dance with one another, each seeking the maximum advantage. As she points out, the public often suffers from the resulting confusion and obfuscation.

Her discussion on the role of the press in war-time leads directly to her next topic: Objectivity. She calls it “an unreachable goal – because it’s unprofitable to ignore your readers’ emotions, assumptions, and values,” (98) and goes on to describe the challenges to achieving it, using examples from as far back as the early 1800’s.

A particular aspect of Objectivity that she discusses, one that has been addressed extensively by scholars such as Noam Chomsky, is that much of the press constrains its reporting to within starkly defined limits. She cites a description from ‘historian Daniel Hallin [that] divides the journalist’s world into three spheres’, with reporters limiting themselves to a narrow, doughnut-shaped region of what’s allowed to be reported on, a region bounded on the inside side by “consensus ... unquestionable values and unchallengeable truths,” and on the other by “deviance ... the place for people and opinions that the ‘mainstream of the society reject as unworthy of being heard.’” Again citing Hallin, Gladstone notes that the mainstream media not only confines itself to these hard bounds, but also “plays gatekeeper, by defining and defending ‘the limits of acceptable political conduct.’”(105) To go beyond these bounds to be marginalized, almost by definition.

This last thought plays into perhaps the most critical role of Gladstone’s book, her debunking of the idea that there is some sort of conspiracy of the media, through which the media are attempting to control the public --- that is, that there is an “influencing machine” at the heart of the media. Already in the Introduction, Gladstone firmly declares
There is no conspiracy. Even though the media are mostly corporate-owned, their first allegiance is to their public because, if they lose that allegiance, they lose money. … Conspiratorial. That’s a joke. Craven? Not quite so funny. (xiv)

The book comes in at some 170 pages and with its comic book format one could imagine that ultimately there is not much content. Quite the opposite is true, however; Gladstone has done an excellent --- and undoubtedly crazy-time-consuming --- job of condensing a huge amount of detailed information into each page, using the strengths of the comic strip format and the wonderful illustrations by Jeff Neufeld, to reinforce and amplify her message. Someone looking for a clear and yet compact summary of the role of the media, and the issues facing it, would be well-served starting with Gladstone’s excellent book.

Other reviews / information:

For Noam Chomsky's take on the limitations within which the media operate, and which they also help to enforce, see for example Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, a thorough and pointed discussion of the history and implications of the situation.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review: "The Siege in the Room" by Miquel Bauçà

The Siege in the Room (1997)
Miquel Bauçà (1940-2005)

Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent

 149 pages

When you hear about the so-called 50 page rule, the discussion seems to fall into two camps: those who tend to stop reading a book they don’t like after just 10 or 20 pages, and so use the rule to force themselves to always give a book at least 50 pages before quitting on it; and those who generally always finish a book they start, even if they have to struggle through it, and use the rule to give themselves the excuse to sometimes quit a book early. My tendencies place me firmly in that second group: I try to be selective when I choose a book (so probably miss out on some good ones --- there’s no perfect solution when time is limited), but once I start a book, I feel a commitment to the author to finish it. Even when I was in principle following the 50 page rule, I only seldom invoked it; nonetheless there were a few books I gave up on.

Then, some years ago, I read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World. As I approached the 50 page mark, I found myself on the verge of setting it aside --- there were another 500 some pages to go, and I wasn’t finding myself engaged. Suddenly, on page 48, Vargas Llosa’s story reached out and grabbed me by the neck, and it didn’t release its grip until I had finished the book. I recall the moment when it took hold of me very clearly, including my realization that, if the typeset or the structure of the edition had been ever so slightly different, and what I read on page 48 had been instead on page 52, I may have quit too early, thus depriving myself of an amazing, thrilling, engaging story. From that point on, my use of the 50 page rule went from seldom to essentially never.


The idea of it, the option, has still been there in the background. And I must admit that, as I struggled through the first of the three novellas by Miquel Bauçà collected into The Siege in the Room, I was tempted to set the book aside. Ultimately I persevered --- in part because the 50 page mark was already a third of the way through the book anyway--- but it was a dogged fight on to the end.

That said, I don’t necessarily want to scare you off from giving these novellas a try. The first, Carrer Marsala, won literary prizes in Barcelona, and brought Bauçà some amount of fame; the fact that, according to the translator’s introduction, Bauçà steadfastly refused to acknowledge these honors, and the resultant renown, may ultimately not be wholly unrelated to his challenging writing style. Picking up this book, you just need to enter with an understanding of Bauçà’s style in these novellas, and your own preference as a reader.

The three stories are each told in a first person, stream of consciousness style, though in each case by a narrator who doesn’t bother to fill in any background, and who is unable to maintain a coherent train of thought for more than a few successive sentences. That is not to say that our narrator’s ruminations are random; rather, he follows a line of thought for a couple few sentences, then suddenly keys in on some element of what he has just told us, and allows it to take his thoughts into a new direction, only to diverge yet again onto another path a few sentences later.

The result is a surreal mixture of introspection that sometimes can seem on the verge of a profound conclusion, before veering again and again into the banal. The overall impact of his style is best comprehended by simply reading several pages of one of the stories, but, to give a hint of what to expect, here are the opening paragraphs of the first story:
Maybe the world hadn’t always been sad. When we say our words are dragged down by inertia, we mean that what we learn as a pup stays with us. The same applies to other things. Girls, for example, use the phone but don’t know its precise function.
I spread my fingers. Carefully I study the outline of their bones. Who can deny me this innocent activity? More than one person might be annoyed by it. Many people believe that it’s impossible to agree with all your neighbors at the same time. Faced with this situation, isn’t it only fair to choose what best suits me? (5)

This first story continues on in this manner, with no definable plot, or even a recognizable order to what we learn about the narrator and his world. The effect is one of tapping into the mental ramblings of a somewhat paranoid loner, who is looking out at a frenetic world, unable to find a stable place within it.

The second novella, The Old Man, is told in a similar style, though it at least contains a single, tiny plot point, around which the narrator’s thoughts revolve. Specifically, he recalls having moved into an apartment building to which came an “officer who, on the first Wednesday of every month, climbed the stairs to give the old man on the first floor a beating.” (67) Curious to learn why this happens, but hesitant to become involved in the loathsome gossip-mongering of the menagerie of his fellow residents, our narrator drifts along on the edge of resolution, and of coherent thought.

In the final novella, The Warden, our narrator is apparently the charge of a female warden, though the precise relationship between the two appears more complex than simply that of a prisoner and jailer. The narrator describes moments of apparent (or imagined?, or past?) freedom, but his thoughts always return to the enigmatic connection he has with his jailer.

In each of these three novellas there is the indication of the passage of time; in the first story, for example, the narrator mentions at one point that “Today … is … Thursday,” and, a little later, that “Tomorrow is Saturday.” But these statements provide no firm handle for the reader to grasp onto. If anything they imply, or perhaps reinforce, that we only get pieces of the narrator’s thoughts, stitched together. The point of the stories seems to be the particular style and structure Bauçà created; the plot remains unimportant. A potential analogy in art, for example, would be the movement from paintings that tell a specific story --- historical or biographical or religious --- to Surrealist art, in which a coherent story can be difficult to fathom.

If you appreciate the surreal, or simply like to experience unusual forms of storytelling, give Bauçà’s three novellas in The Siege in the Room a go. Just prepare yourself for a strange ride.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf