Something Rotten

something rottenSomething Rotten, Jasper Fforde

We return to Thursday Next after little more than two years have passed since her adventures in the Well of Lost Plots. She’s had a successful, if brief, tenure as the Bellman running Jurisfiction in Book World, but now feels its time to head home, with her toddler, Friday, in tow. She still has a few things to take care of, such as the fact that her husband, Landen, is still eradicated in this time stream, Yorrick Kaine, an escapee from Book World, is poised to possibly take control of the country and is whipping up dangerous anti-Dutch sentiment, and her son should probably learn about the RealWorld. As if that wasn’t enough, she also has to deal with a host of William Shakespeare clones, a highly-skilled assassin known as The Windowmaker (a newspaper typo that stuck), a rogue Minotaur, and make sure the Swindon Mallet’s win their croquet game and fulfill St. Zvlkx’s seventh revealment, or else the Gloliath corporation can continue to rule the world.

Something Rotten is probably my favorite of the Thursday Next books. Fforde’s ability to keep so many disparate threads going is unparalleled (each of those plots up there has its own grouping of subplots—to win the croquet game they need help from the Neanderthals, but Thursday’s friend Stig can only convince the other Neanderthals to play if they go to the original cloning facility to find the gene sequence once again allowing them to reproduce, which entails sneaking across the Welsh border), and his world building is awe-inspiring. But much of my time reading the first two books was just trying to keep track of all of the different pieces. Fforde throws us into his books from the beginning with an expectation we’ll know what’s going on, and it takes a few books to really catch up on the rules about home-cloning, what’s going on in the Crimea, and just how the Toast Marketing Board fits into all this. Having finally more or less gotten myself acquainted with those bits, I was really able to immerse myself in this world.

Here we also see a bit of the darker side of this particular universe and Goliath’s actions, as they return to some of their original cloning facilities. It may seem odd to say we’re finally seeing a darker side—after all, they eradicated Thursday’s husband, have tried to take over all of book world, and killed more than a few people and characters—but the tone there has always been on the lighter side. For a short section it’s a bit more somber, and one can see the beginnings of the plan for the world of Shades of Grey.

Something Rotten shows off Fforde’s attention to detail and sense of humor to his best. This sort of world building can only really work if you’re 100% committed, and Fforde is throughout. Friday is learning to speak, but as a toddler can only speak Lorem ipsum for now. Hamlet is as moody as you’d expect. And there is more than one seemingly throwaway line at the beginning that ends up being crucial at the end, with clues sprinkled throughout the book. Nothing Fforde does is ever truly a throwaway line, and every character or action will follow the principle of Chekov’s gun, which is part of what makes his books such a delight to read. This isn’t the type of series you can just pick up and try to follow, but it is very much worth the effort to understand. Definitely one to sink your teeth into and laugh along the way.

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Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

don't sleepDon’t Sleep There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazon Jungle, Daniel Everett

In 1977, Daniel Everett and his family went to live with a remote Amazonian tribe to translate the Bible and convert the people. Instead, Everett came out an atheist and challenging all of the standards of linguistic orthodoxy. This is his story.

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes is part memoir, part scientific explainer, part anthropological study. Everett himself is quite an interesting character. He had an unstable and challenging childhood, but in high school met a girl, Keren, from an Evangelical, and former missionary, family. He fell for her, converted, and the two of them decided to also become missionaries. They joined a group called SIL International with a particular missionary tactic, dedicated to sending missionaries out to stay with uncontacted people, learn the language, and translate the Bible. Everett showed an amazing aptitude for languages, and by all accounts, even those who disagree with his theories, he is a uniquely gifted linguist. SIL noticed this and after their studies were complete he and his family were sent to live with the Pirahã (pronounced “Pee-da-han”), a remote tribe in the Brazilian Amazon, speaking a language that was connected to no known living language and that had stymied other translators they’d sent.

 

I remember Everett’s work making a bit of a splash when it first came out, even in traditional news sources. Well, okay, nerdy ones like NPR, The New Yorker, and The Economist, but still. Everett became the first outsider to be fluent in Pirahã, and, indeed, fluent in their culture. And here is where he began to challenge both traditional linguistics and, through his immersion in their culture and resistance to conversion, to lose his own Christian faith. It’s the linguistics part that got him the most attention. I am not a linguist, but will try to walk briefly through the debate.

The prevailing theory of linguistics, and practically the only one at the time of Everett’s studies, is that the basic structure of language is something that humans are born with. Looking at the similarities in languages, how all children acquire them automatically with no effort, at roughly the same ages, and how the complexities in our language are unique to humans and not to be found in other species that communicate, there is something specifically human about language and a ‘language center’ in our brain.

So far, this doesn’t seem like it should be controversial. Obviously, there’s something that makes us ‘different’. What starts to be a problem is that this theory, which originated with Noam Chomsky, holds that there are building blocks that will be found in absolutely every language, and that we can understand language best by studying these innate traits in very language. And that there is no need to correspond with culture or the society in which a language developed, because the same tools will be found in each. Like tenses, basic descriptive words, abstractions, and something called recursion, the ability to imbed one thought in another. An example would be, “The girl, who wore a red dress and was drinking coffee, entered the bookstore and browsed the mystery section.” In theory, you can use recursion to imbed almost infinite ideas and write Faulkner length sentences. According to Chomsky, this is one of the building blocks of human languages and must be part of a human language center, every language would have it.

And here is the problem, what made such a splash when Everett started publishing his work. The Pirahã do not have recursion. In their language, there is no way to write the above sentence. Instead, they would say, “There is a girl. She has a red dress. She was drinking coffee. She entered the bookstore. She looked at the mystery section.” Only they wouldn’t really say that, because the other key issue that Everett focused on in his linguistic and cultural studies is that the Pirahã don’t include abstract concepts.  And so they don’t have color words. They would say, “There is a girl. She is wearing a dress the color of ripe passion fruit.”

It seems like this element of recursion is a relatively small thing, but in fact, it was, and still is, controversial. Pirahã is the only language that doesn’t seem to have this. It also, as mentioned, doesn’t include abstract concepts, and so there are not descriptive words, such as colors, that exist unto themselves, only comparisons to other things. They do not have numbers other than one, two, a few, or many, something that they do share with a few other languages. Their tenses are limited, as they place an importance on immediate and personal experience, which is rather unique among culture as well. There are other pieces that make Pirahã a particularly challenging language. Pirahã also has very few phonemes (think the parts of a word that make syllables, every unique sound). Everett counts 11, the smallest known number. It’s also a highly tonal language, that can sound like singing, and indeed, much of the language can be communicated through whistling due to the importance of tones. And it is one of the few languages to have a male and female version—not male and female words like “la casa” and “los banos” the way many Latin languages do, but separate ways that a woman would talk and a man would talk. But while all of these make it a difficult language to learn and translate, it is the lack of recursion or abstraction that challenge existing theories.

The discussions on language were quite interesting. What Everett focused on, and what I was surprised to learn most Chomskyian linguists refuse to consider, is that culture informs language and language informs culture. What comes first can be a chicken of an egg question, but they both work with each other. If there isn’t an importance for something in a language, the people won’t have a word for it. And if there isn’t a word for it, people won’t identify it as important. This seems to me, as someone who’s done a good deal of social science work, as obvious, but apparently Chomsky’s emphasis on the linguistic center of the brain and commonality have suggested that language exists independent of other human experience and has nothing to do with culture. It seems as if it is a lone holdout in the sciences that hasn’t caught up to our post-Skinner world.

This book, however, goes beyond language. Everett focuses on how the lack of numbers, abstraction, tenses, etc. stem from a couple of unique aspects of the Pirahã. One of them is that they are fiercely isolationist. They have no interest in anything from an outside culture, and this includes missionaries. They trade with some individuals along the Amazon for liquor and a few other select items, but for the most part have no interest in anything brought by outsiders, including new languages, clothes, maths and sciences, or religions.

The other, as mentioned above, is their focus on immediate experience. They don’t dry fish or fruit or otherwise plan for the future (something that couldn’t exist in a northern culture, but works out in the tropics), they make planes when one comes to the village but otherwise don’t make art, they don’t have abstract words, such as colors, but would compare one thing to another—the color of a papaya, for instance, instead of pale green, and are one of the few cultures with no origin story. Everett says that when he would try to explain Jesus they would ask if he had seen Him, or if his friends had. When Everett said it was just passed down in books, they lost all interest.

Seeing how the Pirahã had no interest in Jesus or Christianity is what Everett to eventually lose his faith, and his marriage. His former wife Keren still lives in Brazil as a missionary. Everett, however, struggled on how to break through to the Pirahã and was ultimately struck by the simple fact that they didn’t seem to need Christianity, because they were fine without it, and so he turned away as well.

Don’t Sleep was incredibly interesting throughout, but I found that I had far more questions than answers in the anthropology type sections of the book than the linguistics. When describing his life with the Pirahã, Everett repeatedly says that they are the happiest people he’s ever met, which may well be true, and how wonderful their lives are. And he is clearly comfortable and at home in their life and culture, which shines through in the book. Where I think he breaks down is that he is constantly seeming to sell this life, again and again emphasizing how happy they are, how independent, how peaceful. Except that he also recounts how he watched a woman die in childbirth in the river alone because no one went to help her, independence being one of the traits of the tribe. And a harrowing story of how the tribe got drunk one night and talked about killing Everett and his family which was only averted because they didn’t realize how much of their language Everett had understood. Or the tale of one Pirahã woman who had married outside her tribe, and the other Pirahã had killed her husband and she had been forced to return. And again and again and again.

Everett tells us how happy and peaceful and content the Pirahã are, and then shows us the complete opposite. I don’t mean at all to suggest by this that the Pirahã are uniquely terrible or should be converted. Only that he seems to be somewhat blinded by his love of the culture and comfort in their society. A society that is probably on par with others in terms of misery and cruelty and violence—I mean, hey, we all have problems. I’ve since read that Everett has been criticized for being too close with the Pirahã to be truly independent in his field work, and I find that believable in terms of anthropology, although I’m not sure how much it would change his linguistic works or ability to translate.

All in all, though, while I question some of Everett’s conclusions or evaluations of the society, the book itself was fascinating on all levels. Everett is a skilled writer, and the topics here are ones that are incredibly unique and not often covered. He also, as mentioned above, touches on such a wide variety of topics that there is something for everyone, whether looking for linguistics, a travelogue, anthropology, or memoir. It’s stuck with me for a while, and that’s always a good quality in a book.

Sourcery

sourcerySourcery, Terry Pratchett

After a detour to learn about witches and spend some time with Death, Terry Pratchett returns to Rincewind and the wizards in Sourcery. A very distinct field from wizardry, mind you. It is part of the lore that that wizards must be celibate, but it has never been explained. And now we learn why—while the eighth son of an eighth son will be a powerful wizard, the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son will be something even more powerful, a sorcerer. A power that creates magic, rather than just learning of it and casting spells, and a power that will be tempted to take over the world and, according to prophecy, just might kick off the aprocaplypse. (An apocryphal apocalypse).

An eighth son of an eighth son has left he world of wizarding to go off and get married and have eight sons. As his last son is born, he cheats Death by putting himself into his son, Coin’s, staff, there to grow his son’s power, train him, and whisper into his ear about using that power to take over wizardry and the Disc.

In this, the fifth Discworld novel, Pratchett decides to listen to my earlier complaints, leave off some of the explaining and scene setting, and dive right in. Gone are the descriptions of how dawn doesn’t break but rolls leisurely around on Discworld, due to the odd effects of Magic on the Disc. The description of the Great A’Tuin is there, naturally, but without the musings about how with infinite possibilities such a world was bound to develop sometime. And, while I don’t mind some of Pratchett’s more preferred phrases being gone, I do miss some of the stories of the stranger religions and myths that are always provided as side bar in the novels.

When you’re as prolific as Pratchett, you’re bound to have a miss or two, and unfortunately, that was Sourcery. The book isn’t as fleshed out as the others, and not just in terms of the missing call-backs to how Discworld works. I didn’t quite understand why the wizards were all fighting each other, and I’m still not clear on how sorcery becomes such a problem. Or why Coin’s father became so malevolent. Or how the whole thing resolved in the end? The book flowed on quickly, and never seemed to explain itself, and I’m left rather unsatisfied with the plot itself. When I was almost to the end, I was still waiting to see when the book was going to really get started and explain itself.

Which isn’t to say it’s not a fun read. It is Pratchett, after all, who has barbarian maidens who dream of being hairdressers but are constantly compelled by their genetic calling to conduct feats of heroics instead. And the wonderful orangutan librarian, one of the great heroes of the books. The creative descriptions of the Disc and the characters keep the book moving. And Pratchett’s humorous, light writing, and delightful descriptions are always fun. Each paragraph is great to read on its own. They just never seemed to come together to make one story for this one.

The Big Over-Easy

the+big+over+easyThe Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde

Humpty Dumpty was pushed.

Or maybe not. But the mystery of how, exactly, Humpty Dumpty came to be splattered on the bottom of that wall, and who, if anyone is responsible, is at the heart of this whodunnit from Jasper Fforde.

The Big Over Easy takes place in the same universe as the Thursday Next books, a connection which becomes clear in The Well of Lost Plots, but rather than involving tales of classic literature, this case, in the Nursery Crimes division, takes place in the world of public domain poems. Jack Spratt—whose first wife died of health complications after only eating fat—is called in to investigate the Humpty Dumpty case, with his new assistant, Mary Mary. William Winkie, whose usually up at night, is the main witness. And Humpty Dumpty lives in a crowded boarding house run by Mrs. Hubbard.

I’ve mentioned before that Fforde’s books are the type of crazy, crowded, books, with almost too many conceits going on, that they could easily become terrible, too wrapped up in their idea to be any good. But he is such a talented writer that that never happens. The world of Nursery Crimes is convoluted, to be sure, and I had to be on my toes to keep track of what was happening here. But even while fully committed to its premise, and the character we should expect of the nursery characters, The Big Over Easy also works as a proper whodunnit, a suspenseful mystery in its own right, with twists and turns that might make you need to read the book twice, but make perfect sense within the world.

The Big Over Easy is somewhat easier to follow than the Thursday Next series, even though it’s in the same world. Being fully in the Nursery Crimes city, without having to jump around to different stories, or different times, the book makes far more sense immediately upon reading, without having to keep notes like one does when first introduced to Thursday’s world.  Personally, I prefer the Thursday Next novels, with their craziness, a momentum that feels it’s always rushing forward, and the fun of trying to keep track of all the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. But these are still a blast to read, and probably a good option for anyone who enjoyed the cleverness of Thursday Next but got lost and wants to ease their way in.

And, really, anyone who likes books and nerdy sci-fi and Douglass Adams or Terry Pratchett is going to enjoy Jasper Fforde. He’s a great writer, his books are clever, and they’re littered with enough allusions, call-backs, in-jokes, and obscure references to make anyone in the know feel very smug.  He should be the first choice of nerdy English lit hipsters everywhere.

Artemis

ArtemisArtemis, Andy Weir

Artemis, Andy Weir’s second novel, takes place a little closer to home than The Martian, but not very.  The novel takes place in the first (and so far only) city on the Moon, the titular Artemis, a necessarily small society that subsists primarily on tourists. Our protagonist, Jazz, is a brilliant, stubborn 20-something woman who lives at the edge of society and dabbles in illegality, who gets pulled into one big score. It turns out to be more than she bargained for, and she’s between forces in a massive and terrifying conspiracy, and needs a band of plucky friends to save the day—you know the drill.

Artemis was an entertaining enough read, but the book doesn’t play to Weir’s strengths. The Martian didn’t have the most creative of plots—someone is trapped, others must save him—it was told in a creative way.  Weir did a massive amount of research to make (most) of the science work in The Martian and managed to make it interesting. The book was basically describing how someone else solved a massive Odyssey of the Mind puzzle, and it takes skill to make that as readable, entertaining, and fun as The Martian was. Hard science fiction is still Weir’s strong suit, and when he veers into that, discussing the mechanics of how Artemis exists, or even the combination of scientific reality and economics that made Kenya rich by building Artemis and are driving the conspiracy, are incredibly compelling.

The problem is that Weir then decides to try to make this more of a story, with a complicated plot and characters interacting with one another and all that and, well, to be generous he could use a bit more practice. The plot was sort of a standard in-over-your-head criminal type thing, which is fine, but not revelatory. And the story clearly owed a debt to several places. The plot, as mentioned, was a standard one. Much of it could have been tracked down a path on TV Tropes.*  As could the characters. And the main character, for me, got to be a bit grating. I think Mark Watney would get to be a bit much after a while, but at least we had a break from him every now and again. Jazz is the only narrator. Her voice is all we get. And it was exhausting.

And now is the point where I defend Andy Weir, even while agreeing with some of the criticism. Weir has gotten a lot of flak for the way he wrote Jazz, with people complaining that he couldn’t write a female character. Firstly, I appreciate that Weir tries to make his worlds diverse, plenty of men and women in both, and he includes multiple races and ethnicities. It might not always work, but it does feel that he is trying authentically. And I give him much credit for writing a female protagonist, something that would never even occur to a large number of male authors, especially in the sci-fi space. So major credit for that.

Then there is this. Everyone being critical of the way Weir wrote Jazz needs to recognize that Jazz is basically Mark Watney, but with a few changes. Weir is not bad at writing female characters. Weir is not great at writing characters. Period. There is no shame in this for a sci-fi writer! Asimov was one of the greats, but read anything beyond a short story and its clear his strength was science and stories, not individuals. Heinlein married a chemical engineer and was famously supportive of women’s equality and liberation, yet if you read his books you’d swear he never actually interacted with a woman. In fact, go read the classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (to which Weir clearly owes a debt, even though his moon society is quite different) and tell me any of those characters are more realistic.

Artemis isn’t as amazing as The Martian, but it was still an entertaining read and I breezed through it in the afternoon. It’s as worth your time as whatever standard action movie you were going to pick up to watch. But Weir’s talents lie in the hard science and problem solving and big picture sci-fi stuff. Here’s hoping he figures that out for book three.

The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown

astoundingamazingunknownThe Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, Paul Malmont

The Astounding, the Amazing and the Unknown starts with what is actually a rather fascinating presence, based on a glimmer of reality. During World War II, three of the most famous authors of Golden Age science fiction—Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov—worked together at the Naval Aviation Experimental Station at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. It’s tempting to imagine what these sci-fi wonders could have accomplished, with their limitless imaginations, and what secrets may have taken place there. And that is the thread that Paul Malmont runs with.

Malmont imagines an alternative world where Tesla was able to make his death ray, hidden within Wardenclyffe Tower. The three authors, increasingly desperate to prove their worth to the navy, set off in search of the secrets of Wardenclyffe, and in a race against the Nazis, of course, with additional bumbling assistance/interference by L. Ron Hubbard. The book also practically serves as a tutorial on golden age sci-fi, and full of in-jokes and allusions for those who know. The title itself is a reference to the three main pulp magazines at the time, and it’s full of cameo appearances by other authors. At one point Heinlein mutters “So it goes,” while reading, then hands a stack of articles to a young recruit named Kurt for reading material on the train. Hubbard spends time in a boat with “Herbie” (Herbert) who has been at sea for too long and dreams of an endless dry desert.

The Astounding has what should be a clever set up, at Malmont has, obviously, a great love for the era of science fiction and an encyclopedic knowledge of the authors. Despite all of that, though, the book just doesn’t work. For one thing, the plot is slow-moving and meandering. It didn’t really hold my interest, and there so many separate threads it was hard to keep track of what was supposed to be happening at any one time. For another, the characters are impossible to identify with. Malmont clearly wants to humanize these authors, pulling is many separate threads from their lives, and introducing us to their homes and families. (There’s even one almost painful scene of a young Isaac Asimov having sex with his new wife on the roof of her parents’ apartment building. Particularly awkward because I cannot imagine a young Isaac Asimov. Did he still have his bolo tie?) Despite that, though, they all come off as caricatures of themselves, and we are reminded far too often of their work, past and future. Oddly enough the only one who seemed ‘real’ in the story was L. Ron Hubbard, probably because in life he was a caricature already.

It’s always sad to me when a book with promise never comes together, and this one in particularly felt like a lost opportunity. It did, however, remind me of some of the completely insane stories that are hidden in the world of World War II. The short story that predicted the atomic bomb. The complete insanity of Jack Parsons weird sex-and-black-magic cult. And, in general, the amazing research and seemingly limitless potential of science that existed at this time, with anything seeming to be possible now that we’d conquered the atom. Not to mention it helped me recall some authors I haven’t read in quite a while. So while I wouldn’t recommend the book itself, you might want to check out the appendix. You’re bound to find something good there.

 

Encounters with the Archdruid

encounters with the archdruidEncounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee

For anyone engaged in the environmental movement David Brower does—or should—loom large. The first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Brower turned it into a political powerhouse. He was responsible for stopping dams in the Grand Canyon, in establishing nine national parks and seashores, and passing the Wilderness Act. More than that, he fought for a vision that is still debated, a vision of wilderness, of places that are untouched (as much as possible) by human intervention. He wanted to protect nature for its own sake.

Brower is the Archdruid of the title in McAphee’s book, from a developer’s sarcastic comment that he calls all preservationists druids. The book follows Brower and others on three expeditions—a mountain hike, an island off the Georgia coast, and down the Colorado—with people with wildly differing views. One a geologist for a mining company who thinks the only way possible for humanity is to continue to use minerals, especially copper, in great quantities and mine wherever we can, another a developer who has been pioneering beauty and nature in development and wants to build on an almost entirely uninhabited barrier island, the last the person who would be closest to Brower’s archnemesis, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, who led almost every one of the dams that Brower opposed.

I don’t know exactly what I expected with this book, but it wasn’t this exactly. I suppose I expected more nature writing, and less of the debates I remember from school on conservation vs. preservation. Many of the debates did seem a bit rote, with people—Brower and his foils in each section—falling back on sound bites and the same arguments many have heard before. Often, surprisingly, the developers are given more free rein to talk in the book than Brower, with him seeming to be assured in his path and offering only that he resists their arguments, and their view of humanity and what we need.

That being said, I still found the book fascinating. McPhee lets the subjects, and the natural world, speak for themselves, and doesn’t vilify the developers on the other side, so to speak. And it’s a wonderful history of environmentalism in the country, one that I would strongly recommend to anyone engaged in these debates today. As the Brower argues preservation with those who say that a bit of development won’t hurt, that we can build houses but keep most of nature, build a small mine and be responsible with the tailings, flood only a small percentage of the Grand Canyon, it was hard not to think of how much more we’ve learned about ecosystems, how important it is to have large tracts undisturbed, how even a responsible developer will by necessity kick out parts of nature we don’t even know we need. 

I also found that I greatly appreciated Brower’s arguments for preservation: That it’s what we should do. That we need wild places. That we need beautiful places. That we don’t need to build a dam. That our short-term gains are destroying things that took millenia to come into being. This was a criticism of

sierra club ad

A Sierra Club ad from Browers Time. 

Brower during his time. He pioneered using emotional ads to rile up environmentalists to save the west, even going so far with some to see Sierra Club lose its tax exempt status. (And while they lost that status, and were accused of being unreasonable and unfair and pushing away moderates, they went from 2000 members to 77000- nearly 2 million today- and became the leading environmental organization. Consider that the next time you read an article about a lefty group being uncivil or worried about losing moderates.)

 

In a day and age where we assign a cost and a benefit analysis to everything, where everything is talked about in investment, where even a question about whether or not to raise the sea levels enough that entire countries may disappear is caught up in the short-term price, reading a full-throated defense of nature for nature, a steadfast belief in intrinsic value, and a rejection of our utilitarian way of thinking refreshing. We could use far more David Browers today.

“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”
— David Brower