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Archive for the tag “book reviews”

The Müller-Fokker Effect

The Müller-Fokker EffectThe Müller-Fokker Effect by John Sladek

A couple of weeks ago I read Singularity, which is about a hypotheitcal moment when computers surpass human intelligence and human consciousness. That reminded me of this book, which I read 45 years ago, since it is also about digitising human consciousness. So I thought I would re-read this one to remind me what it was about, and to compare it with the kind of things people are saying about “the Singularity”

In this book Bob Shairp works for National Arsenamid, and is transferred to a different branch where his new task is to be the guinea-pig in an experiment to see if it is possible to back up a human being on tape. The recording process is under way when some white supremacists break into the lab, convinced that it is an attempt to transplant a nigger brain into a white man, so they kill Bob, and the tapes are dispersed. One of them falls into the hands of an evangelist, who captures himself on it and programs an android to preach for him when he is ill or would rather be doing something else. Another falls into the hands of the military.

Bob’s son, Spot, is sent to a military school where he is desperately unhappy, and his mother goes into advertising, where she meets a salesman for a process of freezing people. Bob Shairp has a series of bizarre adventures in his taped form, as do most of the other characters, though for the most part in their actual bodies rather than on tape.

It’s an extended satire on 1970s America, sending up manufacturing, advertising, the military and militarism, journalism (notably Playboy), politics and ideologies, especially white supremacy and fanatical anti-communist conspiracy theorists.

Concerning the last, one can read it as a send-up of The Da Vinci Code, as the conspiracy theorists decipher codes that are more and more complex. A nice touch, satirising a book before it is published. Of course it’s not the only one to have done that. Umberto Eco, the author of Foucault’s Pendulum, insisted that Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci code, was a character in one of his novels.  In that respect it anticipates several books. It also predicts that Ronald Reagan would become US president (Nixon was president at the time it was written).

After 45 years I’d forgotten how funny it was (in parts, anyway), and in retrospect it also throws light on some subsequent developments, technical (the Singularity), cultural and political.

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Singularity

Singularity (The Jevin Banks Experience, #2)Singularity by Steven James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three years ago I heard Izak Potgieter speak at TGIF about The Singularity. According to him,  The Singularity is a milestone in the foreseeable future where technology, or non-biological intelligenc-
e, will reach the ability of its human creators, themselves largely non-biological by that point, and then transcend it at a rate that “will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed”.

I had previously heard of singularities as some kind of mathematical thing relating to the topological characteristics of Mobius strips, but Izak assured us that this was not just any old singularity, but The Singularity. And he described himself as a Singularitarian,.

So when we went to TGIF last week, and I saw a book with the title Singularity, I was moved by curiosity to buy it.

What is it about?

A mysterious death, mysterious semi-government research institutes where some dodgy research is going on, hints of connections with organised crime and bent cops — mix those ingredients and you can be sure that the protagonist and those he loves will be getting deeper into danger as the story progresses.

The protagonist is Jevin Banks, a stage musician who performs in Las Vegas, and his associates Charlene Antioch and Xavier Wray. Xavier Wray, like Izak Potgieter, is a Singularitarian.

The “singularity” of the title concerns the development of Artificial Intelligence and the point at which it overtakes human intelligence, and the book raises several questions about that. But these questions are not new, and I recall reading books published more than 50 years ago on the same topic. And some of the elements were also found in speculative fiction, in novels like The Müller-Fokker Effect, which spoke of capturing someone’s consciousness and storing it as digital data.

And over the years I’ve often used that as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that when we die God has us all backed up on tape somewhere, and when the last day comes he’ll restore it in new and improved hardware and reboot us.

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Stranger in a strange land

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I bought this book and had read about two-thirds of this original uncut version when I left it on a bus. I thought of buying another copy to see what happened in the end, but I didn’t think it was all that good, so I left it. Then when I saw a copy in the library I thought it was my chance to find out what happened, so I took it out and re-read it from the beginning because after 27 years I’d forgotten too much to just pick it up where I left off. And having reached the end, my verdict is unchanged. It’s not really worth paying good money for.The first half is OK, and I’d give it 3 stars on the GoodReads Scale. The second half is excruciatingly boring and preachy, and would get 1 star from me, so 2 stars for the whole thing.

The story concerns the first manned expedition to Mars, which disappears without trace. The second expedition finds there was a survivor — a child of two of the crew members who was born on Mars and named Michael Alexander Smith, and was brought up by Martians after his parents died. The second expedition brought him, now a young adult, back to earth, where he suffers from culture shock, and is perceived as a threat by vested interests on earth, and so is kept incommunicado by the government.

The book was at least partly responsible for starting a New Religious Movement (NRM), the Church of All Worlds, and perhaps the best comment on that comes from Drawing Down the Moon by Diane Adler:

The Church of All Worlds has been called everything from ‘a sub-culture science-fiction Grok-flock’ to ‘a bunch of crazy hippie freaks.’ But the real origins of CAW lead back to a small group of friends who, along with untold numbers of middle-class high school and college students in the late 1950s and early 1960s, became infatuated with the romantic, heroic, compelling right-wing ideas of Ayn Rand. It is a sign of the peculiarity of North American consciousness that thousands of young students, at one time or another, have become possessed by her novels – Atlas shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Anthem. Jerome Tucille, in his witty, tongue-in-cheek tour of the libertarian right, It usually begins with Ayn Rand, could not have been more precise in his choice of title. He noted that Rand’s works were particularly appealing ‘to those in the process of escaping a regimented religious background.’ Despite the author’s rigid philosophy of Objectivism, she stirred a libertarian impulse, and Atlas shrugged became a ‘New Marxism of the Right’.

And the second half of Stranger in a Strange Land is like nothing so much as John Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged, only about three times as long.

It was written in the late 1950s, and is stamped with American culture of that period, including their vision of the future. This included future technology — flying cars, yes, but no personal computers, no cell phones, no digital photography. It is also full of the male chauvinist piggery of the period, though some of the language seems strange for a novel set in the USA — lots of “chaps” and “blokes” around. I didn’t know there were so many of those in the US, either back in the 1950s or now.

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An obsessive search for erasure

The ZahirThe Zahir by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t decide whether this is a profound book or a superficial one.

The protagonist is a novelist living in Paris, rather like the author himself, whose wife disappears without a trace, and he becomes obsessed, not so much with finding her as with discovering why she left him. This leads him to some deep (or shallow) philosophical reflection, from which he concludes that in order to discover himself as a person he needs to forget and erase his personal history.

Since the protagonist is a writer and in many ways resembles the author, I found parts of it gave me an incentive to work on things that I myself am writing. Those bits made me want to give it four stars. But part of his personal history, which he wants to erase, is that his wife was the one who inspired him to write in the first place, and when he goes on about that, in a rather banal and boring way, I want to give it one or two stars. In the end I compromised and gave it three stars.

One thing that gave the book a bit more interest is that part of the search took him to Kazakhstan in Central Asia, which has cropped up in other books I’ve been reading recently.

Another puzzling aspect of the story is that the protagonist (also like author Paulo Coelho himself) had been on a pilgrimage to St James’s Cathedral at Compostela, which had been a life-changing experience, and had written a book about it. Yet this, too, was apparently part of his personal history to be erased and forgotten. And if that is the case, why should anyone buy and read his book about it?

I suppose that one reason for my inability to sympathise with this particular aspect of the story is that I rather enjoy rereading my journals of 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago each morning. I think of people I knew then, some I am still in touch with, others not, and I wonder what has happened to them. Even if I don’t know what has happened to them, I don’t think they can simply be erased. Their fate may not be known to me, but it is known to God, who values them, and perhaps if nothing else, I can offer a short prayer for them, wherever they may be. And if they have died, pray that their memory may be eternal. That is the opposite of forgetting.

 

 

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The heart of redness, rural development, and skunked words

The Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve already written something about this book in a blog post here Post-apartheid writing and posthumous books | Khanya. Many wondered what South African writing would or should look like after apartheid, and Zakes Mda certainly provides one answer. This is what it looks like, and this is what it should look like. Mda puts his finger on some of the pressing problems of post-apartheid South Africa in this book, especially the problems of rural development.

It’s a thought-provoking book, and here I’m adding some of the thoughts it provoked in me. If you just just want a straightforward review, see my review on GoodReads.

In recent months there has been much controversy over mining on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, and this book is very relevant to that, dealing as it does with the effects of such development on local communities. Zakes Mda, though he is writing fiction, writes from personal experience here, as he himself was instrumental in establishing a beekeeping project in the Eastern Cape. In the book the big project involving outside capital is a casino, and there have been those too on the Wild Coast, even though the current concern is mainly mining..

We have previously discussed the issue of mining on the Wild Coast at places like Xolobeni in our book club — see Philosophy, science fiction, capitalism & rural development | Khanya.  I urge everyone who is concerned about the effects of mining and similar developments on such rural communities to read this book. In this, as in many other things, Zakes Mda seems to have been prophetic, and much more accurately prophetic than Nongqawuse, who features in the book.

My one complaint about the book is that it is perhaps too didactic. At times it seems as though the characters are overridden by the need to introduce some or other ideological stance, which is not always consistent with the previous roles of those characters, and makes them at times seem inconsistent. But perhaps that is part of the truthfulness of this novel — as G.K. Chesterton said, truth is always stranger than fiction because fiction is a product of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it. And those ideological stances play an important part in the development of the story, so someone among the characters had to embody them.

One of the themes that that needed a character to embody it was do-gooding. In the book the protagonist, Camagu upbraids a shopkeeper, John Dalton, for planning an implementing a water supply project without consulting the local community. Dalton has the role of the do-gooder, one who thinks he knows what the community needs, and goes about providing it for them. The do-gooder is someone who likes doing good to other people.

Reading this, I was reminded of a true story from Zululand in the days of apartheid. A group of people went to the local magistrate to complain that they had no water. The magistrate asked why, since a new dam had been built there very recently. Yes, the people said, the dam is there, but we can’t drink the water. Why can’t you drink the water? asked the magistrate. There’s a dead dog in the dam, said the delegation. Why don’t you remove the dead dog? The government must remove the dog. The government built the dam; it’s the government’s dam, so the government must remove the dog. .

Fifty years ago I was persuaded to start an ecumenical youth group in Durban under the auspices of the Christian Institute. You can read about that here. The group was too big, so we split into smaller groups, each of which had an action project. And our group soon showed an ideological split between two groups, which I will call the Do-gooders and the Enablers.

The Do-gooders wanted to do good things for poor people. The Enablers felt uncomfortable with that, but would be happy to enable poor people to help themselves, if the poor people asked them to. The Enablers found the thought of offering unsolicited help to people embarrassing. In the book, Camagu is an Enabler, and Dalton is a Do-gooder.

I find I keep coming across this split. I go with my colleagues in Orthodox mission to a place where some one, or some group of people has expressed an interest in the Orthodox Christian faith, and one of them says something like, “Tell them we’ll build a clinic.” And I cringe inwardly, because I can see, right across the road, a doctor’s surgery with a sign “Ngaka” in big letters, and round the corner is a hospital.

No, don’t tell them you’ll build a clinic. First get to know the people, and then find out what they think their needs are. Zakes Mda, I know, from reading his memoir, is an atheist, so this would probably be of little interest to him, but I’m pretty sure that the “Tell them we’ll build a clinic” attitude has done nothing to increase his sympathy for the Christian faith and may well have contributed towards his atheism in the first place.

I was once involved in a mission project where we tried to follow the enabling approach rather than the do-gooding one. It is described in my blog post on Makhalafukwe. I keep coming across clashes between these two approaches, so I think it is very good that Zakes Mda has raised it in his book. The urge to Do-gooding persists, and perhaps one of the effects of it is that terms like “Enabler” and “Enablement”, which were unambiguous 30 years ago, have tended by be skunked by gathering bad connotations, especially, it seems, on the other side of the Atlantic.

Another related word, popular in the 1960s, which also seems to have lost some of its meaning, is “facilitator”. Back then the term “facilitator” was used instead of “leader” for small group discussions, because the task of the facilitator was not to lead discussion, but to facilitate or enable it. While a leader dominated a group, a facilitator would retire into the background, and only intervene when more enablement was required. Just how far the meaning was lost became apparent when I worked at the University of South Africa in the Editorial Department, and we were introduced to a task team, whose task, they proudly told us, was to “facilitate conflict”…. and they wondered why all the English editors laughed.

Another thing that Zakes Mda puts his finger on in The Heart of Redness, as well as in some of his other books, such as Black Diamond, is BEE, which ostensibly stands for “Black Economic Empowerment”, but actually means Black Elite Enrichment. Again, there are examples from real life. Once when my wife Val was a financial manager, a new black manager was appointed, and because he was black (as a result of BEE), his salary was a third more than that of the guy he replaced. Val observed that for the extra money she could have appointed two young junior clerks at good salaries who could learn the job hands on, and gain experience at doing the work, thus improving their future employability. There was nothing wrong with the bloke who was appointed to management — he was a nice guy and competent. But because of BEE the elite got more money rather than the poor getting more jobs.

The Heart of Redness is also, in part, a historical novel, alternating in time between the cattle-killing episode of the 1850s, and the late 20th century, where the descendants of those in the earlier period seem doomed to reenact the controversies of their ancestors, which, in changing circumstances, sometimes lead to inappropriate behaviour as they are confronted by questions like what is development? What is progress? And who stands to gain and lose from such developments?

So I repeat, if you are concerned about projects like mining at Xolobeni, and similar projects elsewhere, read this book.

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Travels on the old Silk Road

The Road To Miran: Travels In The Forbidden Zone Of XinjiangThe Road To Miran: Travels In The Forbidden Zone Of Xinjiang by Christa Paula
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christa Paula was a student of history and archaeology specialising in Central Asia, and thirty years ago she travelled there to see some of the sites on the ancient Silk Road, the main trade route between the Roman Empire and China. At that time China only allowed limited travel to foreigners and the restrictions increased after the Tianamnen Square massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators. Pro-democracy demonstrations were more successful in Paula’s own country, Germany, and she had news of the fall of the Berlin Wall while on her travels.

Many of the sites she most wanted to visit, including Miran itself, were in restricted areas, and she was arrested a couple of times, and often had to sneak into places on the principle that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The book alternates between descriptions of contemporary travel and life in Western China (Xinjiang), and historical descriptions of ancient kingdoms on the Silk Road, based on the archaeological sites Paula visited or tried to visit. She hooked up with a Chinese friend, Chang, who helped her a great deal with arrangements for accommodation and travel.

One of the things that struck me about the book was the similarities between Communist China and apartheid South Africa. Encounters with the police, travel restrictions and requirements for permits sounded very familiar indeed, and very similar to Namibia when it was ruled by South Africa. Some of her descriptions of how she had snuck into places when she couldn’t get permits were very similar indeed to Namibia under South African rule. And in many ways the apartheid was the same too. There was, apparently, quite strict apartheid between the Han Chinese and the local Uighurs they ruled. Some hotels were for Han Chinese only, as were certain events at which local people and foreigners were not welcome.

Central Asia is far from southern Africa, and to me a rather unfamiliar part of the world. In the centre of the area visited by Christa Paula is the Taklamakan Desert, described in another book as The Worst Desert on Earth. To the south lies Tibet, to the north-east Mongolia, and to the north-west Kazakhstan. One of the few works of fiction I’ve read dealing with that area is Water touching Stone. The Uighur people living there are mostly Muslim, but in the historical period studied by Paula most were Buddhist, but since it was a major international trade route the main towns were fairly cosmopolitan.

I’ve written a few more comments on this book on my other blog here.

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Everything’s eventual by Stephen King

Everything's EventualEverything’s Eventual by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fourteen stories, ranging from good to mediocre. Most of them are ghost stories of one kind or another, about haunted people or places. Some have happy endings, others don’t.

The best, I think, was “Riding the bullet”, about a student who hitchhikes home to see his mother who has taken ill and is in hospital. I found the description of hitchhiking interesting, and it recalled a vanished age. Arthur Goldstuck once wrote a short story about a vanishing hitchhiker, an urban legend, actually. But it seems that all hitchhikers have vanished. No one I know has hitchhiked since about the mid-1970s, ever since car hijacking became the preferred method of vehicle theft.

The worst story in the collection in my view was “1408”, about a haunted hotel room. I kept falling asleep, even during the bits that were clearly meant to be the most exciting.

I thought some of the stories rated four stars, others rated two, so I gave the book as a whole three stars.

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Too much sword, not enough sorcery

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, #2)A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven’t reached the end yet, and doubt that I ever will.

About a quarter of the way in I stopped reading every chapter, and read only those relating to the characters I was most interested in, which did not include Daenerys, Theon and Davos. I suppose it would be possible to have different reading schemes for this series, rather like the Bible. And one such scheme would be to just read the chapters relating to one character, right through the whole series,. and then go back to the beginning again and follow another character.

*** Possible spoiler follows ***

The character who interested me most was Arya, and I thought I’d read on to see if she ever got safely back to Winterfell, but when it turned out that Winterfell wasn’t safe to go back to anyway, I decided to give up. I may still try to follow Jon north of the Ice Wall to see if any interesting creatures appear, but so far there has just been some vague shadow of menace.

But this is only the second book, and it’s longer than the first, and I think there are better things to do with the rest of my life; read The Lord of the Rings again, for example.

The book isn’t bad, and I don’t think it’s badly written. It’s just that, apart from the setting, it isn’t all that different from everyday life, and if I wanted to concern myself with such issues it would be more profitable to watch the proceedings of the Zondo Commission on TV. Trying to influence the course of events in South Africa might be just as hopeless as it would be in Westeros, but you don’t know that for certain, in advance.

In my review of the first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, i suggested that the genre was “sword and sorcery”, though some have disputed that, but in both there seems to be.too much sword and not enough sorcery. The South African equivalent to the Iron Throne, is, of course, the ANC presidency, with all the patronage and crony capitalism that goes with it. And though there may be sorcery and magical creatures behind the scenes, with rare exceptions the media don’t report such things.

But at least when I see the names of the characters mentioned on Twitter, I’ll know what they are talking about.

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A Game of Thrones: sword & sorcery at its best

I’m not particularly fond of “sword and sorcery” novels, but this is one of the better examples, which I would recommend to fans of the genre, and even to those who aren’t fans, but would like to read something just to see what it’s about. It has all the appeal of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe but with a much more realistic view of practical politics.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Take current politics, any current politics, remove it to a fictional country in a fictional world, and turn it into a parable, and you have basic plot of A Game of Thrones.

It’s all there: ambition, power seeking, spying, back-stabbing, manipulation, greed and all other staples of practical politics, ancient and modern.

It’s symbolism, not allegory.

If it were allegory it would apply to one particular set of politicians in one particular period, but it doesn’t do that. You can see whatever you want here.

The land of Westeros has seven kingdoms that were unified some four centuries earlier by a conqueror whose dynasty has now been overthrown. You can read that in many ways — seven kingdoms could stand for seven SOEs. Or seven independent homelands. Or seven successor states of the USSR.

The heir apparent to the current reigning monarch, Robert Baratheon, is 12-year-old Joffrey. In the film version he looks like Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, and in both the book and film versions of A Game of Thrones his character matches. And some might say that he similarly resembles Donald Trump, both physically and in character,

I suppose that the genre of this book is best described as “sword and sorcery”, though in this first book of the series there seems to be more sword than sorcery, at least in the beginning. And I would say it is one of the better examples of the genre. I’ve tried reading others, like The Sword of Shannara, and was not tempted to read any further in that series. Likewise with A Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings.

But in this case I have started reading the second volume of the series A Clash of Kings, mainly to find out what happened to some of the more sympathetically-drawn characters, of whom my favourite was Arya Stark, the nine-year-old daughter of one of the more honest and honourable men in the cauldron of political intrigue, Lord Eddard Stark. But even he finds himself trapped into lying for reasons of state, and it costs him dearly.

I came to read the book by a strange chance, when Twitter showed a list of tweets that were trending in South Africa, and I did not recognise a single word in the list. I asked about it here Being out of touch with pop culture | Notes from underground and discovered that all the unfamiliar words were the names of characters from A Game of Thrones, which was then showing on TV. My son had the first series on DVD, which we started watching, but it made little sense until I found the book in the library and began reading it. I’d heard of the TV series, of course, but had never watched it, and assumed that it was a kind of extended version of Braveheart.

I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t, and that it was actually worth reading.  I doubt that I’ll read the whole series, though. The first volume is over 700 pages, and there are still another six volumes to go.

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Darkness suspended, a novel by Jurie Schoeman

Darkness SuspendedDarkness Suspended by Jurie Schoeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was an absorbing read, at least for me.

Perhaps one of the reasons I found it so absorbing is that it was in a familiar setting. It is set in Pretoria about 15 years ago, 2004-2005, and so a lot of the scenes are familiar. I’ve had coffee and been to the bookshop in Brooklyn Mall, and also at Greenfields in Hatfield (alas, no more!). We’ve many times taken visitors sightseeing on the road past Fort Klapperkop and looked across to the Union Buildings and then gone there.

Was it just its familiarity that made it interesting?

No, I think it’s more than that. The characters are interesting too, and so one sympathises with them in their ups and downs. It’s a crime novel and a romance novel, a love story. And the crime is true to life. It’s not a whodunit. You know who did it, but you see how crime affects the perpetrators and the victims.

The protagonist is the Revd Nigel Jones, the youth pastor of a Baptist Church in the well-to-do eastern suburbs of Pretoria. His closest friends are a fairly wealthy doctor and the manager of a security company — the latter is his running partner, and they take their running seriously, entering marathons and the like.

The things that happen to them test Nigel’s faith, and that of his friends. And that is perhaps the most realistic part of the book. I’ve read many crime novels, but the crimes that take place in them are remote. I don’t know anyone who has experienced anything like that. The crimes and passions and temptations and sins and setbacks experienced in this novel come much closer to home.

So the picture the book draws of life in the “rainbow nation”, or at least the middle-class part of it, in 2005, is absolutely authentic. And that makes it worth a read.

The book has some flaws, too.

It is self-published, and was obviously prepared for publication with a word processor designed for business reports, and it is formatted more like a business report than a novel. The prose could have been tightened up with more editing, and some of the word choices could have been improved — “staunch”, for example, is not a good description of a facial expression.

But those errors were minor and did not get in the way of a good story.

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