Sunday 28 March 2021

Text fragment: from The Fellowship of the Ring to The Discarded Image

PXL_20210313_134656821 I don't seem to have a post on either LOTR or TDI1, which surprises me. But here's a fragment from the Fellowship of the Ring:

They drew long and elaborate family trees with innumerable branches. In dealing with Hobbits it is important to remember who is related to whom, and in what degree. It would be impossible in this book to set out a family tree that included even the more important members of the more important families at the time which these tales tell of The genealogical trees at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch are a small book in themselves, and all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull. Hobbits delighted in such things, if they were accurate: they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions. 

The connection may not be clear: it is that Lewis says that the mediaevals liked their texts padded with stuff that they knew.

Perhaps relatedly, I'm finding novelty less interesting as time goes by; instead, stuff that is familiar but half forgotten plays well. To my shame, that is particularly true of the harder stuff: I've browsed E's "Real Analysis" year-1 textbook, and enjoyed it, without working through the proofs in detail, because I know them in outline.


1. I lie. I have The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, by C. S. Lewis.

Thursday 18 March 2021

Book review: Foundation

1615657066855-1d53ed3c-22e8-444a-80ac-4c2b1536de53_ A moment ago reviewing Neuromancer, I said it was one of the books you should read, like Foundation. But F - and F+E and SC - are rather more foundational that N is.

Plot: in the far future, the galactic empire is falling, though this is only perceptible to the enlightened. Hari Seldon, via the mathematics of psychohistory, foresees collapse and millennia of barbarism before a new empire; and devises a plan to shorten the interregnum to a single millennium. F is then a series of short stories about the initial growth of this Foundation. F+E is half about the conflict with the remains of the old empire, and half about the Mule, who disrupts the Plan. SF is half about stopping the Mule, and half about restoring the plan back onto its tracks. And the series ends, perhaps wisely, only 400 years into the 1kyr plan.

On this (re-)re-reading, I found F, and the second half of SF, most fun. The Mule bits drag somewhat.

Since this is about philosopher-kings wisely predicting and controlling the future, you might have your doubts about whether this is all really a good idea. The SF folk tell us their plans at one point: the Foundation will provide the physical empire, into which the SF will naturally step as wise benevolent rulers. It is hard to see that working (half of SF is about how much the first hates the second and wants to destroy it), or being desireable. This aspect is poorly worked out: Asimov has no theory of govt, other than the vague Platonic leanings that people who aren't really thinking tend to have: "wouldn't it be nice if...".

As to psychohistory: the idea that history might be predictable with untold billions across millions of stars is perhaps at least plausible enough for the story. That one could do it via mathematical equations in the way described is not; nowhere in the analysis as described does the vast amount of data that would be needed come in. But that isn't the main problem either. The main problem is the interventions or crises, which "constrict possibilities to keep the plan on track". I think that there's no way to design these in; because Seldon had so few degrees of freedom to work with, at the start. At one point Bayta says that the entire point of the plan is to design a better society than the empire; and it is again hard to see how Seldon has enough d.o.f. to do that.

Looking at Goodreads, I see that many people downgrade it for One-dimensional characters engaged in various trade negotiations, political upheavals and general planning. Dry beyond belief. I think that's a fundamental misunderstanding. If you want to read Great Literature, do that. But only a fool would complain that Great Literature contains no spaceships. More intelligently I was made to believe that this is a SF book. It isn’t. Not really. It is more of a socio-political one. This is kinda true, but also true of many many other things: that many books are "isomorphic"; or are about draping a new skin on old ideas. Star Wars is just Cowboys in Space; Top Gun is just Cowboys in Airplanes. And in fact, this story fits better into its galactic context than many another would. My Goodreads review (which mostly points back here) is here.

Quibble: the Student is inducted by the First Speaker and finds that the Prime Radiant can, effectively, read his mind. WTF? The PR is a first-empire construct; there's no way they had any such devices. This is kinda careless by Asimov, because it isn't needed for the story.

Quibble: Asimov is obliged to invent hyperspace to magic away the distances between the stars. And he invents some ill-defined rules - for example, you can't jump too close to the surface of a planet, as everyone does. But he doesn't get the consequences right; one of which is that the concepts of "trade routes"; or the edge being "blocked" from the centre by an intervening province; is meaningless. Space is so vast, that a ship popping out of hyperspace to prepare for the next jump couldn't possibly be found. Incidentally, he has no real invention for whatever "radar" allows ships to be detected from parsecs away. Really, the setup he describes is analogous to road travel on a continent.

Space is so vast: a thought I've been thinking for a while so I'll write it down: is it the case that the ratio between the distances between stars, and the sizes of solar systems, is the largest such distance ratio? I think the distances between galaxies are comparatively tiny; as are the distances within atoms, or molecules, or within solar systems. Update: this is visible visually? See for example "what Amndromeda would look like if it were bright enough".

Quibble: when Bayta and Toran land on Haven, they brace against acceleration. Why? Artificial gravity has been solved long since; when Gaal lands on Trantor there's no bracing. 

Quibble: when Barr and Devers are on Trantor, they are frequently outside. When they blast a hole in the bureaucrat's office, sunlight floods in. And yet when Seldon is there, everyone is inside always.

Quibble: society in 50 kyr has not moved on from 1950's USA. Men estimate women's weight by their upper arms; everyone smokes; and so on. Not only that, but societal mores are undifferentiated across the galaxy. Nor does society change in the centuries of the plot we see.

Quibble: when they turn up at Trantor and try and find somewhere, it is difficult because the planet is a uniform sea of metal. But this is silly: Trantor's rotation rate is accurately known, predicting the position of any given lat/lon centuries into the future would be nothing. And notice they have no trouble finding the planet in it's orbit.

Quibble, that applies to almost all old SciFi: some of the "astonishing" new tech they develope during the plot - say, the new galactic star-finding thing for navigation - now seems charmingly primitive.

In F+E, Bayta diagnoses the Empire's fall as "despotism, inertia and maldistribution of goods". But does this make sense? I think we can't tell, but on the whole, no. They've somehow ended up in a society where science has run out; old things work so well that there's no need to invent new, and even learning that science is no longer useful, compared to just polishing the brass work, that people forget how things work. At least, that's the bit we see. We don't see any maldistribution. I think the premise of scientific and societal uniformity across so vast a space isn't plausible either.

So the story is fun to read, and is fun to pick apart - unlike much of SciFi, which is so magical that there's no point trying to pick holes. And - if you're new to the series - each crisis is effectively a puzzle, a detective story, that you can try to solve if you like. And the events are sufficiently unmagical that attempts at prediction are possible.

1616022015219-b7185288-6df4-48af-b4da-368d045bffb3_ 1616021595753-9d4371cb-8be4-4058-87e7-24abf0567578_

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Book review: Neuromancer

1615363743215-f7904269-fe72-46f4-97a1-c9d09e9d8a0f_ Neuromancer is one of the best-known works in the cyberpunk genre according to wiki and that's right. Definitely a classic and one of the books you must read, like Dune and Foundation; and The Peace War isn't. Having said that, there's a review somewhere along the lines of "great book, but Gibson's ideas about computers are comically inept", and that's right too.

Somewhat a-la Dune, the words are important, giving the flavour: Neuromancer, Wintermute, Screaming Fist, Tessier-Ashpool; and so on. They are skillfully blended in, but it does become obvious that without them a major part of the aura would be lost - in a way that, say, Proust wouldn't suffer from if you renamed a pile of his characters. But, the story is good too, as long as you pretend the cyber-nonsense would work.

Despite various angst, the book is shallow. Except for the imagery: the Tessier-Ashpool clan existing largely in hibernation, exiting briefly to sample the world; the AIs patiently striving to meet; I like that.

Saturday 6 March 2021

Book review: Swallows and Amazons

PXL_20210304_224500242~2 You've probably read this yourself, and if you haven't, you should... or save it to read with your children. That's where I first read it, not having encountered it as a child. As usual I will leave the description to someone else, in this case wiki. And I found the original reviews.

It is of course a children's book, and oozes wholesomeness, but is good anyway. It is also a sort of manual for how to have fun, how to play, how to go exploring, but - at least if you're a child - not too obviously.

I'm struggling to find something to criticise. If you were class-conscious, you could complain about nurse, and the Dixons and their walk-on supporting parts in more important people's lives... but then again, daddy suffers the same fate, so it isn't class; it's just the inevitable book structure.

Maybe if you were anti-cultural-appropriation, or indeed against the White folk of Empire, you could dislike Uncle Jim and his collection of interesting native artifacts; but I still have the brass prismatic compass that my great-uncle had on service in India, and my mother has their top-hat box with "wanted on voyage" stickers on it. So I don't feel that way.

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Book review: Madame Swann at Home

PXL_20210303_215448797~2 Or, Within a Budding Grove, Book One. Which in French is "a l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs", from which I discover that "Madame Swann at Home" is really "Autour de Mme Swann"; "around Mme Swann" is perhaps better. Truely, translation is hard. Google offers me In the shade of young girls in bloom which fits the book but only works if it is fleur, not fleurs? Mfd; and independently a decade later M, offer "in flowery dresses", which also fits the book. Aanyway, enough of me displaying my ignorance of French, time to display my ignorance of literature.

I won't trouble to summarise the plot because there is none, and anyway the book has a handy synopsis at the end. We begin - I finished several weeks ago so details may be hazy - with Marcel mooning over Gilberte; he gains admittance to her house and weirdly ends up talking more to Swann and Mme; for no obvious reason he and Gilberte move apart; and we end with a beautiful scene of Mme S, out for a walk, being greeted by the clubmen of Paris; filtered through our narrator's memory; shaded by her parasol as though by a wisteria bower. I can forgive Proust for the tedium of some of his rambling because it is necessary to set up that last page.

Prefiguring his later mysterious ascendance into the FSG, Marcel - a callow teenager let us not forget - is somehow interesting enough that M and Mme Swann like to talk to him1. Perhaps this merely reflects Proust's own valuation of literature. But it would explain why Gilberte gets pissed off with him. It doesn't explain why he decides to drop her; at least within the book, he fails to admit to being more interested in Mme than Mlle.

Various social interactions and asides are interesting. The inability of people to judge other people remains a theme; Swann leads a double life; "lowering himself" to talk to people who will "know" his wife, but secretly going out with the FSG... I can't describe it, you have to read it.


1. Book six - if you get that far - provides a hint: Admittedly the "pen" of George Sand, to borrow a phrase from Brichot, who was so fond of saying that a book was written with a "lively pen," no longer seemed to me, as for so long it had seemed to my mother before she had gradually come to model her literary tastes upon mine, in the least a magic pen.