2004  

January 2004

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. London: Profile Books, 2003. ISBN 1-86197-612-7.
A U.S edition is now available.

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O'Brien, Flann [Brian O'Nolan]. The Third Policeman. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, [1967] 1999. ISBN 1-56478-214-X.
This novel, one of the most frequently recommended books by visitors to this page, was completed in 1940 but not published until 1967, a year after the author's death. Perhaps the world was insufficiently weird before the High Sixties! This is one strange book; in some ways it anticipates surreal new wave science fiction such as John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar and The Jagged Orbit, but O'Brien is doing something quite different here which I'll refrain from giving away. Don't read the (excellent) Introduction before you read the novel—there is one big, ugly spoiler therein.

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Wellum, Geoffrey. First Light. London: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-141-00814-8.
A U.S edition is available, but as of this date only in hardcover.

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Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. ISBN 0-374-52221-9.

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Bolton, Andrew. Bravehearts: Men in Skirts. London: V&A Publications, 2003. ISBN 0-8109-6558-5.

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Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-0446-8.

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Drosnin, Michael. The Bible Code 2. New York: Penguin Books, [2002] 2003. ISBN 0-14-200350-6.
What can you say about a book, published by Viking and Penguin as non-fiction, which claims the Hebrew Bible contains coded references to events in the present and future, put there by space aliens whose spacecraft remains buried under a peninsula on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea? Well, actually a number of adjectives come to mind, most of them rather pithy. The astonishing and somewhat disturbing thing, if the author is to believed, is that he has managed to pitch this theory and the apocalyptic near-term prophecies he derives from it to major players on the world stage including Shimon Peres, Yasir Arafat, Clinton's chief of staff John Podesta in a White House meeting in 2000, and in a 2003 briefing at the Pentagon, to the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and other senior figures at the invitation of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. If this is the kind of input that's informing decisions about the Middle East, it's difficult to be optimistic about the future. When predicting an “atomic holocaust” for 2006 in The Bible Code 2, Drosnin neglects to mention that in chapter 6 of his original 1997 The Bible Code, he predicted it for either 2000 or 2006, but I suppose that's standard operating procedure in the prophecy biz.

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Guéhenno, Jean-Marie. La fin de la démocratie. Paris: Flammarion, 1993. ISBN 2-08-081322-6.
This book, written over a decade ago, provides a unique take on what is now called “globalisation” and the evolution of transnational institutions. It has been remarkably prophetic in the years since its publication and a useful model for thinking about such issues today. Guéhenno argues that the concept of the nation-state emerged in Europe and North America due to their common history. The inviolability of borders, parliamentary democracy as a guarantor of liberty, and the concept of shared goals for the people of a nation are all linked to this peculiar history and consequently non-portable to regions with different histories and cultural heritages. He interprets most of disastrous post-colonial history of the third world as a mistaken attempt to implant the European nation-state model where the precursors and prerequisites for it do not exist. The process of globalisation and the consequent transformation of hierarchical power structures, both political and economic, into self-organising and dynamic networks is seen as rendering the nation-state obsolete even in the West, bringing to a close a form of organisation dating from the Enlightenment, replacing democratic rule with a system of administrative rules and regulations similar to the laws of the Roman Empire. While offering hope of eliminating the causes of the large-scale conflicts which characterised the 20th century, this scenario has distinct downsides: an increased homogenisation of global cultures and people into conformist “interchangeable parts”, a growing sense that while the system works, it lacks a purpose, erosion of social solidarity in favour of insecurity at all levels, pervasive corruption of public officials, and the emergence of diffuse violence which, while less extreme than 20th century wars, is also far more common and difficult to deter. That's a pretty good description of the last decade as I saw it, and an excellent list of things to ponder in the years to come. An English translation, The End of the Nation-State, is now available; I've not read it.

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Robinson, Kim Stanley. Blue Mars. New York: Bantam Books, 1996. ISBN 0-553-57335-7.
This is the third volume in Robinson's Mars Trilogy: the first two volumes are Red Mars and Green Mars (April 2001). The three volumes in the trilogy tell one continuous story and should be read in order; if you start with Green or Blue, you'll be totally lost as to the identities of characters introduced in Red or events which occurred in prior volumes. When I read Red Mars in the mid 1990s, I considered it to be one of the very best science fiction novels I'd ever read, and I've read all of the works of the grand masters. Green Mars didn't quite meet this standard, but was still a superb and thought-provoking read. By contrast, I found Blue Mars a tremendous disappointment—tedious and difficult to finish. It almost seems like Robinson ran out of ideas before filling the contracted number of pages. There are hundreds of pages of essentially plot-free pastoral descriptions of landscapes on terraformed Mars; if you like that kind of stuff, you may enjoy this book, but I prefer stories in which things happen and characters develop and interact in interesting ways, and there's precious little of that here. In part, I think the novel suffers from the inherent difficulty of writing about an epoch in which human technological capability permits doing essentially anything whatsoever—it's difficult to pose challenges which characters have to surmount once they can simply tell their AIs to set the robots to work, then sit around drinking kavajava until the job is done. The politics and economics in these books has never seemed particularly plausible to me, and in Blue Mars it struck me as even more naïve, but perhaps that's just because there's so little else going on. I can't make any sense at all of the immigration and population figures Robinson gives. On page 338 (mass-market paperback edition) the population of Mars is given as 15 million and Earth's population more than 15 billion in 2129, when Mars agrees to accept “at least ten percent of its population in immigrants every year”. Since Earth pressed for far more immigration while Mars wished to restrict it, presumably this compromise rate is within the capability of the interplanetary transportation system. Now there's two ways to interpret the “ten percent”. If every year Mars accepts 10% of its current population, including immigrants from previous years, the Mars population runs away geometrically, exploding to more than two billion by 2181. But on page 479, set in that year, the population of Mars is given as just 18 million, still a thousandth of Earth's, which has grown to 18 billion. Okay, let's assume the agreement between Earth and Mars meant that Mars was only to accept 10% of its present population as of the date of the agreement, 2129. Well, if that's the case, then you have immigration of 1.5 million per year, which leaves us with a Mars population of 93 million by 2181 (see the spreadsheet I used to perform these calculations for details). And these figures assume that neither the Mars natives nor the immigrants have any children at all, which is contradicted many times in the story. In fact, to get from a population of 15 million in 2129 to only 18 million in 2181 requires a compounded growth rate of less than 0.4%, an unprecedentedly low rate for frontier civilisations without any immigration at all.

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Buckley, Reid. USA Today: The Stunning Incoherence of American Civilization. Camden, SC: P.E.N. Press, 2002. ISBN 0-972-1000-0-8.

The author, brother of William F. Buckley, is founder of a school of public speaking and author of several books on public speaking and two novels. Here, however, we have Buckley's impassioned, idiosyncratic, and (as far as I can tell) self-published rant against the iniquities of contemporary U.S. morals, politics, and culture. Bottom line: he doesn't like it—the last two sentences are “The supine and swinish American public is the reason why our society has become so vile. We are vile.” This book would have been well served had the author enlisted brother Bill or his editor to red-pencil the manuscript. How the humble apostrophe causes self-published authors to stumble! On page 342 we trip over the “biography of John Quincy Adam's” among numerous other exemplars of proletarian mispunctuation. On page 395, Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box has his name given as “Rehe” (and in the index too). On page 143, he misquotes Alan Guth's Inflationary Universe as saying the grand unification energy is “1016 GeV”, thereby getting it wrong by thirteen orders of magnitude compared to the 1016 GeV a sharp-eyed proofreader would have caught. All of this, and Buckley's meandering off into anecdotes of his beloved hometown of Camden, South Carolina and philosophical disquisitions distract from the central question posed in the book which is both profound and disturbing: can a self-governing republic survive without a consensus moral code shared by a large majority of its citizens? This is a question stalwarts of Western civilisation need to be asking themselves in this non-judgemental, multi-cultural age, and I wish Buckley had posed it more clearly in this book, which despite the title, has nothing whatsoever to do with that regrettable yet prefixally-eponymous McNewspaper.

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