Category Archives: Books

The Information

I’ve posted about James Gleick before. His book Chaos was fascinating to me. I ended up reading it several times before I felt I understood it all.

I just finished another of his books, titled The Information. I had seen it before but don’t remember reading it. Honestly, I’m sure I would remember reading such a book. I don’t think I’m capable of writing a real review. It’s been out for a while so it’s unlikely I could add anything useful.

I just wanted to say that I made it through the book. I felt that I understood each word as I read it, but that Gleick was giving his readers the opportunity for a deeper understanding than I was getting. I hope I can go back in a year or so and revisit his themes.

And a technical note. I’ve always loved a real book. You can look at it and make some judgements about it before you even pick it up. In the last few years, I’ve developed the habit of going to the library and just browsing the stacks in some subject area. Now that the libraries are closed, I’ve learned more about e-readers. My local library recommended one called Libby. It works well, syncing across my phone and tablet as I go back and forth. After a year or so of not reading much at all, I’ve gotten going again.

Day 43.

dystopias

When I went to put The Sheep Look Up back in the bookshelf, I saw a couple of other books there that might qualify as dystopias.

I need to say that I’ve been reading science fiction since I was about 12 years old. That’s more than 50 years, kids! I used to have a large collection but gave away many in my last couple of moves. In my opinion, the ones I have left are the best of the best. Certain authors are well represented: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Frank Herbert, Joe Haldeman from the 1950’s through 1970’s. Others have only one.

Alas, Babylon is the only book by Pat Frank in my collection. Actually, I can’t remember even reading anything else by him. It’s not really dystopian. It’s the story of a small community in Florida after a nuclear exchange. Just looking at the book spine today triggered a thought that that was similar to the Brunner stories.

The other one that seemed similar in my mind was the Larry Niven novel about a comet hitting the earth, Lucifer’s Hammer. That’s not really a dystopia either.

John Varley’s Titan trilogy would qualify as dystopian even though the bulk of the action takes place away from earth. In it, the madness of humans destroying their home planet drives the story.

Since the basic technique of science fiction is to imagine a future world and build a story around it, it shouldn’t be surprising that most are rather dark.

Younger authors that I like a lot have written about dystopias. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and the early William Gibson novels, beginning with Neuromancer, are clearly dystopian.

The more I write that word, the less I like it. Maybe I’ll do a list of the SF novels in my library – not that many, less than 50 – and do a quick description/review. Some are hopeful . . .

The Sheep Look Up

The Sheep Look Up is a title of a John Brunner novel from the early 1970’s. In my mind it always went along with his earlier novel Stand On Zanzibar in its dystopian view of the world. I read them when they came out and still have my original (paperback) copies. After the events of the last couple of weeks, I dug out my copy of The Sheep Look Up.

It’s pretty strident. Brunner’s anger shows through on every page. Reading it again made me think about what we all thought about pollution in those days and what we did about it.

Stand On Zanzibar had a relatively upbeat ending, though, whereas The Sheep Look Up does not. Air, sea and land are poisoned so thoroughly worldwide that human survival is in question.

The last chapter is simply a quote from the John Milton poem Lycidas:

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread.

writing

Writing is mysterious and beautiful. Good writing is hard. From somewhere I remember a quote from a 18th Century writer of a letter. At the end of a 20+ page letter to a friend he apologized for going on so long. He said he didn’t have time to write a brief letter.

Or something like that. The point is that it takes a lot of time to arrange the chaotic ideas running through one’s head into organized sentences that someone else has a chance of understanding. In this blog, I try to think before writing, thus most of my entries are relatively brief. 20 page letters will not be read by 21st Century readers. Now in the forums sometimes I see ‘tl;dr’. Too long, didn’t read.

I found one previous reference in this blog to the American writer James Gleick. His book Chaos has been a long time favorite of mine. At Mom and Dad’s the other day, I spotted another Gleick book: Genius, The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, and filched it. I had read it before, some years ago, but I thought it was worth another reading.

This morning I opened it and almost immediately I was struck by the quality of the writing. In the Prologue, Gleick tells of a meeting in 1948 of the world’s best physicists:

In the annals of science it was the last time but one that these men would meet in such circumstances, without ceremony or publicity. They were indulging a fantasy, that their work could remain a small, personal, academic exercise, invisible to most of the public, as it had been a decade before, when a modest building in Copenhagen served as the hub of their science. They were not yet conscious of how effectively they had persuaded the public and the military to make physics a mission of high technology and expense.  . . . Next year most of these men would meet once more . . . but by then the modern era of physics had begun in earnest, science conducted on a scale the world had not seen, and never again would its chiefs come together privately, just to work.

chaos

I finished my library books, so this morning I needed a book to read while I ate my cereal. My eye fell on Chaos, by James Gleick. My copy is from those heady days in the late ’80s in San Francisco when I was buying science books often. It’s one of the few that have survived to stay with me and I’m glad it has.

I remember reading it several times and feeling that each time I understood a little further into the book. It’s not technical, in fact it’s written with a high sense of drama. Today, with fractals and Mandelbrot sets seemingly old hat, it’s fun to go back and feel some of the excitement that accompanied the discoveries of non-linear systems, or chaos.

Gleick’s writing is beautiful. Here’s one quote from the Prologue that struck me today: ‘ . . .  chaos is a science of process rather than state, of becoming rather than being.’

Every once in a while, I go looking for a book that updates the state of chaos science but there aren’t any. You can find dozens of theoretically non-technical books that try to explain string theory or quantum mechanics but nothing on chaos. Hmmm . . .