I'm so very, very behind, and very, very remiss in my Book Club duties. This has been sitting in Draft for months waiting for me to give it the attention it deserves. I've been reading a lot, and a lot of good stuff, but just haven't felt motivated to write about them. But the time has come; I can no longer tolerate my own dereliction.
As you'll notice, I've been on a bit of a science fiction bender. I've just read nothing noteworthy in fantasy or mystery. Maybe late Fall will change that, but this edition of Bourgeois Book Club all about the sci-fi (and a little philosophical investigation).
Why Does The World Exist? by Jim Holt
"Why is there something rather than nothing?" is either the most important question ever formulated, the fundamental question, or an absurd bit of metaphysical fiddlefaddle. Either way, it is a powerful question, one that has confounded even the greatest minds. To attempt to answer it is an audacious undertaking. Some might even say a task verging on hubris. But it is the question Holt adroitly and skillfully ponders in Why Does The World Exist?
If one is unafraid of the accusation of narcissism, the highest
compliment that can be paid to a book is that it is the book one would
have written. Though I fancy myself to be a non-narcissist, I can't
help but say that Holt has written the book I would like to have
written. I am glad that he was the one who wrote it, though, because he
did a much better job of it than I ever could have. Contemplation of
Nothing and the problem of existence has occupied my mind many a night.
The subtitle of the book is an "Existential Detective Story," and what detective worth his or her salt doesn't interview the suspects? Holt crisscrosses the world interviewing theologians, philosophers, and scientists to survey a wide variety of viewpoints on the question. They provide a broad survey of possible answers to the question, though I must purse my lips in disapproval that all of Holt's interviewees and historical characters are white men, most of them of an eminent age as well. (This lack of diversity is perhaps my only real disappointment in the book.)
Of course, Holt doesn't actually answer the question. No one can. But he does at least consider the possibilities. And the personal reflections provide an emotional perspective that grounds a book about often extremely abstract, even abstruse, concepts. It is appropriate, too, because why is the question of why the world exists so compelling? It is because it is emotional. Just think of the great nonexistence: death. We worry about Nothing because we fear that it is just another name for Death. I recently lost my father in a way fairly similar to the loss of his mother as described in the penultimate chapter of the book. It is the sort of time where these questions come up, when existence seems most fragile and inexplicable. To face it head-on, intellectually, unreservedly, exuberantly, can be a great comfort.
I really can't recommend Why Does The World Exist? enough. Even if you're not much one for philosophy or physics, it's still a worthwhile and engaging read. It is also surprisingly accessible; though many of the ideas are hard, the prose never is, written with clarity and a great deal of (often nerdy) humor. It's what a book about Ideas should always strive to be.
Champion of Mars by Guy Haley
Set in the same universe as his Richards and Klein books, this is the "future" "history" of Mars through the eyes of its champions and guardians as they battle first to tame and shape the world and then defend it from mind-bending horrors. Excellent, Burroughsian (quite intentionally, I presume) adventure, though with that Burroughsian-ness comes a slightly... retro role for the women, I thought, which was disappointing. Still, great read.
Existence by David Brin
A clever and intriguing look at alien contact and its effects on humanity. Its effect is diminished somewhat by what, in my opinion, was an abrupt and unsatisfying jump in the final third of the book farther down the timeline, leaving a lot of the characters we grew to care about basically dangling. But regardless, a very thought-provoking and interestingly speculative read.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
An interesting blend of what I guess you would call "environmental science fiction" and mystery set in a future where humanity has spread throughout the solar system. It is marred a bit by the underwhelming resolution of the mystery, but an interesting read nonetheless. I oddly appreciated that the main character is actually not always terribly sympathetic. At times, she's downright unbearable, but in a believable way. She's human.
The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi
The sequel to last year's The Quantum Thief, it continues the story of a thief navigating the far-future politics of a Solar System divided between literally god-like entities. Instead of the Mars of The Quantum Thief, this time we travel to a post-Apocolyptic Earth, where wild nanites and code made anything outside of the Arabian Nights-esque (complete with "jinn") city of Sirr dangerous, and the intrigues of the other Solar System powers threaten everyone, including the prostitute/storyteller daughter of the city's greatest family.
Tales within tales, storytelling as literally a matter of life and death, and "magic" all makes this a tale worthy of Scheherazade, if Scheherazade was a quantum physicist. As with The Quantum Thief, I think it would take more than one read to understand a lot of it (in fact, some things in The Quantum Thief are spelled out in The Fractal Prince that caused me to pause with a "Wait, what?!" because I didn't pick up on them there), but it doesn't matter, because it's still a damn good adventure, laced with tragic love, futurist speculation, and heroism.
The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks
The latest Culture novel from Iain M. Banks explores the last days of a civilization on the brink of, for all intents and purposes, apotheosis. But secrets from the past, and the ambitions of younger races, threaten what is supposed to be a peaceful and joyous transition, and the super Minds of the Culture and a four-armed musician race to uncover the past.
Yet another ambitious and absorbing adventure from Banks. It is not my favorite of the Culture novels, but it is still in the top tier (which is really anything other than Matter, honestly). I particularly liked how Cassont, the aforementioned four-armed musician, is really not a terribly extraordinary person (at least when compared to the androids, super-AIs, and ten-thousand-year-old hermits that surround her), but just a fairly average, quite pleasant person thrust into extraordinary circumstances through a mere chance acquaintanceship from her youth. And she doesn't become a superhero or anything by the end, either, just someone coping with an unlooked-for adventure, and finding hidden reserves of character along the way. I just found that part relateable.
As ever with Banks, there are other, more weighty things lurking, about what the consequences of immortality are, the choices societies make, how far one will go to gain the truth or cover up a lie and what to do with that information once you get it, and the fragility of history and the profound effects it has. But these weighty topics serve to enhance, rather than detract from, the story, which keeps up its pace and its twistiness throughout.
Also as always with the Culture novels, one need not have ever read one to pick up, enjoy, and understand this one. While I urge you to read them all, and the pleasure of the books is enhanced by knowledge of the others, it is more a universe that Banks plays in than a serial narrative that must be approached chronologically. So dive in and enjoy the ride!