Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bourgeois Book Club

Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright

Menelaus Illation Montrose, Texan gunslinger and genius mathematician, is on his way to investigate an alien artifact in a distant star system, only to wake up nearly two hundred years later on a totalitarian Earth facing an alien invasion with only the faintest memories of the time in between and a superhuman alternate personality.  

First, let me start with all the many, many problematic aspects of this book, beginning with gender.  The only two females who can even be called characters are the protagonist's mother and his wife, which right there sends out alarm bells.  Then there is the fact that women don't seem to work or pursue careers or contribute intellectually to his societies (except for Montrose's wife, but she's "special").  It's all "men of action and intellect" up in here. 

But then calling just about any of the "people" in the book "characters" is perhaps being generous.  Wright doesn't seem terribly interested in creating characters, but in Ideas and a lot of incomprehensible techno/mathbabble.  Absolutely no one speaks like an actual human being, no matter how hard Wright occasionally tries to pull of some sort of Texan/John Wayne cowboy dialect with Montrose.  

Some of the extrapolations of future technology, geopolitics, and sociology seem... not really plausible.  Like there seems no step or alternative between scarce oil and antimatter power generation, such as, I don't know, solar panels or wind.  And duels suddenly become popular again, and royalty return to power, and somehow Monaco becomes a world power.  I'm sure strange things, from our point of view, will happen in the future, but... not those things, I suspect. 

There's a certain anti-Hispanic vibe to it, in so far as, well, all the villains of the piece are Hispanic. 

And there came a moment during the book where I realized, "Oh, shit, this is another science fiction libertarian screed.  I bet this guy likes Ayn Rand."  Montrose is a Man of Genius who must Change the Future with the Power of His Individual Genius and bring Freedom to Humanity!  Scary.  

And yet...  It has a compulsive, relentless momentum that forces you to read it, despite all the problems.  And Wright seems share with me a reaction against visions of dystopia (whilst still engaging in it) regarding the future.  Montrose actively yearns for the bright future of Asymptote, an interactive comic book/movie series/clear Star Trek pastiche/stand-in.  As someone raised on The Next Generation, and who thus has a thing for optimistic futurism, this speaks to me.  So I guess I'm saying I'll be reading The Hermetic Millennia.

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

A light, delightful survey of Western philosophy in the form of short sketches outlining the work and thought of great philosophers. 

Warburton is a marvel at presenting often difficult philosophical concepts with brevity and clarity in a relatable, conversational style.  He doesn't just regurgitate a boilerplate summary and move on, but notes the connections, reactions, and dialogues between the philosophers, and common critiques of each philosopher's work.  All this in, on average, maybe four or five pages for each chapter!  It's quite remarkable. 

I particularly enjoyed that Warburton covered several non-philosophers, such as Darwin and Freud, who nevertheless had a great impact on Western thought, as well as a lot of more contemporary philosophers, such as Peter Singer, who are often left out of these survey type things.

An ancillary, but still noteworthy, feature is the sketches at the beginning of each chapter.  They are are adorable, clever, and always relevant, if sometimes obscure without some careful thought, to the ideas discussed, some of them almost summaries in themselves, in graphic form.  Kudos to the illustrator.

The only very minor, indeed nanoscale, complaint I can even come up with is the occasional awkwardness of the concluding paragraphs in each chapter, which act as segues into the next.  Some of them are, as I said, a little awkward, if not forced, and tacked-on-feeling.  I only mention it lest I begin to gush about this book.  (Don't want you all to think I've gone soft.)

Overall, this is a wonderful introduction to philosophy for the curious beginner, as well as a breezy recap for the more philosophically literate. 

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