peteg's blog - noise - books

Eugene Burdick, Harvey Wheeler: Fail-Safe (1962)

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Kindle. Even recently everyone used to like scaring themselves with great tales of nuclear incidents but the uncertainty and unknown-unknowns these days, alongside the risk/threat of actual use, have taken most of the fun out of it. (Fred Kaplan did a PhD on the command-and-control aspects in the early 1980s, which he updated last decade. Similarly the issue has preyed on Ellsberg's mind for a long time now.) This book is the classic work of fiction that got made into a movie that was overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove. I'll now have to watch it.

Burdick benefited from collaboration and/or learnt a lot about storytelling after 1956. The prose is punchy and brisk, relentlessly leading us to an impossible conclusion. Things proceed mostly sketches of the action interspersed with capsule biographies (the wise General and President, the unhinged RAND theoretician, the hard politician, technologist, the cabinet secretaries, and so on). They were keen to observe that man's technology had already outrun his ability to control it (at scale; similar to the vibes about A.I. today, and yes, all decision takers are men here). Apparently it may all come down to the wisdom of the President of the United States! So we know we're screwed, and indeed these guys were so pessimistic about stepping back from the nuclear brink that they would probably have been surprised that we made it this far if they'd made it this far.

Goodreads. Yep, a bit too much exposition. Orville Prescott at the time: not convincing, not great writing but indeed thrilling.

Don Watson: The Passion of Private White (2022)

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Kindle. 4.99 AUD of DRMed eBook from Amazon. I was susceptible to the pitch — tales of Việt Nam war veterans working with Yolŋu in Arnhem Land — despite stalling on Watson's The Bush after the first third a while ago. Also topical with all the noise about the Voice, so hats off on the timing.

The central thread is a partial biography of Việt Nam war conscript Emeritus Scholar Dr Neville White OAM of La Trobe University. Brought up in Geelong by a father who was a boxing great. Go the Cats. Studies interrupted. PTSD. Some interesting stuff around using genetics to understand how clans are related and being accepted into one of the Yolŋu clans. The other vets get capsule sketches.

Beyond that things get wonky. The Việt Nam experiences are presented as deep background. We're told that Neville and his army mates got sent to Núi Đất early on (1967) and so weren't around for the cathartic destruction of the minefield described Greg Lockhart. They appeared to have no experience of the Vietnamese beyond the military engagements. I wondered throughout if it may've been more therapeutic for the vets to return to Việt Nam (as McNamara and many others did), or to harvest bombs or something, anything, back in South-East Asia.

More fatally, while many Yolŋu are named almost all are entirely characterless, and without some internality we get no clear idea what the substance of the chronic disagreements was; the obdurate opacity of the culture makes it seem childish. (In contrast Watson indulges his proclivity to psychologise in his portrait of White, and to a lesser extent, the other vets.) Fire is a friend and there is much burning of possessions and buildings. We can feel the deep knowledge of the land slipping away as (some of) the homelands fail to thrive but we get little sense of a living, learning culture; does it contain the seeds of its own regeneration? Or is it a received body of highly-specialised, highly-localised knowledge jealously guarded to fend off mining and competing land claims?

The concerns of Russell Marks's book on the Indigenous/Settler law interface are treated cursorily in a couple of paragraphs:

Ricky was in breach of more than Yolŋu law ... [with extenuating excuses] he had pieced a car together and headed for Gapuwiyak. On the way back the car caught fire, and while it was burning, the police happened by. They discovered that the car was not registered, and the driver was disqualified — and not for the first time. Ricky was facing a couple of months in gaol.

Neville arranged for legal aid [from Slater & Gordon], but Ricky told the lawyer that he preferred to take the gaol sentence and 'come out a free man'.

The eventual resolution was a 1570 AUD fine.

So I didn't get what I hoped for. Perhaps Watson was too close to his subject to realise that his own sentiments do not square with the facts as he has presented them. For instance that the reasonable ambitions (for marriage, skills, autonomy, leadership, tools, vehicles, ...) of most of the men were stifled by the leaders of the homelands obviously does not bode well for the long term survival of the culture. (Women and their aspirations are scarcely mentioned, though it is observed that they do reliably provide food.) Would Christopher's house have been in the wrong place wherever it was built? I didn't understand why White (and co) promote a sedentary lifestyle which is so clearly unhealthy and a destroyer of culture, or why he couldn't organise his classificatory-daughter's teaching qualification. That task, at least, struck me as tractable.

Watson doesn't think through the implications of Neville engaging in a long term aid project. These most often require many factors to go entirely right to succeed, such as shared goals and sufficient comprehension of the culture. I'm sure these guys weren't the first to build a workshop (etc.) and see it looted (etc.) and humbugged (etc.) — but all we hear is that the shiny bums from wherever are useless. What is the barrier to effectively sharing development, cultural preservation and empowerment techniques amongst these groups?

As for the storytelling: that these are secondhand tales shows. Dean Ashenden was more successful with his historical/sociological angle.

Widely reviewed of course. Goodreads. Timothy Michael Rowse summarised it. Contrary to Linda Jaivin, I did not get the sense that the vets were saved by Donydji; they repeatedly threatened that this year's visit was to be the last. Tom Griffiths: more summary. Michael Winkler is more nuanced, pairing this book with one by Kim Mahood. Her deep wisdom: "Now I know too much to make sense of anything". Gillian Cowlishaw at length: baffling. Negotiation as a way to pass the time. Clangers. Her take on kinship relations sounds so Asian to me. Watson did not even begin to grapple with Yolŋu culture and values. Neville White in the courts in 2013. And so on. I wonder what the vets of more recent wars are engaged with.

More valuable than all of this is Russell Marks's take on the Voice.

Eugene Burdick: The Ninth Wave (1956)

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Kindle. Burdick's first novel, and clunky it is. The whole conceit is summarised by the aphorism hate plus fear equals power and exemplified by surfing, politics and getting mugged in California. Main character Michael Freesmith (it's right there in the name) is repellent, and at times I wondered if Burdick had embedded his thoughts on manufacturing election wins into the structure of the book itself. It's not that clever though: Mike really is just vacuously repellent.

Perhaps what dates this the most are its claims about the American middle class (merely a myth to many now) and how it might manipulated by shame (an obvious fallacy in the privacy of the polling booth). Putting aside the obsolete technology (trained ladies reading punch cards!) his sketch of data-driven electioneering was a decent foretelling. I tend to feel that the impact individuals (politicians) have on history is diminishing, at least in the U.S.A. where general political gridlock has provoked a retreat to lawfare. The conclusion — effectively an assassination or coup d'état — is therefore fanciful.

Goodreads. Orville Prescott for the New York Times at the time: artless but don't let that stop you from reading it. Oh yes, there's a poker scene and shade is thrown late on the strongly-presented convictions. Also John Nerber reviewed it through a teleological lens: so dated! While Burdick was right to be worried, his later efforts with Lederer (The Ugly American and Sarkhan) are far sharper.

Peter Carey: Oscar and Lucinda. (1988)

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Kindle. This one got Carey the Miles Franklin in 1989 and also a Booker. It's a crooked romance leaning heavily on the novelists of the preceding century: Dickens on unearnt wealth and unsound expectations, I expect Austen on many things, lightly larded with some social criticism of the Thomas Hardy kind.

It takes Carey about half of the book to manoeuvre Oscar from the clutches of his "evangelical" naturalist father in the western country of mid-19th century England through theology school at Oriel, Oxford and onto a boat where he briefly meets Lucinda. It's all colour and digression, directions to a (cinema) director, some occasionally very funny description (but only in the small, it's not a comedy), and some dodgy rehearsed knowledge (glass is a liquid because old windows are not flat) that brings into question the originality — the truthiness! — of all the arcana about the Anglicans and the Plymouth Brethren, the Sydney of the day, even the geography. I did learn about Prince Rupert's drops which the internet tells me are still a thing (to buy in bulk from China).

Obviously Carey was reaching for the great Australian novel: Lucinda is a bit Wuthering Heights-Cathy, a bit My Brilliant Career-Sybylla, and the whole expedition is entirely Voss (but without a Voss, i.e., a bit vacuous). The whole show is underpinned by gambling, with Oscar (frocked and unfrocked) often finding God's will revealed by coin flips and dog and horse races; i.e., what we might recognise now as prosperity theology, though Carey is careful to repeatedly observe that he only keeps of his winnings what he immediately needs. (Carey also owns to his debt to Pascal and the Parable of Talents aka "the Matthew effect".) Lucinda similarly enjoys a flutter but received her wealth in the canonical Australian way: by subdividing land appropriated from the indigenous. She's an innocent undeserving of the class envy (give us some shelter) that dominates the present day as her mum did all that for her. She uses half of her inheritance to buy a glass factory, on something of a whimsy. The ending is unsatisfactory.

Overall it's an infantile arrested love affair, a year of Neighbours afterwhich Lucinda aged out and Oscar left through boredom for the bright lights of Hollywood. The writing is often good and in these ways it was the converse of Alexis Wright's Carpentaria: I prefer her characters and setting but his writing.

Widely reviewed of course. Goodreads: briefly, Carey is not for many people.

Roger Ebert gave three stars to the 1997 movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. He draws a parallel with Werner Herzog's obsession with obsessions, and I definitely had Judy Davis more in mind than Blanchette as Lucinda. Janet Maslin also. All the details at Ozmovies (similarly "Herzogian"). There is no need for me to see it now.

Christopher Koch: Highways to a War. (1995)

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Kindle. Australian (actually Tasmanian) AFL-playing war photographer Mike Langford goes missing in Cambodia in 1976 and his boyhood mate, now a lawyer, goes looking for him. The novel has a clever structure — exposition via taped diaries, lightly fictionalised by the lawyer, leading up to present-day events — that avoids omniscient narration, yielding a neat-and-tidy novel where all the classically hard questions are avoided.

My main problem with this book was that it had nothing new to say about the Indochina of the war years, even when it was written. Daniel Ellsberg was out reconnoitring the Mekong Delta in the mid-1960s, and David Halberstam wrote up a day in the field with the ARVN back in 1967. Of course Graham Greene was all over the spook stuff in The Quiet American back in the mid-1950s; see also Burdick and Lederer's The Ugly American, and Neil Sheehan and Tim Page's work. Moreover the multitude of Vietnamese accounts that were translated into English circa 1990 (e.g. Dương Thu Hương's Novel without a Name, Bảo Ninh's The Sorrow of War amongst many others) had far more local colour. And let's quietly ignore the contemporaneous The Moon of Hoa Binh.

This book seemed so inessential, so late to the party, that it took me a while to realise that it's really a homage to colonial Asia, a time (mid-1960s to mid-1970s) and place (cities: Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Sài Gòn, Singapore) where sufficiently brave and ravenous white men could live like kings while the latest version of the Great Game played out around them as some form of entertainment. This becomes inescapably obvious when paradisal, prelapsarian Cambodia was embodied in characterless Ly Keang, a derivative of Greene's Phuong without even the minimal agency that comes from being one corner of a love triangle. Things got a bit excruciating when Koch talks crudely about Cambodia returning to freedom.

Overall Langford is simpler than Koch claims him to be: he's a bleeding-heart humanist as well as a Quiet Australian who enjoys what that time and place had to offer. By the fall of Sài Gòn he seemed to be more like a Johnny-on-the-spot Forrest Gump than the Christ figure glimpsed in longshot at the end.

The text got Koch the Miles Franklin Award in 1996. Wikipedia (and Koch in his introduction) tells me it drew heavily on the life of Neil Davis, but Robin Gerster reckoned Sean Flynn is a better match, i.e., Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now (1979). A common complaint is the assumption of too much historical knowledge. Koch asserts this to be the mate of his later Out of Ireland (1999). I expect his The Year of Living Dangerously (1978) was more valuable.

William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)

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Kindle. nth time around with Gibson's classic debut. The ending is such a bust! — people in 2023 need to know what happens when one AI hostilely takes over another. I was planning to re-read the two semi-sequels to find out but I'll stop here.

Russell Marks: Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. (2022)

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Kindle. A follow up to and expansion of his earlier Crime and Punishment. The topic is vital but the book is lengthy, concussive and insufficiently focussed; it took me an age to get past chapter one and a lot of commitment to crawl through the second half. His use of footnotes annoyed me: I'm used to inline citations and I learnt a long long time ago that if it's worth saying it goes in the main text, and if it's not you let it go. The kids today might consider that a part of killing their darlings.

I'm not a lawyer. What made Nicholas Cowderey's Getting Justice Wrong valuable to me was that he laid out the legal system to us non-specialists, and that he took an issue-based approach, pointing at particular antinomies of the system and using specific illustrative examples. Here (NT defence lawyer) Marks engages in extensive (excessive) cataloguing of court cases. I found this futile as readers of this book are likely to know that generally things are bad, the general shape of the badness, and the general stasis and backsliding. (See, for instance, Ben Abbatangelo at another Black Inc. venue; it's the era of choose-your-own-apocalypse from a vast and increasing menu.) Sometimes he pulls in a sociological, historical, economic or political angle (beyond his workaday legal frame) but not as successfully as Dean Ashenden. Take, for instance, this from Chapter 14 A New Beginning:

[Circa 1933, s]outh of the Murray, William Cooper — now in his seventies — was doing his own agitating. He began a letter-writing campaign, which soon led to the creation of the Australian Aborigines' League. Among its demands, the League wanted Canberra to take over the administration of Aboriginal affairs from the states (which was eventually achieved by referendum in 1967).

I was left wondering why Cooper thought the Feds would provide a better deal than the states, recalling that it was the Depression, the White Australia Policy was in force and the first and second World Wars close by. And just what did the 1967 referendum achieve anyway? I wanted the perspective that Marks brings to his (excellent) essays.

Ashenden observed the limits of the law as a mechanism for (social) justice, and in particular that issues of sovereignty are quite simply beyond the scope of every court in Australia, and moreover that petitioning the body that could adjudicate such issues — apparently the U.K.'s Privy Council — is not possible. (As a non-lawyer I felt Ashenden spelt that out clearly.) Marks seems to think that Western law has more universalism that it does, more scope for providing justice, even as he pummels us with endless counterexamples and decries the inveterate unwillingness of Australian Settler law to accommodate Indigenous law (or some practices). For instance (again from Chapter 14):

[I]n May 2020, a cave in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara was permanently destroyed by mining giant Rio Tinto, despite multiple representations to the company by Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura heritage managers about its significance: archaeological evidence showed that the cave had been continuously occupied for 46,000 years, making it the oldest known inland site in Australia. Rio Tinto’s actions were entirely lawful under the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, which had created an approvals process which favoured the destruction of sacred and significant sites. In the wake of the Juukan Gorge destruction – reported around the world – the Western Australian parliament replaced the Act entirely, though with a new piece of legislation which was opposed by Traditional Owners on the basis that it did not address the central flaws in the existing law.

Here the law is completely irrelevant; a priori decisive were capitalism (the financialisation of just about everything) and a centralised politics, which in his business manifests as privatised prisons and (as he observes) NAAJA (see Chapter 13 The Defenders), and afterwards it was blowback from public (specifically large shareholder) opinion that destroyed corporate reputations and placed the event into the category of never-again-not-until-the-next-time. Marks observes several times that every formal inquiry more-or-less reiterates what was determined and proposed by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987 to 1991), which demonstrates that the critical thing that's missing is not epistemic ... so what is it? As Noel Pearson often observes, it's not just partisan politics: Holt, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and at times Abbott all made attempts to bend history towards justice. Moreover Marks did sometimes observe that many issues he canvasses are also prevalent amongst non-Aboriginal people, opening the door a crack to a broader Amartya Sen-esque cross-sectional analysis/activism.

Finally, I've always been mystified how the systems of law could ever be reconciled. Take, for instance, the cultural impedance mismatch in this murder trial from 1976 described in Chapter 5 Bending:

According to Joseph's defence lawyer, Judy had repeatedly taunted and insulted Joseph by mentioning tribal secrets she shouldn't have known about. The open discussion of such secrets in court provided grounds, Wells concluded, to make an order banishing all women from the court, including from the jury. Joseph formally pled 'not guilty' to murder through an interpreter. (Unfortunately, that interpreter was uninitiated, and it emerged that Joseph, who was initiated, was unable to speak to him.)

Doesn't this suggest that almost all (actionable, evidentiary, ...) tribal law is beyond the ken of almost all Settlers? (Ashenden noted that Bill Stanner was initiated and provided with tribal secrets in the hope of influencing the state, but he wasn't a lawyer.) And of course tribal law may not be so big on blaming individuals.

Widely reviewed. Chris Cunneen came in for a caning in the book (I think, see Chapter 9 Debate) but is generous in his review. I did not find any that engaged with Marks's take on carceral feminism (see his Chapter 10 Women: How protection isn’t working much better this time around for First Nations women) which is entirely depressing.

Martin Riker: The Guest Lecture (2023)

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Kindle. Yet another bum steer from Dwight Garner. I initially thought Riker was trying to better Spufford by ventriloquising John Maynard Keynes but the vast bulk consists of the first-person hand wringing of a very normatively-normal American female junior economics academic who has all the correct opinions. Vast sections are repetitiously tedious. It completely lacked animal spirits.

Goodreads splits into those operating in the confirmation mode, who saw themselves in Abigail, and those who were expecting something more novel.

Dean Ashenden: Telling Tennant's Story: The Strange Career of the Great Australian Silence. (2022)

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Kindle. From Black Books Inc for 16.99 AUD. It's been on the pile for a while due to the topic and rave reviews; Noel Pearson's Boyer lectures prompted me to read it. Both point back to Bill Stanner's apparent Boyer-of-Boyers lectures of 1968, with Ashenden having the space to canvas Stanner's broader academic/political output.

Briefly this is a capsule history of the relations between Aboriginal and settler Australians through the prism of Tennant Creek and the greater Barkly region. It is a rich source book and mostly evenhanded (as far as I could tell, given that the politics was sometimes hard to parse; for instance both Paul Hasluck and Stanner are deemed conservatives but are shown to have diverged significantly over the goal of Aboriginal policy). The meat is on anthropology and its shading into history and then legalism: the story of Spencer And Gillen (there apparently being little source material before about 1900), the politicking at Sydney Uni, the routine imposition of hierarchy, the early days of land rights (the bark petitions sent by the wily Yolŋu, who are unfortunately left opaque here). I felt a bit brought-up-to-speed by his coverage of Mabo (putting Henry Reynolds's role into perspective, as well as Justice Blackburn's) and was surprised that he did not go on to explain the Wik decision (pastoral leases versus native title) or the legal system's inability to grapple with issues of sovereignty. And much else. The concluding movement has him in Nyinkka Nyunyu in Tennant, trying to extract some oral history from various elderly Aboriginal ladies.

More dispiriting was his coverage of the culture/history wars of the Howard era that I lived through; it seems to have mostly quietened or gone underground now. Ashenden concludes on an optimistic note — things are changing — while observing that (much like the USA) it is politics and not legal manoeuvring that will (have to) ultimately make the difference. I'm not as optimistic as objectively (deaths in custody stats, a return to child removal, the grog, the lack of meaningful activity, ignoring the locals, etc.) things look like (at best) more of the same. Perhaps there will be movement again later this year.

Overall a thumbs up for me. I wished he'd written at twice the length. Excerpts are everywhere. Ashenden talking to (being cut off by) Phillip Adams on 2022-12-07. Kieran Finnane: yes, I always wanted to understand Aboriginal thought better. Goodreads. Apparently he won the 2022 Australian Political Book of the Year Award.

Deepti Kapoor: Age of Vice. (2023)

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Kindle. A bum steer from Dwight Garner; he's trending to more miss than hit. Marketed as India's answer to The Godfather — and what a marketing effort it's been! — and so soon after the age of anger.

This book is long, its referents are exhaustively exhausting, the author's execution and continuity patchy. Let's not mention the dialogue, the overuse of brands and (my favourite) the overly specific pharmacopoeia. Is this Shantaram in world-class (so much world class) Delhi? Not really; it's more Trishna wanting to be Breaking Bad. The inert, touristic set piece on a deserted beach in Goa put me in mind of Ben Affleck, bloated and broken on the shore, powers dissipating, with shades of (dominant) grey. There are way too many confessions — more than your average no-I-expect-you-to-die! James Bond — and it attempts subtlety with a Star Wars I-am-your-father-Luke sotto voce. Basically if you've ever met a trope you'll meet it again here.

Goodreads. Oh no, she intends to write two more. The rating there has slid as the masses have filed in with their opinions. The White Tiger? Could be. Literary? Nope. Would Puzo be concerned? Not at all.

Ned Beauman: Venomous Lumpsucker. (2022)

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Kindle. Sometimes you just want to read something with a plot, some characters, a little pace and verve, maybe even a point of view. You'd even settle for some magpie storytelling where vast foraging, cracked perspectives and too many zingers make it easy to forgive the shortcomings.

I feel a bit bad re-reading what I said about Beauman's Madness is Better than Defeat: it was better than all that. Here he returns after a few too many years with a marginally saner take on green capitalism, specifically extinction credits. Amongst the many random jags are: short squeezes (GameStop is name checked), intelligent animals (initially provoking an oh no, but deftly deployed: the lady is looking for a species with sufficient intelligence to consciously take revenge on the humans who are wiping them out), game theory for fish (these lumpsuckers supposedly engage in retribution based on some risk assessment), Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, seasteading (canonically pilloried back in 2016 by Hermicity: "We now have the technology to live completely alone. Hermit cities powered by DAOs on the Ethereum blockchain." / "Solar powered drones delivering soylent to hermits, ran as a DAO on the Ethereum blockchain!"), BREXIT (the U.K. is now the Hermit Kingdom), a very dodgy take on the preservation of information (as a physical principle) and consciousness simulation on whatever (cf Permutation City).

Does it cohere? No it does not. Does that matter? Not at all. And isn't it time he got a movie deal? This is at least as good as any of the recent James Bond plots.

Goodreads. Wai Chee Dimock spoilt it at the New York Times. And so on.

Shaun Prescott: The Town. (2017)

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Kindle. Prompted by the release of his new book. Notionally about the disappearing towns in the Central West of NSW, but sufficiently banal, insecure, repetitive and unassured that my eyes glazed over anything that may've been interesting or novel.

Widely reviewed (and, of course, feted) locally. Kerryn Goldsworthy (amongst many others) is quick to fend off the charge that Prescott is just aping Gerald Murnane. Goodreads. And so on. Even trawling the apologetic reviews is a slog.

Yasmine Seale: The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1,001 Nights. (2021)

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Kindle. A pointer from Robyn Creswell at the New York Review of Books. I did enjoy the language/translation but somehow the stories seemed shallower this time around; perhaps I mostly enjoyed the colour in Richard Burton's effort.

Ray Nayler: The Mountain in the Sea. (2022)

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Kindle. A bum steer from Nicole Flattery in the New York Times. A murderous, sapient octopus society near a sandy shoreline of Côn Đảo (I haven't been). I usually bitch about novels being overstuffed with research but here it's the other way around; this is a novel of other people's ideas that already have better treatments in the scifi canon. For "humans trying to make sense of exotic consciousness and/or society" see Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and sequels, Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life (filmed as Arrival), etc. For synthetic sapience, see positronic Asimov, etc. For connectionist ("cellular") artificial intelligence, see, well, the venerable field of connectionist AI. For "non-human species with a culture" try the elephants. The moral hand wringing and righteousness can be found anywhere.

There were so many bullshit assertions I felt like throwing my device across the troopy every few pages. (It's unfortunately quite a flabby trip to nowhere new.) Nayler has a character (that sounds like every other character) assert that "silicon based AI is no threat to humans" — as if he hasn't given a moment's thought to Cathy O'Neil-and-co's concerns. The memory palace acts as an index to data in the brain, so destroying an entry in that index is not the same as forgetting the information; you know, the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. (In my experience magpies know this but cats do not.) Evrim is ridiculously sub-human: he could be Doctor Manhattan or Rutger Hauer or Arnie or whoever but is instead a purely emoting reactionary, like an extra on a teenage vampire series. (I found the pronouns tiresome.) Most offensive were the assertions (not arguments!) for lethal violence, as if there are no alternatives ever. I'll stop there.

Mystifyingly highly rated at goodreads.

I close with one of my favourite quotes, from Don Marquis: "If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; but if you really make them think, they'll hate you."

James Gleick: Isaac Newton. (2003)

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I read Gleick's Chaos a long time ago and have fond memories of it. I dug this up after realising that I know little about Newton beyond his mathematics, physics, interest in alchemy and the dispute over priority with Leibniz. Unfortunately this book mostly just rehearses these topics, adding only a few biographical details: some but not all dates, where he lived and who he shacked up with, the politicking at the Royal Society (primarily with Hooke), the boosting by Halley, the heretical thoughts. Newton's Wikipedia page is broader, deeper and more interesting.


Shehan Karunatilaka: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. (2020/2022)

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Kindle. The Booker Prize winner for 2022. More historical magic realism from the subcontinent, like that other famous Booker winner. Throughout it struck me as very derivative. Written in the second person (like How to get filthy rich in rising Asia). We're taken by a hedonistic gay photographer into Colombo and more obliquely Sri Lanka's civil war in the 1980s (Tamils v Sinhalese v other minorities) with about twice as many words as are functional. The plot is notionally motored by who-killed-Roger-Rabbit (sorry, you) but circles this and other points often, and without significant progress. None of the characters are particularly engaging. The rules for the spirit universe are arbitrary and unenforced; just noise. There is lots of local colour but mostly it collects set pieces (like poker games) sourced from things like James Bond movies and the internet of the past decade. The life philosophy is bogus, and the author has no grasp of probability or risk. He is obviously angling for a movie version.

Reviews are legion and mostly fawning. Goodreads.

Joshua Cohen: The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. (2021)

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Judy was cruel. She had that smart cruelty to her of someone who'd gotten what she wanted. And she'd gotten it the fairest way, through suffering.
after a long digression on notions of fairness for the purposes of college entrance essays

Kindle. Prompted by Netanyahu's restoration to the throne of Israel and Cohen's amusing take on Jared Kushner's memoir. Told in the first person by a Pnin-ish academic in upstate New York. The Netanyahus come to visit for the purpose of a job interview at the local college. The setups are a bit clunky — it's often obvious where he's taking us — as the visitors are predictably horrible, the academic overweening, the backbiting. I probably missed many of the finely calibrated distinctions amongst the Jewish diaspora (ancestry, linguistic proficiency, cultural symbols) but there is still a lot to enjoy in the small, and he is damn funny. Overall, though, is there anything much to it?

This got Cohen the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Reviews are legion and generally tedious.

Russell Marks: Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System. (2015)

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Kindle. On the strength of his regular essays for The Monthly, which are mostly excellent. At book length (and seven years ago) he's not as taut or well structured. Marks hammers the restorative justice drum in a similar way to how I remember Nicholas Cowderey doing it in the 1990s, expecting data and money to persuade. Things have changed a bit since then (for instance McGowan in W.A. far out landslid Newman in Queensland) but remain essentially the same or worse.

I also read Marks's The Book of Paul immediately prior. It's brief and has its moments. On the other hand Keating's recent sprays about Barangaroo, Packer and casinos are some of the most asinine things he's ever said.

Goodreads. Yep, Marks needed to walk more of the less happy paths.

John Brunner: The Sheep Look Up. (1972)

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Again, second time around with this fat Brunner. Depressingly it became even more congruent with reality in the intervening decade.

I read it while waiting for the troopy to get serviced in Berri, South Australia. Don't believe the hype — there's very little to do here on the Riverland when the river is up and flowing rapidly. The rain (past and forecast) precludes escapist red dirt adventures to the north and east. Stay home, I suggest; even more so with the outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis along the river (see also the Guardian).

More context at Wikipedia: apparently prophetic for 2007.

John Brunner: The Shockwave Rider. (1975)

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Kindle. Second time around with this Brunner classic.