Review 218: Why does E=MC2?

LL 218 - Why Does EMC2Why Does E=mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Way back in the mists of ancient time, when I was a college drama student, we all went down to New York City to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I don’t remember much of it now, but I remember it had to do with math and fractals, time and space, and that when the play was over and we all went outside for a smoke, I had a moment of what could only be called sublime clarity. I stood out there with my cigarette, staring off into the middle distance, and – for just an ever-so-brief time – I understood everything.

Not the play, mind you. Everything. It all made sense. It was nothing I could have put into words or explained in any period of time shorter than a lifetime, but it all worked. It all fit together, and I knew what the universe was and what my place in it was. It’s probably how Fenchurch felt in The Hitchhiker’s Guide right before the Earth was demolished.

It... it all makes sense now.

It… it all makes sense now.

And that feeling was wonderful.

It passed, though, because no one can be allowed to hold on to that kind of clarity of understanding. We’d never get anything done. By the time I got on the bus, I was trying to claw my way back to it, understanding but not caring that this was a place you couldn’t find the same way twice. The fine, crystalline perfection of the universe had once again been hidden from my mind, and all that was left was the memory of what it had felt like to know that everything was as it should be.

Reading this book was kind of the opposite of that experience. On every page, I knew that if I would be able to hold on to these ideas just a moment longer, if I could just put the pieces together a little faster, then I would have true understanding of the elegant beauty of creation. But I couldn’t, and I was left with the feeling that it was my own shortcomings that were at fault, rather than those of the authors.

Cox and Forshaw have set a very interesting challenge for themselves in this book. They want to explain one of the most famous equations in human history, and to do it in such a way that the non-scientist reader can understand not only what it means, but where it came from and what its implications are. This is no mean feat, of course, on any front. For all its simplicity, E=mc2 contains within it some of the most important and fundamental understandings about how the universe works. To truly understand this equation is to understand time and space, matter and energy, existence in four dimensions and at scales both vast and tiny.

They begin with what looks like a very simple question: where are we? Galileo pondered this question for a while, and came up with an answer that was probably both enlightening and horrifying for his time.

We don’t know.

Very helpful, thank you.

Very helpful, thank you.

Oh sure, we can know where we are in relation to something else – between a pair of arbitrarily numbered latitude and longitude lines, for example, or at a position around the star that we orbit. But a moment’s thought reveals that we still need to explain where the reference point is, and that we can only explain that in relation to something else, which can only be positioned by yet another relative measurement. In other words, there is no such things as an absolute location in space. There is no universal “there” there by which we can understand the position of anything.

Man, that must’ve freaked him out.

The next insight is that if there is no absolute place, then there also cannot be any absolute motion. As I type this, I am sitting in my comfy chair. As far as I’m concerned, I’m motionless. But I’m not. To an alien on the moon, I’m moving with the Earth’s rotation, whipping past at a breakneck pace of about 1,600 kilometers per hour. On top of that, the Earth is moving around the sun at over 100,000 km/h. which is in turn dragging the whole solar system around the center of the galaxy at roughly 220 kilometers per second, and the galaxy itself is moving through intergalactic space at over 600 km/s, and space itself is expanding at what can only be Ludicrous Speed.

So questions that seem like they should be simple turn out to be really hard to answer. But what comes next is even worse: if there is no absolute place or motion, then what about time? How can we have an immutable, fixed time if there is no such thing as an immutable, fixed place?

Look, I don't know how to make it any simpler than this.

Look, I don’t know how to make it any simpler than this.

Cox and Forshaw proceed to lead us by the hand through the discoveries and realizations of scientists such as Faraday and Maxwell, with a little bit of Pythagoras and Galileo, before bringing us to Einstein and beyond. Through the use of lightspeed trains, mirror-clocks, and a whole variety of illustrative analogies, they take us step-by-step through the process of moving from our understanding of three-dimensional semi-Euclidean space to a four-dimensional spacetime. They guide us through physics and geometry, on scales both large and small, and show not just what E=mc2 means, but how Einstein got to it, and how we’ve proven it so far.

In that sense, this book is a great success. The popular vision of Einstein is that he came up with Relativity because he was bored at work, and that it popped into his head fully formed. But without the work of countless scientists before him, Einstein wouldn’t have had a place to start. E=mc2 is built on the foundations of meticulous science, and is supported by a logical structure that is both elegant and simple. What’s more, his theories of relativity have been tested again and again in all kinds of ways, and they have stood up to those tests. And not for lack of trying, mind you – there isn’t a physicist alive who wouldn’t be thrilled to prove Einstein wrong and propose a more accurate version of reality. But so far, it seems to be the best explanation there is.

For all their care and meticulousness, however, the book is still a bit tough to get through. One of the things that got in my way was how they constantly apologized for using math. I understand why they did it – a lot of adults have a hate-fear relationship with math, and especially equations that start using letters. Math still has an element of mystery and wizardry about it, at least if you’re not very proficient in it, and I get that they didn’t want to scare off any math-phobics from their book.

Wau!

Wau!

But at the same time, I think I would rather they had said, “Okay, follow along with us – it’s about to get MATHTASTIC!” Well, maybe not those words, but I started to get a little tired of being talked to like a timid child as the book went on. They said over and over that I could skip the math parts if I wanted to, and sure enough that’s what I ended up doing. But I think I would have come out of this book with a much better sense of understanding and accomplishment if Cox and Forshaw had said, “We’re going to do math and you’re going to understand it.” As it is, they talked to me like I was a slightly dim child, and I still didn’t fully understand. So what, then, does that say about me?

That I seriously overthink things, for a start.

In any case, even if I didn’t get the math, and didn’t see where all their conclusions came from – especially when they started going over the Master Equation of particle physics near the end – I at least came away with a better understanding of both the chain of reasoning that led to E=mc2 and the ramifications it has on our understanding of the universe. I don’t understand everything this time, at least not yet, but I know more. And that will have to do.

—————————–
“Science at its best is driven by inquiring minds afforded the freedom to dream, coupled with the technical ability and discipline to think.”
– Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw, Why Does E=mc2?

Leave a comment

Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw, mathematics, physics, science

Review 217: The Secret Life of Words

LL 217 - The Secret Life of WordsThe Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

There are many ways to write human history. Most writers of history books tend to go the traditional way – following kings and queens, wars, revolutions and invasions. The history of the world is almost always written in military or political terms, and while that’s certainly a valid way to do it, it’s a little overdone. A truly creative historian might try to look at the progress of humankind through a different lens – the history of art, perhaps, or literature or science.

Hitchings has decided to look at history through the rise and spread of the English language – once an agglomeration of angry noises from a few small tribes in what would eventually become Europe, now a tongue that dominates the world. The English language is used by billions, studied by millions more. It’s the language of business, commerce, politics, law, entertainment and news, and has spread like no other language before it.

Hmmm... What other advantages does English have? It'll come to me...

Hmmm… What other advantages does English have? It’ll come to me…

The big question then becomes, How did this happen? How did English become what it has become? What is the history that led it to span the globe, and what qualities does it have that other languages don’t? In this book, Hitchings looks at the history of English – and by extension the Western world – through the growth of its vocabulary. Where did our words come from, and what does their journey into English tell us about our own history?

A modern English speaker, equipped with a time machine, could probably go back about four or five hundred years and still be confident that she would be able to converse with people. Maybe not with perfect clarity, and it would be an entertaining thing to watch, but it would certainly be possible. Before that, the conventions and lexis that we are all so familiar with will start to be more and more scarce, and by the time of Chaucer, our time traveler would have a hard time indeed. So, as far as languages go, modern English is a fairly young tongue. Over the last half-millennium or so, the sheer number of words available to English speakers has exploded, mainly due to what some would call the language’s “whorish” qualities – English will take up with any other language that comes along, accepting its words and making them its own. By following the spread of English, and the changes that it has made, we can see how people and cultures intermingled in the last thousand years or so.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Hitchings begins at, more or less, the beginning, with the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and its almost immediate conflicts with Norman French and the languages of the invading and pillaging Norsemen. He follows the political swings of English, as the rulers of the British Isles alternatingly embrace and shun the language, until it finally becomes the tongue that defines that tiny island on the edge of the North Atlantic. He looks into Arabic and Latin, Japanese and the languages of the Native Americans. We see the wellsprings of the language of food and music, science, military and law. He introduces us to words that came into English through long and winding roads (one of my favorites is Alcatraz – from the Spanish word for “pelican,” which in turn comes from Arabic’s al-qadus for “machine for drawing water,” which is turn comes from Greek’s kados, meaning “jar” – quite a journey for such a miserable place.) The history of the English language is a fractal history, meaning that in order to understand it you also have to understand the histories of a dozen other languages and then the languages that came before them. To try and put it all down on paper is a monumental task indeed.

The study of English words is fascinating, though. I have recently become enamored of the “Way With Words” podcast, which dedicates itself to unraveling questions about English usage. The hosts are funny and engaging, and manage to give a brief history of words and phrases and all the little tics of English that make you annoyed enough to have to call a radio show about it. It’s a pleasure to listen to, which is probably why I listened to that show a whole lot more than I read this book.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Mr. Hitchings has done an admirable job with this book, trying to cover all the different avenues by which words came into English. The paths that they followed are fascinating, and the stories behind them are the stories of Western culture and civilization. The trouble is that Hitchings doesn’t do all that good a job in making it interesting to the lay reader, i.e. me.

By and large, each chapter deals with a different source of vocabulary or a different time in history, but the narrative that he sets up tends to… wander about. There’s no real narrative to focus on, and while I know this isn’t supposed to be one, Hitchings is trying to tell us a story. It’s a long and complicated one, but it’s still a story, and as such needs to flow in order to keep the reader’s attention.

I can’t fault him for his research or his dedication, but I think he could have given more thought to the organization of the book. Instead of trying to cover as many sources as possible, perhaps he could have narrowed his focus. Instead of throwing out a dozen or so words at a time, he could have given us an in-depth narrative on just a few. Each chapter could probably have been expanded into its own book on the Arabic/Spanish/Latin/German/Greek/African origins of words, and so in reading it you get the feeling that there’s so much more that he’s glossing over. By trying to follow all the twisted paths of the history of English, it’s very easy for the reader to get lost.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

All I kept thinking as I read this was that I had much more fun reading Bill Bryson’s book, Mother Tongue, which covers the same topic but is much more enjoyable to read, and perhaps that was my mistake. By the time I got to the end, and was more or less just scanning pages so that I could legitimately say I’d finished it, I realized that this is not the kind of book that you settle down with and read all the way through. It’s a piecemeal book – pick it up, read a chapter, put it down and leave it alone for a while. When you’re in the mood for more language history, pick it up again and read another chapter. Give yourself time to mull it over and digest, and finish it when you finish it.

However you decide to get through it, you will certainly have a greater appreciation for the richness and diversity of the English language, so regardless of how interesting it was narrative-wise, Hitchings has achieved his goal. English is an amazing language, and it behooves all its speakers to learn a little bit more about the amazing confluence of cultures that produced the sounds that you speak every day.

—————————————————–
“A new word is a solution to a problem. It answers a need – intellectual, experiential. Often the need is obvious, but sometimes it is unseen or barely felt, and then it is only in finding something to plug the gap that we actually realize the gap was there in the first place.”
– Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words
—————————————————–

Leave a comment

Filed under English, Henry Hitchings, history, language

Review 216: The Gathering Storm (Wheel of Time 12)

LL 216 - WoT 12 - The Gathering StormWheel of Time 12: The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Yes, of course there are some spoilers. Fewer than usual, perhaps, but still – do you want to take that chance?

Imagine you have a favorite band, and for one reason or another – accident, death, Yoko Ono – they break up. There will be no more music from them.

But it is decided that, regardless of what fate wants for the band, their music is too well-loved and too important to be allowed to stop. So a new band is formed, and they spend years poring over the original music. They get every recording, every bootleg, every interview about how and why these musical giants did what they did. They collect the original instruments and reproduce how the songs were recorded. They do everything in their power to understand that music as best they can. And then they start to make new music.

No one can ever replace you, Sonny...

No one can ever replace you, Sonny…

When you hear it, you can tell that it’s not the original group – maybe there’s a lyrical choice that the old band wouldn’t have used, or perhaps a certain favoring of chords that’s different – but if you sit back and relax, and let yourself just enjoy the music, you can almost believe that it’s your favorite band, come back together to make new and wonderful music again.

That’s kind of what it was like to read this book.

In his introduction, Sanderson says that he’s not trying to replace Robert Jordan – he’s not going to try and copy Jordan’s style or techniques. “Instead, I’ve adapted my style to be appropriate to the Wheel of Time. My main goal was to stay true to the souls of the characters.” This is certainly evident as you read the book – there are techniques that Sanderson uses that Jordan never did – especially in terms of narrative style, dialogue and thematic unity.

Sanderson is a generation younger than Robert Jordan, and this difference in age is reflected in the style of the book. While he certainly does his best to make it look as much like its predecessors as possible, for Sanderson to simply try to ape Jordan’s style would have been a disaster. The narration seems to have a lot more rhetorical commentary than in previous books – the introductory paragraphs of chapter one are a good example, where the narration itself is commenting on the fallen state of Tar Valon, asking “Where was the White Tower, the law?” This technique of the narrative asking questions of the characters is peppered throughout the book.

Having Mat end every chapter with "YOLO!" was perhaps a little TOO contemporary...

Having Mat end every chapter with “YOLO!” was perhaps a little TOO contemporary…

The narration seems a little tighter, more concise than Jordan’s style, which was long criticized for being somewhat superfluous in its verbosity. Again, this is probably a reflection of the generational difference between writers – Jordan probably grew up reading Tolkien, and Sanderson grew up reading Jordan. Each generation seeks to take the good from the previous one, while simultaneously trying to improve upon it. So by and large, the storytelling itself feels more contemporary than other books.

This is also true for the dialogue. There are more rapid-fire exchanges than usual, a sure sign of a younger author, and most of the time this works very well – he actually uses it in a few places to drop significant revelations about characters, so it seems he’s aware of what the quick back-and-forth can do. Each character has retained his or her original voice – with the possible exception of Mat Cauthon.

It became pretty clear as I read this book that Mat must be Sanderson’s favorite character, because he gets all the best lines. One thing that Jordan never did (and I don’t think he really cared to try) was make me laugh. On the other hand, nearly every chapter with Mat in it elicited at the very least an audible chuckle if not an outright laugh. Of all the characters in the book, Mat’s dialogue has become the most unique and, at the same time, the most contemporary, including, but not limited to, verbing a noun:

[Verin] reached into a pocket of her dress, pulling out several pieces of paper. One was the picture of Mat. “You didn’t ask where I got this.”
“You’re Aes Sedai,” Mat said, shrugging. “I figured you… you know, saidared it.”
Saidared it?” she asked flatly.
He shrugged.

Now for some readers, I have no doubt that this will be an intolerable change in a character’s voice. They’re going to go into paroxysms of rage that their favorite character has been turned into a Buffy guest star. And that’s a valid criticism, I suppose. I loved the change. Mat has always been the most rogueish of the characters, dicing and drinking and flirting, and you would expect that kind of person to be of a sharper form of wit. Sanderson’s decided to let Mat meet that potential, and I applaud him for it.

Even Liam Neeson called to tell Rand to lighten up  a little.

Even Liam Neeson called to tell Rand to lighten up a little.

By and large, though, the characters mostly sound like themselves. In some cases, more so, if that makes any sense. Rand, for example, is a lot more thoughtful than we’ve seen him before. For a long time, Rand was really a difficult character to get into. We were not often presented with those moments of sympathy that allow you to imagine yourself in that character’s skin, and perhaps that was a conscious choice of Jordan’s. Sanderson’s done a good job at letting us see what being the Dragon Reborn has done to Rand since he left Emond’s Field, and the path to disaster that he’s on. Rand has decided to become hard, as hard as he has to be so that he can live until the Last Battle, and we finally get a good look at why he thinks this is necessary. What’s more, we fear for him – there was one moment near the end of the book where, reading what Rand was about to do, I found myself saying, out loud, “No. No! Nonononono!” You’ll know it when you see it.

One other aspect of the work that Sanderson has focused on is thematic unity. Different characters experience similar situations that serve to reflect a certain theme of the work. Egwene’s trials, refusing to submit to the will of Elaida, are reflected in Aviendha’s increasingly ridiculous “punishments” by the Wise Ones, and bolstered by the appearance of Shemerin, an Aes Sedai who was, against all tradition, demoted to Accepted. They all serve to support the theme that you are who you say you are, and once you submit to another’s opinion of you, you lose. Egwene already knows it, Aviendha has to learn it, and Shemerin learned it too late.

The difference between being hard and being strong is another theme, this time balanced between Rand and Egwene. Rand, who has to unify the world under him before he fights the Dark One, has chosen to become hard. Not just steel-hard or rock-hard, but cuendillar-hard (a substance from the Age of Legends that is unbreakable by any known means). It is only by crushing his emotions, severing himself from others, and by doing whatever has to be done – up to and including mass murder – that he believes he can prepare for the inevitable confrontation.

Egwene - Keep up the good work! - HC

Egwene – Keep up the good work! – HC

Egwene, on the other hand, has to unify the White Tower before it’s too late. To do so, she must endure immense physical and emotional punishment at the hands of the very people she’s trying to save. She knows she’s right, of course, and the refusal of others to take her seriously would make it easy for her to just give up on the White Tower Aes Sedai. Leave them to their inevitable doom and build a new society of Aes Sedai loyal to her. But she doesn’t do that. She endures the pain, she controls her anger and her impulses, and constantly reminds herself why she is doing what she’s doing. In the end, this makes Egwene stronger, whereas Rand nearly shatters.

Overall, I was very happy with this book. Like many Wheel of Time fans, Jordan’s death worried me greatly. I worried that the whole story would just never be finished, that Rand would never find peace, the Tower would never be united, that Perrin would never have a quiet place just to be himself or that Mat would never be able to live a life with the responsibilities that he chooses. When Sanderson was announced as the author who would finish the series, I worried again, having never read his work. Would he be able to handle the task of finishing this series? Would he be able to pull together all the plot threads that were flying around and bring us to the conclusion that Jordan had known from the start? Would I, in other words, be utterly heartbroken?

I am very happy to say that I’m not worried anymore.

This was pretty much how I spent most of the book.

This was pretty much how I spent most of the book.

—————————————————-
“We can’t go back, Mat. The Wheel has turned, for better or worse. And it will keep turning, as lights die and forests dim, storms call and skies break. Turn it will. The Wheel is not hope, and the Wheel does not care, the Wheel simply is. But so long as it turns, folk may hope, folk may care. For with light that fades, another will eventually grow, and each storm that rages must eventually die. As long as the Wheel turns. As long is it turns….”
– Thom Merrilin, The Gathering Storm
—————————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
The Gathering Storm at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
The Gathering Storm at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

Leave a comment

Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time

Review 215: THUD!

LL 215 - THUDTHUD! by Terry Pratchett

I love Discworld. I knew that already, but I thought I’d put that back out there. This book didn’t diminish my love of the Discworld by a single whit, though it didn’t inflame it either. It merely reinforced my feelings. Shored it up, say, like timbers in a mine shaft….

Sorry – there’s a lot about Dwarfs in this book, and it kind of gets to you.

In fact, Dwarfs play a pretty huge role in a lot of the stories that take place in Ankh-Morpork, the great cosmopolitan city of the Disc, mainly because they’re a race that, to humans, seems mysterious and difficult to really understand. The dwarfs have their ways, which they don’t share with outsiders, and find it difficult to reconcile living in a socially diverse city while still retaining their essential Dwarfishness. Through the Dwarfs, Pratchett is able to deal with an issue that most modern countries are struggling with in the 21st century – immigration.

But why, Colonel - WHY?!

But why, Colonel – WHY?!

Take it from me, it’s tough to live in a foreign country. You grew up with a whole set of rules that worked for you and made sense to you, but you now find yourself in a place where those rules no longer apply. And the new rules you have to play by make no sense and, in some situations, may actually seem downright wrong. The difference between the culture in your head and the one in your life is what we call “culture shock,” and there are several ways of dealing with it.

The first is to simply accept it. You’re in another country – they do things differently here. Accept that you’re going to have to play by the house rules, no matter what things were like where you came from. It may feel strange or uncomfortable, but it’s your job to adjust – the world will not change to make you happy, therefore you must change to be happy in the world.

Obviously, this is the option that I believe to be the best one.

Your second choice is to simply leave. If you can’t cope with the new culture, there’s no shame in that. Not everyone is flexible enough to do it. So you gave it a try and it didn’t work. Go somewhere more familiar, someplace where you won’t have to give up so much of what you hold dear.

Obviously this is not an easy option, especially if family or work are involved, but it is an option.

And then you can take your country back!!

And then you can take your country back!!

Third, you can pretend that the host culture is inferior to your own and totally disregard it. Band together with your countrymen and form enclaves, miniaturized versions of your home culture where your rules still apply. Isolate yourselves from the surrounding culture, and do whatever is necessary to keep it from wearing yours down.

This is popular among the more isolationist cultures – in this book, certain segments of Dwarf society. The problem is that sooner or later, the host culture and yours are going to come into conflict. And odds are, you’re going to lose.

There has been a murder in Ankh-Morpork. A Dwarf has been killed, and they’re ready to blame their ancient enemies, the Trolls. It’s coming up on Koom Valley day, you see, the day in which trolls and dwarfs remember the only battle in the multiverse where, according to the stories, both sides ambushed each other. Trolls hate Dwarfs and Dwarfs hate trolls – that’s how it’s always been, so the logical murderer must have been a Troll.

The problem is that the Commander of the City Watch, Sam Vimes, isn’t so sure. I mean, yes – it’s obvious, but it’s a little too obvious. The Deep Dwarfs, the ones who never come above ground, believe that the murder is beyond Vimes’ jurisdiction, and therein lies the conflict. By trying to keep him out of it, they pretty much ensure that the Watch will investigate this murder, and in the course of doing so, help to uncover a secret that the Deep Dwarfs would do anything to keep from getting out.

I can't help but imagine Vimes played by Bogart...

I can’t help but imagine Vimes played by Bogart…

This one, THUD! is one of the Vimes Books, which puts it very high in my estimation. Of all the characters he’s written, I like Vimes the best. Granny Weatherwax comes a close second. Basically I really like the old, cynical, take-no-shit characters that take the world into their own hands to do the Right Thing, no matter the cost to themselves. The reason why Vimes tops Weatherwax is that, of all the characters on the Disc, Vimes has had the most growth. In his first book, Guards! Guards!, he was a drunk and a failure, the nominal chief of the shadow of a night watch. Enter Carrot Ironfoundersson and a dragon, and Vimes’ path was set.

Now he’s a Duke, Commander of the Guard, married to one of the richest women in the city and the proud father of a toddler. He has everything. In fiction, this is never a good place to be….

The themes of this book are varied. There is, of course, the theme of culture clash – how much should one be allowed to keep the culture one grew up in? How many concessions must you and society make in order to keep everyone happy? The answer, in case you were curious, is hard to pin down, but it is most certainly not “none.”

Where's My CowIt’s also about fatherhood, though that’s more of a character-building theme for Vimes. He has a son now, and he has dedicated himself to his boy. Every night at 6:00, he reads their favorite book, Where’s My Cow to his son (a book that you can also buy, coincidentally enough). He cannot – must not be late for this. Not even by a minute, and certainly not for a good reason. Because if you’re willing to break a promise for a good reason, pretty soon you’ll be breaking it for a bad one. And it is this kind of personal, rock-solid integrity that keeps me coming back to Vimes.

If you’re already a Discworld fan, you don’t need my urging to pick this one up. It’s not the best of them, but it’s certainly a good read.

——————————–
“For the enemy is not Troll, nor is it Dwarf, but it is the baleful, the malign the cowardly, the vessels of hatred, those who do a bad thing and call it good.”
– The Diamond King, THUD!
——————————–

Leave a comment

Filed under Discworld, fantasy, peace, Terry Pratchett, war

Review 214: Harry Potter and Philosophy

LL 214 - Harry Potter and PhilosophyHarry Potter and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham

When a co-worker of mine noticed the title of this book, his response was distinct and dismissive, something along the lines of, “Huh. I don’t think she went in putting anything philosophical in those books.” The air of disdain was palpable, and while I didn’t have a chance to continue the conversation, I got the distinct feeling that he was not one of J.K. Rowling’s biggest fans.

However, he may have had a point, one which mildly threatens this whole series of popular culture and philosophy books that I enjoy so much: how much of what these pop culture philosophers talk about is really there in the text, and how much are they just spinning from thin air? When Rowling wrote these books, was she consciously thinking of Aristotle and Plato, of the reasons why Harry Potter’s decision to embrace death was so similar to that of Socrates? Was she asking herself questions about the difference between the Greater Good and the Common Good, about whether her writing was more aligned to radical feminism or liberal feminism or feminism at all? Did she set out to create a world where the concept of a soul made sense, to determine the true nature of love, or to decide what makes for a great leader?

What is the teleological importance of Hagrid's beard vis a vis the function of the Good in wizarding world?

What is the teleological importance of Hagrid’s beard vis a vis the function of the Good in wizarding world?

Probably not. Like many writers who are not philosophers, Rowling probably just set out to write a rollicking good tale. That tale, however, is necessarily supported by some of the most important issues in western philosophy, so whether she wanted to address them or not, they showed up in her work.

One interesting question that was raised in this book – and there are plenty – is the question of identity and agency. By looking at Sirius Black as a case study, Eric Saidel explores what it is that makes us who we are – is it that thing we call a “mind,” or is it something else? Sirius black is a man, who sometimes looks like a dog, and when he’s a dog he sometimes acts like a man. When he’s not doing that, he’s acting like a dog. Is there any reason why this should be so, why a man should be a man sometimes and a dog others? Who – or what – is making those distinctions for him? It seems like a trivial question, one that can probably be chalked up to Rowling’s dire need for an editor as the series went along, but for Saidel it poses an interesting thought experiment. Is there an “essential Sirius Black”, regardless of the shape he’s in, and what influence does that shape have on him?

And as long as we’re talking about matters ephemeral, what of love? Throughout the series, Harry is told that his mother’s love is what protected him from death at the hands of Voldemort. Indeed, the love that Harry feels for his friends is actually a potent protection against the Dark Lord’s evil. What is it about love that makes it so powerful, and what has Voldy done to himself that makes it so dangerous to him? Catherine Jack Deavel and David Paul Deavel explore the topic of love and its mysteries by looking at three characters that are far more similar than they might appear – Voldemort, Harry, and Snape. Three “lost boys” who grew up very differently and whose lives were drastically shaped by love in one way or another.

Really, I can't imagine how no one took her seriously...

Really, I can’t imagine how no one took her seriously…

Moving on to matters that are bigger than the human heart, Jeremy Pierce explores issues of destiny and prophecy in his chapter, “Destiny in the Wizarding World.” We all know that prophecies exist in the world of Harry Potter, rare though they may be, but what does it actually mean for an event to be prophesied? The slightly batty Professor Trelawney has had only two accurate foretellings in her otherwise fraudulent career – the first being the one that put Voldemort on the trail of Harry, and the other about Voldemort’s return. But how do we judge a prophecy for its accuracy, especially once we’ve heard it? Is there any way to stop it, or does the very nature of causality mean that hearing the prophecy necessarily forces it to happen? Pierce goes back to Aristotle on this one, and tries to untangle all the different ways that a brief glimpse at the future could be revealed without ruining everything.

There’s something for the political types as well. Andrew Mills looks at the issue of patriotism – what is it, and is it actually a good thing? How is the loyalty of a Hogwarts student to her House morally different from the loyalty of a Death Eater to their Dark Lord? Is patriotism morally acceptable in any way, and if so, how? And what about Dumbledore? His “hands-off” approach to dealing with the school has caused some people to hold him up as a model of Libertarian governance. He doesn’t meddle in others’ affairs, allows Harry and his friends all the freedom they need, and generally tries to govern as little as possible. But is he really a Libertarian? Beth Admiraal and Regan Lance try to figure that out. And what makes him worthy of the power and influence he has, anyway? Is this the sort of man who should be a leader? David Lay Williams and Alan J. Kellner hark back to the story of the Ring of Gyges and Plato’s assertion that the one best suited to lead is the one who wants it least.

Yes, he is. (art from Hijinks Ensue)

Yes, he is. (art from Hijinks Ensue)

Things even get a little meta-fictional, too, if you like that kind of thing. In 2007, after the series was finished and in the hands of the fans, Rowling announced that she’d always thought of Dumbledore as gay. Some fans loved the idea, and others utterly hated it. But there were some fans who refused to grant her the right to make that declaration ex libris. As she hadn’t put it in the books, the argument goes, it’s not really true. So, Tamar Szabo Gendler undertakes the very challenging task of trying to figure out how we can determine what is “true” in a work of fiction.

Rowling probably didn’t write this series with the intention of scoring philosophical points, but the fact that these philosophers can do it is a testament to the care and thought she did put into her writing. She not only took from hundreds of years of fantasy literature, but also drew on some of the most fundamental aspects of being human – the need for love, the desire for power, the fear of death – and made them the centerpieces of her books. And, as luck would have it, those are just the kinds of things that philosophers love to talk about.

So, if you’re a fan of the books and a fan of philosophy, give this one a read. Then go back and read the books again, and see what else you can get from them.

——-

“Doing what we want to do may be necessary for freedom, but it’s not sufficient; we must also have the freedom to do otherwise.”
– Gregory Bassham, “Love Potion No. 9 3/4”

Leave a comment

Filed under fantasy, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, philosophy

Review 213: Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera 1)

LL 213 - Alera 1 - Furies of CalderonCodex Alera 1: Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

As you probably have noticed by now, I am a huge fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The books are fun reads – fast-paced, gritty and realistic, while still maintaining that tarnished patina of fantasy about them. They have a great narrative voice and I could read them the same way I eat a bag of Doritos – all in one sitting, unsure of how it happened, but with less orange Cheez ™ on my fingers. I know for a fact that as long as Jim Butcher continues to write The Dresden Files, I will continue reading them.

At a certain point, I became aware of his Codex Alera series, mainly because he talked about them in author’s notes in the backs of the latest few Dresden paperbacks. I didn’t really read through the notes, usually because I was far too impatient to get into the next book, but I knew they were out there and that I would, sooner or later, have to read them. I also knew that they would be a different beast from what I was used to.

Not every story can be as inspiring as others...

Not every story can be as inspiring as others…

This series is Butcher’s real baby, as he tells us. From his childhood, Butcher was fascinated with high fantasy, the kinds of epic journeys that were made famous by people like Tolkien and Eddings, Zelazny, Brooks, and Weis and Hickman, to name a few. So, when he decided that he wanted to be a writer, it was on that kind of world-spanning, epic fantasy that he set his sights. He found what a lot of young writers find – that this kind of fiction is viciously hard to do well, and is really suitable only for writers who have either mutant-level innate talent or who have spent many, many years honing their skills.

Out of the process of working on his craft, of course, Butcher gave birth to Harry Dresden, which has certainly made the world a better place, but he never forgot his dream of writing an epic fantasy series. After much hard work, and what was no doubt a series of terrifying decisions to let it go public, Butcher published The Codex Alera, his contribution to the Sword-and-Sorcery genre.

It introduces us to the nation of Alera, an old and massive country build on swords, intrigue, and the strange talent possessed by most people to shape and control the very elements themselves. Within the very earth itself, in water and air and fire, trees and metal and stone, there are furies – spirit beings that can bend these elements to their will. The furies, in turn, link to a human, who gives them direction and purpose. A human in control of a fury is a force to be reckoned with, whether they are just bending a water fury to tell if someone is telling the truth, or compelling an earth fury to raise great walls in defense of a population. Most everyone has one or two furies at their command, and some of them have more. Young Tavi, living in the frontier region of Calderon, has none.

"We don't owe nobody nothin'..."

“We don’t owe nobody nothin’…”

Despite his disadvantage, however, Tavi is surrounded by good people. He’s been raised by his uncle, Bernard, who is the leader of their community at Bernardholt, and Bernard’s sister, Isana. Like all people on the edges of empire, the people of Bernardholt have learned to be tough and live without the security of armies or the support of central government. They take care of their own matters, thankyouverymuch, and don’t need a lot of interference from the rest of Aleran political society.

Unfortunately, of course, what they want doesn’t really matter. They soon find themselves at the heart of a violent coup, a plan to overrun the empire and topple its leaders. With the help of the inhuman Marat, the traitors to the First Lord are willing to sacrifice everything in order to save what they believe are the best parts of their nation.

Of all the themes that kind of got lost in this book, that last one is the one I wish had gotten more play – that sometimes people do horrible things for reasons that they believe are not only defensible, but actually good. The main antagonist, a man with the hilariously ironic name of Fidelias, starts out as a wonderfully conflicted character. He tricks his apprentice, the Cursor Amara, into traveling with him to the rebel camp. He makes an attempt to convert her to his way of thinking, and when she rejects a place in his coup, he reverts to Villain Pastiche – the former teacher who is very, very disappointed with his student, to the point where he just has to kill her so she won’t give away the plan. Fidelias travels with a sword-happy knight, Aldrick, who is almost invincibly good at what he does, and the knight’s lady-friend, a semi-psychotic water-crafter named Odiana.

He's an archetype we just can't quit.

He’s an archetype we just can’t quit.

It’s kind of unfortunate, really – I really wanted to be uncertain as to whether Fidelias and his crew were actually good guys, but I was pretty much convinced of their alignment within a few chapters. If I had one wish for this book, it would be that Butcher had kept me wondering throughout the book. I mean, it’s not impossible that the First Lord was deserving of being toppled, and that Amara had given her loyalties to the wrong man, but I stopped questioning that pretty quickly once Fidelias reached mustache-twirling levels.

In general, there were some parts of the story that I really liked, some that left me cold, and a lot that had me playing “Spot The Fantasy Trope” drinking game. Some of the best scenes were fast-paced and full of action, scenes that Butcher has always been good at. Whether it’s Tavi being chased by giant, heat-seeking spiders, or an all-out assault on a semi-impregnable fortress, Butcher does a very good job at controlling the action and making sure the reader knows what is going on where.

On the other hand, a lot of the narration itself, especially in the beginning, is way too talky. Probably one of the hardest things for any epic fantasy writer to do is to introduce his or her world to the reader in a way that is not only clear, but that also makes sense from within the story. Often characters spell out details of history and culture that they already know, and really don’t need to recap.

"As you know, the daily rotation of the Earth - the planet on which we live - makes it look like the firey ball of gas in the sky is rising."

“As you know, the daily rotation of the Earth – the planet on which we live – makes it look like the firey ball of gas in the sky is rising. In the east, no less.”

It would be as though I called my friend back in the United States and said, “As you know, President Obama, who was democratically elected by the people -” “Yes,” my friend says, “in a process that was established over two hundred years ago!” “Indeed,” I say. “President Obama – who is African-American – is thought by some to be Muslim!” “But he isn’t! He is a Christian!” “That’s right, a follower of that ancient religion founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ….”

It would be weird. But writers do this all the time, especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction. And you have to feel a little sorry for them – they have all this information to give us, and no natural way to do it, because the residents of that world already know it. That’s why so many epic fantasies (this one included) tend to start in backwater, isolated regions, where people haven’t seen a tax collector in generations, and why the protagonists tend to be young, working-class people. They are the only ones who would need this kind of history recap. It’s one of the most common ways of filling the audience in, from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to Star Wars, and Butcher is not an exception.

There is a lot of potential here, though, shining through all the weight that the first book of a fantasy series always has to bear. There’s a complicated political system that we have barely begun to explore, and the way that people and furies interact is shown to be very flexible and creative. As we follow Tavi through the rest of the books, we’ll get to see how someone without the ability to call on a fury might make his way in the world.

Also, I look forward to seeing Tavi grow out of his awkward mongoose stage...

Also, I look forward to seeing Tavi grow out of his awkward mongoose stage…

Incidentally, that is a place where I have to give Butcher credit. I seriously expected Tavi to finally gain his furycrafting powers in a big way at some point in the book, but he never did. For all intents and purposes, Tavi is a cripple in this world, and that is going to be a serious obstacle in his future endeavors. It looks like Butcher’s going to allow the boy to stay disabled, which makes for a far more interesting character in the end.

Anyway, out of loyalty to an author I really like, and in the hopes that he will be able to break the shackles of the Fantasy Formula, I will continue with this series. Don’t disappoint me, Jim….

—————————————————————–
“Two days ago, I had a lot more sense….”
– Tavi, Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
—————————————————————–

1 Comment

Filed under epic fantasy, fantasy, Jim Butcher, politics, war, wizardry

Review 212: Knife of Dreams (Wheel of Time 11)

LL 212 - WoT 11 - Knife of DreamsKnife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

As before, things might be spoilery – I try not to get too specific, but I know how some people are. Consider yourself warned.

And finally things start to come together.

Not completely – the five story tracks I talked about before are still five tracks, and haven’t re-integrated yet. But there has at least been some resolution to some of the storylines, good progress made in others, and you can begin to see how things might eventually end up.

Let’s look at the most satisfying story resolution first – Perrin hunting for his wife, Faile.

They don't look anything like this, but it was either this or pictures of the Klan...

They don’t look anything like this, but it was either this or pictures of the Klan…

In case your memory hasn’t held out too well, Faile has been a captive of the Shaido Aiel since the end of Path of Daggers, which feels like oh so long ago. Since then, she’s been a captive – what the Aiel call gai’shain – and forced to work harder than she had ever has before. Traditionally, gai’shain are Aiel captured in battle, and represent a very important part of their philosophy of ji’e’toh – honor and obligation. An Aiel captured by his enemy will serve for a year and a day, and would never contemplate trying to run away, shirk his duties or harm his captors. It’s just how things are done. The gai’shain, while captive, occupy a curious position of honor in Aiel society.

But non-Aiel are not supposed to be taken gai’shain. Sevanna and her Shaido are perverting the traditions of the Aiel, taking wetlanders captive and treating them as little better than slaves. Faile and her followers (two of whom happen to be queens), are in danger every day, and she doesn’t know which is more dangerous – trying to escape or waiting for Perrin to rescue her.

She finally gets both. With the help of some more honorable Aiel – the Mera’din – she has a chance to get out. But Galina Casban, an Aes Sedai of the Black Ajah and a very angry gai’shain, would rather see them dead.

For his part, Perrin makes a deal with the devil, as far as he’s concerned. While the men he’s leading are certainly very capable, there’s no way they could attack thousands of Aiel without it becoming a slaughterhouse. So he turns to the only military force in the land that has even a chance of success – the Seanchan. They’re invaders, they’re occupiers, and given the chance they would overrun Perrin and his army. But they both see the danger in allowing these Shaido to stay where they are. So a bargain is struck, and Perrin devises a way to attack the Shaido and win his wife back.

Meanwhile, Mat is still traveling with Tuon, the daughter of the Seanchan Empress, and fearful for her life. It seems there are those who want to kill her – something that she has grown up with, to be honest. And they’re willing to go to any lengths to do so. Fortunately, Mat is willing to do whatever he has to in order to keep her safe – she is going to be his wife, after all….

I couldn't help but use this again. It's such a great idea... (art by minniearts on DeviantArt)

I couldn’t help but use this again. It’s such a great idea… (art by minniearts on DeviantArt)

Let’s talk about the Seanchan for a moment, actually. Back in The Great Hunt, they were introduced as being as close to villains as it was possible to get and not be working for The Dark One. They invaded the city of Falme, started capturing women who could channel, and overwhelmed the local military there. They are a highly stratified society, with a complex system of honorific behavior that was unlike anything we had seen yet in the books. We were led to think of them as unabashedly bad.

They turned out not to be, though. They saw their invasion as a homecoming, recovering the land of their ancestors from people who had forgotten the rule of the great Artur Hawkwing. Their forefathers fought against women who could channel, almost to the bitter end, until the a’dam was developed. With it, these dangerous women could be controlled. Yes, they are considered very nearly non-human (at one point, a character equates having sex with a damane with bestiality), but from the experience of the Seanchan, that is the only way these very powerful and very dangerous women could be kept from destroying their civilization.

The Seanchan are powerful and confident, but they’re not evil. The more we see them in these volumes, the more obvious that becomes. Perrin and Mat do more together to not only show us the human side of the Seanchan but to also convince the Seanchan themselves that they need to adapt to these new lands. They will never be removed from the Westlands (especially since the Forsaken Semirhage single-handedly destroyed their empire), but we are finally getting the impression that they’ll be willing to work with the natives, rather than just rule them.

Pay attention, Galina...

Pay attention, Galina…

In other parts, there are some wonderful just desserts, where we finally get to see people we have despised for so long get their comeuppance. Galina Casban is may favorite – I’m sure you’ll understand when you get there. There’s heartbreak and triumph, and more than a few moments where you just want to stop and re-read what just happened. We also get to see some very good character work, from Egwene’s war of words to win over the Aes Sedai of the White Tower to Elayne’s battle to keep her throne – and stop the Black Ajah from pulling her down. We get a real sense of growth from these characters that will serve them well in the books to come.

Reading this book, you finally get the sense that things are starting to come together. The dead are starting to walk, reality is unraveling, and no one is sure what the next day will bring. The Last Battle is coming, and everyone needs to be on board if they’re going to keep civilization intact.

It should be noted, also, that this was the last book written by Robert Jordan before his death in 2007 from cardiac amyloidosis. His passing was a great bow to his fans, and I want to extend my thanks here and now (as I will again later, I’m sure) to his widow for making sure that the world he created didn’t die with him.

———————————————-
“If we die, we will die as who we are.”
– Banner-General Kaerde, Knife of Dreams
———————————————-

Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Knife of Dreams at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Knife of Dreams at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

Leave a comment

Filed under adventure, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry