Monday, May 21, 2018

Missile Gap, by Charles Stross

book cover Missile Gap is a mere novella by Charles Stross, which frustrates the reader when the story ends. The universe the author describes is so interesting and full of potential, but it is only used once, for a short story that ends suddenly and depressingly.

Well, imagine the world of 1976, suddenly finding itself transplanted on a huge artificial disk that spans enough to provide space for millions of planets Earth. Nobody explains how or why it happened and the few realities that the world has come to accept, like the ability to reach outer space, or a finite geopolitical area which can be controlled via routes on a sphere and the threat of ballistic missiles, have flown out the window. Yuri Gagarin is leading a 5 year mission of exploration on the other continents on the disk, to go where no man has gone before, while Carl Sagan is trying to get to the bottom of what happened. Are there other species on the disk? Whodunnit? Why? Very few answers are provided as ideological differences, transplant shock and paranoia, plus a few other agents that I am not going to spoil - the name Brundle is a hint, though - lead to a less than fulfilling ending.

I wish there were entire book series set on this Discworld. I love Stross' ideas and I would have loved to see how people handle the exploration of a new "outer space" which is now both more accessible and less so, due to communication breakdown. Perhaps the aliens that did the transplantation would deem necessary to bring Dmitry Glukhovsky's Metro people there. That's my solution for the immediate sense of loss I felt when the story ended. It's a brilliant idea, stuck in a glass jar, like an insect specimen, only to be studied occasionally when it's feeding time. I really wish it would have bloomed into something greater.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Carl Linnaeus and the binomial nomenclature

Whenever I am trying to determine the translation for a plant or animal, I go through two steps: first I look the name up in the language that I know, in order to get the Latin name, usually from Wikipedia; second I look the Latin name with site:ro in the query or whatever other language I am interested in. This way I get information about both language and the characteristics of the species. But how did we come to have this universal naming of living things and the single one used throughout the biological sciences? Even the British use it!

If you don't know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost, too

It's thanks to this guy called Carl Linnaeus (or Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnæus, it was a long time ago and they were playing with names back then, heh heh), a Swedish biologist and physician. He devised around 1750 what we call the binomial nomenclature, in which any living species name would be encoded by two Latin parts, the first, also known as the generic name, would be the genus and the second, also known as specific name, identifies the species in the genus. Now you also know how the words generic and specific came by, maybe :). To be fair, his work is based on Gaspard Bauhin's, who lived in the 1600s. Now, the words could come from any language, you just have to spell them in Latin.

While the system is rational and helpful, there are peculiarities in it that are worth attention. For example, how come a lot of species use vulgaris as the specific name? Because it means "common" in Latin, so for example Beta Vulgaris is the common beet. What other specific names are there? How about species where the generic and the specific names are the same? They are called tautonyms or, later, tautonymous names, of which some are funny enough like Gorilla gorilla gorilla (yes, three names, hold on, I'll get there). It's like saying "a man's man" :) A bonus fun thing related to this, botanical nomenclature forbids tautonymous names, defined as having identical generic and specific names. However, if you spell them differently, even if they mean the same thing, that's allowed, so you get stuff like Picea omorica, which means pine in Latin and Serbian. For zoological names, tautonyms are allowed, though.

There is more. How about the three part names? You can get stuff like "Something orother Linnaeus 1753" and "Another thing (Linnaeus 1753)". They both mean that the guy who first named the species was Linnaeus, but the second form indicates that the name has changed since first named. There are obvious reasons for that, as the taxonomy of species was first based on physical similarity, while more recently it is based on genetic similarity. One species might appear to be part of an existing genus just to find out later that its genes are of a completely different origin. Another reason for a third part of a species name is the trinomial nomenclature, which introduces the concept of taxon. The system is used to mean different things in botany and zoology, since it is governed by different organizations and you know, they just have to differ in opinions. How Linneaus must roll in his grave. Anyway, taxa are so vague that not even the same body of people agree on what the rules are on that.

Let's return to binomial nomenclature for a bit, though. I've stumbled upon the specific name officinalis. Linnaeus gave the specific name "officinalis", in the 1735 (1st Edition) of his Systema Naturae, to plants (and sometimes animals) with an established medicinal, culinary, or other use. That's a very interesting category and it endures in the age of medicinal pills created in labs by big pharmaceutical companies. When you look for the name of a plant, you usually get some local name that then became the general term for that plant in a language, but when you look at the Latin name, you understand that it has medicinal or culinary properties. Funny enough, the name comes from officina, which is the name of a building attached to a monastery where the monks prepare their medicine, but in modern Italian it means workshop. Also check out this paper: On "officinalis" the names of plants as one enduring history of therapeutic medicine.

There is so much to discuss on this subject that it would make too long an entry and I lack the necessary time. Even the few tidbits of information here are taken mostly from Wikipedia. Imagine digging a little further... it's a huge rabbit hole that holds a lot of promise. If you are the kind of guy that plays RPGs and takes a Rogue character so you can sneak past enemies and collect flora to make potions, then you should really dig in here :) Or if you are interested in the lost medicinal and culinary qualities of plants and animals. I hope this gives you a nice start for something really interesting. Last fun fact, the winner of Wikipedia's influence list in 2014 was Carl Linnaeus. The most influential person on content in Wikipedia. Not some rock star, not an American president or British writer, but a 18 century Swedish biologist who gave us a way to name things.

Roth Unbound, by Claudia Roth Pierpont

book cover After a period of reading only fantasy books, I've decided it was time to get to something more serious. So I started reading Roth Unbound, by Claudia Roth Pierpoint. Funny enough, the book is a biography of Philip Roth, an influential Jewish-American writer, written by a person named Roth that has no relation to him.

Anyway, the thing is I am fascinated by what people think and feel when doing things, so I love well written auto-biographies. However, this book is written by someone else than the subject of the biography and, worse, it reads like a factual history mingled with commentary on the guy's art. In its defense, it was not supposed to be a biography at all. I got to about 10% of it when I decided I will not continue reading it. And it's too bad, because from the few things I did manage to read, Philip Roth is a very interesting fellow.

Well, the bottom line is that I will rate this book low for reasons of not being able to feel anything about anything while reading other than pure boredom, regretting the interesting facts that I am probably missing.

On the bright side, there is a Philip Roth Unleashed BBC documentary from 2014 that can be found on YouTube split into part 1 and part 2, not to be confused with Tim Roth Unleashed, which is the web site of the actor Tim Roth. How many Roths are there, for crying out loud?!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Everything Box (Another Coop Heist #1), by Richard Kadrey

book cover The Everything Box is an old fashioned nice crook in a dirty city story. Only Richard Kadrey is a fantasy author, so the book is filled with angels, demons, magic, curses, magical police, vampires, zombies and so on. It is a fun book, one that is obviously designed to be easy and not take itself seriously. I only read it because I was curious about the author's work after reading Butcher Bird. I am happy to say that The Everything Box is much better, although maybe just because it is a bit funnier.

What I liked most was that it all starts with a quest for an item and not a quarter of a book in, the quest is over, the object is retrieved. Only it doesn't stay that way, as more and more people pile on, attempting to get their hands on it. Their incompetence and greed makes them the butts of the joke, but as the story progresses, you get the same treatment again and again: "oh, the book must be over, oh no! something else happened." Its fast paced, even in dialogues, so it goes down fast.

It's not that it's a literary masterpiece, but it does what it was supposed to do: entertain, and that is why I rate it high.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire #2), by Yoon Ha Lee

book cover Almost a year ago I was reading Ninefox Gambit and loving every page of it. Raven Stratagem continues the story from where the first book in The Machineries of Empire series left off, but naturally the novelty wore off and I was left with just the story and the writing style... which are still great! Now I have to wait for Yoon Ha Lee to write the next book to see where the story takes me. One can still occupy oneself with the 5 short stories in the same universe until June this year, when it's supposed to be published.

One unfortunate effect of reading the book so long after the previous one was that I didn't exactly remember what had happened before. The book is still delightful anyway and can be considered as a standalone, with a little effort of imagination. I don't want to discuss the plot here, for fear of spoiling it, but let's say that while I enjoyed it and the characters, it all felt strangely aloof. Jedao's character is only described from the perspective of others, which makes it difficult to empathize with him. Even the ending feels a little bit rushed, with a grandiose effect, but little fuss over the implementation. One moment you are in a story, the next something happens that has little connection with anything else and then the book ends.

My conclusion is that either Yoon Ha Lee was unsure about the direction he was going to take the story, or he was very sure and the climax is to be had in the next book. In either case I recommend reading Raven Stratagem after Revenant Gun is published, to save you the frustration.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The Volunteer (The Bone World Trilogy #3), by Peadar Ó Guilín

book cover The Volunteer ends The Bone World trilogy. Badly. It's still better than the second book, The Deserter, but that had a plot that made some sort of sense. In contrast, in this book, Peadar Ó Guilín tries to combine the story paths of both Stopmouth and Wallbreaker, bringing together religious roof people, secular roof people, aliens and the original human tribe, each with their own psychotic would be leaders, while the world is slowly covered by Diggers.

While the world established on the surface of the planet was well thought of, The Roof was pretty much a disaster, so that is why the third book takes place on the surface again and is entertaining enough. Yet the interaction between people becomes confused, sub plots open that have no resolution (see the slime woman) and people just do random stuff that makes no sense. Even the characters chosen to die do so without consequence to the story, as if Ó Guilín didn't know which part of the story he wanted to write. The ending feels rushed and incomplete.

Bottom line: The idea of The Bone World is pretty interesting, but the story is not well realized. The first book is interesting enough, but the last two are not really worth it. If you want to read some Ó Guilín, read The Call.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The Deserter (The Bone World Trilogy #2), by Peadar Ó Guilín

book cover If The Inferior was OK, The Deserter, the second book in The Bone World trilogy, is quite weak. The story continues with Stopmouth trying to get to the surface to get to Indrani, and while he does get there, it's not really his merit. And when he finally arrives, the world there is just as dumb and savage as the one beneath.

I really dig (pun intended) the way Peadar Ó Guilín writes about societies and people. His writing has a sort of Shakespearean quality, where everybody is looking for themselves and backstabbing everybody else, no matter how horrible or dishonorable it is. However, his hi-tech writing leaves a lot to be desired. The plot holes that were apparent in the first book, but that hinted on a technological answer from The Roof, become larger when we finally get to see it. Highly dependent on machines that do everything for them, the "civilized" people are divided into tribes that fight each other for no good reason. It is a general theme in the author's writing that people gather in tribes or churches or states or gangs with the singular purpose to blame everything on another group and then try to destroy them. However the society in The Roof doesn't make sense in almost every respect.

There is a sci-fi sub-genre, that of the uncivilized but pure reaching a civilized place and overcoming everything through strength, be it physical, moral or both, and the works from it usually are weak. The Deserter is no exception, I am afraid. In a book where information is so essential for survival, the people in The Roof know nothing, care for nothing except their stupid squabbles and are completely lost without technology. It is hard to empathize with anyone in this book that feels like filler content until the third book, which also takes place on the Inferior.

Bottom line: I've read it quickly, in order to get to The Volunteer. In my eyes, The Deserter was a disappointment.