Sunday, June 10, 2018

Death's End by Cixin Liu

This book was translated by Ken Liu. 

The below contains moderate spoilers. Dramatic events happen fairly early on in this book. I reveal some of them. 

Death’s End is the last book of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy. Like the first two novels of the series, this is realistic science fiction that covers humankind’s struggle against alien civilizations that wish to either colonize or destroy Earth. The book goes on to touch on humanity’s fate millions of years into the future. At over 600 pages, this work is the longest of the three books, and it novel covers a lot of ground. 

The protagonist of this book is Cheng Xin, a woman who is an aerospace engineer born in what is roughly the present day. We meet Cheng Xi during her university years. A young man, Yun Tianming, falls in love with her. Unfortunately, in the years after graduation, Yun Tianming contracts a terminal form of cancer. Before he succumbs, he volunteers to have his brain sent via a probe to intercept the Trisolaran fleet that is planning to invade Earth. The fleet will take several hundred years to reach our solar system, and human technology is only capable of accelerating something as small and light as a brain on an intercept course. At the same time, Cheng Xin becomes a key figure who helps to shape the future of humanity. Yun Tianming returns later to play major part in the story.

An important plot device in this novel is the fact that Cheng Xin and other characters go into hibernation, or suspended animation, several times over the course of the story. Later, space travel at relativistic speeds mean that a short time can pass for characters on board spaceships while thousands or millions of years pass for the rest of the universe. As a result, the narrative takes place in multiple eras that comprise humanity’s future. Thus, the plot follows Cheng Xin and others during multiple periods in the future. 

So much happens in this book during the various eras. At one point, the Trisolarans destroy Earth’s deterrence system. They gain the upper hand because Cheng Xin is unwilling to launch a counterstrike that will likely destroy both civilizations. Next, The Trisolarans, having only robot probes in the solar system, but also human collaborators, begin a genocidal campaign to cull Earth’s population down to 35 million people through starvation.  Before the worst of the horrors commence, an Earth ship manages to launch a retaliation which is known as “The Dark Forest Signal.” This signal means that the location of Trisolaras, and eventually Earth, is transmitted out to the Galaxy, where malevolent civilizations will likely destroy both civilizations. The Trisolarans evacuate as they try to move their ships as far away from both systems. Humanity is spared, at least until it is destroyed as a result of the transmission. All this is fairly early in the book. Much of the remainder of the story concerns itself with humanity’s attempt to stop or survive the coming strike. 

In a later time period, Cheng Xin wakes up to find that most of humanity has resettled in giant space habitats beyond the orbit of the asteroid belt. This is in anticipation of the destruction of the sun from maleficent alien civilizations, who now probably know Earth’s location. In an even later era, Cheng Xin travels in a starship to other star systems where all sorts of fascinating things are described. At one point, she even encounters Luo Ji, who was the protagonist of the first book. There is also a lot of pathos and sadness experienced by Cheng Xin. Though most of the other characters are not well crafted in this book, I thought that Cheng Xin was captivating, as she showed some nuance, interesting traits, and real emotion. 

There is so much going on in this novel. One of many significant themes is humanity’s and the individual’s insignificance in the face of time. The novel actually opens during the fall of the Byzantine empire. The end of this great civilization underscores the temporary nature of all human endeavors. At several points in the narrative, the fact that high tech, digital electronic recordings have a limited lifespan is emphasized. Later, a mishap with a spaceship traveling at close to the speed of light means that millions of years pass while Cheng Xin experiences only a two-week interval. This means that she will essentially lose people close to her who she loves. So much time has passed that she realizes that an entire civilization might have arisen, died and wiped out on the planet that she is orbiting. She would be able to detect no trace of such a civilization due to the immense passage of time. The enormity of it all hits Cheng Xin,

“She finally understood how she was but a mote of dust in a grand wind, a small leaf drifting over a broad river. She surrendered completely and allowed the wind to pass through her, allowed the sunlight to pierce her soul.”

Later on, Cheng Xin and other characters find some solace and meaning in other ways, but the passage of time is still oppressive. This is just one of the fascinating themes floating around this novel. I am going to devout a separate blog devoted to Liu’s exploration of gender which he also manages to fit in here. The work is filled with many other themes as well as imaginative and speculative science which I found fascinating. 

This book is not self-contained. I would only recommend reading this after reading the first two books of the trilogy. My commentary on the Three Body Problem is here . My commentary on The Dark Forest is here.

While I was reading this book, I thought that this could have been the best book in the series. It was trending that way. It is filled with believable descriptions of wonders, the plot is epic and compelling, and, as per above, I thought that the characterization was stronger than in the previous books.  However, it was marred by an inconclusive ending. After three books, and millions of years, I thought that this work needed a firmer, more solid conclusion. Ironically, the second book, The Dark Forest, had what seemed like a firm and definitive wrap up. 

This book is marvelously inventive science fiction. Liu goes into all different directions here and covers an enormous chunk of time. The story is fascinating. In the end, I thought that the book, especially the ending, was not as focused as The Dark Forest, which I thought was the best of series. With that, this is still very much worth the read for fans of the earlier books. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

My Reading Tastes Over Time

I think that most people would say that their reading tastes have changed over time. I am no different. When I think about this subject, it turns out that I appreciate a lot of books now that I did not appreciate when younger.

Some aspects of my tastes have stayed consistent. I still tend to like the types of books that I liked when I was younger. I read a lot of history, science fiction, and I enjoyed much of the Classic Literature that I was assigned at school. I think that these early, high school and college reading assignments whetted tastes that would develop over time. 

Here I wrote about my science fiction reading when I was young. Here I wrote about my lifelong reading of history books. Here I wrote specifically about reading books centering on The American Revolution.

What has changed the most for me is that many books that I like or love now, are books that I would not have enjoyed when I was younger. 

One category of books that I have come to love are works that deeply delve into human relationships and personality.  When it comes to Classic novels of this type I was exposed to authors like Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in school. I liked these books more than most of my peers liked them.  With all that, I did not move on to reading this type of book on my own until I was older. However, there are other books in this general category that I would just not have liked when younger. Jane Austen novels are a good example of this

I was never assigned Austen in school and did not try her books until I was in my 40s. Since then she has become one of my favorite writers. However, I would have felt differently when younger.  I would have found her works too feminine and too romantic in my youth.  Her stories center around establishing of romantic relationships. There was a time when this would not have been for me. Though I prided myself on bucking trends and expectations when I was younger, I would not have read or enjoyed these books. I also would not have appreciated Austen’s keen insights on life. Perhaps one can say that I was a little shallow.  Like many people, as I have gotten older I came to appreciate different kinds of stories about different kinds of people. Compared to what I exposed myself to when I was younger, Austen’s books are very different. I would not have accepted them. Austen is just one example of how I came to appreciate this kind of story over time. Other examples of this would be Anthony Trollope, E.M Foster, George Elliot, The Bronte sisters and others. 

 In a similar vein, there were books that I thought had potentially great plots, but that developed them in ways that I did not appreciate. A good example of this is Heart of Darknessby Joseph Conrad. I had heard the plot description from many sources. Many things about this book sounded appealing: A journey down an African River to remote places; A man at a isolated outpost who is behaving out of control, but who had developed a dangerous, cult – like  following; this all sounded like something that I would love. However, when I first tried to read this story as a teen, I was put off by Conrad’s very dense descriptions and what seemed like the slow pace of the plot. I had not developed an appreciation of innovative and artistic prose or character development. I was also an impatient reader. I have since come to love Conrad’s style. Writers like James Joyce and Victor Hugo also fit into this category. 

Other books seem to be naturally written for older people. Philip Roth’s Zuckerman series centers upon a man over the course of his life. Those that take place in his middle age would have flown over my head if I read them when younger. 

I think that many people develop an appreciation of different and varied books as they get older.  I do not want to claim this as universal as some folks seem to show very mature reading tastes when young. However, as per above, I am one of those who experienced an expansion in my tastes as time went by. In the end I am happy that I have come to appreciate so many more types of books. The only downside is that now, there are even more books that I do not have time to get to. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

This book was translated from its original Chinese by Joel Martinsen.

The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s sequel to The Three Body Problem and the second book of The  Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy. My commentary on the first novel is here.

Taking place in the years following The Three Body Problem, this book concerns itself with the coming alien invasion of Earth. The Trisolaran fleet is 450 years away from reaching the solar system. However, the governments of Earth, working together to deal with the threat, have serious problems. First, The ETO is an organization of humans who are working to assist the aliens. Second, the Trisolarans have managed to send subatomic particles called sophons to Earth ahead of the invasion force. Sophons are basically protons containing supercomputers. They are capable of shutting down all of humanity’s research into particle physics, thus stopping human technological progress at a certain point. This puts a limit on propulsion, weapons and computer technical advancement and means that humans will be unprepared to meet the Trisolaran fleet in the future. The sophons are also capable of spying on humans anywhere, thus allowing the aliens to know everything the humans are doing in their attempts to thwart the invasion.

In response, the governments of the world appoint individuals known as Wallfacers. The Wallfacers are people who are given unprecedented authority to coordinate resistance to the invasion. The Wallfacers work alone and do not communicate their plans to others, as the  sophons can eavesdrop on all communications and conversations. Thus, the Wallfacers plan alone, and they are expected to use subterfuge and work on massive diversions in order to hide their strategies from the Trisolarans.

Luo Ji is the main character in the book and a Wallfacer. Other Wallfacers include: Bill Hines, a former president of the European Union and a brilliant neuroscientst who plans to enhance and manipulate human intelligence to fight the Trisolarans; Frederick Tyler, a former American secretary of defense, who plans to fight the Trisolarans with a fleet of tiny spaceships; Manuel Rey Diaz, the former president of Venezuela, who plans to build massive nuclear weapons that can send planets off of their orbits to use in opposing the aliens.

There are many additional characters, including various members of humanity’s new space fleet. Zhang Beihai is a naval officer who joins the new space fleet and becomes instrumental in its development. Shi Qiang, the rough-around-the-edges detective from The Three Body Problem, is back. He plays a major part as Luo Ji’s protector.

Luo Ji is a fascinating character. Initially, he is chosen as a Wallfacer for inexplicable reasons. He is a mediocre scientist, a womanizer, he is corrupt and hedonistic. He initially tries to refuse the role. When refusal fails, he uses his position to live a life of luxury and excess and does nothing to formulate plans against the Trisolarans. Luo Ji’s behavior is initially taken for a ruse meant to fool the aliens into believing that he is doing nothing while really formulating plans against them. When authorities realize that he is actually just milking the system, they use coercion on him. This prompts him to take action that becomes a true threat to the Trisolarans who, it turns out, have always feared his potential.

As the plot advances, the various plans of the Wallfacers develop along with counter plans of the ETO and the aliens. Later on in the story, many of the main characters go into suspended animation to oversee the plans as they advance over the course of centuries. The depiction of Earth’s future is imaginative and intelligent. Eventually, the humans face a Trisolaran probe that enters the solar system. Everything comes to a head as an enormous fleet of Earth’s spaceships goes to confront it.

This is a serious work of science fiction. Though some of the science seems farfetched, it is mostly based upon real principles. While things like sophons probably could not exist in real life, they are based upon actual theories and at least educated speculation. Future depictions of advances in suspended animation and spaceflight are depicted in scientific literate ways.

There are also references in this book to various science-fiction novels and films, including works by Isaac Asimov and Author C. Clarke. There are references to the writings of Carl Sagan. The plot and themes are also reminiscent of the works of these and other writers. This book, like The Three Body Problem, is a treat for fans of older science fiction as well as those who are interested in science and technology.

There are strong humanistic and positive themes here. As the plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that the universe is filled with advanced civilizations. Due to the need to survive and compete for resources, civilizations are quick to destroy other civilizations in order to eliminate threats and competition. Hence, the “Dark Forest” of the title. The dark nature of the universe is further illustrated when several Earth starships begin a joint, multi-generation journey out into the galaxy in order to escape the alien invasion. Crews of two of the ships murder the crews of the other ships in order to obtain fuel and spare parts. These actions are presented as the only possible way that the ships will be able to reach their destinations. The picture of a very bleak universe and existence is painted here.

However, better tendencies of intelligent life begin to shine through. At one point, a Trisolaran who has attempted to save humanity from destruction speaks to Luo Ji about a future universe that is based upon love as opposed to genocidal survival of the fittest.

“I only wish to discuss with you one possibility: Perhaps seeds of love are present in other places in the universe. We ought to encourage them to sprout and grow.”

Luo Ji replies,

"“That’s a goal worth taking risks for…I have a dream that one day brilliant sunlight will illuminate the dark forest.”

The sun was setting. Now only its tip was exposed beyond the distant mountains, as if the mountaintop was inset with a dazzling gemstone. Like the grass, the child running in the distance was bathed in the golden sunset."

The above seems to encapsulate what are ultimately positive motifs embodied in this novel."

There are also anti-totalitarian themes contained here. As the narrative takes place over centuries, long term trends in human history are fair game for the author.  Both right wing and left wing totalitarian regimes and solutions are shown to be harmful to humanity. Collectivization under strong governments is initially tried on a worldwide basis in order to mobilize human society against the aliens. This leads to catastrophe. Famine and social decay are the result. Eventually, a more open system brings world prosperity and a real chance to oppose the Trisolarans.

I am always hesitant to label a sequel superior to the original. However, as compared to The Three Body Problem, this book has a more interesting plot, more focused themes and more nuanced characters. I think that this novel is better.  With that, it may make more sense to consider The Three Body Problem and this book as one work. The first book ended without a resolution to the alien invasion threat. Though this book is the second in a trilogy, this novel seems to have wrapped up the entire story very neatly. In a way, these two works together make up a single, strong science-fiction story that is worthwhile reading for fans of the genre. This work really does not work as a standalone. It only makes sense as a follow up to The Three Body Problem.

In terms of plot, technology and science, it is a superb book. The characters are interesting and some show complexity. As I mention above, I think that readers of the first book would do well to continue on to this one. I have one more book, Death's End, in the series to go. I am very much looking forward to it.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu was originally published in China in 2006.  This book won the Hugo award for best novel as well as several Chinese science-fiction awards. The novel is an example of what I call hard science fiction. I agree with the many commentators who contend that this book is already a science-fiction classic. The “classic” descriptor has a double meaning, as this book resembles much of the classic science fiction of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. 

The narrative alternates between China in the 1960s during the cultural revolution and twenty-first century China of the very near future. This novel pulls no punches in regards to the horrors of China’s cultural revolution.  That period is depicted as a time of brutality, when irrational forces were destroying truth, science and peoples’ lives. Ye Wenjie is a young physicist whose father is murdered in front of her by a state-sponsored mob. When she gets into her own trouble with the government for reading forbidden books, she chooses a life where she must permanently reside at a secret government base called Red Coast as an alternative to prison. This base is dedicated to sending transmissions to potential extraterrestrial civilizations as well as to searching for signals from those civilizations. This narrative continues through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Signals from an alien civilization, dubbed by humans as Trisolaris, are eventually received. The initial message is a warning from a Trisolaran pacifist that as the Trisolaran civilization is threatened by unstable stellar events, further communications from Earth will likely trigger an invasion of Earth by Trisolarians’ looking for a new home. Ye manages to keep these transmissions a secret and begins communicating with the aliens. Ye has experienced the horrors of the cultural revolution, and she is also convinced that humanity is causing the destruction of Earth’s environment and fears that nuclear war may be coming. Though the aliens’ intentions are not benign, she looks to the Trisolarisarians for salvation. 

In the twenty-first century, the narrative centers on Wang Miao, a young scientist. Wang begins to experience strange events. He discovers messages in photographs that he takes and observes bizarre data from scientific instruments. Wang discovers a strange virtual reality game that simulates a world that orbits three stars, like the Trisolaran home world. He eventually encounters a much older Ye Wenjie, who is now leading a bizarre organization called the Earth- Trisolaris Organization, or ETO. The ETO is trying to actively help the Trisolarisare takeover of Earth. The ETO members have become completely disillusioned with humanity. 

Wang eventually gets pulled into a secret alliance of world governments that are battling the Trisolarians and their human allies. Shi Qiang is also an important character. He is a police counterterrorism expert who is gruff and abrasive, but who provides invaluable assistance in thwarting the alien threat. 

The book is filled with hard science. Current day human technology and science is interwoven into the plot. This includes physics and astrophysics, virtual reality, nanotechnology and more. Extremely advanced science and technology of The Trisolarisarian’s are described. Even wondrous innovations are based upon real physics and current theories. At times, the text becomes a little technical. Though I found it interesting, I think that readers who are less interested in these technical passages can easily skim over them without losing much in this book. 

Though published in the last decade, this book very much resembles works of older classic science fiction. The author clearly was influenced by such writers as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. As mentioned above, the science and physics are all plausible in this work. Even when describing mind boggling alien technology, Cixin Liu provides a scientific basis. The story is also logically consistent. This is a work of hard science fiction. The writing, at least in translation, is straight forward. Most of the story’s characters are scientists. The alliance of world governments uniting to fight off an alien invasion is right out of so many earlier works.

The fact that this was influenced by earlier works is not to say that this is not a very creative book. This novel is filled with creative speculation and imaginative situations. For instance, The Three Body Virtual Reality Game is original and full of unprecedented touches. The way that the Trisolarisarians attempt to undermine human civilization by using just radio and electromagnetic transmissions is wildly inventive. The philosophy behind the story is also original, as will be explained further below. 

The novel has environmental, anti-war and anti-totalitarian themes. Humanistic values are championed.  While the Trisolarisarians attempt to destroy Earth’s civilization, they worry that transmissions from Earth might undermine their own oppressive system. Two members of their leadership observe,

“The humanism of Earth will lead many Trisolarans onto the wrong path. Just as Trisolaran civilization has already become a religion on Earth, Earth civilization has this potential on Trisolaris.” “You’ve pointed out a great danger. We must strictly control the flow of information from the Earth to the populace, especially cultural information.””

Cixin Liu seems to be illustrating how harmful environmental damage, totalitarianism, anti-literacy, etc. are to humankind. However, the message of the book seems to be that people should not fall into despair and to give in to gloom and doom. The members of the ETO do this as they betray humanity and court a cataclysm.

“The most surprising aspect of the Earth-Trisolaris Movement was that so many people had abandoned all hope in human civilization, hated and were willing to betray their own species, and even cherished as their highest ideal the elimination of the entire human race, including themselves and their children.”

Ironically, when the aliens seem so very omnipotent, it is the politically incorrect Shi Qiang that rallies the protagonists with a message of hope and defiance. The Trisolarisarians are able to invade the visual cortex of the members of the group fighting them with a message that they are all forced to see - “You’re bugs!” This completely demoralizes the scientists and the military leadership trying to fight the aliens, but Shi brings the main characters to a region being devastated by locusts and observes, 

“Look at them, the bugs. Humans have used everything in their power to extinguish them: every kind of poison, aerial sprays, introducing and cultivating their natural predators, searching for and destroying their eggs, using genetic modification to sterilize them, burning with fire, drowning with water. Every family has bug spray, every desk has a flyswatter under it … this long war has been going on for the entire history of human civilization. But the outcome is still in doubt. The bugs have not been eliminated. They still proudly live between the heavens and the earth, and their numbers have not diminished from the time before the appearance of the humans.”

The book is not perfect. While several of the characters are interesting to read about and Ye shows a little complexity, they are for the most part simplistic. Better crafted characters would have made this book so much stronger. The writing, at least the translation of it, is at times a little flat. 

This English translation by Ken Liu restored the author’s original sequence of chapters which was changed by the book’s editors upon original publication. It also contains a fair number of helpful notes relating to Chinese history and culture. 

I highly recommend this work to anyone who likes the older science fiction.  Such readers will likely enjoy this book a lot. It is a great piece of science fiction. There are follow-ups to this novel. The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy refers to this novel and its two sequels. I will likely be reading the remainder of the series soon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo was first published 1904. The book takes place in the fictional South American country of Costaguana in the fictional seaport of Sulaco. Charles Gould, who is of English descent, is a citizen of Costaguana. He and his wife, Emilia Gould, return to Costaguana from Europe to revive an abandoned silver mine that had previously ruined his father. As the mine begins to be successful, Gould allies himself with Costaguana’s President don Vincente Ribiera. The president is a reformer who is trying to bring stability to Costaguana after years of repression, civil wars and corruption. Unfortunately, Ribiera is overthrown by brutal, oppressive and corrupt forces. These forces proceed to invade Sulaco as various factions compete for power and influence. 

Nostromo is an ex-Genovese sailor who resides in Sulaco. He is a foreman of European workmen, but he also serves the various upper class European residents as a kind of security operative. He becomes instrumental in the fight against the oppressive factions. When Sulaco is invaded by the enemy forces, he undertakes a mission to save a large shipment of silver from them by getting it out of the country by boat.  Much of the book concerns this mission and its aftermath. 

The book is filled with interesting and complex additional characters. Martin Decoud is a cynic who is drawn into the reformist cause as a journalist and editorial writer. Decoud accompanies Nostromo on his mission to save the silver. Also cynical is the moody Dr. Monygham, who also becomes involved with the reformists. 
As is typical of other Conrad works that I have read, this novel is full of detailed descriptions and dense prose. The first part of the book is so full of these descriptions as well as background information on characters, that the plot barely moves at all. 

There are multiple themes running through this book. As I often do, I will devote a few words to one of these. The motivations and obsessions that provide meaning to life and that drive action is a major subject of this novel.   Various characters in the book are determined people. It is of note that they are driven by different things. 

Charles Gould is obsessed with the San Tome Mine. Gould is less interested in monetary success than he is in the success of the mine itself and its social impact. The mine, which destroyed his father, becomes the focus of his life. It becomes so important to him that the love and tenderness goes out of his marriage. At one point his wife Emilia laments,

"Incorrigible in his devotion to the great silver mine was the Senor Administrador! [Gould] Incorrigible in his hard, determined service of the material interests to which he had pinned his faith in the triumph of order and justice. Poor boy! She had a clear vision of the grey hairs on his temples. He was perfect— perfect. What more could she have expected? It was a colossal and lasting success; and love was only a short moment of forgetfulness, a short intoxication, whose delight one remembered with a sense of sadness, as if it had been a deep grief lived through. There was something inherent in the necessities of successful action which carried with it the moral degradation of the idea. She saw the San Tome mountain hanging over the Campo, over the whole land, feared, hated, wealthy; more soulless than any tyrant, more pitiless and autocratic than the worst Government; ready to crush innumerable lives in the expansion of its greatness. He did not see it. He could not see it. It was not his fault. He was perfect, perfect; but she would never have him to herself. Never; not for one short hour altogether to herself”

Likewise, Nostromo, is a focused man. He is obsessed with his own reputation. The ex-sailor is incorruptible and brave. He fights on the side of reform. However, he cares nothing for the cause. He only values what others say about him and that he is esteemed. He shows himself willing to die for his reputation. 

At one point he comments about his mission to save the silver. 

“I am going to make it the most famous and desperate affair of my life... It shall be talked about when the little children are grown up and the grown men are old”

Things get really interesting when Nostromo begins to realize that the Europeans are just using him for their own ends. He becomes disillusioned. As the narrative continues for years after the mission, this disillusion carries Nostromo into all sorts of directions. This turn of mind allows Conrad to explore both his character as well as disillusionment of purpose. 

Martin Decoud is another example. As his role as writer for the reformists begins to metamorphose into that of a political leader, Decoud shows physical bravery and outwardly appears to be committed to ideas. In reality, however, he is cynical and does not believe in causes. He is, however, in love with Antonia Avellanos, a committed and idealistic person who is dedicated to the cause of reform. Thus, Decoud’s commitment is not what it appears to be. 

Despite the depressive aspects of his personality, Dr. Monygham claims to value loyalty to others. It is revealed that he is haunted by the fact that he betrayed people when he was subjected to torture by a previous regime. It turns out that the thing that he seems to care most about is an unrequited love that he has for Emilia Gould

There are multiple additional characters whose motivations in life are examined. Some engage with one another through dialogues that expose their differences and incompatibilities.

At one point, the chief engineer of the railroad observes, 

“things seem to be worth nothing by what they are in themselves. I begin to believe that the only solid thing about them is the spiritual value which everyone discovers in his own form of activity”

The above quotation encapsulates a lot of what this book has to say. 

The story allows Conrad to explore meaningfulness and personal values in many permutations. Some characters maintain their beliefs, some beliefs some become disillusioned, and others believe that they have betrayed their own values.

There is a lot more going on in this book. It is a critique on both Colonialism as well as Latin American politics. It describes some horrendous violence and brutality that conveys an anti-violence message. There is a disturbing passage that describes torture that might lead some readers to avoid this book. 

This is another brilliant novel by Conrad. It has more characters, more plot threads and more themes floating around than either Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, the other Conrad books that I have read. I find that Conrad is a master of prose, plot, characters and themes. With that, as stated above, this novel is heavy with descriptions and background information so some readers might become a little bored. For those who appreciate its strengths , I think that this book will not disappoint. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Evelina by Francis Burney

Evelina by Francis Burney was first published in 1778. This novel tells the story of Miss Evelina Anville. The entire book is written in the form of letters. Most of the letters are written by Evelina herself. Some are written by her guardian, Reverend Arthur Villars, and Mrs. Mirvin, a family friend. A few are written by others. The bulk of the narrative involves Evelina’s visit to the Mirvins and a later trip to Bristol Springs. Though written as an epistolary novel, some of the letters are long, complex and end up being closer to first person narration. Among other things, they contain long stretches of dialogue. 

The narrative alternates between the Mirvins’ country home, London and Bristol Springs. Evelina encounters a whole host of colorful people, many of whom are of very questionable character. Mme. Duval, Evelina’s vulgar and nefarious grandmother, shows up during a visit to London, threatens to take custody of Evelina and steel her away to France. Captain Mirvan, who is Mrs. Mirvin’s husband, is a bully and a bit of a sadist. Many other characters are crass, obnoxious or just foolish. 

There are multiple men in this book who show romantic interest in Evelina. Many are obsessive, creepy and lecherous. This applies to both major characters and minor characters, as well as random men that Evelina encounters. At one point, Evelina finds herself separated from her party at an outdoor concert. Disreputable and seemingly dangerous men approach her from all sides, 

“my recollection was soon awakened by a stranger's addressing me with, "Come along with me, my dear, and I'll take care of you." …. I found myself in the midst of a crowd, yet without party, friend, or acquaintance. I walked in disordered haste from place to place, without knowing which way to turn, or whither I went. Every other moment I was spoken to by some bold and unfeeling man; to whom my distress, which I think must be very apparent, only furnished a pretense for impertinent witticisms, or free gallantry. At last a young officer, marching fiercely up to me, said, "You are a sweet pretty creature, and I enlist you in my service;" and then, with great violence, he seized my hand. I screamed aloud with fear; and forcibly snatching it away,” 

The above illustrates a world that Burney constructs, populated with pushy, immoral and sometimes dangerous people. Though these characters often do bad things, the tone is the book is fairly light. People rarely actually get seriously hurt. Though these characters display questionable ethics, they are often humorous. Often, characters act in over-the-top and cloddish ways that are funny. They often conflict and bump heads with one another to comic effect. This novel is at times hilarious. Character after character, in passage after passage, confronts Evelina with bad behavior. Sometimes these characters go at one another in that they verbally spar and even play mean and sadistic pranks upon one another. The obnoxious behavior of many of these characters seems realistic, but its frequency as it is presented in this book seems overly exaggerated. The plot is also full of implausible coincidences. All this gives the book a lighthearted and, at times, frivolous feel. However, as a whole, this novel works well as satire. 

Lord Orville is Evelina’s virtuous suitor. He is one of several people in the novel who shows integrity and decency. Throughout the story, the pair encounters various ups and downs in their budding relationship. There is also a major plot thread revolving around the fact that Evelina’s biological father abandoned her and her mother before Evelina was born. Some of the Evelina’s elders want her to assert her birthright. 

In terms of plot and some of the more ethical characters, this book is similar to Jane Austen’s novels. This novel was written years before Austen penned her works. It is kind of like one of Austen’s books filled with clownish and nefarious characters. With that, the characters are not as complex or nuanced as Austen’s brilliant creations. The humor is not as subtle or witty as Austen’s; it is instead overt, but very effective. 

I find it interesting that the obnoxious behavior and character flaws of many of these characters seem very contemporary. People in this book tend to behave badly in the same way as they do in the 21st century. Mme. Duval seems like a modern, crass and vulgar person. Sir Clement Willoughby, one several men pursing Evelina’s affections, seems like a clingy guy whose behavior borders on stalking. Captain Mirvan resembles the people of today who cynically mock and belittle everything and everybody. This book reminds me that some things never change. 

Despite some flaws, this is a fine book. The plot is interesting. It is very funny. Though the characters are not nuanced, they are entertaining and interesting to read about. I highly recommend this novel to fans of Jane Austen and similar writers who came after her. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker was first published this year. It is essentially Pinker’s assessment of the world we live in and how we got here. The book is a defense of enlightenment ideals and an argument that the world is getting better because of them. The author is known as an optimist. He describes the brand of optimism that he practices as “rational optimism.”

The gist of this book is that human civilization has been improving in numerous ways. This improvement has been accelerating. It is being driven by what Pinker describes as enlightenment ideals. The author covers a lot of ground in this work. He explores subjects as diverse as war, violent crime, poverty, famine, epidemics, literacy, human rights, the spread of democracy, access to knowledge, culture and the arts, as well as many other issues. He devotes many pages to both the already developed and the still developing worlds. Pinker uses a lot of statistics to back up his points. I have more to say about this below.

Pinker attempts to ascertain why humanity is improving.  He attributes these advances to reason, science and what he calls “humanism.” I put what he calls “humanism” in quotation marks because there are so many definitions of humanism around. Pinker defines humanism as,

“The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience”

He attributes the advances in these areas to enlightenment philosophy. He does touch upon various enlightenment philosophers. However, this is a light touch. I would have preferred if the author had explored the various philosophers and their beliefs in greater depth.

Pinker talks a lot about pervasive pessimism that he argues is all over the place. The author writes,

“And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

As the above quotation illustrates, Pinker argues that due to the nature of the modern world, communication technology, the structure of the media, the fact that we care more about people who are different from us, etc., leads many to believe that things are getting worse at a time when they are getting better.
Pinker does address existentialist dangers like climate change and nuclear weapons. He recognizes the reality of these risks. Once again, his optimism prevails, while he acknowledges that although these perils could destroy human civilization, he believes that humanity can overcome them. When it comes to other threats that folks deem as risks to the survival of human civilization, such as the dangers of artificial intelligence, overpopulation, pandemics, etc., Pinker argues that they are not as serious as many are contending.

Pinker is highly critical of what he identifies as past and modern anti-enlightenment, anti-science and anti-humanist movements. His criticism extends to both the right and the left. He delves into Donald Trump as well as nationalistic trends in Europe. The philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand are tied to these movements.

The author is also critical of illiberalism emanating from the left, in particular, the latest rounds of censorship on college campuses, an intolerance of dissenting viewpoints, the attempts to destroy the careers of individuals who dissent from left wing orthodoxy, left wing anti-science and anti-reason trends, demonization of all things Western, etc. He is highly critical of post modernism. As he does on the right, he concludes that many issues on the left originate with anti-enlightenment philosophers. Here he identifies Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as such. The ever optimistic Pinker, of course, believes that in the end, reason and moderation will win out over extremists on both sides.

Pinker is also generally critical of religion and particularly critical of conservative interpretations of religion. He talks a about  conservative interpretations of Christianity and Islam. However he acknowledges  that moderate versions of these and other religions are comparable and sometimes even champion enlightenment values. 

There is so much here that it is difficult to encompass in a single blog post, but just a few examples of ills in the world that have been on the downswing over time include poverty, famine, epidemics and violence.  Yet these facts are so rarely talked about. For a more specific example, violent crime in the developed world has been declining dramatically over the last 25 years or so. Yet, the majority of people believe that it is increasing. As another example, in 1984, there existed 54,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and now there are less than 11,000, and there are good prospects that in the coming decades, this number will be substantially reduced.

As mentioned above, Pinker uses a lot of statistics to back up his points. I have been careful to use examples of things that are not only backed up by statistics,  but that match my understanding of the world based upon sources that I have read as well as my basic understanding of the world and of history.

 Some of My Thoughts

A lot of commentary has already been written about this book. Reviews as well as opinion pieces abound all over the internet. Pinker is garnering both praise and criticism. In terms of criticism, it is coming from both the right and the left. Personally, I think that this book illustrates truths about the world that are rarely talked about. Thus, I am devoting a few paragraphs where I share some of my personal observations below.

I have strong opinions on Pinker’s ideas as well as on the issues that he addresses. I have read and thought a lot about these topics over the years.   In an effort to be balanced, I have listened to and read a fair number of these critics. My commentary has been partially influenced by some of Pinker’s detractors.

Pinker uses a lot of statistics. While statistics can be cherry picked and used to distort reality, in my opinion, the author uses them to support logical and common-sense arguments. The statistics presented in this book also match my understanding of history and current events. For instance, his statistics on war and violent crime fit what is happening in the world based upon many sources.  The fact that, as terrible as today’s wars are, they do not come close to matching the frequency and loss of life that conflicts in the past have. The same is true on the subject of crime. Pinker’s statistics generally just quantify what I know to be fairly clear historical trends.

Many folks who criticize Pinker, and people who I have discussed these issues with, bring up many of today’s horrors. One example is the war in Syria. There has been terrible suffering and death as result of this conflict. Upper estimates put the death toll as approaching 500,000. There are several other conflicts going on in the world that are also causing mass losses of life and suffering. However, as Pinker points out, in almost every time in the past, there were many more conflicts going on. Many of these conflicts were much worse in terms of deaths than what is occurring in Syria. Pinker writes of this kind of critique,

“they forget the many civil wars that ended without fanfare after 2009 (in Angola, Chad, India, Iran, Peru, and Sri Lanka) and also forget earlier ones with massive death tolls, such as the wars in Indochina (1946–54, 500,000 deaths), India (1946–48, a million deaths), China (1946–50, a million deaths), Sudan (1956–72, 500,000 deaths, and 1983–2002, a million deaths), Uganda (1971–78, 500,000 deaths), Ethiopia (1974–91, 750,000 deaths), Angola (1975–2002, a million deaths), and Mozambique (1981–92, 500,000 deaths)”

Pinker goes on and uses charts and graphs, among other things, to show that deaths from war have been progressively coming down. As I mentioned above, these statistics match my understanding of history. This is just one example. Pinker makes dozens of rational, historical and statistical arguments as per above on many topics, such as poverty, literacy, epidemics, famine, etc.

There is another point that bears some discussion. Some critics have implied that being optimistic about these issues shows a callousness to present day human suffering and death. Often, individual or group examples of suffering, violence or oppression are brought up as counterarguments when discussing improvements in the world.

Granted, for the relatives of a murdered person, a rape survivor, or a child dying of hunger, a person living in a war zone, etc. the fact that these things are becoming less common is no solace. We should never forget about, and more importantly, we should never stop trying to reduce and ameliorate these ills. However, if these evils have been progressively becoming less common and less severe, it is vital that we understand to what extent this is happening and why this is happening. This understanding is important if we want to sustain and perhaps accelerate the improvement. Recognizing and trying to understand what is going on does not diminish the suffering of those who are still exposed to these terrible things.  On the contrary, understanding what is going on help us to reduce suffering in the future. In addition, the pursuit of truth is in itself important.

Pinker writes,

“The point of calling attention to progress is not self-congratulation but identifying the causes so we can do more of what works.”
Pinker does talk about the terrible things in the world, including the situation with refugees, declining incomes and declining life expectancies in some segments of the population in developed countries, climate change as well as many more issues that are addressed in the book. He makes a strong case that, based on historical trends, we will see improvements in these areas over time.

While he does acknowledge that climate change might destroy human civilization, he makes a case that human civilization can survive it and eventually ameliorate it. He seems more optimistic than pessimistic here.  I am not as optimistic as Pinker seems to be on this front, though I do think that it can go either way.  Pinker makes the case that there is a good chance that humanity will find ways to cope with this challenge. I acknowledge that we might overcome this threat, but I think that that it is so pressing and potentially destructive to human civilization that Pinker would have done better to integrate its negative affects upon his future prognostications.

I generally like Pinker’s politics and views on social issues. He clearly recognizes the benefits that moderate liberalism has brought to the world while recognizing a growing illiberalism growing out of the left. He is also not hesitant to take conservative positions when reason leads him to them.  In some ways, this entire book is a call to moderation, with a slight tilt to the left. It seems that Pinker and I are mostly on the same the same page here.  

I agree with the message of this book: that the plight of humanity is improving in multiple ways and, for the most part, modernity is enormously beneficial.  The ideas of the enlightenment, science and reason are driving this progress. I believe that there are downsides to modernity, and Pinker does mention them, but I would have preferred that he written about them more. However, I agree with him that the constant drumbeat that modernity is detrimental to humanity and things were better in the past, is erroneous. Thus, when all is said and done, I find myself mostly in agreement with Pinker on a whole host of issues.

I think that this book, along with the author’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, are two of the most important works written in recent years. Even if one disagrees with many of Pinker’s points, he is an intriguing thinker who raises all kinds of compelling issues. I personally believe that Pinker is one of the most important thinkers of our time. I highly recommend this book.