Friday, July 3, 2020

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

Under Western Eyes is Joseph Conrad’s Russian novel. I found this to be another brilliant Conrad effort. As is typical of Conrad, this book is filled with complex characters, prose and themes. This work was known to be written as a response to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Conrad’s novel has some similar plot devices and characters. This book’s protagonist, Kyrilo Razumov even has a similar name to Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov. Among several objections, Conrad apparently beloved that Dostoyevsky was too sympathetic to the Russian State and Russian autocracy. However, like the Dostoyevsky book, this work is a scathing indictment of radicalism and revolutionaries. 

This novel, like many of Conrad’s works, is narrated by a narrator who interprets and tells the story. The narrator is an English teacher of languages who filters the story through “Western eyes” by reading and interpreting the protagonist’s diary. Thus, there is a lot here about the differences between Russian and Western European political systems, thinking and philosophy. 

Razumov is a young student living and studying in St. Petersburg. He is intelligent but unlike Dostoyevsky’s main character, he seems destined for a bright future and does not harbor radical ideas. Early in the story his views on politics are more or less neutral. Razumov is a good listener and sometimes does not talk much. He tends to elicit the trust of those around him. Sometimes people mistake his way of interacting for sympathy for their own causes when in actuality he is neutral or hostile towards them. 

Razumov’s life is turned upside down when Victor Haldin, a young revolutionary, who has just assassinated a brutal government official, lands in Razumov’s room asking for help. Haldin mistakenly believes that Razumov is sympathetic to his cause. Razumov is beside himself and fears that he will be drawn into revolutionary activities. He secretly turns Haldin in to the authorities. The young revolutionary is quickly executed. The government is happy with Razumov’s actions and Haldin’s fellow revolutionaries erroneously believe that Razumov is on their side and helped in the assassination. The autocratic authorities decide to use Razumov as an agent to infiltrate the revolutionaries since the radicals trust him. They send the protagonist to Switzerland to spy on the community of Russian exiles there. The revolutionary exiles are capable of murder so Razumov is aware that he must carry on the deception in order to survive. All this time he is morally conflicted as to who or what he supports. 

In Switzerland Razumov meets various characters who he interacts with through the remainder of the book. Peter Ivanovitch is an older revolutionary who is famous and held in awe by the revolutionaries but also hypocritical and cruel. Tekla is a young woman who has joined the revolutionaries but who is abused by them. The hypocrisy of the movement is illustrated as the person who mistreats her the most is Peter Ivanovitch who is known to be great “feminist”. There are other revolutionaries of varying morality hanging about the story. 

Razumov also meets Natalia Haldin. She is the sister of Haldin. She is thoughtful and ethical. She has strong ideas which include are integrated with her tendency to be kind and charitable. Mrs. Haldin, who is Nalalia's and Haldin's  mother, is also present. Throughout the story she becomes further and further consumed with grief over her son's execution. 

Throughout the narrative the protaginist navigates between these various characters while trying to conceal the fact that he is actually working for the Russian government. He finds himself falling in love with Natalia who reciprocates the feeling. He begins to slide deeper and deeper into cynicism as he begins to understand the moral vacuity of both the government and the rebels. He also has difficulty coming to terms with the guilt that he feels for betraying Haldin. 

The connection with Crime and Punishment, which I also recently read, is interesting. For his part, though Conrad wrote in English and is considered an English writer, he was born in the Ukraine of Polish nobility. His family had connections with the Polish revolutionaries and ran afoul of Russian authorities. Obviously, this background influenced Conrad and this work. Though Conrad wrote this book as a supposed argument with the Russian novel, both books are biting indictments of radicalism. One way that Under Western Eyes differs, is that this work is also an attack on Russian autocracy. The sympathetic characters in this novel, seem to be caught between the two malicious systems.

The plot, characters and ideas that this book explores are, like other Conrad novels that I have read, complex. But its center, this is essentially a tale of of bad forces in conflict with good people caught in the middle.  Most of Conrad’s writing has a streak of cynicism in it. Here is savagely cynical towards both the autocratic Russian Government as well as toward the revolutionaries. Principled and humane people are stuck between the two. At one point the narrator thinks about Natalia, 

There was almost all her youth before her; a youth robbed arbitrarily of its natural lightness and joy, overshadowed by an un-European despotism; a terribly sombre youth given over to the hazards of a furious strife between equally ferocious antagonisms. 

Conrad does finds morality and good in the world. Here, virtue is found in the characters of both Natalia and Tekla, both are characterized as loyal, compassionate and self - sacrificing. Both are among several characters who have been hurt by the amorality practiced by both sides. The toll that malevolent politics has wrought upon Natalia and her mother, Mrs. Haldin, is spelled out, At the same time the young woman’s compassion shines through, 

Away from the lamp, in the deeper dusk of the distant end, the profile of Mrs. Haldin, her hands, her whole figure had the stillness of a sombre painting. Miss Haldin stopped, and pointed mournfully at the tragic immobility of her mother, who seemed to watch a beloved head lying in her lap. That gesture had an unequalled force of expression, so far-reaching in its human distress that one could not believe that it pointed out merely the ruthless working of political institutions. 

Razumov is a very complex character who is often unlikeable. In the end Razumov, though headed for material calamity, he finds moral redemption when he chooses to be honest with himself and with others. Thus, rising above the conflict between these forces. 

Like other Conrad works, the book is filled with long complex sentences. The characters often engage each other in long, meditative and philosophical discussions over life, morality, gender, politics and all sorts of other stuff.  This novel is full of ideas.

In regards to the Dostoyevsky connection, one does not need to read Crime and Punishment before reading this novel. However, being familiar with the Russian book made the this more rewarding for me. 

I have read multiple Conrad novels now. I have come to appreciate him as a writer. This book, like almost everything else that I have read by him, is filled with interesting and complex characters and ideas. The plot of tis also engaging. The novel also has the added interest of having some connection with the ideas and works of Dostoyevsky. Evan aside from that, this is just a great classic book.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams

The Ape that Understood the Universe by Steve Stewart-Williams an exploration of evolutionary psychology. Stewart-Williams argues for and explains throughout the book how both human minds and culture evolved based upon the principles of natural selection. The author is an associate professor of psychology at Nottingham University Malaysia Campus. He is originally from New Zealand. He is active on Twitter where I find his Tweets thoughtful and enlightening. This was first published in 2018. 

This book presents the argument that both human nature and human culture evolved over time. Genes tended to drive human nature and something called memes drive culture. Both genes and memes tend to spread and are more successful when they lead to behavior that promotes their own survival and propagation.

Early on, author talks about the various schools of thought that object to these ideas. There are some who object based upon the fact that they do not accept evolution. Others, often associated with the left, dislike these ideas because these ideas tend to contradict a blank slate approach to human behavior. That is, they attribute almost all aspects of human behavior to culture and do not believe that any behavioral tendencies are innate. 

The book digs into things like evolution, genes and heredity fairly deeply. Various human and animal behaviors are examined. So many different behaviors and emotions are covered in this book that it is difficult to write a comprehensive summery of it all. I will try to concentrate on just a few key themes.

An important point here is that genes tend to reproduce and become more commonplace when they encourage the organism to behave in ways that propagate the gene. Thus, genes that lead an organism to be fitter and more likely to survive and reproduce are often successful. But sometimes this work differently. Sometimes genes drive organisms to behave in ways that encourage the spread of the particular gene, even if the behavior is detrimental to an organism’s survival. For instance, human parents often try to protect children, even this behavior risks their own life. Human genes are at the root of this behavior because half of a child’s genes come from one particular parent, so saving a child’s life probably will lead to the spread of these genes. As the book points out, tendencies like parents protecting children are not beneficial to the individual exhibiting them in terms of survival. However, they are beneficial to the gene that encourages such behavior. 

The author concludes at one point,

Evolution is about the survival of the fittest genes. Genes are selected if they get themselves copied faster than rival alleles. Adaptations are designed to pass on the genes giving rise to them. And organisms are not survival machines, baby-making machines, grandchild-making machines, or even inclusive fitness machines. Organisms – from worms to groundhogs to humans – are gene machines: biomachines designed to propagate their hereditary material.

Many behaviors and characteristics that people and animals engage in are for the benefit of attracting partners. This has driven both physical characteristics as well as behavior. The peacock’s tail is one of the most flamboyant examples in the natural world. In people, this manifests itself in all sorts of complex ways that are explored in this book. Many of the things that attract people to those of the opposite sex  are the result of natural selection. For instance, both men and women look for traits in partners that indicate health. 

Another trait that will benefit he propagation of genes is caring for children. The author points out that in comparison to most other species, human children need a lot of care, time and resources. Thus, humans are one of the species where males devote significant time and effort towards childcare. This is because, even if a male has lots of children, his genes will not be passed on if his children do not survive and thrive. In species where the care of young is less resource dependent then it is in humans, males are less likely to be involved in child care. 

Attraction, caring for children and protecting family members are only some of behaviors that this book goes into. Many other attributes relating to sex, relationships, jealousy, aggression, cooperation, altruism, to name just a few, are explored. 

The later part of the book examines the theory of memetics, that is, the contention that memes evolve based upon the rules of natural selection. What is a meme? Memes include ideas and creative works, but they are more than just those things. The author writes, 

memes aren’t just ideas. They’re anything that can be passed on socially, including mannerisms, rituals, and practices.

The author argues that while not entirely identical to genes, memes also evolve in ways that promote themselves. Furthermore, as human culture became more sophisticated, genes and memes began to in influence and shape one another.

Stewart-Williams sometimes goes off in directions where he speculates a lot. When he does so he clearly indicates that he is doing so. This is one of the book’s many strong points. 

Science writer Michael Shermer wrote the forward to this book. He points out something that Stewart-Williams does that is very intellectually honest and helps improve the level of inquiry and debate. That is, throughout the book the author steel - mans the augments of people who disagree with his premises. Steel - manning is the opposite of straw manning. Steel- manning means that the best augments of people that one disagrees with are presented in honest ways. This is done throughout the book. This is so well done that at times I was almost convinced of the counter argument presented. 

One thing that surprised me about his book is that a lot of it is lively and humorous. The author creates entertaining thought experiments. For instance, throughout the book, the text goes back to a thought experiment where an imagined alien intelligence observing human behavior becomes very puzzled by that behavior. This is presented in a light but informative way. The book is also punctuated by humor. I found that this kept things fun and entertaining despite the importance of this subject. 

I believe that this book provides is an accurate description of humanity and how we got to where we are. In our age many are challenging these premises. Stewart-Williams provides a reasoned and spirited defense in response to these criticisms. The book was also educational. It seems meticulously researched and as per above, it was very fair. I highly recommend this to those interested in psychology, humanity, evolution and science in general. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry is a chronicle of the 1918 influenza as it effected The United States. This outbreak killed more people then any other pandemic in history. I found this book to be an informative and interesting account of this event. The book is also a medical history through the time of this influenza. Obviously, as we are in the midst of the Covid -19 pandemic, this history has special relevance for our time. This book was first published in 2005.

The pandemic was known as the Spanish Flu, although it did not start in Spain. Total death statistics are imprecise but probably ranged from a staggering 50 to 100 million deaths. This book concentrates on the American experience. There were about 675,000 American deaths. The influenza spread like wildfire across the globe. Though most people who caught it recovered in week or two, the fatality rate was high as a percentage of people infected. Also, the disease was very contagious so the number of people who were eventually infected was enormous. These two factors led to the huge number of deaths. 

The book is not a worldwide history. Though global events are covered, the focus here is on the disease’s impact upon the United States. This pandemic was such a monumental, worldwide cataclysm that a book that attempted to cover the entire story would probably be very general. 

The first hundred pages or so of the book is a history of medical science and the medical profession leading up to 1918. In the fifty years prior to the pandemic professional medicine had taken great strides. Instead of relying upon tradition and unscientific cures, evidence - based medicine had come into its own. Vaccines for certain diseases had been devised. Some diseases, such as Diphtheria, had been cured. Much about the human body was beginning to be understood. Researchers had come to understand a lot about contagious disease. Barry is a writer who bases his history on biography. Many pages are devoted to mini - biographies of doctors and researchers who played a part in the history of medicine as well as those who participated in fighting and researching the pandemic. William Henry Welch is highlighted more than anyone else. He helped found, and for years administered, the newly established John Hopkins Hospital. The hospital became the American center for the revolution that was occurring in the medical profession. Many others are profiled including several women who, unusual for the time, were scientists. For instance, Anna Williams was one of the world’s foremost experts on bacteria. Barry does not just profile the professional accomplishments of the people that he profiles, he covers all aspects of their lives. 

The book then delves into both the history and the science behind the pandemic. Though there is some dispute about the sequence of events, the origins of the virus, and how it changed over time, many, including the author, believe that this influenza originated in remote part of Kansas. It had probably jumped from an animal to a person in early 1918. This was in the middle of World War I and there were enormous army bases all over the United States. It is believed that the disease spread to a base in Kansas and then traveled to Europe with American troops. It then spread all over the world. Interestingly, this was an extremely contagious but very mild form of influenza that spread around the globe in early 1918. Later in the year, the disease mutated and became extremely deadly. This deadly form of the influenza spread as soldiers and sailors from many nations traveled throughout the world. There are a few researchers who do not agree with the above version of events and there are alternate narratives. For instance, some believe that the mild virus that spread in the spring of 1918 was a completely unconnected strain of influenza.

Either way, the deadly form of the virus quickly spread throughout America and just about everywhere else in the world. Almost all areas of The United States were affected. American cities saw tens of thousands of dead. A few places like Philadelphia were hit particularly hard. There were places where the authorities could not keep up and bodies began to sit and pile up. One odd thing about the disease was this it killed young people in their prime at a greater rate than it did older people. This is unusual for such deadly viruses.

America and Europe were actually hit a lot less hard then most of the rest of the world. This was probably because most people from America and Europe had some immunity to influenza. Where influenza was previously rare or unknown, this disease had much higher fatality rates.

In America, bad news about the disease was considered detrimental to war morale so most the newspapers and many political leaders downplayed the seriousness of the crises and at times outright lied about the situation. The federal government also suppressed pandemic news as being bad for the war effort. The federal response was often nonexistent. Much of America went into quarantine. In several places like Philadelphia, corrupt local governments essentially failed to function. As a result, in some cities private groups or organizations took over from the government. Though the disease mostly disappeared in early 1919, several subsequent waves hit in ensuring years. The books takes the reader into the 1930s when the actual virus was finally isolated. 

The scientific parts of the book are fascinating. I learned a lot about viruses, influenza and pneumonia. Many of the influenza victims, and most of the people who died, got pneumonia as a result of this disease. I did not really understood pneumonia before reading this book. This work shed a lot of light on this ailment for me. The book goes into the differences between viral and bacterial pneumonia. Viral pneumonia was directly caused by the influenza itself and tended to kill fast. Many victims also contracted bacterial pneumonia. Influenza is a virus, but it sometimes weakens the immune system and the lungs so that bacteria moves in and infects and causes pneumonia in the lungs. Bacterial pneumonia tends to move slower but also can be deadly. Many of the deaths from this pandemic were caused by bacterial pneumonia. Doctors at the time actually had some treatments that helped against some of the bacterial pneumonias.

The author also explains how viruses work and how they infect people. He delves into influenza viruses specifically. Influenzas are great mutators. They change over time, more so than any other infectious virus. This is why we need a new flu shot every year. Contrast that measles; after two measles vaccinations a person is usually protected for life. The author goes into the science as to why this is the case. This disease probably started relatively severe when it broke out in Kansas, became mild as it spread throughout the world, then mutated into a form that was very deadly. In subsequent years it became mild again. 

Barry is also an eloquent writer. Here is describing something important about science as it related to the medical revolution that occurred before the outbreak,

All real scientists exist on the frontier. Even the least ambitious among them deal with the unknown, if only one step beyond the known. The best among them move deep into a wilderness region where they know almost nothing, where the very tools and techniques needed to clear the wilderness, to bring order to it, do not exist. There they probe in a disciplined way. There a single step can take them through the looking glass into a world that seems entirely different, and if they are at least partly correct their probing acts like a crystal to precipitate an order out of chaos, to create form, structure, and direction. A single step can also take one off a cliff.

One criticism that I have is the though Barry covers the science in an understandable way, he breaks up the technical parts and mixes the science in with the history and biography. This may seem like a good way to present technical material to lay readers, but this a makes the technical parts difficult to follow and at times the book seems disorganized. 

Obviously, this book has relevance to the Covid – 19 situation. I also try to read and listen to a fair amount of medical content relating to Covid – 19. I try read articles from medical experts. I also listen to Dr. Radio for about an hour and a half or so many days while I am working. That is a great resource for expert and detailed information. Putting this book and this information together, I think that I have come to a basic, layperson’s understanding of the of the similarities and differences between the two events. Of course, there are there similarities between the situation of today and that of 1918. Both diseases are viruses that usually affect the lower respiratory system. Both cause a lot of pneumonias. Both are extremely contagious and have a high level of fatalities. But there are important differences. Covid – 19 is a terrible disease that should never be minimized, but luckily, the levels of death are unlikely to come anywhere close to the 1918 pandemic. Many experts think that there will be a second wave of Covid – 19 in the fall. I have heard people try to draw parallels with the first two waves of the 1918 influenza outbreak. It may very well be true that there will be a second wave of Covid – 19, but the situation in 1918, with when a very mild wave of sickness hitting in the spring, seems not as relevant to our current situation. The 1918 Influenza, like all Influenzas, mutated dramatically and quickly. Covid – 19 is not an Influenza. Though there have been some conflicting news stories about it mutating, the majority of experts that I read and listen to believe that Covid – 19 will mutate, but not nearly as much as influenza does. One characteristic of the 1918 pandemic was that it tended to kill young, healthy people more than other groups. Covid – 19, like most fatal diseases, tends to cause the most deaths in older and more vulnerable people. 

I thought that this was an excellent book. It covered both the history and science of the 1918 pandemic as it effected The United States, thoroughly. The book is interesting and it is informative. I learned a lot from it. The book’s flaws are relatively mild. I would eventually like to read a history of this pandemic that is more global. However, as an American history, this is excellent.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is a classic gothic ghost story. The book, which has been the subject of several films and television series has achieved a high level of fame in modern popular culture. I thought that this book was both spooky, atmospheric and fun. It was first published in 1959.

The premise of the story centers upon the house of the title, which is located somewhere in the rural America. Dr. John Montague is a professor who attempts to conduct a research project at the house. Most of the people he tries to recruit to stay at the house, as part of the project, refuse. Only two women, Eleanor Vance and Theodora agree. Luke Sanderson, an heir to the house, sent by the property owners to keep an eye on the doings, also joins the group. Later on, Dr. Montague’s wife as well as Arthur, a family friend, join the group. 

Eleanor is the protagonist of the book. Early on we learn that she has spent the last decade in isolation and increasing misery taking care of her invalid mother. Since her mother’s death, she has been living in the shadow of her repressive sister and brother -in - law. Eleanor’s low self - esteem is a factor throughout the novel. Eleanor sees her foray to Hill House as an escape.

Theodora is young, attractive, bohemian person who is a little self – centered, fun and humorous. Both women have been chosen by Montague because they have previously displayed psychic abilities. Luke is a likable rogue who is not above petty theft to feed a gambling habit. 

Later, the group is joined by the Dr. John Montague’s silly and pretentious wife as well as the self - serious but equally pretentious friend Arthur. All the characters, who aside from Eleanor, are not very complex, but are fun to read about. 

As the days go by, all sorts of eerie things begin to happen. Something bangs on the walls at night, strange voices are heard. Some of the former, long decreased residents are seen having a picnic.

All this time, Eleanor is psychologically drawn closer and closer to the force that pervades the house. The story plays out as the old tale of a repressed person waking up and finding themselves in a better place. However, since it is the sinister Hill House is the source of Eleanor’s escape, the old story gets twisted. It is the first time the Eleanor is away from her repressive relatives. She enjoys her freedom and the adventure that she has embarked upon. She initially likes and gets along with the other guests especially Theodora. She observes,

It is my second morning in Hill House, and I am unbelievably happy. Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long. Abandoning a lifelong belief that to name happiness is to dissipate it, she smiled at herself in the mirror and told herself silently, You are happy, Eleanor, you have finally been given a part of your measure of happiness. Looking away from her own face in the mirror, she thought blindly, Journeys end in lovers meeting, lovers meeting. 

The Shakespeare line from Twelfth Night, Journeys end in lovers meeting is often repeated by Eleanor. This line intertwines itself with the book’s plot and theme.

As time goes by Eleanor begins to experience hallucinations. She also begins to have paranoid feelings about the other characters making fun of her or treating her like an outcast. The portrait of Eleanor’s mental deterioration is strong as Jackson portrays her chaotic thoughts and feelings. At times Eleanor is resentful of the other characters, at other times she has warm feelings and is clingy towards them. I think that this is reflective of a person who is experiencing a degree of mental instability. She is a very interesting character to read about. 

In addition to lively characters, Jackson’s description of scary scenes is near brilliant. At one point Eleanor and most of the main characters are trapped in a room when the knocking becomes a massive pounding that seems to be bringing the entire house down.

in the churning darkness where she fell endlessly nothing was real except her own hands white around the bedpost. She could see them, very small, and see them tighten when the bed rocked and the wall leaned forward and the door turned sideways far away. Somewhere there was a great, shaking crash as some huge thing came headlong; it must be the tower, Eleanor thought, and I supposed it would stand for years; we are lost, lost; the house is destroying itself. She heard the laughter over all, coming thin and lunatic, rising in its little crazy tune, and thought, 

I love the above quotation. It seems to me that Jackson has captured the feeling that the house may really be collapsing. This all ties in with Eleanor’s melding in with the house and her mental degeneration. Shortly after the above occurs she thinks, 

No; it is over for me. It is too much, she thought, I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.

This story has been filmed several times. I think that I have seen all of the versions. I thought that the 1963 film version was excellent. I also liked the recent Netflix television series. However, that version greatly deviated from the book. There was also a 1999 film that I thought was not up to the other versions

I thought that is this novel was enjoyable. It has characters that are fun to read about. Eleanor’s development was also very well done. It is spooky, and delves into psychology in interesting ways. I have read limited amount of horror in my life. This was one of the best works in the genre that I have read.  This novel has a reputation of being a classic ghost story. I think that it warrants its reputation.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a novel whose plot reflects its title. It is about a terrible crime and punishment that is both reality - based and psychological. Along the way Dostoyevsky has fashioned a work filled great fictional characters. The book is also chock full of ideas and philosophical musing about life, death, God, government, crimes, punishment, and lots more. The novel was first published in 1866. I read the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation.

This is the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a young ex -college student. As part of an attempted theft, Raskolnikov plots and carries out the murder of pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna. He also kills her virtuous sister Lizaveta, who walks in on the crime. The murder takes place fairly early in the plot. Most of the novel concerns itself with the post - murder doings of Raskolnikov, his family and friends, as well as the police investigation that eventually ensures. 

The idea that Raskolnikov might be redeemed takes up a lot of the philosophizing in later parts of the book. Dostoyevsky explores ideas related to The Bible, Christianity as well as Raskolnikov’s psychological state and philosophy. 

As mentioned above, the novel is filled with superbly crafted characters. Razumikhin is Raskolnikov’s best friend who genuinely tries to help the protagonist. Dunya is Raskolnikov’s sister who is engaged in the unscrupulous government official Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin. Svidriga√Įlov is a wealthy landowner who tried to seduce and later marry Dunya. Sonya is a young woman who is forced into prostitution to support her family. Raskolnikov is attracted to Sonya and forms an important relationship with her. Porfiry Petrovich is a police detective who uses psychological tactics and games to get at the truth. Those familiar with television’s Colombo character will find a lot that is familiar in Porfiry. The television character was partially based upon him. 

There is a lot going on here. Throughout the book all these characters, as well as many others, interact as Dostoevsky tries to portray something about life. I have previously read Dostoevsky’s The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov. As was typical with those books, this novel is characterized by lots of characters and interacting plot threads. I thought that this had a less complex plot then those novels however. With that, it is impossible to share my thoughts about every aspect of this novel in a single post. Dostoyevsky goes off in a lot of directions within these pages. Instead, as I have done in the past, I will write a few things about one interesting point here. 

Something that this work shares with the other Dostoyevsky books that I have read is the tendency for characters to embrace bad, radical ideas that lead to catastrophe. In this novel, these bad ideas tie in with the murders. Early on, Raskolnikov rationalizes his crime on the presumption that he will use the money that he is planning to steal for good. Furthermore, he has written pieces arguing that certain people should be exempt from punishment if they commit crime. These people should be exempt from the rules of society as they are “extraordinary”. Later he compares himself with Napoleon Bonaparte who he considers another extraordinary person. 

At one point Razumikhin is describing and article that Raskolnikov has written. 

there supposedly exist in the world certain persons who can … that is , who not only can but are fully entitled to commit all sorts of crimes and excesses and to whom the law supposedly does not apply . The whole point is that in his article all people are somehow divided into the ‘ordinary ’ and the ‘ extraordinary . ’ The ordinary must live in obedience and have no right to transgress the law, because they are, after all , ordinary . While the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary.

Later Raskolnikov further elaborates on his own theory,

Those of the second category all transgress the law, are destroyers or inclined to destroy, depending on their abilities. The crimes of these people, naturally, are relative and variegated; for the most part they call, in quite diverse declarations, for the destruction of the present in the name of the better. But if such a one needs, for the sake of his idea, to step even over a dead body, over blood, then within himself, in his conscience, he can, in my opinion, allow himself to step over blood—depending, however, on the idea and its scale—

The above quotation illustrates how Dostoyevsky has a knack for digging into ghastly ideas and how these ideas might influence people. Often radicals want to destroy the norms and rules of society. These radicals often put themselves in a special position. The metaphor of stepping over blood, which becomes a reality for Raskolnikov’s murderous actions are so well described. As in Dostoyevsky’s time, some people today have a greater tendency to play with very bad theories. Though most do not go as far as Raskolnikov, I think that it would be interesting to see what would make of some of our current intellectual trends. 

Raskolnikov is not hopeless however. A major theme of the book involves his redemption. Later on, the exploration of these awful theories intertwine themselves with Raskolnikov’srecovery from immorality. Porfiry points out that Raskolnikov’svacuous beliefs have fallen flat but that it is not to late for him,

He came up with a theory, and now he’s ashamed because it didn’t work, because it came out too unoriginally! True, it did come out meanly, but even so you’re not such a hopeless scoundrel. Not such a scoundrel at all! At least you didn’t addle your brain for long, you went all at once to the outermost pillars. Do you know how I regard you? I regard you as one of those men who could have their guts cut out, and would stand and look at his torturers with a smile—provided he’s found faith, or God. Well, go and find it, and you will live.

Raskolnikov is not a hopeless sociopath, so according to Porfiry, his humanity can still redeem him, despite having come under the influence of his own terrible theories. 

Dostoevsky wrote incredible books filled with amazing characters, themes and story lines. I have only summarized this above and touched on one of many interesting things that I found. This novel is bursting with all those things. This is a must read for those who appreciate Russian literature.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I thought that Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was a fantastic book. This piece of plague - fiction was gripping, had complex and interesting characters, philosophical musings and themes. The novel was first published in 2014. It has been very popular since. Obviously, a lot of folks are comparing the plot of this book to the current situation to the covid - 19 situation, a comparison that I think might be overblown. 

The premise of the book is that a devesting contagion, known as The Georgia Flu, wipes out all but 1% of humanity. At the book’s center is Arthur Leander. Arthur is a famous actor who dies on stage of a heart attack while preforming King Lear, just before the flu hits. Every major character in the narrative is somehow connected to Arthur.  The novel takes place in various time periods both before and after the epidemic. 

After the plague civilization collapses and people congregate in small settlements, living with almost no technology. Eventually even internal combustion motors become inoperable as the remaining gasoline becomes unstable. After the collapse most of the story occurs around the Great Lakes Region of Canada and the United States.  The most important of several plot threads centers upon The Traveling Symphony, a classical music and Shakespearian theater group that moves between the settlements putting on performances. 

Kirsten Raymonde, who as a little girl witnessed Arthur’s death, is now a Shakespearian actor with The Symphony. Clark Thompson is Arthur’s best friend. After the plague he helps to establish a civilized community in an what used to be an airport. Miranda Carroll is Arthur’s first wife. Before the plague, she created a comic book, called Station Eleven about a gigantic future space station and its commander, that serves as an inspiration for Kirsten and other members of The Symphony. Jeevan Chaudhary is an ex - paparazzi and a paramedic who attempted to save Author when he collapses on stage. Jeevan survives the flu while holed up in an apartment and later becomes a doctor in post collapsed America. Tyler Leander is Arthur’s son. He is a child when the plague hits. He grows up to be a Jim Jones - like cult leader who accomplishes his goals through violence, rape and murder and eventually comes after The Traveling Symphony. There are many other characters and plot threads that take place before and after the outbreak. 

This book is something of a jigsaw puzzle. The plot, characters and certain symbolic objects fit together as the novel progresses. What I mean is that the narrative frequently jumps between various times and places. A chunk of the narrative takes place fifteen years before the virus strikes. Another takes place just when the plague hits and in the ensuing months. Still another takes place fifteen years after the outbreak. What is more or less the main story, takes place twenty years after the initial outbreak. There are many plot threads and characters interweaving through it all. Mandel handles all this expertly as it never becomes confusing and the connections between people and objects become apparent as the story progresses. For instance, the tale of Miranda’s creation of the Station Eleven comic slowly unfolds throughout the book. Interspaced with this is references to the same comic that take place in a future time period. 

There are a few overriding points throughout the book. The characters philosophize a lot about life, science, art, and all sorts of other themes. A basic  idea seems to be that that certain things in the post - flu world are worth supporting and these things are what makes the world better. Those elements are decent, empathetic and community orientated behavior, reason and science, as well as art. After the collapse the world became violent, unjust and brutal. But things seem to be slowly getting better because of these basic, positive values. There is an eventual confrontation between Kirsten and other members of the Symphony and the prophet, but it is not a great climatic battle. Instead, the characters who hang on to a basic form of morality, build communities, and try to preserve art and science over the course of years are the heroes of the story. 

The novel includes a lot of literary and philosophical references including a fair amount of Shakespeare. There are also many references to various Star Trek television series. In fact, the motto of the traveling orchestra is “survival is insufficient” a phrase used in a Star Trek Voyager episode. Mandel cannot seem to help to delve into all kind of subjects so there is also an aesthetic discussion about the lower art of Star Trek verses the higher art of Shakespeare. Star Trek’s common themes of art, reason, decency and humanity triumphing over chaos are integrated into this novel’s plot so this all makes sense. The characters also tend to philosophize a lot in a middle brow way that also reminds me a lot of the philosophizing that goes on in Star Trek episodes. Mandel is obviously a fan. 

Other plague books that I have read over the years come to mind when thinking about this novel. Though Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain was highly scientific, the plague in that novel did not reach apocalyptic proportions. Though I liked it Stephen King’s The Stand, that book did not try to be realistic. Instead it was a mix of horror and fantasy that was ultimately turned into a parable of good versus evil. Frank Herbert’s The White Plague was realistic and still is the most horrifying plague  - fiction that I have read. Folks often mention Albert Camus’s The Plague, however, that book did not involve science fiction or fantasy elements and really belongs in a different class of books. Camus’s novel aside, Station Eleven was the best science fiction plague book that I have read to date. 

This novel was most similar to King’s book as both novels took the reader through the plague itself and then into the post - plague worlds. I found Mandel’s vision here mostly realistic, particularly the post - plague part. Her vision of the plague and the world that is left behind seems mostly plausible, especially as compared with King’s more fanciful book. I could nitpick about some details in this novel. For instance, I think that anything that killed as fast as The Georgia Flu would not spread so fast as it would kill and disable people before they could spread it. It is also not clear whether the survivors were just immune to the disease or just managed not to get the disease. 

Mandel’s prose style is excellent. She manages to mix poetic descriptions with insightful and sometimes philosophical commentary. Below she is painting a picture of how life has changed after the collapse. In doing so she seems to have something to say about the world as it is, in this case, social media related,

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.

The characters are also well crafted and nuanced. Arthur is complex. He is not always likable. He is self - centered and does not always treat those around him as he should. However, he also has redeeming qualities. He is self - aware and comes to recognize that he must do better. Kirsten is a very capable and intelligent person who wrestles with the trauma that she has encountered and the things that she has had to do in the in this post - apocalyptic world. She also seems to represent optimism. There are additional characters who are also well drawn. 

Of course, with the coronavirus outbreak, this book is timely, at least in some ways. My blog posts are delayed so I actually started reading this relatively early when the real virus was just beginning to be a concern in many countries. These early news reports may have prompted me to finally read this but I have been meaning to give this a try for a long time. With that, as serious as coronavirus is, I think that parallels to this book are really limited. The wiping out of most of humanity is not what is happening now. Any points that Mandel is trying to convey here tend to be universal, and not really related to diseases or epidemics. 

For all the above reasons I thought that this book was excellent. It has interesting characters, a page turning plot, and thought provoking themes. For those who like this sort of book, I highly recommend this novel. It deserves its popularity.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll

Lately I have been reading several books on the subject of quantum physics. I had previously posted commentary on Kenneth W. Ford’s The Quantum World here. Unlike that general work, Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll tries to make the case for a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the many worlds or Everett theory. I found this book to be interesting and worthwhile. The information here is fresh as this was first published in 2019. It is essentially for laypeople and Carroll is a good writer and a good explainer. However, like all the books that I read on this subject, I found some of the science here difficult to understand. 

When approaching this book, it makes sense to start with what many call quantum weirdness. That term refers to the fact that what is observed on the subatomic level, seems to defy what we think of as everyday reason. Basically, subatomic particles often show wavelike characteristics, that is, they seem to be in multiple places at one time, just like a water wave in the ocean. Despite this, at other times these subatomic phenomena do not act like waves but act and appear as particles that can be pinned down as existing at a particular place. When scientists do pin down these particles as being in a particular place, the wave “collapses” and stops existing in multiple places at the same time.  There are many other strange aspects to quantum mechanics. Sometimes a pair of subatomic particles are tied in an odd way. For instance, changing the direction of spin of one particle changes the spin of the particle that it is paired with even if the particles are at great distance from one another. Another odd phenomenon is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This means that two properties of a particle can never both be known.  If one of the properties becomes know through observation the other property then becomes impossible to determine. For instance, if a position of a particle is found, its velocity becomes undefined, if its velocity is measured then the opposite happens, its position becomes undefined and undetectable. Carroll does a good job at explaining this mind - bending stuff. It is important to understand that even though some observations seem bizarre, there is a mathematical basis to quantum mechanics and these strange observations are supported by the math.

As per Carroll, many physicists just accept what is going on without digging too deeply. Instead, they just use these quantum rules as something of cookbook as to how the universe works. However, some physicists try to dig deeper and try to figure out if there is a more logical explanation or more concrete meaning behind this strange stuff. Carroll writes,

We have a recipe that we can safely apply in certain prescribed situations, and which returns mind-bogglingly precise predictions that have been triumphantly vindicated by the data. But if you want to dig deeper and ask what is really going on, we simply don’t know. Physicists tend to treat quantum mechanics like a mindless robot they rely on to perform certain tasks, not as a beloved friend they care about on a personal level.

I think that the above quotation illustrates that Carroll is a very eloquent science writer. 

The Many Worlds approach is not the theory that the majority of scientists believe. Currently a majority of experts in the field favor something called the Copenhagen Interpretation. My understanding of the Copenhagen Interpretation is that subatomic particles do not have defined properties. The oddness that is observed in then subatomic world is just a reflection of reality. Things work differently in the subatomic world. 

Another, somewhat less popular interpretation of known as hidden variables. There are various subsets to this theory but it basically says that there are all sorts of hidden phenomena going on that connects particles and waves under the surface. These unseen phenomena would provide a logical explanation as to why all these odd things are happening if we could only observe them. 

The many worlds interpretation is different. At times, when a subatomic particle acts in a wavelike manor it shows signs of being in many places at once. But when scientists try to pin it down the particle it sometimes appears in a particular place. It then stops being a wave or it stops being in multiple places at one time. Many worlds advocates argue that at the moment that the location of the particle becomes defined, the universe divides in to multiple universes, each universe containing the particle in a different place. Theorists believe that an astronomically high number of universes have been created this way. 

To a person unfamiliar with all this, many worlds may seem far - fetched. Indeed, based upon this book and my other readings on the subject, most physicists do not concur with this interpretation. However, some very prominent scientists think that it is the most likely explanation of all this. It is also not a theory attributed to cranks. Even the majority of scientists who disagree with it seem to take it seriously. Furthermore, it seems supported by the math, is considered elegant and relatively simple comparted to other interpretations, which, when one digs into them, seem to twist logic. Many scientists find the other interpretations incomplete.

Many world theory has been around for a long time. It has become a popular subject for science fiction writers. Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber series and Robert Heinlein's Number of the Beast are just a couple of examples are books that have been influenced by these ideas. The various Star Trek series are filled with stories based on this theory. Carrol's work is very science orientated and does not explore these cultural aspects however.

My take is that Many Worlds is probably not what is really going on. As Carl Sagan once commented “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". The extraordinary evidence has not yet been produced by the many worlds advocates. However, based upon everything that I have learned from my readings, I believe that this is all possible. As a good scientist will do, Carroll acknowledges that this interpretation has not been proven and may not be the true.

Though this book focused upon one particular theory, it helped me to understand the subject in general. Ford is a good writer and explains things well. He goes beyond the theory that he is advocating and explains the basics of quantum physics here too. Furthermore, he does a good job of laying out multiple competing interpretations, he explains both their strengths and weaknesses. Despite all that, quantum physics can be a very difficult subject. Like other books on this subject, there were parts of this that I did not understand.

This is the third book on the subject of quantum physics that I have recently read. Since this book deviates from an introductory work, I would not recommend that someone not familiar with the subject start here. In Search of Schr√∂dinger’s Cat by John Gribbin may be the best introductory book that I have read. I think that someone who is already familiar with a little bit of this subject will find this an educational and a worthwhile read. Quantum physics is a subject that digs into the nature of reality itself. It is worth trying to understand. This book helps one to understand while exploring  some intriguing possibilities.