Archive for December, 2009

Guy Gavriel Kay: Tigana

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

I read Tigana ten years ago, and mostly liked it a lot. It’s a one-volume novel set in sort of a fantasy (i.e., there’s magic) medieval Italy. The writing is good and the plot is interesting. That said, I liked it less this time around, and this reread pretty much did away with my enthusiasm for recommending it to my wife. Since this was a reread, I’m going to discard my usual attempt to be as spoiler free as possible and talk more openly about the contents of the book.

Spoilers follow!

The main problem I have with Tigana stems from the fact that the villain (Brandin) is too sympathetic. I understand that Kay was going for the whole shades-of-gray thing, but I think he tried to have it both ways and failed; the triumphant end is so undercut by the tragedy of Brandin and Dianora that it just rings false. The epilogue has a cheeriness to it that seemed so forced to me the first time I read the book that I thought it must have been intentional, but on a reread I think it’s just an authorial mistake.

The flip side of presenting a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of Brandin is showing the dark side of Alessan, the heroic prince who triumphs in the end. And he does a bunch of rather shady things, such as magically enslaving a wizard who was just minding his own business. Again, this could have been really interesting if the point was to show that maybe, if you look at it from a disinterested perspective, the “hero” isn’t necessarily any better than the “villain”. But Kay tries to have it both ways again: he gets all shades-of-gray by having Alessan enslave the wizard, but hey, Alessan feels bad about it! And broods about how hard it is to be an exiled prince who has to do what he has to do! And then eventually the wizard gets turned around to their cause, and Alessan lets him free, which shows how nice he really is! And then the wizard decides to stay with the good guys anyway! The whole plot feels like a total cop-out, like when a superhero is given the terrible ethical choice of which of two people to save — and then saves them both. What was the point of setting up a terrible decision if the person making it gets to have it both ways?

So on the one hand Kay is setting up a really interesting situation, and on the other hand he’s constantly authorially apologizing for it. Just to bring up one other example: the whole plot is about Alessan reclaiming what’s rightfully his; Brandin invaded the peninsula and now Alessan’s taking it (or at least his part of it) back. But, not to be too blunt about it, that’s just what war is: countries taking land from other countries. It’s not a battle of good vs evil, like in The Lord of the Rings, say; it’s a battle of Guy Who Got His Stuff Taken vs Guy Who Took His Stuff. It’s not so clear that Alessan has that much of a moral right to throw the entire peninsula into upheaval just to get his province back —although of course once he does, the whole peninsula wants to make him their king. Sigh.

So, overall, a lot of interesting moral ambiguity that the author didn’t seem to have the guts to fully follow through on. The first time I read it, I tried to give Kay the benefit of the doubt; this time, knowing what was coming, that was more difficult.

Brad Leithauser: Hence

Monday, December 28th, 2009

I picked this up probably a decade ago, because it was a novel about computer chess with some promising blurbs, but never got around to it until now. It was written in 1989, 8 years before Deep Blue beat Kasparov, and takes place in 1993, at which point the fictional best computer chess program in the world is pretty evenly matched with the fictional US junior champion.

All the chess stuff is fairly accurate, which is a nice thing to see in a literary novel, though naturally I have a few niggles (e.g., a strong player wouldn’t talk about “the twenty-seventh move” being a blunder (they’d refer to the move itself, like “knight f5″), nor would they refer to “advancing a bishop”). The portrayal of chess players and the way they think was pretty well done too.

As far as the novel itself goes, it was fine. The characters aren’t particularly sympathetic but they’re well drawn, and the themes may not be stunningly novel but they’re used well and you aren’t hit over the head with them. What I don’t really understand was the need to surround the story with two metafictional shells; the story starts out in the first person before switching to third a few chapters in, and preceding that is an introduction by yet another fictional character. They both seem totally unnecessary unless I’m missing some subtle connection, plus both characters’ voices are pretty annoying (intentionally, I’m sure, but still). Once I got to page 40 without giving up, I enjoyed the rest of the novel, but it was a weird way to start the book and subtracted from the book rather than adding to it, for me. The back cover claims that “Hence is rife with puzzles and narrative jokes in the tradition of Borges and Nabokov”, which would have been great, but except for those two extra narrative layers that I didn’t like anyway, I didn’t catch any of the promised fun.

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

After reading Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, I was all excited to read about some more specific topics in evolutionary theory. His The Selfish Gene was the obvious next step. The fundamental idea is a great one, although of course less revolutionary now than I guess it was in the 1970s when it was published: rather than trying to explain the evolution of traits in terms of group selection, or kin selection, or individual selection, we should turn the problem inside out and look at the actual thing that not only gets replicated perfectly but also controls the trait itself: the gene. When you do this, a lot of paradoxes of the form “how can this behavior benefit the individual?” or “how can this behavior benefit the species?” make a lot more sense.

As I said, this book was originally published 30+ years ago and it hasn’t been updated much, but I didn’t find that that affected my reading much, besides some obviously completely obsolete analogies to contemporary computing power. I don’t know how much has changed since the time it was written, but the arguments seemed to hold up pretty well.

The book was quite interesting, although I was hoping for some more quantitative analysis of various scenarios. He does analyze some situations mathematically, but there was a bit too much of “This seems to contradict the theory, but we can explain it away with this clever hypothesis,” which is too unfalsifiable for my tastes.

It isn’t until the last couple of chapters that things really take off. The penultimate chapter is about how it is possible for altruism to evolve, and the final one goes even further than to say “let’s concentrate on the gene instead of the individual as far as evolution goes”; it asks why we really have individuals at all, which is a question that really blew my mind.

The individual organism is something whose existence most biologists take for granted, probably because its parts do pull together in such a united and integrated way. Questions about life are conventionally questions about organisms. Biologists ask why organisms do this, why organisms do that. They frequently ask why organisms group themselves into societies. They don’t ask — though they should — why living matter groups itself into organisms in the first place. Why isn’t the sea still a primordial battleground of free and independent replicators? Why did the ancient replicators club together to make, and reside in, lumbering robots, and why are those robots — individual bodies, you and me — so large and so complicated?

Awesome. He goes on to list some interesting advantages that genes get by building organisms around themselves, which I will not spoil here. Apparently this last chapter is basically a summary of yet another Dawkins book, The Extended Phenotype, so at some point I suppose I have to read that too. But for now I have probably read enough evolution books for a while.

Summary: a lot of cool ideas, and a few mind-bending ones, though my ideal version of this book would have cut out 50% of the material that didn’t fit into those categories. In any case, it is a total classic of modern popular science writing (and originated the concept of memes, though it has gotten kind of corrupted since then), and is worth reading for that reason alone.

Chess/music synaesthesia

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

What is even weirder than me having a sense of synaesthesia linking musical key signatures and chess openings is the fact that I never consciously realized that this was kind of a weird thing until today. Actually, calling it synaesthesia may be overstating it; it’s not like music springs into my head as I play an opening, but I definitely do feel a consistent correlation.

Here’s a list off the top of my head of chess opening/musical key associations, trying to think about it as little as possible so as to let my subconscious through:

Giuoco Piano: C major
– Evans Gambit: Bb major
Ruy Lopez: C major
– Open: E major
Sicilian Defense: G major
– Najdorf : D major
– Taimanov: E minor
French Defense: A minor
Pirc Defense: B minor
Modern Defense: B major
Queen’s Gambit Declined: Eb major
King’s Indian Defense: Bb minor
Grünfeld Defense: D minor
Benoni: B major (I know it is odd for this to be on the sharp side, but a pawn on c5 clearly implies a B natural in the tonic triad!)

Since I am doing this all subconsciously, it is hard for me to actually defend these associations, but I can identify some general correspondences. In general e4 openings tend towards the sharp side of the keys while d4 openings tend towards the flat side. I think there also seems to be some correlation between minor keys and Black only advancing his pawns one square. Both of these do seem to make some sort of sense: e4 openings are “sharper” and “brighter” while d4 openings are more “quiet” and “restrained”, while only advancing your pawns to the sixth rank is a little “sad”. But I would certainly not fight anyone who claimed that these associations basically make no sense at all.

Stephen King: It

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

I can’t handle scary movies at all, but for some reason scary books are generally fine. This is the third Stephen King novel I’ve read, after The Shining and The Stand, which seems to cover most people’s top two King novels in some permutation.

It is immense, at 1100 pages, although that works out to about 500 pages of horror novel and 600 pages of a slice-of-life portrait of what it was like to grow up in the late 1950s in a small Maine city. (You get one guess as to who else was 11 years old in a small Maine city in 1958.) The realistic stuff was actually pretty good, as King is a better writer than most people give him credit for, but he’s not such a good writer that you actively want to wallow in his depictions of life, as I do with, say, Tolstoy or Proust. Still, I was never really tempted to skip over anything.

The horror part of it was pretty good too, although it never actually got scary enough to really frighten me. But one thing that disappointed me somewhat, as silly as it sounds, was the motivation of the Big Bad. There are a few archetypes for horror “villains”; one, for instance, is the Lovecraftian monster too horrible to even contemplate, to whom humanity is a meaningless triviality, while another is the psycho who loves to toy with the mental state of his victims. “It” is a weird amalgam of the two, and I never got a good sense of where it was really coming from. I know it’s odd to ask for psychological consistency in a monster in a horror novel, but there it is.

The good stuff: King really is a pretty good writer, and I did enjoy his depiction of the late 1950s, as well as the mid 1980s, which at this point are equally interestingly historical although of course he didn’t intend it that way at the time. I also enjoyed the structure of the book, which bounced between the two timelines in a compelling way, and the last 200 pages or so were a really well done action sequence, or actually two, since both timelines reached their climaxes in parallel. I often zone out a bit during the climactic action sequences of a book or movie, but I stayed pretty well gripped here.

So although I had some quibbles, overall I did enjoy it a lot, and never had the urge to put it down over the course of 1100 pages, which is a pretty good recommendation right there. Still, I have now probably had my fill of Stephen King for a while, especially since I seem to have already hit the high points of his career.