Sunday, March 30, 2008

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials
Philip Pullman

It's been a while since my last review was posted. I've been sick and busy and reading a trilogy that I'm going to review all at once, rather than one at a time.

The His Dark Materials trilogy is targeted at young adult readers with a taste for fantasy. It's set in a multiverse that includes our world and many others, some of which are similar to our own. The first volume, The Golden Compass, takes place in one of those worlds that's similar to ours, and introduces Lyra, a child growing up in her version of Oxford.

Through a series of events we learn that Lyra figures at the heart of a prophecy, and that there is something she must do to save everything. Not just in her own world, but in them all. We are introduced to her parents, and to the complexities of the world around her, as she learns of her task and gets started. During her quest she meets a cast of fantasy characters including armored polar bears, witches, villains, and so on. Oh, and Pullman introduces something he calls daemons; speaking, animal shaped companions that every human has (at least in Lyra's world) and they're a close and constant part of your life.

Volume two, The Subtle Knife, begins in our world and introduces two more main characters: Will Parry and Dr. Mary Malone. Will's another child of about Lyra's age with the entire multiverse counting on him to do the right thing. Mary's a dark matter researcher drawn into the story by Lyra's appearance in our world. Here we follow the heroes as they continue their quest to save the multiverse from something awful but not all that clearly explained. It turns out that Will needs to acquire a particular knife in order to perform his part in saving everything from total destruction.

The Amber Spyglass, the last volume in the trilogy, follows the various characters through to the conclusion. I'm sad to say I found the conclusion - the actual resolution to the problems facing the multiverse - entirely unsatisfactory. It was too simple and yet too unexplained.

And now we're getting to the heart of the review, and (to some degree) the heart of my problem with these books. They aren't terrible, but I found them disjoint and obtuse. Some of it is the writing, which varies in style so that some sections were fine while others were condescending. Beyond that, I found the motivations for the characters didn't hold up, and in some cases major changes in behavior were totally unexplained. Lyra's parents, for example, seemed to be entirely arbitrary in their behavior, with no rhyme or reason for much of it ever being presented.

But that's no surprise because many of the major plot points were inexplicable too. Things just change. Minor characters just happen to reappear at critical points with no explanation. Many things seem to be going on between some of the minor characters, particularly Lyra's parents, that we don't learn about except by virtue of their unexplained actions. And there are too many connections between these characters for things to be plausible. For example, Will's father being who and where he is just didn't seem right to me.

Lastly, I'd have to say that Pullman is trying to do something very, very large. The story is trying to explain all of human development and much of why and how the universe acts as it does in a kid's book. Think of it as a fictional version of a unified field theory. In my opinion, however, he's not quite successful.

Some aspects of the story are fine, but his cosmology is a bit muddled. In fact, I found quite a few things muddled, and things that I thought should have been very important weren't treated as such. And the opposite is also true. The major act by Lyra, the one that saves everything from total destruction, is unconnected in any significant way to the multiverse. Or at least, that's how it appears to me.

From what I can tell, Pullman has a reputation as an anti-clerical writer, and the fact that these books are as popular as they are is interesting in that light. They're definitely anti-church in their take on the world, which probably helps explain why they aren't as popular in the US as they are in Europe. Given my own views on religion, I had high expectations. I wish they'd been met.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore

Title: The Meme Machine
Author: Susan Blackmore
Rating: Good

This one was a slog up until the last couple of chapters, but that has nothing to do with the book itself. I don't read textbooks well - never have - and this amounts to a textbook, though it is written in a more engaging style than, say, the calculus textbooks I used in college.

The Meme Machine is Blackmore's discussion of memes and her theories on how they have developed in - and changed the development of - humans. In large measure, this book is an overview of memetic thinking and theorizing up through 1999 (when it was published) but Blackmore expands on that by adding her own twists and turns.

What is a meme? According to Blackmore, a meme is an idea or concept or set of instructions that can be passed on by imitation. The concept was originally put forward by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene as an example of a replicator that could undergo evolutionary changes, much like genes in the case of our bodies. Since Dawkins first proposed the idea it has taken on a life of its own, and many people have worked with it. Blackmore spends a lot of time - and bibliography space - discussing the work of others in the field.

In my opinion, most of the book discusses fairly down to earth concepts, since I happen to think much of what is written here is correct. If I understand it properly, evolution is the only natural process we know of that can create a body of information from random events. As such it appears - after the fact - to be driven by a desire to attain an end goal, though in reality there is no end goal, and nothing intelligent drives the process. Memes go through a very similar evolutionary process in which they respond to (and change) their environment in ways similar to those that genes do. Blackmore describes how memes and genes can evolve and change separately, and also cases of meme/gene co-evolution, where one can drive changes in the other. As an example, Blackmore proposes that memetically driven change drove the genetic changes that lead to large brains in humans. An interesting idea that she supports pretty well.

Towards the end of the book, things get even more interesting, if a bit more philosophical and/or a theoretical. Blackmore proposes a set of memes that she calls the "selfplex". These memes survive better together, and one of the things they do is give us the illusion of the self. Here we enter into an area of science that I find fascinating but don't understand all that well. Experiments into consciousness and how the brain and body interact are full of unexpected twists and turns. The selfplex may be part of the explanation for these things.

Here's a thought experiment that Blackmore describes. It's been done in real life with people wired up so their brain waves can be monitored as it happens. Extend your arm in front of you and, whenever you want, flex your wrist so your hand moves in some direction. That's it. As you did it, you (and I, and everyone) thinks they made a conscious decision about when to flex their wrist, and then they did so. However, that isn't what really happens. The actual order is that your brain is ready to cause the action about half a second before it happens, but your decision to flex your wrist happens about one fifth of a second before it happens. In other words, the "decision" you made to flex your wrist wasn't the cause of the action. In fact, it may be part of an elaborate cover story that we constantly tell ourselves to give us the illusion that we control our actions, and the selfplex is the proposed set of memes that would create that cover story.

Taken to the logical conclusion, there is no such thing as free will. We're all living a fantasy of sorts, and we really don't control our actions. Blackmore goes on to discuss altered states of perception - particularly those achieved through meditation, where time and individuality seem to disappear - and suggests that such states may be the result of simply getting the selfplex out of the picture for a while. In effect, she suggests an entirely non-spiritual mechanism for some things that many argue are supernatural in nature. It's an interesting argument, and while I'm not sure I understand it fully, I like it on face value. Trying to figure out what it means, however, that's a challenge for me. If the "me" that is doing things like writing this book review is only an illusion created by a set of selfish memetic replicators running in my brain, what does that imply?

As an aside, a while back I read somewhere that Sam Harris - author of The End Of Faith - is going back to his research roots and will eventually publish something claiming there is no such thing as free will. I hope to read that when it comes out.

There are probably many new books on memetics since Blackmore wrote this one, and perhaps some of what is here is now out of date. But it's still an interesting read, and there are some challenging ideas here. If you have any interest in these things, I recommend it.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Gilded Chain, Dave Duncan

The Gilded Chain
Dave Duncan

The Gilded Chain by Dave Duncan is the first (I think) in a set of related fantasy novels following a group of people called Blades. Blades are supremely gifted swordsmen who are magically bound to defend one individual when they graduate from their order. They are trained from childhood to be the best fighters possible, and many go on to guard their king.

As far as I can tell, each book (there are at least six so far) stands alone but tells a tale set in the same universe. I think some books even discuss the same characters at different times, or (possibly) from different points of view. I'm a bit hazy on this, but I have talked with someone who has read several books in the series. In fact, she recommended them to me.

As fantasy, The Gilded Chain is reasonable. It doesn't compare to Tolkien or Donaldson in my mind, but it's OK. It's far better than the early Shanara books by Brooks, for example, and much, much better than the Lost Swords books by Saberhagen, which are just terrible.

But that being said, there is still something here that's not quite right, something just didn't flow for me. Perhaps part of it is the writing, which I found to be serviceable but not great. There were several places where I just didn't like the author's word selections for example, and even when that wasn't bothering me the text still didn't sing, if you will.

The story was interesting in some ways and oddly disjoint in others. It follows one person from the time he joins the guild through the end of his life. But it skips over huge chunks of that life, and occasionally presents events out of order in a way that briefly confused (and irritated) me. And though the author does tie a couple of the sub-stories together in the end, the overall picture remains disjoint and less than satisfying.

I'm not sure I'll read another of these books. Perhaps Duncan gets better with practice, but he's churning these out at a frantic rate (one a year or so, along with other writing, it appears) which leads me to believe that quality is not his primary goal. I'd love to be wrong about that, however, so if you think the more recent tales are better, please let me know.