Friday, March 26, 2010

A Perfect Spy, John Le Carre

A Perfect Spy
John Le Carre

This one came off my shelf to make some room, as it's a moderately hefty hard back tome. My previous time with Le Carre has been OK, and I guess that's what I'd have to say about this one.

A Perfect Spy is essentially an exercise in back story and character development. In large measure, nothing really happens in here, and I found that a bit off putting. It wasn't terrible, but I did spend a bit of time wondering if anything - other than the rather predictable ending - would happen.

In previous books I've reviewed by Le Carre I've seen an odd problem: at times he randomly changes the point of view. It can be a bit bizarre to suddenly realize that we've gone from omniscient narrator to the limited point of view of some body guard. Thankfully I didn't note that in A Perfect Spy. Instead I had different problem.

The main character, Magnus Pym, has a somewhat split personality. In his role as narrator he regularly refers to himself as if he was someone else. This gets confusing and it took me nearly 100 pages to catch on. I kept wondering if there was some other character present that I'd somehow missed. Finally, though, I got it. I may be more than a bit dense - others might have recognized what was going on a lot faster - but it really slowed me down until I figured it out.

Other than that, I didn't really note anything all that good or bad. As I say, the ending was fairly predictable, but once you meet Pym and get the gist of where he is in life the ending is just about a given.

If you're into cold war spy stories you might enjoy this. If that isn't your bag, then you can probably give this one a pass.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ringworld, Larry Niven

Larry Niven

Ringworld is probably Larry Niven's most famous work, having won both the Hugo and Nebula awards back in 1970 when it was first published. My previous experience with Niven's work, though, has left me cold. He's a hard science fiction writer and his characters have been very flat, to say the least. I hoped that Ringworld would be different.

It isn't.

It appears as though Niven had the idea for the ringworld and forced some characters and story together to give him a reason to write about the toy he'd invented. For me the result simply didn't work.

The toy itself - the ringworld - is an interesting idea, but other than some math about dimensions and spinning it to create gravity, everything else about it is pure, unadulterated fantasy. There are all kinds of impossible things going on here in the guise of "science": impossibly strong and thin wire, materials impervious to just about anything, multiple forms of FTL travel, unexplained failsafe systems, life extending substances, stasis fields, transmutation of one material into another, alien species, etc. One or even a few of these things would be fine in a science fiction work, particularly with some background and explanation, but Niven piles them up thick and just keeps going.

In short, he made up anything needed to let him talk about the idea of the ringworld itself. Everything other than the ring - characters, physics, story - was essentially superfluous. If he was a better writer I might have suspended disbelief, but that never happened. Not once.

Even worse, there were several places where the writing is so bad - or the copy I have is so poorly transcribed from the original - that after rereading a few paragraphs several times I had to give up and move on. Some things just didn't make sense at all.

In other places, despite the fact that the words and sentences held together, Niven didn't adequately describe the situation or action. After a while you just wind up accepting that he's not going to explain things well enough to make sense and forget about it. Not a good sign.

For amusement you can look it up on Wikipedia and read about other technical problems. There are quite a few.

I don't know why this book won any awards. It's not very good. My perception of Niven as a writer remains unchanged and I will avoid his work in the future. Too bad.

Bear v. Shark, Chris Bachelder

Bear v. Shark
Chris Bachelder

I have no idea now where the recommendation for this book came from, but I am afraid I am going to disappoint someone.

I had the same reaction to this that I have to some modern art, like a canvas painted all one color. I thought "I could write this. I could write a lot better than this guy did."

Nearly the entire book consists of very short (1-2 page) chapters describing the story of the Norman family as they travel to watch the second bear/shark battle. This is a parody of America, though, so while most of what we see is familiar, it's all deliberately exaggerated to the point of silliness.

In an attempt to heighten the effect, most dialog isn't quoted, characters talk past each other, and all kinds of events aren't really explained. Then end result is a ball of semi-related things that sort of make up a story, but a story without any reasonable ending. In fact, it's rather like the author couldn't come up with one, so he decided to leave it open and let the reader imagine his own.

In any case, I didn't find it funny, though others apparently do. It does contain a lot of social commentary, but only of the most blunt kind.

This is the author's first novel. I have no desire to read anything else by him, and I can't imagine why a publisher would spend money on this book. Not recommended.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Black Hole War, Leonard Susskind

The Black Hole War
Leonard Susskind

Some time back I read two books on string theory by Brian Greene. Both were interesting, well written, and managed to explain complicated physics in a manner that made them somewhat easier to understand.

It turns out that a lot has changed in physics since those books were written, or that those books don't cover a bunch of things going on in the field. The Black Hole War describes many thing Greene doesn't, but does so in passing, as it tells the story of a significant disagreement over the fate of information that gets sucked into black holes.

The resolution of that argument took a long time. Susskind describes a meeting in 1981 where Stephen Hawking made the claim that any information entering a black hole is lost forever. Susskind and Gerard 't Hooft were bothered by this - it violated a fundamental principle - and began trying to prove it incorrect. It took until 2007 before Hawking admitted he was wrong.

In those 26 years physics saw huge changes. String theory, among other things, made a big impact. But many other discoveries were made as well, and a lot of physicists were involved. Susskind describes all kinds of interesting physics in this book, and credits many other physicists with important discoveries that helped make his case.

Overall The Black Hole War is a good read, and it explores some fascinating ground, but there is a problem. Maybe it's that Susskind has too many things to cover to make his case, so he cannot cover individual topics in enough depth to make them clear. I suspect, though, that Susskind isn't quite as good at explaining these non-intuitive concepts as Greene is.

For example, a few hours after finishing the book I couldn't explain the holographic principle to my wife, and it's a key element of the proof Susskind is making.

Perhaps the failure is mine, or the material is so strange that it doesn't make sense to humans given the way we've evolved, but I think it could be described more clearly, even without resorting to the incredibly complicated math that backs it up. At least I hope so.

In any case it is clear that there is a lot of current physics that I don't understand, and didn't know was being researched before I read this book.

Recommended, but I hope that Warped Passages by Lisa Randall - when I get to it - provides a clearer explanation of at least some of the underlying physics.