Friday, February 25, 2011

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

Title: The Sparrow
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Rating: Good

If I have my facts right, The Sparrow is Mary Doria Russell's first work of fiction. She was an academic before turning to writing for a living. It won several awards, and I can see why.

It's a story of mankind's first contact with intelligent life from another world. In this case we encounter radio broadcasts from a planet in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri, and an entirely private expedition is mounted and sent there by the Jesuit order before any other body can get things rolling.

Only one of the crew - Father Emilio Sandoz - survives and returns to earth, and the controversy around his return is challenging, to say the least. The book tells the story of the expedition to Rakhat, alternating between the present - after Sandoz's return - and the past - following the expedition directly.

On the plus side, Russell's writing is quite good, and her characters are, by and large, extremely vivid. Though this is a science fiction story, what it features is people and how they deal with events well beyond their control or understanding. We feel for Sandoz in his struggle to come to terms with what happened to him on Rakhat, and for those in his order trying to find out what those events really were.

The alien planet and culture are well described and believable, at least for me. Rakhat is different enough that understanding it isn't trivial, and yet similar enough that there is the basis for some understanding at all. This isn't Star Trek; everyone doesn't speak English.

In general the story is well told, well plotted, and well written, but I have two issues that hold me back from giving this book a really great review.

First, Russell disposes of some of her characters to abruptly, even some we have followed for a long time. Yes, real people do just die, sometimes unexpectedly, but I found that a bit frustration here. I had come to care about these characters over many pages, and found the parting more than abrupt in some cases.

Secondly there are some issues of logic and practicality that Russell ignores. The expedition makes no effort (that we are told about, in any case) to avoid contaminating Rakhat with organisms (of any size) originating on earth, nor do they adequately protect themselves from anything potentially hazardous to humans upon arrival. As a pragmatic manner, even a completely privately funded expedition of this nature would need to take a lot more precautions than are documented here. In truth, such precautions would probably have made the story impossible to tell, though. Contact and linguistic understanding would have taken years, not weeks, and much of the story would not even be possible. In that light I understand the lack of caution, but I lost the willing suspension of disbelief in a few places as a result.

I wish I could bring complex characters like Emilio Sandoz to life on the page the way Russell does. It gives me something to aspire to, I suppose.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

See No Evil, Robert Baer

See No Evil
Robert Baer

See No Evil is the true story of author Robert Baer's time in the CIA, with a particular emphasis on the middle east. It was published after 9/11 but it appears to have been written before then, which makes much of what it has to say even more relevant. I found it a very good read and profoundly disturbing on two different levels.

First, and mostly to Baer's point, is the disintegration of the CIA that he describes. Though the CIA started out as an entity responsible for obtaining information about foreign governments, it should have been our best defense against the attacks of 9/11. Instead, by the time those attacks happened it had little ability to get hard information from actual people. The typically American love of technology, bureaucracy, and general ass covering had taken over. We had lovely satellite pictures, but no one on the ground who could actually tell us what was going on.

Baer's complaints aren't unique. After 9/11 we heard about the CIA's lack of agents and information over and over again, from many sources. Baer manages to give that disintegration a personal spin, though. He loved his job but hated what his employer had become, which is something many of us can probably relate to, even if we do it in much less serious circumstances.

On the other hand, Baer's description of the actual job - running agents and the risks entailed - makes me wonder why anyone would do it at all. The things Baer can actually describe in detail - the book was censored by the CIA, as required by Baer's employment agreement, and the black bars of redacted passages are left intact - are enough to make me rethink the entire business. How much risk is too much? Where do we draw the line on what is and isn't allowed? Who can make those decisions when time is extremely limited and the people involved are under enormous pressure?

There are no easy answers here, as in much of life. Baer doesn't sugar coat his disdain for the CIA's unwillingness to take risks as his career progresses, but at times I really wondered where the right answers were.

I recommend this book, and suggest we all think about these things. Since 9/11 we all know the US's intelligence infrastructure has grown and changed, but what has it really become? There's no good way to know, short of becoming part of it in some way. I wish we didn't need it at all, but that isn't the real world.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Meaning Of It All, Richard P. Feynman

The Meaning Of It All
Richard P. Feynman

The Meaning Of It All is a transcription of three lectures the famous physicist gave back in 1963, as part of the John Danz Lecture Series at the University of Washington. This book was published in 1998, ten years after Feynman died of cancer.

I am of mixed minds about this book. I have to cut it some slack because it appears to be a transcription of the lectures, lacking only the "uhms" and pauses of speech, but including the digressions and spontaneous things that happen when speaking only from notes or off the top of one's head. As a result, some of what is here is hard to follow or mixed up. I cannot fault anyone for that, and I am sure the lectures themselves were just fine because they included his gestures, pauses, and so on that added the nuances lost in the transcription. Setting aside the limitations of the format, though, there are pluses and minuses to what is here.

Feynman was brilliant, of that there is no doubt. He was also something of a polymath, with a wide array of interests and the willingness to explore many topics that other scientists of his day ignored. I admire him for those qualities.

Further, he's eminently rational in most instances discussed here. For example, in the third lecture he dismisses a slew of pseudo-sciences (astrology, quack medicine, and so on) and just plain dishonest behavior that still plague us today. All to the good. But there are times where he gets things wrong, or defines things in unusual ways.

Getting something wrong - as he does when he equates mind reading with telekinesis - I can mostly ignore. Maybe it was just something that came up spontaneously in the lecture. (Note that he effectively dismisses both items, apparently only confusing the names.) More problematic for me is when he says that religion and science don't conflict. To come to that conclusion, though, he defines religion in a particular way, and effectively excludes a lot of Christianity in the process, such that his effective claim is more like science has no conflict with some smaller subset of Christianity. In our highly polarized age, where the non-religious feel like their world is shrinking every day, and where the religious feel the same way for entirely different reasons, his statements didn't ring true.

In summary, I'm sure these lectures show something about Feynman himself and his approach to the world, but I found them a bit disorganized and not as profound as I'd hoped. Maybe I am not giving him enough credit, though. I'm quite certain that he was a lot smarter than me, and the times are very different now.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Superfreakonomics is the follow-on to the original Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. Oddly, this one feels at once both less and more significant, but retains the style of the original.

Why less significant? Hard to say, actually. Some of the subject matter - much of which concerns prostitution - just felt less important and interesting to me. Yes, of course, it is a business and economics applies, but I didn't get any new insights as a result of this information.

On the other hand, some of the material - particularly that discussing global warming - felt more important than anything I recall in the first volume. The discussions about how one might approach fixing global warming were interesting and enlightening.

I consider myself something of a realist on the global warming front. It seems pretty clear to me that the planet is warming up, and that humanity is at least somewhat responsible, but the important thing is what we do about it, not the placing of blame or even the fingering of specific causes. And as usual with the media there is a lot of hype and cruft on both sides of the argument, making it difficult to separate truth and falsehood.

It seems likely that we'll have to do something about it in the end and it is interesting to read the proposed mitigations here. The authors appear to think getting to carbon free energy sources is a good idea as soon as we can make it happen - for any number of reasons - but that getting there will probably take longer than we want to wait for those energy sources, or for the carbon we've already emitted to be reduced back to normal levels. I tend to agree on all counts.

In one way this book is much better than the first. I didn't come away feeling that the authors were out to promote themselves, which they did a bit of the first time around.

In a nutshell this is a good but lightweight book. If it, like its predecessor, causes people to think about new things in economic terms, that's a good thing.