Friday, March 21, 2003

Books I've Read Lately

I have a list of books I've been meaning to get around to read. It works out pretty well -- when I hear about a book I'm interested in, I add it to the list rather than rushing out to get it. I used to get it from the library, have too many books to read and then end up renewing them until I either returned them unread, paid overdue fees, or both. Now whenever I'm headed to the library before a trip, I consult the list and rather quickly have a couple of books to take along. Here are a few books from the list I've gotten to lately.

The Lost Continent

I have mentioned before reading Bill Bryson's books. Since I've enjoyed them, I've had "more by Bill Bryson" on my list. That recently changed to "The Lost Continent" when I realized that I only had one such book left to read. I finished that at my parents' last month. It was a charming tale of his drive around small-town America about 15 years ago. It probably says something about me that I consider complaining about travel arrangements and making fun on the locals "charming". Still, he has an ideal of small-town America he is searching for. He never quite finds it, but finds a number of other interesting things along the way.

Mapping Human History

The first Bill Bryson book I read was "In a Sunburned Country". He tells fascinating tales of Aboriginal culture, and that book got me interested in the fact that the Aborigines settled Australia around 10,000 years ago. That, in turn, got me interested in human prehistory. How did various peoples end up where they were by the last millennium, when the global mass of humanity finally fully reconnected? One very interesting book on that subject was Guns, Germs and Steel, although that talked a lot about history as well as prehistory.

I was hoping that Mapping Human History would fill in more details of the prehistory through recent gene-mapping techniques. It did some of that, but the main thrust of the book lay elsewhere. The book's main purpose was to use gene-mapping techniques to show that claims of racial superiority (or even attempts at racial categorization) were without scientific basis. While I was disappointed I didn't learn more about human prehistory, I did learn some interesting facts. For example, in most species genetic variation is greater between subgroups than within them. An extreme example (mine) is dog breeds. Any two dachshunds are going to look a lot more like each other than either looks like any poodle. With humans, that's not the case. Given two people from India, one may very easily look more like someone from Africa than he looks like the other Indian. People are just culturally attuned to the differences that do exist, such as skin color.

A Fire Upon the Deep

I'm actually still reading this book. I bought it in September, but since I own it, I never feel compelled to read it as quickly as library books. It's part of my "Hugo Project", where I'm concentrating my science fiction reading on books that have won that genre's most prestigious award. I find myself reading books I wouldn't have chosen before. I tend to like near-future "hard" SF. (By "hard", I mean books where the authors pay close attention to scientific plausibility.) Unfortunately, I've chosen too many books for their subject matter only to find wooden characters, bland dialogue, or clumsy plotting. Now I'm reading books about subjects I wouldn't have chosen (e.g., time travel), but enjoying them much more. They're just good books.

A Fire Upon the Deep is a "far future" book. I guess it leans towards the "hard" side of SF, but it's set (at least) tens of thousands of years in the future. Vinge has a lot of really interesting "concepts" that he weaves together. One is that the Milky Way is divided into various "zones". Earth is in the "Slow Zone" where AI works less well and faster-than-light travel is impossible. (Almost) all of this book takes place outside of the Slow Zone, so we get starship with a modicum of plausibility. Another neat idea is that of the "singularity", where species develop machines more intelligent than themselves, which then create even more intelligent machines, and so on. The whole process causes the species (or some subset of the species) to "transcend" into something unfathomable to "normal" species.

One of the nonhuman species in the book are the "Tines" which consists of packs of telepathic dog-like creatures. (I tend to group telepathy in with "soft" SF, but this book made me wonder why species couldn't evolve whose brains transmit radio waves.) Each pack has a "group mind". Vinge introduces these characters early in the book by writing part of the story from the perspective of him. It is really hard to understand what's going on, since he throws the reader in without explaining what's going on. But it's kinda neat figuring things out.

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