Command and Control

Eric Schlosser

2013


History at its most nail-biting. This should be read as a counterpoint to Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, a description of the military plans that led to the need for the nuclear materials.

Many of the anecdotes are terrifying, and make one wonder how we managed to to survive the Cold War – and how we'll survive the current era too, given that the systems are all still in place with their existing faults.

Finished on Sat, 17 Nov 2018 06:45:49 -0800.   Rating 5*/5*.

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)

Joe Haldeman

1974


A classic of science fiction with a "hard" premise: how can one fight a long-distance war in the presence of relativity? Haldeman's conclusion is insightful: in travelling to battle your technology becomes old compared to those you'll fight when you arrive, which given the speed of technological advance places the attacker at a huge disadvantage. He gives his physics human scale and a prosaic, if perfectly believable resolution.

Finished on Sat, 17 Nov 2018 06:42:55 -0800.   Rating 5*/5*.

Four Fields

Tim Dee

2013


A lyrical, poetic tale of rural life. The writing is wonderful, if perhaps a little drawn out: a book to be tackled in short doese for the beauty of the imagery.

Finished on Sat, 17 Nov 2018 06:40:15 -0800.   Rating 3*/5*.

Orientalism

Edward W. Said

1978


It's hard to criticise such a classic, and I really expected to like it more than I did. It still reads well after over half a century.

But... do we really believe that the behaviour of an entire continent – Europe – was shaped by the writings and fantasies of a few pioneers? Do we believe that we can extract the fundamental beliefs of a myriad of managers and workers from close reading of a few key texts? Do we believe, indeed, that those key texts have such internal consistency that it's meaningful to parse them sentence-by-sentence to extract the author's own beliefs and expose their inconsistencies?

We academics would like to think that our writing was read in this was, was important in this way. But I find it hard to believe, and I don't think the situation was different a century or more ago. The valid criticisms made of "Western" attitudes to "the East" (accepting that these are gross generalisations) neglect the fact that similar criticisms were made of other, "Western" groups. Substitute "working class" for "oriental" in many works of the nineteenth century and you'll see the same points of sloth, mistrust, and dependency being made.

The besetting issue seems to actually be a lot simpler: the danger of treating any group as a group, and eliding the individuals' characteristics in search of general schemata. It's something that still goes on, and still has to go on if we want to make sense of the world. It's just that we need to be conscious of the limitations that this imposes on our reasoning.

Finished on Sat, 17 Nov 2018 06:39:20 -0800.   Rating 2*/5*.

The Naked God (Night's Dawn, #3)

Peter F. Hamilton

1999


This trilogy is an impressive achievement. More so in the detail than in the broad sweep, I think: the individual episodes, characters, technologies, species, and other elements are all wonderfully creative and varied, deeply envisioned and carefully described. So at a micro level, the plot is a success. But at the macro level, it's less satisfying. (Spoiler now coming.) A large number of plot twists and difficult pathways are set up, ready for a clever resolution. What happens instead is that a character encounters an alien god-like entity who ... well, allows anything to happen, which means that any possible twist can be straightened out. It's only slightly improved on the stereotyped "and then she awoke from a dream" ending, and really isn't respectful of all the efforts the author went to in the rest of the books.

Finished on Sat, 17 Nov 2018 06:31:10 -0800.   Rating 3*/5*.

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts

Carol Tavris

2007


A study of cognitive dissonance and the need for self-justification. The authors explore the ways in which people respond to the realisation that they've been wrong, and the likelihood that they'll try to rationalise-away the resulting dissonance coming from having two contradictory thoughts in mind. The same phenomenon re-appears in many guises, from personal relationships to wrongful prosecutions and ill-starred wars. What was fascinating for me was the way in which the same mechanisms can protect a poor self-image as well as an inflated one; but also the observation that both self-deception and its alternatives in the form of self-scrutiny and making deliberate amends come with harsh psychological prices, contrary to what the modern self-help literature might suggest.

Finished on Sun, 29 Jul 2018 05:02:06 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

The Reality Dysfunction (Night's Dawn, #1)

Peter F. Hamilton

1996


Science fiction on a epic scale. You can hear the echoes of many modern writers in this work, perhaps most clearly William Gibson and Iain M. Banks, but it's also positive and heroic in the way that Robert Heinlein and E.E. "Doc" Smith were: there's no loss of confidence in the face of danger. A lot of the set pieces are wonderful, as are the descriptions of the technology and its implications. I'm looking forward to the other two books of the trilogy.

Finished on Sun, 29 Jul 2018 04:55:31 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.