Archive for April, 2007

Apr 27 2007

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Published by under Books

by Wllla Cather

This book was a complete change of pace in time, place, style and content from the science fiction that I had been reading. It is very pleasant book and one word, peaceful, summarizes it pretty well for me. Even when describing violence or murder, it seemed peaceful!

The book is a description of the life of a pair of sincere and dedicated French priests working as Catholic missionaries in mid 19th century America. The book focuses on the newly appointed Bishop to a newly created New Mexico diocese soon after New Mexico became part of the U.S. New Mexico was a big undefined space peopled with Indians, Mexicans and a small but increasing number of American. Initially, all travel is on foot or by horseback, but by the book’s end trains have arrived. Along with the Bishop comes his life long friend and fellow priest who eventually becomes Bishop in Colorado after he is sent there during a “silver rush” by his friend the Bishop. The book describes incidents that paint an impressionistic picture of the geography, the priests experiences, and the way the Indians and Mexicans lived. While the priest lived a mostly isolated, very hard life, the overall picture is of two very contented people. The archbishop’s death, which occupies a very small part of the book, describes one nice “way to go”; peacefully, in ones own bed, remembering the good time and good friends. Outwardly, he was mostly non responsive but inwardly still competent; reveling in pleasant memories.

A question that recurs occasionally as I read is “why read fiction?”. What’s the point? I suppose lots of words have been written on this subject, but I don’t want to read them now. That would feel like cheating on a test. One reason is simply entertainment. Reading a good story is fun. A second reason is to expand a persons ideas about what is, was or might be, might have been. For a young reader, fiction can inform a person about how they might act and how they or other people might react in various situations. That’s less but still useful for an old person who has seen more and in any event is less likely to change their ways of acting. Habits are tough to crack. A third reason is too explore an idea without any intent to act or learn. How could a fictional situation play out. Analogous to a physicists ‘thought experiment’ in which the implications of potential physical rules are explored. A game for the mind. How do I see this developing as the author develops it in his/her own way.

Often it seems almost inevitable that reading about a fictional situation has some impact on behavior. But maybe not, if the words and ideas slip entirely “out of” the brain. An increasing problem as one ages. Very young people like to read the same story over and over. Why? The pleasure of a good story? To get it firmly implanted? To help them learn to imagine, use their new brains? Very old people can read the same story over and over and it never gets implanted. Always new. But that sort of lost capability proceeds on to where every word is new and reading becomes impossible. Ugly thought.

Is it more useful or beneficial to read about an imagined 19th century New Mexico or an imagined planet on which chimps, dolphins and humans can communicate and work together? If the reason for reading is entertainment, the answer is personal and subjective. If the reason is to learn about people, probably New Mexico in the past is somewhat better. If the reason is to entertain new ideas, the imaginary planet seems to fit.

Anyway, “Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a good story well written.

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Apr 10 2007

Heaven’s Reach

Published by under Books

by David Brin

Well I’ve finished this trilogy.  While I mostly enjoyed reading the six long stories, the ending was weak.  Not the best book by far.  While the whole series played fast and loose with possible development of scientific and engineering skills, this book was off the deep end.  That and the associated plot gimmicks are the books main faults.  But, the gimmicks were probably necessary for the author to bring some of the many threads to a congenial ending.  A little magic helped a lot.  The Uplift Trilogy was an enjoyable but not very rewarding read.  Recommended as entertainment not education.

How does the series rate on the ‘exploration of interesting ideas’ dimension?

– “Uplift”:  Similar to the idea behind 2001, the idea that developed species control and determining the development of lesser developed intelligent species. Rather than treating uplift as a mystery, the uplift process is treated a bureaucratic intergalactic organizations with strict rules on conduct and status.  The whole universe with many species is described as a bureaucracy primarily driven by prestige acquired from uplifting other species.  Odd.
– Knowledge should be shared:  The location of an abandoned fleet of very ancient space ship is the ‘secret’ that drive all the action.  A ship crewed by humans, dolphins, and chimps makes the discovery and are then chased by ‘powerful’ species that want the information for themselves where as the humans want the information to be available for all.  Free flow of information makes for a better universe, world or whatever.
– “Drop outs”: Groups from several species seek ‘redemption’ by forsaking knowledge and trying to return to a pre-intelligent state from which they can be uplifted again!  Provides a rough analogy of “fundamentalists” of various cultures and religions.  However, the idea of forsaking knowledge and devolving is motiviated by a desire to again be uplifted.  Given a second chance.  Dropping out is one thing but dropping out to be brought back in seems weird.
– Analogy to the book of Revelations:  The nature of the discovery by humans somehow throws a bunch of established species into a panic due to quasi-religious beliefs in a “time of change”.  Species then begin to fight for control of the information in order to position themselves advantageously with respect to the changes.
– Cultural rigidity is bad.
– Diversity is good.  Embrace it.

Nothing too interesting or clever in that list.  Probably the cleverest idea in this book is that of a “universe quake” analogous to an earthquake.  Due to expansion of the Universe, there are intermittent ‘ruptures’ of the universe which separate galaxies from each other.  However, this idea gets conflated with the idea of ‘times of change’ and is not seriously explored.

Overall, the story telling was interesting, and the narrative moved along.  In all the books, the tale is told by a collection of narrators and participants whose stories are intermixed chapter by chapter.  In general, I found the stories more interesting when they were located on some planet or other.  The space ships, etc.were portrayed minimally and mainly provided a meas of getting about.

In summary a 3,000 plus page space opera, but don’t expect scientific credibility.  If you are inclined to read these books, look up ‘actinic’ it seems to be the authors favorite uncommon word.

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