Bill’s Book Blog, 1/9/2021

I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read last week! (Well, since 1/1/2021).

I started 2021 by finishing up The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu, trans. Joel Martinsen (original published in Chinese in 2008, translation published in English in 2015), which is the second book in Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Nobody calls the trilogy by that name, near as I can tell — this is the sequel to The Three-Body Problem, which won a lot of acclaim (and a Hugo, and an often-deployed blurb from Barack Obama) when it was published in English in 2014. Joel and I talked about it some in our Year in Reading podcast (I hadn’t quite finished it yet) so I won’t rehash myself too much here.

In brief: Earth has realized that in about two hundred years, a vastly superior alien fleet is coming to conquer the planet and exterminate them. Worse, the aliens have sent microscopic advance scouts that function as both spies and saboteurs, such that human scientific progress is stalled (they can’t trust the results from any of their research into how things work at the quantum level, basically), and the humans must assume that the aliens have near-perfect knowledge of the humans’ preparations and defenses, including the specifics of their strategic deliberations. But the aliens don’t much understand lies and subterfuge, so the governments of the world choose four people, give them nearly unlimited resources, and tell them to develop private strategies for defeating the aliens. The catch, of course, is that these “Wallfacers,” as they are called, can’t tell a single other person what it is that they are up to. We follow several Wallfacers (though one in particular) as they work on their plans, including when several of them go into suspended animation to wake up years later once the infrastructure has caught up to their strategic visions.

There’s a lot about the book to enjoy (as well as some perplexing choices, as when one of the characters essentially hallucinates himself a girlfriend as a literary exercise). As many people have already noted, Liu’s project here is a lot like Asimov’s Foundation series, in that it’s less concerned with individual character work and more concerned with developing a societal picture and asking Big Questions. Accordingly, most of the characters are basically just sketches, and sometimes feel a little flat. But his Big Questions are consistently fascinating, and he paints a compelling portrait of what it would look like if the world had to come together to face an undeniable, existential threat, but one which won’t happen for about two centuries. How do generations of soldiers, scientists, and just regular people function when they know their whole purpose is basically just to build infrastructure so that the next generation can do the important work, and when they know that they are probably just going to be doomed anyway? (Of course, given the real world’s frequently tepid response to questions like climate change, one might say that he neglects the possibility that the majority of the world would just shrug and ignore the problem, but I’m willing to cut him some slack on that). The book is also an attempt to solve the Fermi Paradox. It’s an ambitious book, is what I’m saying.

I suspect I’ll have more coherent things to say about the series as a whole once I finish the third one, Death’s End, so I’ll probably save any further discussion for that point.

Staying in science fiction, but switching from world-spanning hard sci-fi to something much smaller, I next read All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (2017), the first book in the Murderbot Diaries series. Your opinion of this book will probably be determined by whether or not you like the first paragraph:

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

Murderbot (that’s what it calls itself, for reasons you learn more about as the book progresses) would like nothing more than to be left alone so it can watch soap operas, but it is assigned as a bodyguard/security expert for a team of researchers on an unexplored planet. When something goes awry, as of course it does, Murderbot has to figure out how to protect its charges without also revealing that it’s not really under their control.

The overarching “plot” of the novella (what is happening to the research team and why) is not really the point — the fun of the book is in the interactions between Murderbot and the human researchers, and in the hints you get about the broader capitalist dystopia that creates SecUnits like Murderbot in the first place. If The Dark Forest is about the psychology of an entire civilization, All Systems Red is entirely about the psychology of one confused robot, and I’ll confess to being more inherently interested in projects like the second one. All Systems Red is not perfect by any means, but it’s a very good time, and I’ll definitely be reading more of the Murderbot Diaries as the year progresses.

I have a lot of weird books in my personal library that either somebody gave me ten years ago, or that I inherited from my Dad after he died in 2016. One reason I’ve set such a high goal this year is to give me an incentive to get through some of these books — I hate having books on my shelf that I haven’t read. So in addition to the new books that I’m picking up as the year goes on, I’ll be trying to get through some of the miscellaneous weird stuff that’s in my house. (Another solution would be to just get rid of the stuff, since nobody cares which books I keep in my house, and I’m not really excited about maybe someday having to read The Bell Curve, but I don’t really “get rid” of books very often. This is the way.)

One of these weird books is The Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President in War and Peace, by Richard Brookhiser (1997), which I think was a gift from my Dad at some point (maybe when I graduated from high school?). Brookhiser is a historian and senior editor at conservative magazine National Review, which Dad read semi-religiously. (He also appeared once in my Silliest Take of the Week Project for writing some bizarre free-association poetry about butts. This is neither here nor there, but may color the way you read the rest of this.)

The Rules of Civility is two things. First, it is a reprint of a little Jesuit book of rules of etiquette that George Washington once copied out by hand and apparently kept on his person for some years. Second, it is a bunch of snarky asides from Brookhiser about how great those rules are, how great George Washington was, and about how foolish and discourteous America has become. It is a tremendously silly little book that I should probably just throw away, but instead I want to write a PhD thesis about it.

The rules themselves are almost entirely banal rules of etiquette like “5: If you cough, sneeze, sigh, or yawn, do it not loud but privately; and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside,” or “81: Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private.” One noteworthy thing is that the rules are often concerned with the relative standing of the people involved, and thus taught Washington things like “85: In company of those of higher quality than yourself, speak not till you are ask’d a question, then stand upright, put off your hat, and answer in few words.” Otherwise, they are not terribly interesting.

Insofar as Brookhiser has a thesis in his commentary, he would probably say it is that rules of etiquette teach good habits, which in turn help to shape a person’s moral character. (Brookhiser’s essay that opens the book starts with “How do you become a great man?”) Thus, George Washington’s unimpeachable moral character (never mind about the people he owned, everybody) may have been partly derived from his impeccable etiquette (he was ever so polite to the people he owned, probably), so if we all want to be more like George Washington, maybe we should start by being more courteous, even if it seems inauthentic. Get your elbows off the table, you hippy.

What’s funny to me is that although some of Brookhiser’s asides are attempts to connect a rule to an event in Washington’s life or to explicate how a word was used in a different way at the time, most of them are just jibes about the politics and culture of the ’90s. So rule #2, “When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered,” is followed by Brookhiser saying “A rule often flouted by rap singers, and pitchers.” Or #4, “In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise or drum with your fingers or feet,” is followed by “Don’t carry a boom box, either.”

The most egregious of these is probably his commentary on #21 (“Reproach none for the infirmities of nature, nor delight to put them that have in mind thereof.”):

A modern corollary might be to urge those with infirmities to be moderate in making public displays of them to advance favorite causes. Sometimes the gesture can be appropriate. But modern political conventions, which have become veritable processions of the lame and the halt, have clearly carried the practice too far.

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There’s something incredible about the chutzpah of this weird little book. Brookhiser claims that these 110 precepts guided Washington throughout his life, which elevates them to a sort of Scriptural quality in his estimation. By bolting his own boilerplate curmudgeonly complaints about ’90s politics thereonto and claiming that they are logical outgrowths or “modern corollaries” of Washington’s precepts, he’s therefore trying to elevate his own grouchiness to the level of Ancient Moral Authority. “George Washington came to me in a dream,” Brookhiser seems to say, “and told me that you should pull your pants up.”

Also this is the “about the author” page, presented without further comment:

The last book I read this week was Pitch Dark, by Renata Adler (1983), which I’m mostly not smart enough to talk about. It’s a disorienting little book that depicts several events in the life of a woman who is in the process of calling off her long-running affair with a married man. Rather than show us any of the major scenes in the affair itself, however, Adler’s scenes are of times when our main character (Kate Ennis) is mostly alone, moving around the Pacific Northwest or Ireland, thinking about the affair and everything that happened and getting lost in places. I don’t know if “stream-of-consciousness” is exactly the right phrase, but passages of straightforward narrative are interwoven with paragraphs where Kate remembers snatches of conversation with her lover, or repeated ideas or intrusive thoughts she has had about the relationship. Sentences like “I said, But can we live this way.” or “Did I throw the most important thing perhaps, by accident, away?” recur throughout the book, sometimes in reference to specific events we see in full later in the book, sometimes just as snatches of conversations that Kate must have had with her lover at some point.

One of the blurbs on the back of my copy describes the book as a “kaleidoscope,” which is a very useful metaphor. You mostly have to take the book in as a collection of images and emotions, and notice patterns, rather than try to make sense of the entire whole (at least in one readthrough. One could probably sculpt a complete picture of Kate’s entire life if you read it again with a magnifying glass, but I’m not going to do that).

It’s not, in other words, exactly my kind of thing, but I’m glad I read it, and there are some sequences that are particularly beautiful, as when, early on, Kate recounts a series of encounters she had with a raccoon that kept coming into a barn on her property:

But because, on every subsequent evening, he stayed longer and left less abruptly; because he returned most nights, and slouched, on the stove, leaning against the stovepipe, all night, until morning; because he sometimes touched, though rarely, the water I left in a dish beside the stove for him; because he was, after all, a wild thing, growing ever more docile; we arrived at our misunderstanding. I thought he was growing to trust me, when in fact he was dying. So are we all, of course. But we do not normally mistake progressions of weakness, the loss of the simple capacity to escape, for the onset of love.

A little kaleidoscopic confusion is worth it for passages like that.

I hope to post little reviews/summaries like this every Saturday for the rest of the year, though if I miss one I’m not going to feel obligated to go back and catch up. Hopefully you enjoy reading my scattered thoughts on the wildly variegated stuff I tend to read in a year, and feel free to tell me what you’re reading and what you think about it!

Current Progress: 4/104, or 3.8%. Current average pagecount: 226.25.

*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.

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