01 January, 2018

A Great & Terrible King by Marc Morris

Historical non-fiction books that I tend towards typically organize around a story: Kon Tiki, The Motorcycle Diaries, Endurance. I rarely read biographies because I’m just not that interested in minutiae of major historical figures. However, when a historical popularizer takes on a biography of a long-dead, often misunderstood English king, and Amazon puts it on sale, I am ready to try again.

Edward I, Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots, was somebody I knew little about. He appeared tempestuous, but rarely; just but vengeful; loving to his wife, always; and effective nine times out of ten. Those couple of mistakes he makes are glaring—freeing prisoners, ignoring his councellors about Gascony, and taxing his subjects too heavily. However, he also had a series of wars to fight that left him broke, so the latter makes some sense.

In building the character of Edward, Marc Morris let’s the events do the talking before filling in the details from primary documents after the fact. The problem with this style of character building is that I’m too often surprised by the actions of the King. Maybe he was a surprising person, but when all is said and done, I feel like I understand Edward I in all of his actions, but that’s the conclusion of the book, and it runs the risk of leaving me wondering through far too much of the book itself. It holds the cards too close to the chest.

But the impetus for holding cards close rests in the narrative style of chronological telling. Morris just runs through Edward’s life, from A to B, then ends the book with a brilliant chapter that briefly weighs up a conclusion based on all the evidence given. Like a pulp author, there are cliff-hangers in many of the chapters and sections within chapters: none more striking to me than ending a chapter with the phrase, “The Devil had assumed a new guise, and his name was William Wallace.” These cliffhangers work for me, as they are often moments of surprise for Edward in his own life: the death of the Maid of Norway, the murder of Comyn, the sudden rise of William Wallace. Why not surprise the readers with what also surprised Edward? It’s a tactic I appreciate in this history book, and one I wish more people employed as it gets me excited for the next chapter.

The writing works well enough—nothing to praise highly, but nothing to call out as particularly bad either. There is one part, near the end, where Morris seems to have discovered the word precocious, but that’s actually the only writing that annoys me.

The focus, or theme of the book appears to deal more with Edward’s role in spending thirty years to set a foundation to what came after. The subtitle of this book—Edward I and the Forging of Britain—sets the tone for the whole. He conquers Wales, and the focus in on the conquering, and not Edward in that situation. He hammers Scotland, but again, the focus is on the attempt, and not the thoughts—though Morris does tend to let Edward’s thoughts into the book, I wanted a little more.

Now, I’m not sure how much of that lack of thoughts is down to lack of access to Edward himself—he’s dead. But still, I knew he liked building things—from his actions, not his thoughts—until way late in the book when Morris gets into some of the specifics: Edward, in his sixties, is deep into the minutiae of designing a wooden fort’s ditch depth.

In all, I finished this book and loved it. I looked forward to reading it every day. And I read it late until my eyes stopped being able to focus. It’s something I would recommend to nerds of this sort of thing, and even people interested in this sort of thing, but not to people uninterested—like I would Kon Tiki or Endurance. I’ll look for another Marc Morris book in the future. Actually, I've already got one picked out.

13 December, 2017

Histories by Polybius

Translated by Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh.

I open with a quote from this massive, fragmentary book:
When Hannibal, after conquering the Romans in the battle at Cannae, got possession of the eight thousand who were guarding the Roman camp, he made them all prisoners of war, and granted them permission to send messages to their relations that they might be ransomed and return home. They accordingly selected ten of their chief men, whom Hannibal allowed to depart after binding them with an oath to return. But one of them, just as he had got outside the palisade of the camp, saying that he had forgotten something, went back; and, having got what he had left behind, once more set out, under the belief that by means of this return he had kept his promise and discharged his oath. Upon the arrival of the envoys at Rome, imploring and beseeching the Senate not to grudge the captured troops their return home, but to allow them to rejoin their friends by paying three minae each for them—for these were the terms, they said, granted by Hannibal—and declaring that the men deserved redemption, for they had neither played the coward in the field, nor done anything unworthy of Rome, but had been left behind to guard the camp; and that, when all the rest had perished, they had yielded to absolute necessity in surrendering to Hannibal: though the Romans had been severely defeated in the battles, and though they were at the time deprived of, roughly speaking, all their allies, they neither yielded so far to misfortune as to disregard what was becoming to themselves, nor omitted to take into account any necessary consideration. They saw through Hannibal’s purpose in thus acting—which was at once to get a large supply of money, and at the same time to take away all enthusiasm from the troops opposed to him, by showing that even the conquered had a hope of getting safe home again. Therefore the Senate, far from acceding to the request, refused all pity even to their own relations, and disregarded the services to be expected from these men in the future: and thus frustrated Hannibal’s calculations, and the hopes which he had founded on these prisoners, by refusing to ransom them; and at the same time established the rule for their own men, that they must either conquer or die on the field, as there was no other hope of safety for them if they were beaten. With this answer they dismissed the nine envoys who returned of their own accord; but the tenth who had put the cunning trick in practice for discharging himself of his oath they put in chains and delivered to the enemy. So that Hannibal was not so much rejoiced at his victory in the battle, as struck with astonishment at the unshaken firmness and lofty spirit displayed in the resolutions of these senators.
This quote is sensational. If only all of Polybius’ Histories was as good. These Histories cover the years of Roman history from 264 to 146 BC, and much of the book is lost or fragmentary. It covers the first, second, and third Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage; the first, second, third, and fourth Macedonian Wars; the Roman-Seleucid War; and the Achaean League thing that is basically a war.
The one aim and object, then, of all that I have undertaken to write is to show how, when, and why all the known parts of the world fell under the dominion of Rome.
Polybius was one of the 1,000 hostages Rome took from the Achaean League in 167 BC, and he fell in love with Roman culture. Rome then used him to travel around Greece and calm people's fears about Roman rule, and it seems like his Histories largely grew out of that task: he explains the Romans to the Greeks, showing why their constitution and military might are superior and how they are benevolent rulers. Therefore, the book is mostly political, not military history. But it delves heavily into military history too.

There are two roads to reformation for mankind—one through misfortunes of their own, the other through those of others: the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful.
The book is 1/3 spectacular, and 2/3 drudgery. The slog comes from Polybius' task and involves way too many Greek names and places that he assumes his reader knows. I would have been unsurprised to hear him discuss a single, well-known tree, for instance: "You know that [named] tributary between those two [named] cities that has that big oak tree there where it turns South? Yeah, that's where [so and so did such and such]." This annoys me quite a bit as that tree is long gone, or that person is lost to history, or that town no longer exists, or that stream has changed course since his life—not enough context or explanation is given to make some things memorable to people who are not Greeks living through this time period. To subvert one of his quotes, I have a strange ignorance of these districts. I wish he had entered into specific details less later in the book. To use another quote, in Book 1 he writes,
To enter into minute details of these events is unnecessary, and would be of no advantage to my readers.
In essence, it’s often both too detailed and not detailed enough: too many names dropped and places listed, not enough context about, or repetition of, those details to make them useful to the reader. He could’ve edited some, for sure. But he’s also one of the first historians talking about first-hand knowledge, so some leeway is granted to the pioneer by me.

His fate may teach posterity two useful lessons—not to put faith in any one lightly; and not to be over-confident in the hour of prosperity, knowing that, in human affairs, there is no accident which we may not expect.
The 1/3 spectacular is the military history part. Polybius seems to have done extensive research: he personally traveled to and inspected battlefield sites, he interviewed veterans and their families to gather stories, and he actually fought in some of the battles listed, giving his first-hand account of why these battles were won or lost. It seems like he retraced Hannibal's path through the Alps to get a sense of what it was like before writing it down. This is really great stuff and admirable research. You can’t beat Polybius on some of these battles, if he actually writes about them or we still have his text of it.

Nature, as it seems to me, has ordained that Truth should be a most mighty goddess among men, and has endowed her with extraordinary power. At least, I notice that though at times everything combines to crush her, and every kind of specious argument is on the side of falsehood, she somehow or another insinuates herself by her own intrinsic virtue into the souls of men. Sometimes she displays her power at once; and sometimes, though obscured for a length of time, she at last prevails and overpowers falsehood.
His writing often relies on a cause and effect structure for each episode, where he outlines the causes—including character assessments of the players—then describes the action, lists the effects of the action, and finally moralizes on the whole episode. Through the surviving parts of the book, his discussion usually centers around the nature of Fortune and spends a lot of time showing how virtuous, honorable, and meticulous leaders often attain more Fortune than drunkards, back-stabbers, or lazy leaders. This tactic fills this book with memorable one-liners that reward the reader, even in the midst of the worst drudgery slog:
A city is not really adorned by what is brought from without, but by the virtue of its own inhabitants.

A crowd is ever easily misled and easily induced to any error.

Fortune is envious of mortals, and is most apt to show her power in those points in which a man fancies that he is most blest and most successful in life.

I admit, indeed, that war is a terrible thing; but it is less terrible than to submit to anything whatever in order to avoid it. For what is the meaning of our fine talk about equality of rights, freedom of speech, and liberty, if the one important thing is peace?

So entirely unable are the majority of mankind to submit to that lightest of all burdens—silence.

Hannibal: “I have learnt by actual experience that Fortune is the most fickle thing in the world, and inclines with decisive favour now to one side and now to the other on the slightest pretext, treating mankind like young children.”
In short: this book was months and months of reading. It was sometimes painful and sometimes so great I couldn't put it down. As painful as about 2/3rds of it was, I have taken more notes from this book than any other that I have read, I have pulled out more quotes, and I have shared more stories from this than any other book. I compiled around 40 pages of quotes alone that I have linked here.
—Before reading Polybius I didn't understand the value of "the classics": why disagree with a bunch of dead people when there are so many live people to disagree with, and they can offer discussion? But the nature of Polybius turns constantly towards a lesson, towards a moral, towards applicable advice obtained from historical events. This tendency springs from his tactic of organizing each episode into cause-action-effect-reflection. In that nature Polybius sets himself apart from modern historians who shy away from morals, and establishes himself as a reasonable, opinionated man. He lays out his biases clearly, then proceeds to state why he moralizes what he does from events, and give counter-examples to support his opinion, or wrinkle the lesson learned. I may disagree with his lessons here or there, but I still wish the rest of the work had survived. The book is filled with things to think about and has inspired at least one short story of mine.

It was then that the story goes that, upon a certain Senator intending to speak against accepting the terms and actually beginning to do so, Hannibal came forward and pulled the man down from the tribune; and when the other senators showed anger at this breach of custom, Hannibal rose again and “owned that he was ignorant of such things; but said that they must pardon him if he acted in any way contrary to their customs, remembering that he had left the country when he was but fourteen, and had only returned when now past forty-five. Therefore he begged them not to consider whether he had committed a breach of custom, but much rather whether he were genuinely feeling for his country’s misfortunes; for that was the real reason for his having been guilty of this breach of manners. For it appeared to him to be astonishing, and, indeed, quite unaccountable, that any one calling himself a Carthaginian, and being fully aware of the policy which they had individually and collectively adopted against the Romans, should do otherwise than adore the kindness of Fortune for obtaining such favourable terms, when in their power, as a few days ago no one—considering the extraordinary provocation they had given—would have ventured to mention, if they had been asked what they expected would happen to their country, in case of the Romans proving victorious. Therefore he called upon them now not to debate, but unanimously to accept the terms offered, and with sacrifices to the gods to pray with one accord that the Roman people might confirm the treaty.” His advice being regarded as both sensible and timely, they resolved to sign the treaty on the conditions specified; and the senate at once despatched envoys to notify their consent.

12 December, 2017

Greylorn by Keith Laumer

1. This novella tells the story of a struggling earth trying to find a human colony that they have lost contact with, in order to gain assistance to free earth from its infection: the red tide. The red tide is a biological infection that covers most of the world. In the past, the world sent out 25 colony ships, but has since lost contact with one of them, on which they pin their last hopes to save earth. I describe this story because Laumer has well matched it to his pacing. He skips over large portions of the story in order to focus on just the interesting bits. In the opening chapter, two hours of debate is skipped, while the important bits are focused on. Then, the book skips ahead to when the mutiny happens, almost five years later. And without a lengthy info dump, Laumer introduces the new time period with one sentence, then it’s back to the action. Laumer admirably focuses on his plot, driving the book forward in a way consistent with pulp novellas, instead of filling in the gaps with rumination and tangential sideplots.

The Commander turned his eyes to the world map covering the wall. With the exception of North America and a narrow strip of coastal waters, the entire map was tinted an unhealthy pink.

“The latest figures compiled by the Department of the Navy indicate that we are losing area at the rate of one square mile every twenty-one hours. The organism’s faculty for developing resistance to our chemical and biological measures appears to be evolving rapidly. Analyses of atmospheric samples indicate the level of noxious content rising at a steady rate. In other words, in spite of our best efforts, we are not holding our own against the Red Tide.”
2. The characters fit archetypes, and that’s the biggest negative of this novel. Captain Greylorn is too perfect. Yeah, he gets shot and allows the mutiny to happen. But he figures out the mystery and saves the day, while probably looking handsome. Kramer acts just like an antagonist throughout: going off the handle with incomplete information. Thomas plays the part of helpful Forest Gump. But none of these are wrinkled. The plot is the focus, and that’s what puts the pressure on the characters, not themselves. The plot drives everything, and the characters are largely uninteresting.
—The aliens themselves, the Mancji, are a bit more interesting, but so much is unknown about them that they don’t really act like characters in the novel, rather, like an archetype of the unknown. I wonder if this novella is a part of a series and more is known about the Mancji in other works.

They filed out, looking as foolish as three preachers caught in a raid on a brothel.
3. The tone of the book is mystery and adventure. Especially with the last chapter, I think of this book like a mystery. In other words, situations are setup and information is withheld from the reader. Later, this information comes up and provides an “ah ha” moment for the reader, explaining everything that went on before.
—But it’s also an adventure tale. There is shooting, and crawling through trash compactor chutes, and fist fights, and chases. And more.
—The wording fits this, in a way that Dashiell Hammett could recognize. Witty asides, colloquial phrases, and short sentences that focus on the action itself.

Thomas grinned. “I useta be a radar technician third before I got inta waste disposal,” he said. “I had to change specialities to sign on for this cruise.”

I had an idea there’d be an opening for Thomas a little higher up when this was over.

I asked him to take a look at the televideo, too. I was beginning to realize that Thomas was not really simple; he was merely uncomplicated.
4. This adventure novel focuses on adventure, setting up mysteries to help the plot drag the reader along. I enjoyed the ride, and have read it twice, but only want to read more Laumer when I feel like reading pulp fiction. Good, plot driven pulp fiction, instead of Hammet’s more character driven pulp. [Reading Laumer's Wikipedia page, it seems some of his other stuff might be more interesting to me personally. So maybe I should find some more of his stuff.]

They were frozen together into one solid mass. Kramer was right. They were as human as I. Human corpses, stripped, packed together, frozen. I pulled back the lightly frosted covering, and studied the glazed white bodies.

Kramer called suddenly from the door. “You found your colonists, Captain. Now that your curiosity is satisfied, we can go back where we belong. Out here man is a tame variety of cattle. We’re lucky they didn’t know we were the same variety, or we’d be in their food lockers now ourselves. Now let’s get started back. The men won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

10 December, 2017

Commentarii de Bello Gallicum by Julius Caesar

Translated by W.A. MacDevitt.

1. Caesar’s Commentaries are splendid, if you’re into this sort of thing. Your initial interest lies at the heart of whether this book hits you or not. The book deals with Caesar’s military expeditions to Gaul and Britain in the mid-50s BC. It is written by Caesar as a straight from the horse's mouth account. We get some of the thinking behind Caesar’s decisions, and a portrayal of the information he had available. These insights are valuable to understanding the campaigns in Gaul. But, because this book uses naming conventions that are obscure to me, living in the 21st century, I am sometimes lost. For instance, when Caesar turns North, doing the equivalent of burning the ships, it's pretty obscure; my understanding of that risky strategic decision doesn't so much come out from this book as from knowledge about the campaign that I already had before I read. And contextual understanding was key to my enjoyment of this book.

All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are farthest from the civilisation and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war. The Belgae rise from the extreme frontier of Gaul, extend to the lower part of the river Rhine; and look towards the north and the rising sun.
2. Caesar’s concise writing tends to descriptions and chronological progression—pushing the plot forwards instead of spinning off into sidetracks. For instance.
Caesar, being informed of these things by Crassus, since he was so far distant himself, orders ships of war to be built in the meantime on the river Loire, which flows into the ocean; rowers to be raised from the province; sailors and pilots to be provided. These matters being quickly executed, he himself, as soon as the season of the year permits, hastens to the army.
Yes, he writes in third person. But you can see how, outside of the Latin tendency to phrases built on phrases, this is pretty concise writing compared to other classical writers. It’s direct. How he talks ties directly into that tone he has set.

In the camp of the Helvetii, lists were found, drawn up in Greek characters, and were brought to Caesar, in which an estimate had been drawn up, name by name, of the number which had gone forth from their country of those who were able to bear arms; and likewise the boys, the old men, and the women, separately. [...] The sum of all amounted to 368,000. Out of these, such as could bear arms [amounted] to about 92,000. When the census of those who returned home was taken, as Caesar had commanded, the number was found to be 110,000.
3. The tone of the book sets the stage for the two thousand years of debate that have followed. On one hand, this book summarizes his dispatches to Rome, his political bonifides to help him be popular in Rome. He talks about certain soldiers, names them specifically, and praises them, to show how tied in he is with all strata of Roman classes—something he does in his life continually. He discusses his own astounding acts—building a bridge in ten days, visiting Britain, and his military exploits. He doesn’t so much praise himself as spend enough time talking about them that the reader can’t help but understand how incredible his actions are.
—But the real question is how he treats the Gauls, Belgae, and Germans in the book. He treats them with a weird mix of respect and disdain, and this has been the source of debate ever since. Is Caesar a genocidal maniac? Is he a liberator? What are his intentions with Gaul, not why is he there—to escape his debtors—but what does he intend to do with it once he has conquered it? Or pacified Gaul into a desert. The Gauls come off like William Wallace—shouting “FREEDOM” and running out of the woods towards the civilized invaders. Yet Caesar goes around killing them over and over again. And discusses how they are not housebroken. My personal answer to this question is that Caesar is trying to strike a balance between establishing his credentials, while also lessening the Roman fear of the Gaul so that they can assimilate.

Caesar, for those reasons which I have mentioned, had resolved to cross the Rhine; but to cross by ships he neither deemed to be sufficiently safe, nor considered consistent with his own dignity or that of the Roman people. Therefore, although the greatest difficulty in forming a bridge was presented to him, on account of the breadth, rapidity, and depth of the river, he nevertheless considered that it ought to be attempted by him, or that his army ought not otherwise to be led over. He devised this plan of a bridge. He joined together at the distance of two feet, two piles, each a foot and a half thick, sharpened a little at the lower end, and proportioned in length to the depth of the river. [...] These beams were bound together by timber laid over them in the direction of the length of the bridge, and were [then] covered over with laths and hurdles; and in addition to this, piles were driven into the water obliquely, at the lower side of the bridge, and these serving as buttresses, and being connected with every portion of the work, sustained the force of the stream: and there were others also above the bridge, at a moderate distance; that if trunks of trees or vessels were floated down the river by the barbarians for the purpose of destroying the work, the violence of such things might be diminished by these defences, and might not injure the bridge. Within ten days after the timber began to be collected, the whole work was completed, and the whole army led over.
4. In all, great book. Glad I read it. But not great for everybody. It’s incredibly focused and concise, but it also glosses over some of his defeats and successes. It also hides information behind archaic naming conventions. It’s interesting to get Caesar’s thoughts on these events in his life, but some of my enjoyment of this book comes from this inherent interest in Caesar and this time period, rather than the book drawing me in.

Caesar, having stationed his army on both sides of the fortifications, in order that, if occasion should arise, each should hold and know his own post, orders the cavalry to issue forth from the camp and commence action. There was a commanding view from the entire camp, which occupied a ridge of hills; and the minds of all the soldiers anxiously awaited the issue of the battle.[...] When the Gauls were confident that their countrymen were the conquerors in the action, and beheld our men hard pressed by numbers, both those who were hemmed in by the line of circumvallation and those who had come to aid them, supported the spirits of their men by shouts and yells from every quarter. As the action was carried on in sight of all, neither a brave nor cowardly act could be concealed; both the desire of praise and the fear of ignominy, urged on each party to valour.

Death's End by Cixin Liu

Translated by Ken Liu.

0. This is the second novel that I’ve read this year that was nominated for the 2016 Hugo Awards. The first was
The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin, which won, but it wasn’t the best book I’ve read.
—Preamble: Okay, the guiding question to the notes for the two prior books in this series: “I don’t know how much of my confusion is from translational ambiguity, unknown differences in narrative traditions between Western and Chinese stories, or this tale itself being told poorly.” The first book was a mess. I enjoyed the second book. Between reading
The Dark Forest and this novel, I asked around for some input. My friend Peter told me that Chinese narrative tradition usually focuses less on plot and character, and more on mood or theme or idea. With that in mind, on to discussing Death’s End, the final book in the trilogy.

1. This novel follows Cheng Xin in her life, pausing when she sleeps in suspended animation, and tracking with history when she is awake. It’s organized in terms of the time periods involved—split between these sections by headers and Cheng Xin's sleep cycles. But she is not just a lens to view the events through, she is a character with some depth. She struggles with guilt pretty heavily, having—in her mind—doomed the whole human race. But her guilt faces off against the reasons she failed at holding off the Trisolar invasion fleet: namely, love and her application of it to the whole world—empathy, or motherly feelings towards the whole human race. (As a reminder, her suspended animation sessions leave her vastly older than the people who surround her every time she wakes.) This central wrinkle to her character is present even before she is elected swordholder: her failures and successes all hinge on her empathy and brilliant contributions to science. For instance, one of the things she does earlier in the book, not her failure as a swordholder, leaves her thinking:
She had done nothing that she ought to be ashamed of, nothing that should trouble her conscience. But she also understood that this was how someone could sell their mother to a whorehouse.
This central wrinkle of intertwined guilt and love carries a lot of the book, and it is partly solved near the end when prior swordholder, and total badass, Lou Ji forgives her by saying,
“Love isn’t wrong. A single individual cannot destroy a world. If that world was doomed, then it was the result of the efforts of everyone, including those living and those who had already died.”

This time, she cried not only for Tianming. She cried out of a sense of surrender. She finally understood how she was but a mote of dust in a grand wind, a small leaf drifting over a broad river. She surrendered completely and allowed the wind to pass through her, allowed the sunlight to pierce her soul.
She finally comes to terms with her actions after this conversation with an aged Lou Ji, perhaps the man who has the most reason to not forgive her. But that tension does not entirely leave—like it did in the weird section of the second book. Rather, her personal tension over Yun Tianming—the terminal cancer patient whose brain she sends to the stars—and her tension over the fate of humanity still doesn’t leave. So, this conversation with Lou Ji becomes merely a way for her to look at this event, this failure as a swordholder, in a different way; a way for her to learn the proper places of empathy and love and guilt. Yet, she still feels that her empathy applies to every human: her failure to save one, Yun Tianming, still haunts her for most of the book.

Even though both crews were in the cold vastness of space, voyaging in the same direction at approximately the same speed, the natures of their voyages were completely different. Gravity had a spiritual anchor, while Blue Space was adrift.
2. A couple of secondary characters also held my interest: Wade and Sophon. Sophon is an animatronic embodiment of Trisolaris. She embodies the other side of Cheng Xin’s empathy: not caring for the individual human, but for humanity as a whole. What is best for the whole is what is best for the one, even the one who has to die. At one point, during the resettlement of all humanity to Australia, humans are swarming a supply drop, at which point Sophon jumps out of a helicopter onto the pile, and takes out a katana, killing a few of the refugees. Then,
Sophon jumped back onto the pile and pointed at the line with her bloody katana. “The era for humanity’s degenerate freedom is over. If you want to survive here, you must relearn collectivism and retrieve the dignity of your race!”
In other words, Sophon views collectivism in light of empathy for the whole instead of the individual. She sees the necessity for all rather than one. Sure, she doesn’t much care for humanity, but her statements seem more in line with realism, or reasonable action for a group in extreme situations.
—Wade, on the other hand, exemplifies a brash, results driven, buck the rules when you can get away with it, Western stereotype. The line I quoted earlier references selling one’s mother to a whorehouse, which is something he believes is a positive in his secretive, espionage based career. He tries to murder Cheng Xin mostly because he believes she will fail as a swordholder, but maybe partly because he wants that prestige and power. In some sense he echoes Sophon in this group-focused, screw the individual mindset. But he seems more selfish in his application: rather than shouting, “relearn collectivism” while waving a bloody sword at a bunch of refugees, he tries to shield Cheng Xin from the necessities of selling one’s mother to the whorehouse, while still being willing to sell his own mother to a whorehouse. Like Sophon, Wade acts like a foil to Cheng Xin. And he gets really interesting when he ends up aligning with Cheng Xin in some aspects later in the novel.

It appeared that there were other low-entropy entities with even sharper intuition than he; but that wasn’t strange. It was as the Elder said: In the cosmos, no matter how fast you are, someone will be faster; no matter how slow you are, someone will be slower.
3. The writing alternates between the plot, characters, and themes—but also scientific exposition of these fantastical goings on. For instance, all of the solar system is turned into a two-dimensional area of space. Don’t ask me how it works, but Liu Cixin will tell you:
As soon as the Sun began to two-dimensionalize, a circle expanded on the plane. Soon, the planar Sun’s diameter exceeded the diameter of the remaining part of the Sun. This process took only thirty seconds. Based on the mean solar radius of seven hundred thousand kilometers, the rim of the two-dimensional Sun grew at the rate of twenty thousand kilometers per second. The planar Sun continued to grow, forming a sea of fire on the plane, and the three-dimensional Sun sank slowly into this blood-red sea of fire.
These expositional, scientific portions are less engaging to me, but if you really liked Seveneves, then these portions will be right up your alley. Narrative maths is not what gets me hot about writing. The rest of the writing is fine. More fine than the translation of The Three-Body Problem. Less interesting than the translation for The Dark Forest.
—A problem with the structure of eras is that each new awakening by Cheng Xin needs a couple of pages of exposition to catch the reader, and Cheng Xin herself, up to the present. It’s told in the classic amnesia trope and gives the book an uneviable, stop and go pacing. One of these portions I noted was this:
Ever since the Great Ravine, although history had taken multiple big turns, humanity, as a whole, had always lived in a society that was highly democratic, with ample welfare. For two centuries, the human race had held on to a subconscious consensus: No matter how bad things got, someone would step in to take care of them. This faith had almost collapsed during the disastrous Great Resettlement, but on that darkest of mornings six years ago, a miracle had nonetheless taken place. They were waiting for another miracle.
By having clear headers for each new section, Liu Cixin effectively billboards the pacing, but the reliance on exposition doesn’t keep the whole flowing in a way I appreciate as a Westerner.
—The only other annoyance with the writing is a translational thing of not transliterating two names throughout the book: two people have a Chinese character in their name. This is a book published in English, and it makes sense to get as close in English in the translation, not leave some Chinese characters in there for the reader to try and remember. I had a couple of deaths in the family while reading this book, and did not remember how the Chinese characters were supposed to be pronounced when I returned to this novel.

What was there to say? Civilization was like a mad dash that lasted five thousand years. Progress begot more progress; countless miracles gave birth to more miracles; humankind seemed to possess the power of gods; but in the end, the real power was wielded by time. Leaving behind a mark was tougher than creating a world. At the end of civilization, all they could do was the same thing they had done in the distant past, when humanity was but a babe: Carving words into stone.
4. The mood oscillates between hope and despair. Some of the discussions deal with these topics too, but to me the main theme is what makes humans human—though this comes out in part through their experiences of hope and despair. This theme makes sense as it’s related to Cheng Xin’s central tensions and the novel follows her, but it’s also a book with both aliens and humans in it, so that humanity question seems destined to come up. Where this theme became most interesting to me was in the way humans apply love: to the whole or to the parts, like the difference between Wade, Sophon, and Cheng Xin. The reason this thread interests me the most is because it’s the most varied: both positives and negatives are shown for all three main sides to this argument, and these three examples are shown against a background of selfishness and other points of view like Lou Ji and Ai AA. Cheng Xin endangers the world, killing millions through her actions which are based on love, but she is torn apart by her guilt; Sophon kills individuals to help the whole, but never makes many close, personal connections and seems to regret that lack; Wade endangers trends within humanity, but allows his personal connections to undo most of his plans. These complex glimpses of applying love sustain much of my interest in the novel.
—The novel also ties up the themes from the prior two novels—Dark Forest thinking is obliterated by both the four dimensional alien encounter, and the three dimensional alien bombing team that leaves the solar system two dimensional, tying it into the entropic nature of matter; while the hopelessness that has been dogging the whole series is finally banished by both the Galactic Humans and faster than light traveling Cheng Xin, because though humans end up making a wrong choice about how to avoid dark forest strikes, they still manage to survive and thrive.

He waved his cane around in a circle. “At every moment in history, you can find endless missed opportunities.”

“Like life,” said Cheng Xin softly.

“Oh, no no no.” Luo Ji shook his head vigorously. “At least not for me. I don’t think I’ve missed anything, haha.” He looked at Cheng Xin. “Child, do you think you’ve missed out? Then don’t let opportunities go by again in the future.”
5. In all, I think I’ve finally answered my central question with these books. After reading Death’s End, I cast about and came across a 1977 collection of essays usefully named Chinese Narrative, published by Princeton, which helped contextualize my friend Peter’s helpful statement about the topic:
Chinese stories and novels no doubt belonged to a minor tradition rather than to the central elite culture of historiography, philosophical prose, and lyric verse. [...] One problem is certainly unique to the Western reader. Conditioned by his own culture, he has certain expectations that Chinese fiction will not necessarily meet. The kind of suspense he is used to may not occur. Concluding chapters may give a sense of anticlimax instead of a resounding resolution to the action. Rather than develop, individual characters may appear throughout a work as “whole” as they will ever be. [...] Even the category of novel as such may be inappropriate to the fiction of China prior to the twentieth century.
(Foreword by Cyril Birch)
These essays further imply that some plots can be chronicles instead of leading the reader along a concise plot like Western novels do. This makes sense in regards to the first novel and my reaction. After reading this third novel, I believe I have answered this central guiding question:
● First, Ken Liu’s translation of the first book is ambiguous, but not terrible in terms of reflecting the Chinese narrative tradition. He is better as a translator here. I’ve read his published book of short stories and have many of the same complaints about his writing there as I do his translation here.
● Second, the story strikes an engaging balance between Western and Chinese narrative traditions: this third book is less Western than the middle book, and less Chinese than the first. Yet the tale itself may be no greater or worse than any other Hugo winner, an awards tradition that is as full of hits as it is misses.
● Third, I think Liu Cixin is not a great writer, but he has a shotgun blast’s way of embedding interesting ideas and discussions into his works that I enjoy. And there are a couple of phrases here or there that do make for nice touches. Like this paragraph:
Cheng Xin was taken aback by the chaotic arrangement of the pipes. It wasn’t the result of carelessness; on the contrary, to create this kind of utter chaos required great effort and design. The arrangement seemed to find even the hint of a pattern to be taboo. This suggested an aesthetic utterly at odds with human values: Patterns were ugly, but the lack of order was beautiful.
—In short, I like this book, but it isn’t perfect. The pacing annoys me, as do the scientific exposition sections; but Cheng Xin carries many of these annoyances out of mind with her depth, which Liu uses to set up the main theme of the novel. It’s a strong final novel, even if the ending is a little cosmically “so what?” The whole series starts with an ant crawling on a tombstone, and ends with the universe barreling towards heat death, a progressive expansion of scope that I do appreciate as a writing tactic because Liu Cixin keeps cutting from micro to macro and back. I look forward to reading Liu Cixin in the future, and to watching Ken Liu grow as a translator. But I’m not going to immediately buy the next Liu Cixin novel that hits America until I’m in the right mood. Though I am glad that I now have some experience with Chinese narrative tradition to base future book buying decisions off of. I should finally read Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
“But we’ve long been called on to think about matters that belonged to the province of God.” They sat by the brook until the moon turned into the sun again.


All my life has been spent climbing up a flight of stairs made of responsibility. When I was little, my only duty was to study hard and obey my parents. Later, in high school and college, the responsibility to study hard continued, but there was also the added obligation to make myself useful rather than a drain on society.

04 December, 2017

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

1. Brilliant, if a bit lacking in critical direction. Let me explain: Moving Pictures squarely aimed at Hollywood, discussing very little outside of that; Mort meditated on Death and Employment; Jingo hit on the various themes of the Cold War, but all of its various themes were tied into the Cold War itself. Here, Pratchett’s themes are legion, but they only coalesce in a plot, and the plot doesn’t really carry them all because it’s jangled.
—Kung Fu Films: The plot loosely follows the tropes of kung fu films—save the world through superior fighting, get the girl, and discover a philosophy that guides your life. There are critiques of these tropes throughout—you don’t need kung fu to save the world, just your brain and the right opportunity; getting the girl might not be realistic and the girl might be different than you imagine; and the philosophy that guides your life might be based on simply paying attention to your surroundings.
—Chaos Theory: Much is made of chaos theory, especially how it relates to time and Pratchett’s consistent view that time's speed is inconsistent.
—Philosophy of Time: Yeah, it’s fantasy so I don’t know how applicable it is to our world. But I appreciate people who think about time.
—What Makes Humans Human: Emotions, ego, desire. He believes pain and pleasure are the result of these? Or maybe they’re premising factors.
—Apocalypse: Tied into the theme of humanity’s humanity, the apocalyptic storyline is built on the premise that humanity will murder itself through curiosity and petty disagreements.
—Heores: When saving the world, can a hero afford to stop and help an old man? Well, video games and movies often answer “yes.” But Pratchett seems to imply “no,” before the plot resolves it to a modified “yes.” Essentially, the hero can still save the world, but it’s a lot harder and more complicated.
—So, he’s got a lot of interesting ideas, but they fit together a little discordantly. The one that drew me in the most was the discussion of humanity’s defining characteristics, but that seems like more my place in life than anything Pratchett did.

The first words that are read by seekers of enlightenment in the secret, gong-banging, yeti-haunted valleys near the hub of the world, are when they look into The Life of Wen the Eternally Surprised.

The first question they ask is: 'Why was he eternally surprised?'

And they are told: 'Wen considered the nature of time and understood that the universe is, instant by instant, recreated anew. Therefore, he understood, there is in truth no past, only a memory of the past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore, he said, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.'

The first words read by the young Lu-Tze when he sought perplexity in the dark, teeming, rain-soaked city of Ankh-Morpork were: 'Rooms For Rent, Very Reasonable.' And he was glad of it.
2. The most noticeable difference between this and his other novels is that he lets up on the humor a little bit. It’s not as fast and furious as earlier books, where almost every line is a joke. The whole thing is an extended, absurd joke about kung fu, but this book lacks the one-liner after one-liner that defines a lot of Pratchett’s work. In other words, he’s trying to get in depth to the characters and themes, rather than using them just to make his jokes. And it works. Despite the unfocused nature of this novel, the tone of this book is brilliant. I adore this change and hope some of his later stuff is comedically dramatic philosophy like this, rather than just comedic.
—However, this refocusing on the drama and themes instead of the comedy is also a part of why he spends more time there, allowing the themes to meander a little, as mentioned above. So, it’s the flip side of the same coin: in order to turn the comedy down a notch, he focuses on the themes, and the themes aren’t focused enough to allow this to be pulled off perfectly.

Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in some cave somewhere, with a sign on it saying 'End-of-the-World Switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH', the paint wouldn't even have time to dry.
3. So that’s it on this book. Short notes, sure, but I’m bored writing the same stuff about every Pratchett novel, so I’m trying this new tactic of focusing my notes more to what I found worked and didn’t work the most. Hopefully this shift in tactics for my notes will be as profitable as Pratchett’s shift in comedic density here. I love this book. It may be one of my favorite Pratchett novels, and that’s saying something.

No other species anywhere in the world had invented boredom. Perhaps it was boredom, not intelligence, that had propelled them up to the evolutionary ladder.

03 December, 2017

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I came into this book knowing only that it was about WWII, and written by Tony Doerr. He used to visit my English department when I was in college at the University of Idaho. I liked The Shell Collector collection of short stories, so I was looking forward to my first novel of his.

He didn’t disappoint, but he also didn’t hit a home run. His writing is strong, evocative if not iconoclastic. Interesting if not engrossing. Easy, but sometimes beautiful too. I read part of it, and audiobooked part of it, and I think I preferred listening to it—a clear indicator for my personal metric that the book lacks a flair for description and dialogue, but doesn’t disappoint at the same time. This seems contradictory, I know. But the book is obviously edited well, as far as the words on the page go, but maybe a little too well. Not everybody can have a writing calling card that sets them apart from the rest, but not everybody needs one. I will not be trying to write like Doerr, but I didn’t feel like the book was a slog to read.

The novel jumps back and forth in time in interesting ways, but I do not plan to emulate his tactic. This narrative time traveling leaves cliff hangers all over the place, allowing the whole to feel much more pulpy than I anticipated. And that’s maybe a good way to put this: it’s a book aimed squarely at a broad base of the reading public. Some others of Doerr’s tactics help drive this point home for me, but the cliffhanger endings, quick chapters, and jumping back and forth point to a desire for readability that might not be my personal favorite cup of tea.

The novel tells the story of a couple of children during WWII, and the adults around them. One is a Nazi soldier, another a blind French girl. The characters engage the reader through their hopes and dreams and experiences, more than their dialogue or personality. They’re tour guides for the personality-filled characters around them. And that’s not a negative, but it’s also not a positive. The problem comes in with the Nazi boy. In an effort to make him sympathetic, he is drowned in tragic and iconoclastic situations: coal mining orphan, smaller than the other boys, picked on because he's almost albino, younger than the other boys, more sensitive than the other boys, a scientific genius, a natural leader of the other orphan children, never kills anybody, steps on a landmine at the end, and on, and on, and on. It’s heavy handed and the single place this book really annoyed. Instead of digging into the character, Doerr just piles more traits on. Instead of going in depth, he paints with a broader and broader brush. Instead of premising his book with, “Germans were people too in WWII,” Doerr trips over himself trying to allow this book to be widely palatable.

The theme revolves around dreams and reality. Both of the main characters are driven by their dreams, but reality keeps getting in the way through tragic means. This distinction never resolves into a clear statement, but the plot implies that reality wins, but dreams have value also. This is a popular sentiment that the book builds well.

So, a short set of notes for a book that lots of people will enjoy. When I finished it, I thought, “What beat this for the Pulitzer that year?” I looked it up: this did win the Pulitzer in 2015. And I think it’s a perfect fit for that prize: it’s tragic and heartwarming, widely readable, and doesn’t challenge too much. I’m happy I read it and have recommended it to friends.

19 November, 2017

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

For Kelly.

1. The structure is the most unusual thing she does here. At all levels, the lens given to the reader looks like milk stirred into coffee. There are these eddies and whirls of time and characters apparent throughout.
—At the macro level, each chapter exists alone, as a short story; yet each contains characters that cross-pollinate the other stories. Most of these stories exist in different time periods—from the 1970s and 1980s to maybe the late 2020s. Egan’s non-chronological arrangement of the text means that at one level, the stories disconnect themselves from each other through being disconnected in time. To aid this tactic, Egan excludes main and supporting characters consistent through every single story, but allows enough cross-pollination that the time jumps drive the disconnection home. So, in general, her whirling tactic works at the macro level though I imagine it would be hard to pick this book up again in the middle, after a couple weeks break from reading it—I would be asking myself, "who is Jules again?" But I wonder why she arranged the chapters the way she did. Is there a thematic or philosophical argument being laid out by this sequence of reading? If so, I think I missed it. Though she does seem to back-end the the book with some of the most poignant stories (Basically, Selling the General through the end, except Goodbye My Love).
—At the micro level, each short story also includes moments outside the narrative, asides that explore the timeline of this or that character. For instance, an unnamed African musician playing music to the safari tourists:
“The warrior smiles at Charlie. He’s nineteen, only five years older than she is, and has lived away from his village since he was ten. But he’s sung for enough American tourists to recognize that in her world, Charlie is a child. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather’s hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight.”
The text promptly forgets this musician. His grandson, Joe, comes back up later, but only in passing. Essentially, this diagram of two lives spun out of the story gives evidence of Egan’s overall tactic in a single paragraph. Her descriptions echo this specific, micro application: at times she spins off into glimpses into the future or the past instead of establishing physical appearances through pseudo-blazon. Does it work? This micro application toes a dangerous line of humor that wouldn’t fit into the feel of the novel, while stepping carefully between over-foreshadowing and being uninformingly tangential. I don’t believe she succeeds in every situation. To subvert a quote from the book, at times it feels like “we’re getting off the subject.” At the same time, I’m bored of blazon-like descriptions serving to set up all characters, and I appreciate her efforts here. (Also, my wife’s comments here were simply that she hates it when authors do these glimpses into characters' pasts or futures, but she doesn’t hate it when Jennifer Egan does it.)
—So, an ensemble novel composed of interlaced short stories arranged non-chronologically. I’m not sure this book would convince anybody new to the concept that a novel of related short stories is worthwhile, but it is a treat for this fan of these types of books (Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson). The trick with these books is that each story needs the strength to stand alone. I find four at least that look weak.
1. A to B seems a sort of connecting story more than its own thing—Forty Minute Lunch would’ve been odd to include without A to B.
2. Goodbye, My Love looks tangential in that I understood more about Sasha in Naples from Out of Body.
3. Ask Me if I Care sets up more than it interests in its own right.
4. X’s and O’s serves the other stories rather than taking control of its own destiny. (Although this is one of my wife’s favorites, so maybe I missed something there.)
So, not every single story works as well as the others, relying on interconnection to pull these four along: in other words, I was only interested in these four stories because of their effect on the others. Whereas a largely unconnected story, Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake, is one of the more poignant moments in the book, but its strength as a stand-alone short story overshadows how it plays into the rest of the novel.
The elderly bird-watching ladies trade a sad smile. Lou is one of those men whose restless charm has generated a contrail of personal upheaval that is practically visible behind him.

2. The writing itself works wonderfully. From that perfectly tone-setting first sentence, “It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel,” through “Time’s a goon”, some fantastic phrases exist in this book.
“How could so much devastation have been silenced?”

“Life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it gravitas and shape.”

“Suicide is a weapon; that we all know. But what about an art?”
These words are a joy to read.
—She shifts between perspectives in stories: first, second, and third person perspectives are all used, and I’m not sure why. A lot of complaints I read about this novel talk about how every post-modern writing trope presents itself here. It’s a fair complaint—people not interested in writing could easily skip this novel. Not all her tactics work as brilliantly as her short, declarative sentences, and her listing sentences. But at least the perspective shifts do help increase the disconnect between the stories and characters. Other than that though, I’m not sure why they’re there.
—My wife’s thoughts about the writing were, “Who wrote this book? Yeah, she’s a good writer.”
Structural Dissatisfaction: Returning to circumstances that once pleased you, having experienced a more thrilling or opulent way of life, and finding that you can no longer tolerate them.

3. However, the writing itself is not the point. Optimistically, the question with these interconnected short story books is whether the characters are deep and complex enough to carry the whole as a novel. Pessimistically, these books function as garbage bins where all the writer’s characters, the ones cut from other works, the half-conceived ones, they gather to let a number of exciting plots carry them along.
—Egan’s characters typically wrinkle themselves through competing desires. Tom desires his wife, but he also fears the power she has over him, so he shuts her out of his life slowly over time. The tragic tale of Rob and Sasha affected me. Bennie puts gold flakes into his coffee to increase his physical sexual potency, but he’s conflicted:
“The world was unquestionably a more peaceful place without the half hard-on that had been his constant companion since the age of thirteen, but did Bennie want to live in such a world?”
In other words, he’s obsessed with sex, mentally, but can’t get it up and is kind of thankful he can’t.
—The flipside of this would be what critics complain about: many of these characters are wrinkled in cliche ways. Whether I believe these cliches exist in life may put down this critique, but the characters don’t all interest me as much as some do. Sasha’s interest lies more in her effect on others than in herself. Drew holds my attention less than Rob. Lou bores me, as does Bosco and Kitty and some of these other celebrity cliches. Jules overshadows his sister Stephanie by far. I have read Stephanie before. I’ve read her written well. Does Egan add anything to the "Stephanie" discussion? No, not really. But does she need to? No, because she uses Stephanie mainly as the foil to illuminate Jules, who is interesting. So, for two reasons I’m not terribly upset by how much these characters seem familiar from fiction: first because these cliches are common to life, second because Egan usually applies the boring ones usefully. But I still wish some of these characters were more interesting.
“I don’t get it, Jules,” Stephanie said. “I don’t get what happened to you.”
Jules stared at the glittering skyline of Lower Manhattan without recognition. “I’m like America,” he said.
Stephanie swung around to look at him, unnerved. “What are you talking about?” she said. “Are you off your meds?”
“Our hands are dirty,” Jules said.

4. The book’s themes speak to longing, desire, mistakes, and interpersonal perspectives—more so than interpersonal relationships. That distinction between interpersonal perspectives and interpersonal relationships is founded on the longings, desires, and mistakes of the characters, keeping a tight, consistent theme throughout. Yes, Egan touches on suicide, sexual violence, lust, love, death, childhood, loss of innocence, aging, war, and most of the other major writing themes, but the book focuses on that perspective-relationship distinction.
—Clearly, Egan states that relationships are better than perspectives. Lou has a perspective on all women and how they relate to him, and this keeps him from forming any meaningful relationships. Jules' frustrated search for a relationship leads to rationalizing sexual violence. Sasha’s potentially happy relationship with Rob is ruined by her perspective of her father and Rob becomes yet another missed opportunity for her. But Egan also uses positive examples to reinforce her value judgment. Lulu and Joe are shown as good characters full of promise, and they have what appears to be a solid relationship. Drew and Allison form a deep bond and their tale ends on a positive note, despite the world turning bad around them. When Stephanie gets past her perspective of her tennis partner, she finds an unexpectedly rewarding relationship. I found this distinction between perspective and relationship to be the main theme here—reinforced heavily by the last story in the book.
You make a clumsy leap, your body crashing onto the water, your knee hitting something hard under the surface. The cold locks in around you, knocking out your breath. You swim crazily to get away from the garbage, which you picture underneath, rusty hooks and claws reaching up to slash your genitals and feet. Your knee aches from whatever it hit.

5. In closing, the potential for a pretentious book exists here. But Egan pulls a lot of it off. I’m not watering at the mouth until I buy my next Egan book, but her writing is above average in quality, her characters are mostly used to their strengths, and the structure intrigues me.
Like all failed experiments, that one taught me something I didn’t expect: one key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out. And I, like a scientist unwittingly inhaling toxic fumes from the beaker I was boiling in my lab, had, through sheer physical proximity, been infected by that same delusion and in my drugged state had come to believe I was Excluded: condemned to stand shivering outside the public library at Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street forever and always, imagining the splendors within.

26 October, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

0. I’m interested in looking at this book for this book’s sake: not in discussing what became of these characters and this story later when Ridley Scott touched it. This is my second read, though the first was so long ago that I hardly remembered anything about the book.

1. The central theme here is pretty clear: what is human? Coming out in 1968, the same year as the Civil Rights Act of 1968—the Fair Housing Act—the metaphor here is pretty clear. And it’s not just context. The whole book deals with questions of what is human when Androids—bio-robotic beings created by humans in a human shape that largely act like humans—are considered subhuman. The culture has devised certain tests to differentiate between human and Android: two branches of testing mentioned in the book deal with reaction speeds and empathy. The former test relies on a limit of biotechnology in the world. But when Rachael is giving her villain interview in the car, she mentions that the company making androids, Rosen, will solve that issue. The main test discussed is the empathy one and the main character, Rick Deckard, is a bounty hunter trained to administer this test and retire/kill the fugitive Androids who have fled Mars for Earth. The empathy test mimics the classic security conundrum: a test detects Androids reliably enough to be used as evidence in a court of law, so the Android makers learn about the test, and design the next versions to pass it as humans, so the test is then modified to catch the new types, and so on. Dick’s conclusion seems to be,
Rachael said, "Or we could live in sin, except that I’m not alive."

"Legally you’re not. But really you are. Biologically. You’re not made out of transistorized circuits like a false animal; you’re an organic entity." And in two years, he thought, you’ll wear out and die. Because we never solved the problem of cell replacement, as you pointed out. So I guess it doesn’t matter anyhow.
—But part of the reason why this book is so engaging intellectually is that neither side, human or Android, gets a free pass. Dick shows both at their best and their worst, giving screen time to both sides so that the reader gets a complex conception of the central circumstance. And this writing tactic is something I strive to emulate.
"Do you have information that there's an android in the cast? I'd be glad to help you, and if I were an android would I be glad to help you?"

"An android," he said, "doesn't care what happens to another android. That's one of the indications we look for."

"Then," Miss Luft said, "you must be an android."

2. The main way he wrinkles this central question comes from the specifics of the characters. Deckard isn’t a hero. He bests the other bounty hunters, in retirements/kills per hour, but that success tears him up inside through the central questions of the novel: spirituality, empathy, what makes humans human, and where Androids fit on a human spectrum. These conflicts carry the novel crashing forwards.
—Similarly, Rachael Rosen and the Batys question their states from the Android side. When humans can rationally dial their emotional outlook on a machine, and Androids can emulate the emotional tenor of opera, that emulation of humans annoys the Android characters. In a sense, they want to be allowed to be Androids, but they also know too well the ways they can’t be human, and want that too.
"I’ll tell you what fouls us up, Roy; it’s our goddamn superior intelligence!" She glared at her husband, her small, high breasts rising and falling rapidly. "We’re so smart—Roy, you’re doing it right now; goddamn you, you’re doing it now!"
This scene plays against numerous scenes between Deckard and his wife. It also shows that internal conflicts exist in the Androids themselves, despite being hyper-rational beings at the end of the day.
—This character building relies on Dick telling and showing Deckard, telling his thinking and showing the results of his mental processes; all while just showing the reader the Androids. The novel is a book about Deckard, through and through, yet his central conflicts constitute an interesting enough concept to carry the whole thing successfully. And Dick supports his theme with showing the Androids enough to bring contrasting viewpoints into the reader’s mind directly, rather than solely by implication.
Reality is approximately as dependable as a politician’s promise... the result is the same: Reality, of the capital "R" variety, has become as relative a thing as the dryness of our respective Martinis. Yet the struggle goes on, the fight continues. Against what? Ultimately, Powers, Principalities, Thrones, and Dominations, often contained in hosts who are themselves victims, prisoners, manipulated men and women.

3. At the same time that he has written great characters and focused in on an intriguing theme, Dick also seems maybe a bit too focused on that theme. If an effect of strong worldbuilding is the desire to know more about that world, the flipside is dissatisfaction with what is known. There are all these tantalizing glimpses of the wider world that get passed over to focus on the internal conflict of Deckard: World War Terminus, the architectural implications of a vastly depleted earth population, Mars colonies, why nobody is Jurassic Park-ing extinct animals when they have good enough genetic engineering to make credible humans, what’s really going on between the pair of married or sibling Androids who call themselves Batys. The first two of these may be aspects that Dick doesn’t want to get into—his rigid focus is in the way. But the Mars Colonies are teased so often and tantalizingly—in the TV ad, the words of the Batys and Pris, offhand remarks here and there—that the inclusion of more description or their presence on the page could have been a fantastic opportunity to further contextualize and wrinkle this central theme. Similarly, why Rosen isn’t using DNA to clone extinct animals appears a curious plot hole. And the Baty relationship is a dropped ball: Dick sets it up to be a discussion of potential Android empathy, between Androids rather than between an Android and an animal or human. Yet he drops that ball in order to focus on Deckard. While I appreciate the legibility the focus gives to the central theme, some missed opportunities beg for some more discussion in the book.
"You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe."

4. As to the writing, it doesn’t annoy me. The language never quite gets beautiful, but it communicates well. As Dick is focused on the theme, the writing itself exists to communicate that theme as efficiently as possible. And it does. When Deckard has his breakdown and is wandering in the wilderness, the language is esoteric and paradoxical. When he is killing Androids, it’s all short, declarative sentences with no room for any gray area or reader interpretation. And the rest of the writing oscillates between these two extremes as Deckard’s mental state changes. It’s a cool trick, but it’s not pulled off quite like Robert Heinlein lets his characters run away with his novels. With Heinlein, the characters are so different from novel to novel that the voice of his books changes drastically. With Dick, the voice here is pretty similar to what he did with Ubik. I wrote about that book, "The writing is fine. Nothing spectacular, nothing terrible. It’s a uniform quality, which is impressive, but doesn’t really sound beautiful or disappoint. It’s good, and that’s about as far as I can go." I think that applies to this novel as well. However, here he has more great one-liners that tap into the consciousness of American marketing strategies:
"Emigrate or Degenerate."

"My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression."

"It's the basic condition of life to be required to violate our own identity."

"Everything is true," he said. "Everything anybody has ever thought."

"It's the basic condition of life to be required to violate our own identity."

"The writers," Pris said, "made it up."

You can't go from people to nonpeople.

Office gossip annoyed him because it always proved better than the truth.
These one-liners are great. They certainly help to keep the text moving along nicely and codify certain traits Dick is discussing.
—Dick uses them for offhand humor as well, and I’m left kind of wondering how sarcastic this novel is. For instance, Isidore’s line, "She’ll probably want to, once I show her how; as near as I can make out, most women, even young ones like her, like to cook: it’s an instinct." Or lines like, "I like her; I could watch her the rest of my life. She has breasts that smile," help define characters through showing, but are also pretty awkward to read in today’s world. How sarcastic was Dick being with this text? I think there is some sarcasm in here, some lampooning of the "sexual revolution" for being to the benefit of men by encouraging women to give more of their physical selves for less. Is that too Marxist of an interpretation for Dick? Maybe. But at the same time, the Deckards’ marriage, Isidore’s internal monologue—this book has certain moments that don’t really make sense without Dick putting some sarcasm in there. I probably need to know more about Dick to tell when he’s being sarcastic and when not.
"Is it a loss?" Rachael repeated. "I don’t really know; I have no way to tell. How does it feel to have a child? How does it feel to be born, for that matter? We’re not born; we don’t grow up; instead of dying from illness or old age, we wear out like ants. Ants again; that’s what we are. Not you; I mean me. Chitinous reflex-machines who aren’t really alive." She twisted her head to one side, said loudly, "I’m not alive!"

5. The structure here is my second favorite thing about the novel. On one hand, this is a pretty traditional structure: start with the character waking up, then going to work, then the task of the day spinning out of control until he’s sexing the enemy, finishing his task, and weeping alone in a desert of nuclear wasteland, hallucinating hard—and close novel. But the focus of the novel is the theme, not the sexy action plot. So, there are weird expansions within that pulp plot in sections where the theme takes over: the sex scene is pretty awkward and philosophical and long—intentionally—because it exhumes much of what is deep within Deckard. The ending doesn’t happen when the last Android falls, but rather after a bunch more pages of Deckard trying to come to terms with his place in the world and his views on Androids, spirituality, and the animal kingdom. So the structure is not a strict pulp plot, but rather a thinky book plot with a pulp plot inside it to help frame and drive the thinky bits. Great technique! As I bore of action, or every enemy is dead, a thinky bit appears; as I bore of contemplation, or it reaches a natural stopping point, a gunfight happens. Each pulls the other forward. It’s great pacing and feels honest to the lifestyle of a bounty hunter.
"At that moment, when I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn't feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don't. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it 'absence of appropriate affect.' So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair. So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that's a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who's smart has emigrated, don't you think?"

6. In all, I love this book, but it’s not my favorite. A couple of faults: the twin plots sometimes combine awkwardly in intentional ways—Deckard having sex with Rachael—and sometimes in ways that seem unintentional—Isidore is forgotten without really having enough flesh to contribute much; while the focus is maybe a little too tightly held.
—Yet, what I’m left with is not annoyance at these faults. What I’m left with is a full and entertained brain. The theme and characters are memorable, the structure strikes a nice balance between pulp and contemplation, the one-liners are endlessly quotable. It’s a good book, but not great.
—Like all books, Dick has to exclude some things in order to get his point across and finish the task of writing it. I may have made a couple of different decisions than what Dick did, but there’s no questions that Dick’s decisions worked out in the end. This is a book many people have read, but they’ve mostly read it in relation to Ridley Scott’s film. After approaching it as itself, some years after reading it for the first time, I found I appreciated this novel a ton. I hope more people will read it. After all, "Humans need more empathy." (Yet another great one-liner.) It’s a book I’ll read again and reference throughout my life. But hey, not every book is perfect: it’s just that the faults here speak to me personally.