Archive for the 'Books' Category

His Dark Materials

Finished Philip Pullman’s trilogy a couple of nights ago.

Wow.

Just… wow.

On the anti-religious aspect of it – it does come down pretty hard on religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in places. I can see where the controversy comes from. Haven’t seen the movie (and not sure whether I will), but I’ve heard that the religious aspect is heavily toned down; having said that, I can see how you could take the stabs at religion out of the first book and still keep the story intact. If they go on and film The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep it out.

But, on the… fifth hand, it is fiction. And the weird thing is that it reads more like a Christian heresy than an atheist polemic. I don’t think a Christian would ever have written anything like it; but it is set in a universe where Christianity is much closer to the truth, in some ways, than it is in reality (from an atheist perspective).

Anyway, read it. All of you.

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God’s Debris

I have a vague recollection of hearing about God’s Debris some time ago, but I only found out a couple of days ago that Scott Adams makes it available as a free download. I recommend reading it in one sitting – it only takes a few hours. Big print, you see.

Scott Adams is one of those people who is willing to say absurd things on the basis that the attempt to drag it back to reality will either show you something about that reality, or lead somewhere completely unexpected. That sounds like a total pre-packaged blurb but I mean every word of it. People who are willing to entertain ridiculous ideas are, I think, far more likely to discover bits of truth along the way, often in places completely unrelated to the original idea. (Is it consistent for me to say that, and still be an atheist? You be the judge.)

God’s Debris is a self-described “thought experiment wrapped in a fictional story”. It’s a fairly liberal collection of the following: things that I agree with completely; things that are demonstrably untrue (only a couple of them); things that are untrue but require some intriguing mental work to unravel to see exactly why they’re untrue (many more of these); and things that he obviously pulled out of his arse, but would be very cool if they were true. There might be another category, something along the lines of “things that are true from a certain perspective, where the perspective may or may not have any bearing on reality”. Adams challenges the reader in the introduction to, essentially, distinguish between these categories. I’m not sure yet whether trying to do so would miss the point. Ack, my brain hurts.

Does anyone know whether Scott Adams is any relation to Douglas Adams? They seem to have a lot of thought patterns in common. (That being, as we all know, the clearest indicator of physical relatedness. Not.)

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Angels and Demons

With The Da Vinci Code opening this Thursday, I thought it was finally time to get around to reading Angels and Demons last weekend. Here is my quick review – it’s light on details because I wanted to keep it relatively spoiler-free.

To call Dan Brown formulaic is along the lines of calling Michael Moore partisan. It’s annoying at first until you realise that it’s so blatant that he could only be doing it on purpose. Once you accept that, you sort of strap in and enjoy the ride.

So yes, Angels and Demons is formulaic. At a whole-book level, it has virtually the same plot as The Da Vinci Code. (To be accurate, the former was written first.) At a lower level, both books read like a series of episodes, each of which gives Robert Langdon a short amount of time to solve a puzzle, which he does, but with one small flaw that he will realise at the very last moment. This is even more obvious in Angels and Demons because for the bulk of the book, all of the puzzles are the same.

This sounds like it should be very boring. But it’s not even remotely boring to read. Instead, it has an effect something like a tune with a chorus, that there’s something familiar to return to; and it makes every twist stand out more against the predictable background. It gives the book a sort of comfortable structure and flow. And when the episodes end and you’re still a good chunk of paper away from the end of the book, it leaves you wondering what to expect.

It’s hard to say more of this without spoilers, so I’ll move on to something that did annoy me. I had a very hard time keeping suspension of disbelief, particularly through the early part of the book. Partially it was to do with Brown’s treatment of particle physics and science in general. Both books liberally mix fact with fiction when it comes to Christian history and conspiracy theories, which is fine, because the subject is fairly obscure, in some places deliberately obscured, and quite subjective, which leaves a lot of room for Brown to pull supposed “facts” out of his butt. But this doesn’t work nearly as well for modern science, and he did a pretty unrealistic job with it.

To some degree you can forgive him for this – it’s a tall ask to portray particle physics in a way that doesn’t go over the heads of the popular audience, but is still realistic, and then add a new discovery to it that consistent with known facts, but is not already discovered. (There are any number of stories where some idea that’s obvious to anyone in the field is passed off as a new breakthrough. Good Will Hunting comes to mind.) The problem with this in Angels and Demons isn’t necessarily that he does it unrealistically, but that he tries to do it at all. It’s obviously not his strong point, and the finer details of it aren’t really critical to the plot. It may have been a better book if, like The Da Vinci Code, it stuck to the Catholic conspiracies.

There are other places in the book where you can’t help but fall out of the world of the story and say “I don’t believe this”. It’s frustrating to be repeatedly told that ambigrams couldn’t be reproduced by even the most sophisticated modern techniques, when there are obviously fictional examples sitting right there on the page in front of you. Another example is the Papal election – unfortunately Dan Brown was 14 the last time a Pope died, so he was writing from ignorance when he described the election as a media non-event in the modern day. Reading it a year after the media-saturated death of John Paul II and election of Benedict XVI in 2005, you can’t help but feel that Brown forgot how many Catholics there really are in the world.

The pace did pick up in the later parts of the book, as he focused on his strengths and really got into the swing of the story. Unfortunately (and without spoiler details), he may have gone a little too far towards the James Bond end of the spectrum with near-death escapes towards the end. I always felt nervous about the fate of the characters, but towards the end I realised that it wasn’t because I was worried they wouldn’t survive – instead, I was worried that their survival wouldn’t be explained to my satisfaction. I was more concerned about the fate of the plot than the fate of the characters. This is not a good sign.

Still, I devoured Angels and Demons. You can forgive Brown for exploiting the semi-factual religious conspiracy formula a bit, because it does work. In fact, it could well have been better without the attempts to move outside that formula – in which case, it could easily be treated as an experimental first draft of The Da Vinci Code.

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