book review: the last man

I’m not gonna lie to you Marge; it took me a long time to get through Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. It was eventually interesting in what it did, but was remarkably tedious in getting there.

The book, written in 1826, was set in the end of the twenty-first century, but as far as fiction about the future goes, it’s pretty unimaginative. Everything is exactly like the early 19th century except England is considering becoming a republic, and there is an airship. The wars between the Turks and Greeks are fought with cavalry charges and there are loads of peasants who know their place and yeah. It would be difficult to get to that future from our present, but it was kind of fun to speculate about as a distraction during the first half of the book (which needs distraction). The frame I put into it is that the reason everything feels like 1830 in the year 2070 is because of some sort of unmentioned apocalypse which happened in the 2010s and been forgotten by the time the novel begins.

In that first half of the book we follow our protagonist and his boon companions through political intrigues about who shall become the lord protector of England and who shall engage in stupid idiot romance plot shenanigans to cause drama. I hated the first half of the book so much. A big plot point is that one character does something that could be taken the wrong way but because he keeps secrets it looks worse and then no one will talk about anything and then he goes off to war to die because his wife didn’t trust him enough when he was being an asshole. It was the kind of scenario that requires one sentence of communication to resolve but everyone is too puppeted by the author to say it. Terrible shit. Though this was the Romantic period so what did I think was going to happen?

Anyway. Halfway through the book the world is struck by a deadly plague and then it turns into a kind of slow post-apocalyptic story that I could get behind. People just die and die and die. You get inured to it. The plague comes from Asia and wipes out the entire human race in something like 8 years (and 200 pages). There’s lots of whining and moping about it (granted, everyone is dying so it’s a bit justified) and heroism and terrible religious groups sprouting up and general awfulness. It’s all a bit melodramatic, but what can you do?

It takes till the last 15 pages or so before the narrator actually is the last man on earth, so if you’re looking for a 19th century I Am Legend, this isn’t it. But if you read it as a cyclical story of the death of a world and arising of another it’s kind of neat. The ending is pretty optimistic for the entire human race but one being dead.

de-rm your ebooks with calibre

I’m not a computer programmer or anything like that. I mean, I’m pretty okay with my html and css and don’t get scared by sql queries, but actually writing programs or plugins or the like is beyond me. So I was very happy to find this blog post with the tools and explanation of how to use them for stripping the DRM off purchased ebooks.

I’ve been using an ereader for over half a year now and I like it, but I’ve only been able to fill it from places like ManyBooks (which is an awesome site for free ebooks in a multiplicity of formats) because I want to be able to move my ebooks around from ereader to ereader after I spend money on them. But Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Chapters and Sony all want you to be locked in to keep on buying their ereaders, so they make their books unusable on the other companies’ devices. Which is bullshit.

Until I read that post above, I knew it would be possible to strip the DRM off and free up the things I bought, but didn’t know how. The best part of those tools is that they’re plugins for the opensource ebook manager I was already using, Calibre. So now I can buy books for my Sony reader at Amazon and they’ll work. I’ll be able to buy current fiction instead of reading Shelley, Verne and Lovecraft. In fact, I already have.

Sadly enough this means an iPad (or iPad2) is now not as out of the question a device for me as it used to be. I’ll be strong and resist. It’s not like I have the money to throw at such a device anyway.

book review: the age of wonder

One of my best friends, who is a historian not a scientist, gave me Richard Holmes’ book The Age of Wonder for being an unofficial bridesmaid at her wedding last summer. It took a while for it to follow me to my new home and longer for me to read, but I loved it. Thanks.

The book is about the development of science at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th. This is the time of Romanticism, between Newton and Darwin. When ballomania was taking hold of Europe and chemistry was emerging from alchemy’s shadow. I didn’t know much about this time, and after reading this book I feel like that’s a bit of a shame. We don’t really learn the history of science, or the personalities involved. Holmes talks a bit about the problems that brings in his epilogue:

The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps, we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. 

He did a great job of making the stories of all of this accessible and fascinating, showing the personalities involved without too much judgment, and championing the neglected people, like astronomer William Herschel’s poor sister Caroline who was his assistant for decades, discovered a pile of comets, and eventually retired back to Germany where she corresponded with her nephew while he mapped out the skies of the southern hemisphere.

It was all a time of adventure and discovery. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, based on these scientists she’d met and Mungo Park went to Africa looking for Timbuktoo twice (he didn’t come back the second time). I don’t know, I kind of loved this book. It reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (consisting of Quicksilver, The System of the World and The Confusion) which was similarly about science and exploration and the adventure of it all, but set a generation or two earlier.

Finally, my girlfriend enjoys falling asleep to my retelling of these tales of safety lamps and stargazing which seems like it might be important some day.

book review: incandescence

I took a break from reading a Mary Shelley book because I needed something with a little less overwroughtness, and Greg Egan’s Incandescence was exactly the right thing to read. It’s about travel and about the joy of doing science.

See, there’s a rock. Inside this rock live a planet’s worth of creatures. They’re sort of collective-minded, gaining satisfaction from conservatively working together in teams. Their world is vaguely known to be a fragment of some larger world in the past but who the fuck knows? They know nothing about the wider universe. The majority of the novel is about these creatures developing the spark of curiosity to develop the geometry needed to save their world.

There’s another line of the story as well, which is about some galactic citizens learning about these aliens. This is where more of the Travel aspects come in, and also how the reader gets a bit of perspective on how fucking weird the place those aliens live is.

In all, this was the kind of science fiction story that seems really pure or something. It’s so about science. Greg Egan disdains people who dismiss it as impenetrable as being to chicken to read a novel with a notebook and pencil to work things out.

This leaves me wondering if they’ve really never encountered a book before that benefits from being read with a pad of paper and a pen beside it, or whether they’re just so hung up on the idea that only non-fiction should be accompanied by note-taking and diagram-scribbling that it never even occurred to them to do this. I realise that some people do much of their reading with one hand on a strap in a crowded bus or train carriage, but books simply don’t come with a guarantee that they can be properly enjoyed under such conditions. – Greg Egan “Anatomy of a Hatchet Job

I read most of the book on a plane without taking notes, but still enjoyed it (enjoyed it less than I did Diaspora, but still). A great book of ideas.