Book Reviews

Book Review: The Great Transition, by Bruce M.S. Campbell

“Sweeping claims which assert the primacy of one agency or set of relationships over all others will never wash with historians, who are acutely aware that the devil is always in the details.”
-The Great Transition, by Bruce M.S. Campbell (not the actor)

I think Campbell is a little optimistic here- there are definitely plenty of historians who fail this test. (Nationalist historians, most often.) Nonetheless, when dealing with not just history, but with any social science, it is important to weigh any claims against this standard. There are, simply speaking, so few times when we can trace the causes of an event or situation back to a single origin. It’s always far more complex than that.

The Great Transition is an in depth analysis of the later Medieval period centered on the 1300s- that period of massive change that included the Great Famine, the Black Death, the collapse of the Mongolian Empire and its associated land trade routes, the collapse of the European Truce of God that had been reducing warfare in Europe, the end of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (centuries of pleasant, kindly climate) and the beginning of the Wolf Solar minimum and the Little Ice Age, etc, etc. Basically, this time period was one of the most eventful, and important, in human history.


Book Recommendations: Language over Culture

I love recommending books to people, so I figured I might start doing it here in the form of curated lists- a group of recommendations all revolving around a central theme. This week we’re going on a linguistic tangent.

Shakespeare in the Bush, by Laura Bohannon
Nonfiction Essay

This short essay shouldn’t take too long to read. It’s one of the classic texts of cultural misunderstanding. The author, anthropologist Laura Bohannon, attempts to tell the story of Hamlet to an audience of Tiv tribesmen in Africa, only to have them interpret the story in an unusual way.

220px-languages_of_paoThe Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance
Science Fiction

This is the classic linguistic science fiction novel. It was first published in 1957 in Satellite magazine, followed by an expanded novel version in 1958. The Languages of Pao is based in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis– the idea that the structure of a language affects the speakers’ culture, perception of the world, and even mode of thought. Jack Vance takes it one step farther, however, and postulates social engineering via language. The planet Pao is a heavily populated agrarian backwater. Its ruler, the Panarch, decides to try to reform the population by hiring outside consultants to craft new languages- a warrior language, a scientific (more…)

Star Trek Beyond and Trekonomics Reviews

Last week was a bit Star Trek themed for me- caught the new Star Trek film and read a book on the economics of Star Trek. Seems like pretty good material for a double header review, so without further ado…


Trekonomics- The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia

The last few economics texts I’ve read have been fairly high level- Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and the like- so I may have gone into this one expecting something a bit more challenging than it actually was. Trekonomics read something like a crossbreed of sophmore level economics and science fiction critical theory- not a bad thing at all, just not what I was expecting. Overall, it was a quick and interesting read, but not hugely novel- except for the conclusion. Saadia’s conclusion actively encouraged the development of a Trek-like post scarcity economy, sans the space travel. In fact, he quite pointedly came out and described space travel as a distraction and a monetary sinkhole, as well as a moral surrender to the problems we face on Earth. A wee bit bizarre.

star-trek-beyond-poster-usStar Trek Beyond

Holy. Freaking. Crap.

I’ve got to give it another watch to be sure, but this might be one of my absolute favorite Trek movies. I’d seriously put it at #4. (My #1 is The Undiscovered Country, followed by Wrath of Khan and First Contact.) I was in no means expecting to love it this much.

I enjoyed the J.J. Abrams Treks, but I didn’t love them- they just didn’t FEEL like Star Trek. Some indefinable ingredient was missing- plus, Abrams is pretty bleh at understanding how big space is. Star Trek Beyond captures that ingredient again- I felt that glee that little kid me once had during every episode and movie of Star Trek again, and damn did it feel good. It also brought back some of the fundamental cheesiness of the franchise- the last two movies just tried way to hard for seriousness, and that’s no fun.

Not to mention that the movie itself was absolutely gorgeous- all the new Trek films have been, but this takes it to an entirely new level. The fight scenes were astonishingly kinetic, the scenery was epic in scale, and Yorktown- don’t even get me started on Yorktown. So cool.

Weekly Reading List 3/29/15-4/4/15

Hey, a non- Hugo related post!

Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One-

Audiobook, science fiction

This audiobook thing is getting to be problematic for me. I listened to all of Ready Player One in a few days- that’s twenty hours that would normally be dedicated towards reading for me, instead applied towards an audiobook. I really like audiobooks, but this is taking my total reading done to unusually low levels of books. Other than this, I only finished a short story and a graphic novel, though I did do close to a whole additional book’s worth of reading between a Borges collection and two nonfiction books. (I’m being all fancy.)

Anyhow, as far as Ready Player One goes: it was, simply speaking, one of the best novels I’ve read/listened to in quite a while. Definitely blows most of the YA out there out of the water. Wil Wheaton’s narration was also excellent. I’d assumed he’d been chosen to fit the theme of the book, especially since he was actually a very minor character in it, but his narration was excellent.

Brandon Sanderson’s Perfect State-

Short story, science fiction

One of Sanderson’s rare excursions into science fiction. It was reasonably enjoyable, and definitely a bit more risque in some ways than many Sanderson works. (Which seldom tend to be risque in the slightest.) It was fairly good, but ultimately felt entirely too short. As far as his science fiction goes, I’d say I prefer the Legion novellas.

Warren Ellis’ Trees Volume 1-

I always forget exactly how much I love Warren Ellis’ writing. For some reason he just tends to slip to the back of my mind when I’m not actually near something he’s written, yet he’s one of the best comics writers out there. Trees, despite nominally being about the invasion of massive alien structures that have been planted on Earth, then proceeded to sit there, completely unmoving, is really more about the people around them. Despite comics’ love of ensemble casts, they seldom actually flesh out the characters to the degree necessary to really earn a reader’s involvement with the cast. I blame the Justice League and the Avengers- when there is a massive super hero teamup book, the majority of the characters will already have had their own series, have visited other series, etcetera. People already have that attachment to the characters. So many comics writers, however, just think they can replicate that from the get go, and so few actually accomplish it. Warren Ellis does that here, partially thanks to the cast being split up into different locations from the get go, and partially because he’s just that good at what he does. This one is going straight in my pull.

Weekly Reading List 3/15/15- 3/29/15


I didn’t get a lot of reading done over the past couple of weeks, thanks to houseguests and audiobooks.

Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades

Audiobook, Fantasy

I resisted reading The Emperor’s Blades for the longest time, despite the legions of rave reviews. Why? Because that is a TERRIBLE fantasy title. Blergh. Of course, I read fantasy titles with worse names all the time, so… who knows. Anyhow, I absolutely loved it. It draws much more heavily from Asian history and culture than the usual generic pseudo-European fantasy land, has characters that I actually care about, and is extremely grim without being grimdark. Also, I listened to it on audiobook. That’s the real reason I didn’t get more reading done- I spent about 40 hours over the last couple of weeks listening to The Emperor’s Blades and its sequel, The Providence of Fire. Honestly, that alone puts me at well above average total reading time, especially since most of the rest of the books are Lawrence Watt Evans novels, which don’t take me very long to digest. Anyhow- fantastic book, definitely worth the read. Or listen. Simon Vance does a fantastic job with the performance- one of the best I’ve heard so far, which is admittedly relatively few.

Randall Munroe’s What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Nonfiction, Humor

This book is absolutely amazing. Randall Munroe, the creator of XKCD, has really outdone himself here. While some of the questions presented in the book are ones that were already on his blog of the same name, many of them are new ones just for this book. In this book, you can find out: What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity? If my printer could literally print out money, would it have that big an effect on the world? How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean? How would the Earth change as the water was being drained? How high can a human throw something? How much physical space does the Internet take up? What would happen if you were to gather a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry critter) in one place?