What I’ve been reading lately, part 1

It occurred to me recently that, since my Kindle lists books in the order of how recently I’ve had them open, the first few pages of its index are a useful reverse-chronological order record of what I’ve recently read (at least, once I discard the entries for books that I’ve not yet finished).


Years ago, I used to keep a record of what books I’d read; I’m not sure why I stopped doing it, but I kind of regret it. Now that I have a record of my more recent reads, I thought it might be interesting to say a few words about each book. So here’s what I’ve read since I bought my new Kindle on 28 August (having had my old one stepped on).

Metamorphosis — Franz Kafka

A very well known short story about a salesman who wakes up one morning to find that he has transformed into a giant insect. I read this years ago, and it’s pretty much as I remember it. What’s striking is how mundane everything seems. No one, least of all Gregor himself, seems very shocked by what has happened — just embarrassed and inconvenienced. Almost nothing actually happens. Gregor’s family are, in the end, more relieved than saddened when he dies of an infection. Strangely haunting.
[amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

The Rest of the Robots — Isaac Asimov

The second volume of Isaac Asimov’s collected robot short stories (the first being I, Robot, which I read last year). Several of these stories are interesting, though they’re less consistent in tone than the first volume — surprisingly, since that first volume had to do all the work of laying down the ground-rules (including the Three Laws) and figuring out what kind of stories they were going to be.

As so often when I read Asimov (which I’ve done a lot lately), I am reminded of Douglas Adams’ observation, “The ideas are captivating, but the writing! I wouldn’t employ him to write junk mail!” That’s harsh but fair. Still, the bottom line is that these stories set the foundations for everything we take for granted about robots in sci-fi.
[amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

Foundation — Isaac Asimov

And here’s the first book in the trilogy which Adams was referring to. Well: we think of “the Foundation trilogy” now, but it started out as an occasional series of eight short stories, which were subsequently collected in three volumes. I loved this as a teenager, but returning to it thirty years later I was amazed how little I remembered of it. Almost every plot twist throughout the trilogy took me by surprise.

But what I did remember was the names: all of them so resonant. Hari Seldon, Salvor Hardin, Hober Mallow, Bel Riose, Bayta Darell, Ebling Mis, Preem Palver, Harla Branno … they just keep coming. It’s strange now to look back and think that Asimov’s greatest narrative gift, aside from the actual ideas, was character names.

There’s something invigorating about the sheer pace of these stories — how they establish a character, tell what feels like the first of many stories about him, then immediately move on, skipping maybe a hundred years or so, to new characters living long after the death of the one we just got to know. It feels like history rather than narrative. Like a poorly written Silmarillion, if you will.

There are various ways in which the Foundation series has not aged well: unavoidably, they reflect the attitudes and culture of the 1940s and 50s, when Asimov wrote them, far more than they do the supposed culture of a galactic empire 20,000 years into the future. Among the most jarring of these is that the Foundation’s first task is to build a gigantic Encyclopaedia Of Everything — evidently they’d forgotten about Wikipedia. But perhaps more disturbing is the complete lack of any female characters whatsoever in this first volume — a deficiency that gets remedied only in the later stages of Foundation and Empire (see below).
[amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

Foundation and Empire — Isaac Asimov

The second book in the Foundation trilogy. Same comments apply as for the first, although the ending is cleverer and more satisfying.
[amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

Free Software, Free Society — Richard Stallman

A fascinating, if somewhat repetitive, series of essays by the most important single person in the history of computer programming. Yes, I am convinced that this will be the verdict of history. Not only a brilliant programmer, Stallman’s incisive vision of freedom in the computer age underlies absolutely all the free software we enjoy today, including things like the operating systems for our phones. His insistence on freedom above convenience can be infuriating and alienating — but in the end, he’s right. If we’re to retain our freedoms it will be by deliberately fighting for them. And the GNU GPL, which Stallman invented, is by far the most powerful weapon we have in that fight.

It’s true that Stallman is not always the most prepossessing individual. There are plenty of people who dislike him, some for better and some for worse reasons. But in the end, he gave us the foundation that Linus Torvalds and other built on. (“Making Linux GPL’d was definitely the best thing I ever did”, says Torvalds.)

As a writer, he is very clear and precise at the cost of being somewhat pedantic. A selection of, say, the best 40% of the essays in this book would be dynamite. But by trying to be comprehensive, the editors have given us a collection with a lot of overlap between essays, and that makes it a less enjoyable read. If I were reading it again, I might just read the first two or three chapters in each section. (Actually, I wouldn’t do that, because I’m wired to be a completist; but it’s what I’d recommend someone else to do.)
[amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

The Kraken Wakes — John Wyndham

I loved John Wyndham’s sci-fi novels when I first read them in my teens, and I think they stand up pretty well today. I re-read his best-known book, The Day of the Triffids, a few months ago, and it still felt taut, reasonable, and well constructed. Much the same is true of The Kraken Wakes, an oddly titled book about a slow alien invasion by a species who we never see, landing their ships in the sea and gradually increasing their hostility with the series of attacks on our land-based civilisation.

What works best about The Kraken Wakes is the sense that the world is first oblivious, then sceptical, then finally indifferent, to the threat posed by the aliens. Everywhere, it’s business as usual. When the deeper parts of the oceans become too dangerous for ships to navigate, the big deal is not the appearance of something new to science and potentially devastating to civilisation — it’s the inconvenience of having to re-route freight ships, and the consequent reduction in shipping-company profits.

Where both this book and Triffids fail is Wyndham’s aversion to writing endings. In both cases, the books just sort of stop, with the barest sop offered to the prospect of an off-screen resolution. It’s disappointing: I wish he’d done the work to finish properly. Still, there’s a lot to like and admire about these books, and I plan to continue my slow trawl through Wyndham’s catalogue.
[amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

Artemis Fowl — Eoin Colfer

I read this because my youngest son is absolutely devouring the Artemis Fowl series, much a he did with Harry Potter and then Percy Jackson. I’m not sure what to make of this. The titular hero is established as a Bad Guy, an unashamed criminal, and the people who he gets into conflict with are drawn just as sympathetically as Artemis himself. (Side-question: why the heck is a male lead character named after a Greek goddess? It’s never even mentioned in the book, let alone explained.)

I would classify this for now as a fun but unsatisfying read. I’ll read the second book in the series, but I don’t expect to get hooked in the way that Harry Potter hooked me.

As a general rule, I am inclined to like kids’ books. I like it that, when writing for children, authors know they have to get to the point. They can’t witter on aimlessly for fifty pages talking about side-issues or investigating the angst felt by a minor character, they have to tell an actual story. That requires discipline and craftsmanship, and I fear that often books written for adults are not so much deeper than kids books as they are just more self-indulgent and less focussed. As a general rule (obviously with exceptions) if your writing can’t hold the attention of a bright twelve-year-old, you need to consider whether you’re doing it wrong.

But the best kids’ books (and I’ll discuss a couple next time) have a multiple-levels quality about them, and a hard-eyed way of seeing the world, and often a touch of melancholy. All that is missing from Artemis Fowl. I’m not convinced that kids will still be reading it in fifty or a hundred years.
[amazon.com, amazon.co.uk]

[Read on to part 2]

12 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 1

  1. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is very good, and has an ending.

  2. Interesting thoughts about Asimov… I’ve been going through some of Philip K Dick’s work recently and his writing style really gets on my nerves sometimes. His ideas, too.

  3. Wait, Andrei — Dick’s ideas get on your nerves? Because I think he may have been the most prolific of all the classic sci-fi writers so far as ideas are concerned. (A clue is that his short stories are so much better than his novels, especially later in his career.)

    Thanks, Sam, Chrysalids it is!

  4. I completely agree about Asimov: rereading the last part of _Foundation’s Edge_ and all of _Foundation and Earth_ and noting his, ahem, *unfortunate* portrayal of female characters resonates somewhat now that it is widely known that Asimov was a man about whom notes were quietly passed between female con attendees behind the scenes that this was someone you didn’t want to get left in a room alone with.

    As for RMS — sorry, RMS is a good programmer, but I wouldn’t call him brilliant. Emacs was and is, well, a big ball of mud, and RMS’s habit of stripping off version numbers and documentation whenever possible did not improve matters: GCC was impressive at first but by the time he handed over maintenance it too was a nearly-unmaintainable big ball of mud: the disentangling continues to this day. I am forced to conclude that he is not too good at large-scale program structure and is uninterested in minimizing coupling between components, both crucial skills in my view.

    His primary gift was always to see terrible possibilities and talk about them before anyone else, which many powerful interest groups hated: but unfortunately, like Cassandra, he did so so loudly, gratingly and repetitively that it was easy for people to tune him out. His actual *software* contribution since the 90s has been minimal.

    Dennis Ritchie was without doubt a more important figure in the history of computer programming, as is Don Knuth in a different way. RMS’s primary contribution wasn’t technical, it was *legal*: the GPL (which was in any case a group effort).

    On the Wyndham front, I think _The Chrysalids_ was the only book I ever read of his that had an actual ending. Even _The Midwich Cuckoos_ bottled it. (I can’t remember enough about _Trouble with Lichen_ to know if the same is true of that. Must reread!)

  5. I should have repeated the “sometimes” in the second sentence as well. :) Being prolific just means you have lots of ideas, which also means lots of them are crazy, especially if you’re Philip K Dick.

    Yeah, I also noticed that his short stories are more interesting (some of them), but I’m not sure about the time of writing. I didn’t check closely, but I think the ones I enjoyed more were from the beginning of his career. Also, I think that some of them were published much later than when they were written.

  6. Andrei, my reference to “later in his career” comes from having read volumes 1, 2 and 5 (the last) of Dick’s collected short stories, which are in strict chronological order. Volume 5 is much better than volumes 1 and 2, which both contain much that is mundane and could have been written by anyone. By the time of volume 5 he’d found his voice and was writing only stories that couldn’t have come from anyone else. Stories of that kind do also exist in the first two volumes, but they’re much less prevalent. It’s going to be interesting to see how the transition comes during volumes 3 and 4.

    Nix, I didn’t know that about Asimov. How sad. We seem to be finding it out about an awful lot of people recently. BTW., I have yet to read Foundation and Earth, but I will: so please avoid spoilers.

    On Stallman: I stand by what I said. I do agree that as a programmer his skills, while outstanding, seem to fall short of the very top rank. If I were evaluating purely on design/programming ability my all-time great would have to be Ken Thompson, the inventor of Unix and UTF-8, and multiple winner of the world chess championship. But in terms of overall impact on the world we live in, I suspect the GNU GPL is more important than all of that stuff, and that’s absolutely Stallman’s baby.

  7. You’re right, Mike. I checked, and from volume V I’ve read 3 stories, and I liked all of them. Number 1 also has a few titles I enjoyed. Volumes II and III seem to be the least interesting, while the fourth volume contains Minority Report, which is my favourite, probably because I’m a programmer.

  8. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 2 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  9. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 3 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  10. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 4 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  11. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 5 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  12. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 6 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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