Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reviews, 7/10/2012

Kid 1 is in camp this week, so I'm at home with Kid 2. This doesn't explain or excuse not posting yesterday, I'm just saying.

Anyway, two books:

Kathryn Shulz - Being Wrong

A brilliant book. We are all wrong. Some of us are wrong more often than others, but none of us are infallible. This book looks at why that is, and then discusses why we think this is a bad thing, and finally explains why we're wrong to feel that being wrong is a bad thing.

Shulz writes in a breezy conversational style, using lots of footnotes-as-asides, and packing a lot of fascinating stuff into the endnotes for foks who want the story but not the details. This makes the book easily accessible to the layman, but also satisfying to the slightly more discerning reader.

Shulz opens each chapter with a short story of someone being wrong, and then she unpacks the story to illustrate her broader point in the chapter. This contributes to the conversational style - almost like a cocktail party, where the quirky story opens some more generalized discussion. When things sag a bit, Schulz sneaks in another quirky story, and peps things up. This is altogether delightful.

Shulz's argument goes like this: We are all wrong, often. We cannot know when we are wrong, we can only know when we have been corrected - it is logically false to say "I am wrong," because once we recognize that the thing we were saying was wrong, we are no longer wrong. We are wrong because our senses fool us, because our brains work in a particular way, because our society has convinced us of certain things, because we want to fit in with our friends, because our views about ourselves, the universe, and our position within the universe change as we age. We think this is a bad thing because society has taught us that, and because being corrected feels bad. But, out of wrongness comes art and science and progress and all things that make us human - animals are never wrong, because their brains don't work that way. So, we should embrace our wrongness, because it is the way that we express our humanity. This is a remarkably freeing philosophy, and Shulz presents it compellingly. This book should be required reading.

David Kowalski - The Company of the Dead

Wow. This was a really good book, and a surprisingly quick read. Kowalski is playing with the very idea of alt-history by focusing on the world that a minor change in history creates, and on efforts to fix that minor change. It's a time travel novel, which means lots and lots of paradox and plot twists that I'll try very hard not to give away. Someone from now, through accidental use of a time machine, ends up in 1911, and decides to fix things, starting with saving the Titanic. This results in an entirely new world which Kowalski unfolds deliciously over nearly 800 pages. In the new world, the US didn't enter WWI, so Germany won. Shortly thereafter, Texas secedes, and takes many of the Southern states along for the ride. This time, the Union doesn't intervene, because (as one of the characters muses) they don't think they can win. By 1999, Imperial Germany and Imperial Japan are the two big superpowers, with Russia loosely allied to Germany, along with France, England, and the Confederacy. The Union is partially occupied by Japan, which is loosely allied with Imperial Mexico. There's a map, which is actually kinda helpful. When a diary of the original time traveler turns up, a group of Confederate spies decide to go back and fix what he changed, because the situation in alt-1999 is hugely unstable.

The book is action packed, with aerial combat, giant floating balloons (not quite steampunk - diesel punk, perhaps? History-Punk, maybe), tanks, spies, secret plots within plots, backstabbing, atomic bombs - all manner of juicy good stuff. The military fiction stuff is outside of the control of the protagonists, so none of the whole top down, bottom up stuff that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago - an elegant solution. A satisfying spy story, and, as I said, lots and lots and lots of lovely twists in the plot of the sort that only time travel can allow. The action continues at a breathless pace throughout the novel, right up to the very end, which satisfies completely. A marvelous first book, recommended without reservation - except, what on earth can Kowalski do to follow up?