Archive for September, 2013

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The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

September 25, 2013

The Ones Who Walk Away from OmelasAgain, Ursula Le Guin strikes directly to the core, in just several pages. I get a reference to this short story after reading utilitarianism section in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?. It is one of the harshest critics against utilitarianism. It really shows the power of literature in the world of ideas. Le Guin manages to do more than many other philosophers.

Reading this short story really makes me uneasy. I myself am a proponent of utilitarianism (the Mill variant, not the Bentham). Even though this story is not enough to make me to ditch Mill, it really makes me think about the limit of utilitarianism. We know that there is usually a price that we must pay for the cost of progress. It might be easy if we are not the ones who are paying the price. But what if we are?

But the core of this story I think is ignorance. Many of us, who are living a better life (we still have access to computer and have Goodreads account!), simply do not realized the cost of this good life. In economics, it is summarized using an unemotional word: externalities. It is simply the cost that some others have to bear, even without their consent. Are we paying a just price for our cup of coffee? Or we actually keep the coffee farmer in a closet just like the child is this short story. It is also possible that the one who are paying the price is not a human being after all, it can be the animals, the plants, the Earth! Of all the pollution the we make to keep our convenient living! But again, just like teens in Omelas, what do we do after we find out about the true cost of our privilege? Do we leave, do we stay, or do we rebel?

The story also rings the same bell as the Faustian bargain, in Faust. What are we willing to give up for prosperity, for welfare. Or shouldn’t we? Because no matter what is the price, the price is probably too dear to bear.

5 STARS.

If you like this topics, you would probably the following books, which I read simultaneously right now:
1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
2. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
3. How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life

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Leviathan Wakes

September 18, 2013

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)There are two types of sci-fi readers. The ones who read for the cultivation of mind, and the ones who read for fun. Of course, there are intersection between these two groups. The first group can be divided into two faction: hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi; the natural science and social science, respectively. While the second group is usually plot driven. This book belong to the second one.

The setting is not too far from our present time, given approximately 100 years from now. The epstine drive is invented, which provide an economical inner solar system travel, even though it is still not enough to power inter stellar travel. Humanity has spread to planets, moons, and asteroids. Earth is overpopulated. Mars is colonized, and still undergoing terraforming. Ceres, Tycho and several other moons and major asteroids are also colonized. Humanity is divided into two faction: inners, including Earthers and Martians, and outers, inhabitans of asteroid belts (Belters), and moons of the giant gas.

The events in this book is triggered by an unprovoked attack on a space ship by an unknown faction, creating a chain reaction that ignites the entire solar system. The story is told using two points of view, a retired navy officer, and a “just-being-fired” cop. The interaction of these two characters is the best part of this book, since they are representing two opposing views, while working towards the same goal.

The science part in this book is not too special, either the natural science or the social science. Outside Newtonian standard inertial mechanics for space travel, there are nothing interesting to ponder on. I cannot help to compare it with a novel that I just read, 2132. 2312 is without doubt a better read, if you are looking for the science.

This novel can also be classified as a military sci-fi, since it includes some military conflicts. But the military atmosphere is not to thick; a pale picture in comparison with other military sci-fi such as Dominion series by Jerry Pournelle or Robert A. Heinlein novels.

The plot is fast paced with a little twist here and there. The plot is definitely suitable for a sci-fi film scenario (much better than average Hollywood sci-fi nowadays). The plot is also designed for a larger tale, thus serves as the beginning of the series.

As conclusion, it is a good plot driven space opera, with not-so-good science. If you consider only the plot, I would have give it a 4-stars. But I am a hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi lover, and tend to be a little harsh on space opera. Therefore I give it only a 3-stars. But it is a strong start for a series. I will still read the next installment.

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Un Lun Dun

September 11, 2013

One thing that marks a truly excellent children literature is that it should attract children and adult readers alike. And this is true for this book. I believe that any adult can enjoy reading this book as any children (I hate the label YA that is given for younger audience books. Why not just children book? I am not ashamed to read a good children book.)

It begins with a magical journey (that I always love in children literature) to the un-part of London, named Un-London, pronounced Un Lun Dun, hence the title. It is cute, magical and entertaining. At one point I think that it will be another Harry Potterish follower; well, you have a child Messiah, trying to save the world plot. But the author does not let me down. Just after several pages, I find out that it is a totally different story, which is refreshing.

There are lots of clever word play. Un Lun Dun is one of them, and I am not going to spoil the fun by mentioning them here, read it by yourself. The author surely has a rich imagination, and creativity to bend the meaning of the words to fit his plot and character. At on point, he even deal with a linguistic debate! What is the meaning of a word supposed to be? According to the speaker (illocution) or the meaning grasp by its listener (perlocution)? What about the word itself which is the dictionary meaning of the word (locution)? What a clever insert! I cannot believe he put it in a children book! Any linguist will love this book truly.

Tha character design is also marvelous. The one that I truly enjoy is Curdle, an animate milk cartoon. It reminds me of the clip from Blur’s “Coffee and TV”. Search it on youtube. He must be a Blur’s fan. Also Skool, which is an animate diving suit, filled with water, and served like an living moving aquarium. Love the pun, Skool, school of fish! And many others. Truly truly magical!

And finally the plot. Many twists and unpredictable. The hero is not what is supposed to be, the same thing with the villain. Fun fun fun reading. Mieville keeps it interesting without delving too deep into adult literature regime (dark, ambiguous, gritty), which is difficult. He seems to be able to keep the balance between simplicity and complexity.

Some reviewers accused Mieville to be too political, by putting in environmental issue in this book. Well, I am an environmentalist my self. I support Green Peace. I cannot see anything wrong in saving the environment. Unless it is hurting your income from your polluting factory!

Final verdict, a totally fun reading. 5 stars. (For adult I will have to reduce one star).

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The Gone-away World

September 4, 2013

3007704There is one science that eludes most science fiction writer. (Yes, some would say that it is not a part of science, therefore, it does not deserve a study to PhD level.) That science is management. There are many who would argue that it is not possible to make a sci-fi out of management studies. One man proves this wrong. He is Nick Harkaway, the author of this novel.

But.

Somehow, something got into his way to make this novel a terrific one. It has a very good start, but later it deviates from its own goal, and becomes a jumble of sci-fi, war story, and (believe it or not) a kung-fu legend. Each of them might be a good story, but when you combine them into one grand story, it becomes a bad cooking.

The story is about the “The Gone-away World”, which is the world post Gone-away War, which is caused by the invention of Gone-away bomb, told from the point of view of a soldier, together with a group of veteran soldier of the Gone-away War.

The sci-fi idea is quite genuine. It gives me a reminiscence of the nuclear scare at its development stage, that the nuclear fission chain reaction will continue indefinitely because it will cause the chain reaction with air molecules, therefore unstoppable, and therefore THE END OF THE WORLD! Of course, it did not happened. But the scare was real at that time.

And I am willing to give him a credit to his take on management science. I have never seen that before in any other book. Top-notch! Too bad, he let it slipped away by telling other jumbled stories which do not add to the main story.

The novel will be much better, if it is better edited, and cut into just 1/3. There are just too many digressions, which are neither interesting nor add any good to the main story. It is just destroying the main story, like hearing the inconsistent rumble of a drunkard. I have to delve half way into the novel in order just to find out what the hell is the story is all about. But after that, the story deviates again. Bad. Really bad, to a point of frustration. I really have to push myself to finish this book (While reading two other books at the same time, which I manage to finish before this book.)

Nick Harkaway definitely can write (compares to other authors who cannot even write). But he definitely needs someone to tell him if he is going to far. It turns out that instead of writing the Gone-away World, he is writing the Nickhark-away World. I am still expecting that he can produce a better novel next time, given he learns from his mistake.

But for this one, I cannot give him more than TWO STARS.