I have always read a lot. Generally, I focus in one area for several years and then move to something else. I’ve always read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, though I read less these days than I did ten or fifteen years ago.

My current reading is not really focussed in any one area. I’ve been reading some mysteries, some sf, some economics, some astrophysics, some mythological analysis, some history.

I’ve been reading a lot of paleontology and ecology lately.

Jo Walton’s “Thessaly” Trilogy

I recently finished reading Necessity, the third and final book in Jo Walton’s “Thessaly” trilogy. I had encountered Jo Walton’s writing previously in her novel Tooth and Claw, a fun and surprisingly thoughtful novel in the style of a Regency Romance with Dragons as the main characters. Her “Thessaly” trilogy is similarly thoughtful, but stylistically very different. It is set around an attempt to create Plato’s “Just City” as described in his Republic.

The Greek goddess Athene has heard the prayers of classicists and philosophers from ancient Greek times up to the mid 21st century, and transported them to the island of Santorini circa 1700 BCE, along with some robotic helpers. The idea is that when the volcano blows in a century or so, the city will be destroyed, thus preventing it from affecting History. They design and build the city. The classicists, now dubbed “Masters”, purchase 10,000 10-year old Greek speaking slave children from around the eastern Mediterranean over a few centuries and bring them to the island after the city is built by the robots, dubbed “Workers”. The Greek god Apollo has decided that he needs to learn some things about humans and decides to incarnate as a human child in this city as well. Five years in, Socrates is brought from his death bed to the city to teach rhetoric.

As you can imagine, things do not go as Plato envisioned. To start with, the children remember their earlier lives, which brings some differences into the city. Some were raised Christian, some Pagan, and not all are comfortable with the institution of Greek Pagan worship. Also, the “Festivals of Hera”, effectively sex by lot, are not universally popular, as the children have formed their own attachments. And bringing in Socrates to teach rhetoric without considering his historical tendencies to question everything is quite simply funny.

The books each end with a transformative event, setting up the situation to be explored in the following book. The third book ends with such an event, though it is indicated that it is the final book.

The first book, The Just City, sets up the scenario and carries us through the first ten years. The second, The Philosopher Kings, begins some fifteen years after the end of The Just City, and carries us through a few years of some of the children’s offspring growing up. The third book, Necessity, begins forty years after the second, and describes the events of a few momentous days.

Some of the classicists are historical figures, e.g. Cicero, Pico della Mirandola, Ficino, Benjamin Jowett, Ellen Francis Mason, Lucrezia Borgia, Plotinus, and others. Some are composites of people who have existed throughout history. The children, with the exception of Apollo, are simply children such as might have been born in ancient and early Christian times.

The characters are, I think, well drawn, and the ideas are examined thoroughly. The books were absorbing, thought provoking, and quite frankly hard to put down. I kept thinking about them during my daily activities. The books are fiction, of course, but the plot moves in a natural fashion. One can imagine different plot turns, but the plot Walton developed doesn’t disappoint, though it does surprise one now and then.

I highly recommend these books.

1. The Just City
Amazon – The Just City
2. The Philosopher Kings
Amazon – The Philosopher Kings
3. Necessity
Amazon – Necessity

Against the Singularity

Ray Kurzweil popularized the idea of a “Technological Singularity”, originally proposed by Vernor Vinge, based on ideas from I. J. Good, where the advances in technology and, particularly machine intelligence, will render the future unpredictable. The amusing thing to me is that they then go on to make predictions, usually having humans merging with artificial intelligences, or having AI take over the world, sometimes not leaving a place for common humans. A bit like the Terminator or Matrix scenarios but usually a bit less violent. I first became aware of this in Vernor Vinge’s novel Marooned in Realtime, which was a sequel to The Peace War, which I enjoyed quite a bit back in 1984.

Greg Bear also said at a Science Fiction convention in the late 1980s that people who think humanity will look the same in a generation are all wrong. I met him at NolaCon II in 1988 and argued with him about this. We did not change each others’ minds. He thought that advances in genetic engineering would lead to people altering either themselves or their children to be different in whatever arbitrary way made a good story. ;-)

Many times, these speculations are combined.

Although these speculations can make good stories about the Human Condition, my argument against all this is:

  • Machine intelligence is proving to be a lot harder than people thought back in the day. Computers are better than we are at certain things, like doing numerical calculations accurately, and they can do many things faster than we can, like scanning star patterns for comets and such, but they don’t do the latter better than we do, and we are far better than they are at many other things. I don’t believe that in principle a computer can’t mimic a human mind, or something like one, but that point is a lot farther off than the AI folks like to admit.
  • I think Vinge, Kurzweil, and others are confusing the rate of technological change in certain fields in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries with a natural law. There is no real reason to assume that the development curve isn’t some sort of sigmoid curve and that we will soon approach the leveling off point.

    As for Greg Bear, the Human Genome Project has rendered some of his more fanciful speculations problematic, in that we appear to have a lot fewer genes than earlier geneticists thought. Actually constructing a gene to make, say, a second thumb on a hand, will likely prove a lot more difficult than he thought it would in New Orleans in 1988.

  • My final point concerns attitudes towards the human form.

    I think that humans in general are more reluctant to fiddle around with their general appearance and faculties than a few body modification people would tend to suggest. People who do change their bodies are looked on as freaks by a large majority of the world, if not Americans. And even in North America and Europe, this is not common behavior.

    I don’t think we’ll see people making large changes in large numbers to their forms anytime soon, if ever.

Current SF reading

I haven’t been reading as much sf, but I do like some of Charles Stross’s work, especially the first several books of the Merchant Princes series. It’s getting a bit soap opera-ish, and we’ll have to see what happens. I also liked Iron Sunrise quite a bit.

I don’t believe in Raymond Kurzweil’s Singularity concept, but I enjoy Stross’s writing nevertheless.

John Crowley remains one of my favorite writers. He recently completed his AEgypt tetralogy, which he started back in the mid-1980s. My opinion is that he has trouble with endings, but Endless Things ended the series very well, in my opinion.

Rachel Pollack

I first became aware of her through her writings on tarot, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in a psychological interpretation of tarot. Her Shining Woman Tarot is a deck of her own design, implementing her own insights into tarot. I’m not fond of her artwork, but I like the deck anyway.
More recently I’ve read two of her sf novels, Unquenchable Fire, and Temporary Agency and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in potential future spiritual transformations. They’re set in a common future world, where in our future a spiritual transformation has taken place and the majority philosophy is of earth-centered spirituality and of religious ecstacy with a Witchy/New Agey flavor.

Unquenchable Fire is, in my opinion, the more insightful of the two. It is a chronicle of a woman who is made pregnant by a divine agency and who is not happy about it. It covers the duration of her pregnancy and labor with a flash into her past and a preview of a few future events with her daughter.

It has some interesting things to say about the nature of religious experience and how we seek different things from it.

Temporary Agency, on the other hand, is a detective novel with minor lesbian elements. I liked it, but it didn’t shake my world view or open up any new vistas.

(This is reposted from my static website and backdated.)

Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve enjoyed Le Guin’s writing since I first encountered The Dispossessed back in the early 1970s. I can’t think of a bad book she’s written. Recently, I’ve noticed that I re-read Always Coming Home the most. It’s not really a novel—it’s more a novella length fiction piece interspersed with anthropological and mythological details about the fictional future people about whom she’s writing.

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Little, Big

My favorite novel for the past couple of years has been Little, Big, by John Crowley.

Little, Big is a big, quirky novel that took me three tries over about ten years to actually get into. Since then, I have re-read it several times, including once out loud to my then spouse. That was fun.

The book is a multigenerational novel centered around one family in upstate New York who have a certain contact with Fairies and other “supernatural” beings. It contains many other common fairy tales within it, woven so skilfully that you don’t really detect them until after they’re past. It’s a deep book and repays re-reading. The style is not particularly that of science fiction or fantasy, so people who don’t like sf might like Little, Big.

(This is reposted from my static website and backdated.)