Religious Orders

Not a Well-Rounded Book

Posted: Monday February 23 2015 @ 7:03pm

Religious Order: Books

So, here's the first book conforming to my 2015 resolution, Flat Earth by Christine Garwood. It examines fairly recent beliefs in an actual flat Earth. It's an amusing read, in places, but drags most of the time.

It starts out with a couple chapters explaining why we as a culture thought folks back in Columbus' time even thought that the world was flat. (Actually, I didn't think they thought that, nor I suspect do many people today.) Turns out it was evil secularists, trying to drive a wedge between religion and science! No, really, that's what the first couple chapters are about. It's awkward, as if she has an axe to grind, but just a wee axe, not deserving of a longer treatment.

Then we get into some fairly modern-day believers and their activities. The characters are, at times, colorful. Often, they're just misguided fools, spewing the same bad arguments over and over. They're often lauded at the time for their debate skills, despite their lack of good arguments. Obviously, there are parallels with creationists today. These parallels are mentioned but not really analyzed in any way.

Eventually, the book works its way through several people. It ends with a summary that criticizes secularists a bit more, while somewhat lauding the Flat Earth people for no apparent reason. There's a mention of the parallels to creationism again, but no analysis, again.

And therein lies the problem with the book. It just doesn't know what it wants to be. Reconciling science and religion is a juicy topic, but isn't treated in depth here, nor even-handedly. Parallels with creationism are ripe with possibilities, but the text never examines these other than to merely mention them. They're no evolution of Flat Earth theories, just the same ones offered over and over.

All that leaves is a book about wacky people who believe wacky things. Frankly, that could be enough, given sufficient wackiness. These folks lack that level of wackiness. They're not boring, mind you. (Well, some are simply boring people.) They're just not interesting enough to carry the book by themselves.

Overall, it's not a bad read, but nor is it really a good read. It was good enough that I read it all the way through, yet I would be lying if I claimed I wasn't looking forward to the end just a bit.

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Posted: Monday February 23 2015 @ 6:25pm

Religious Order: Books

Okay, it's late February, but I do have a New Year's resolution I've been keeping up on. It's a simple one. For 2015, I'm not recreationally reading any books by white men. It's not my own idea, of course. Being a white man, I'd maybe think of one like read more stuff by women and folks of color. Alas, that's a really fluffy kind of resolution, the sort that's easy on which to slide a bit. A better one? No white men.

Now, truth be told, I did start one book by a white guy in 2015, namely Erewhon. I started it before I read that linked blog post. Instead of setting it aside for the year, I finished it off.

I meant to mention this resolution earlier, but I'm lazy. Then, today, I saw a similar post and was reminded to mention the resolution here.

I'm on my third book in the resolution period right now. I'll post reviews of the first two soon. Well, soonish.

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A Tale of Two Victorian Utopias

Posted: Thursday January 15 2015 @ 8:03pm

Religious Order: Books

For some reason I no longer remember, I decided to read Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race. It's a bit of utopian fiction that came out in 1871. It describes an adventurer stumbling onto an unknown civilization. The protagonist describes the people and society, falls in love with a woman, and attempts to escape when the society endangers him.

Later, I learned of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, published the very next year. It describes an adventurer stumbling onto an unknown civilization. The protagonist describes the people and society, falls in love with a woman, and attempts to escape when the society endangers him.

So, let's say there's some similarity here. Butler, in a later version's forward, assures the reader that his book was written without any knowledge of the other.

So, let's review them!

The Coming Race - Edward Bulwer-Lytton

If you've ever heard the phrase It was a dark and stormy night then you've heard of Bulwer-Lytton. So, he's known as a bad writer. Despite that reputation, he was a successful writer. This is the only book of his I've read, so my opinion of his writing is based solely on this one example. My opinion? Well, he wasn't very good.

I'll be honest; I didn't finish the book. It just became too tiresome. Bulwer-Lytton drones on and on, describing aspects of the found society. It's a weird twist on society, matriarchal in odd ways, and I suppose it could be a gripping subject. Alas, the descriptions are florid, yet bone-dry. The society is technologically evolved, but in a magical fantastical sort of way that just isn't that interesting. There's no real plot of which to speak, just a long series of essays on aspects of a fictional society. I just couldn't get through it. Others may like it as an early example of this type of fiction, but I wanted something better. If only there was such an example...

Erewhon - Samuel Butler

It's difficult to believe that this book was written at the same time as The Coming Race. Although there really isn't much plot here either, the delivery feels fresh, the language almost modern. I actually cared about the protagonist.

The society itself is a reversal of real-world society, for the purposes of satire. It's not really meant to represent a real alternative society. (The reversal goes to the extent of forming proper names by near-reversals of normal words and names. Erewhon is nearly nowhere in reverse.) As with the other example, the middle consists of essays. However, instead of being dry, they're lively and chuckle-worthy. Some of the targets of the satire flew by me. Either I'm not smart enough or the targets themselves are strictly of another time. (Most likely the former.) There's a wonderful trio of chapters detailing the dangers of technology. It's not far off from some of the concerns you hear today regarding artificial intelligence. The section on children is simply hilarious.

The plot aspects are wrapped up quickly at the end, mostly just as a means of getting the protagonist into a position to be able to hand over the narrative to the reader. Neither of these books are novels. They're essays wrapped in just enough plot to justify themselves.

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The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:19pm

Religious Order: Books

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard - J. G. Ballard

I've always loved Ballard, but this is really a bit too much. Read one after the other, the stories reveal Ballard's weakness for always writing the same story too obviously to ignore. Take one male protagonist, representing Ballard, add in a bromance with a second charismatic character, add an optional female love interest. Shake in a dystopia until the two men have a falling out. Done!

That said, if you're a big fan, there's some tasty stuff in here, just don't try and read it straight through. Dip in here and there, jumping back out when it gets to be too much. If you're a casual fan, you can get the highlights in other collections.

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On the Steel Breeze Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:17pm

Religious Order: Books

On the Steel Breeze - Alastair Reynolds

This is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. I didn't like that one much. I don't like this one much either. Most of the characters lack any sort of agency. Things happen to them or push them into certain actions. It doesn't help that much of the story is told in flashbacks. It's an odd choice in dealing with time dilation. I don't think it was a good one.

All that said, it's well written and contains more in the way of big ideas than the first book.

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Ears of Steel Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:14pm

Religious Order: Books

Ears of Steel: The Real Man's Guide to Walt Disney World - Bart Scott

As a nice short guide to manly stuff at Disney World, this was surprisingly good. I learned some new things while also learning to look at some old favorites in a different light.

The pandering to manly men gets a little old, but I'm not a manly man, so I'm not precisely the target market.

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Doubt: A History Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:12pm

Religious Order: Books

Doubt: A History - Jennifer Hecht

I can't say enough good things about this book. It's long. It's detailed. I loved every minute of it.

The subtitle explains it well: "The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson." That's exactly what it does, looking at various philosophers and philosophies, tracing the ideas through the ages, watching how they change. It's fascinating.

One thing I loved about it was that it isn't an atheist polemic. It covers some atheists, sure, but also believers with their own forms and levels of doubt. Sure, some religions look pretty bad during some eras. That's because they were pretty bad during those eras.

Another thing I loved is that it provides enough background on various religious movements for me to understand the changes in doubt that react to those movements, while not boring me if I happen to already know the details of a particular religion.

The only weakness is the last chapter, which spends a little too much time listing current doubters based on fame rather than ideas.

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Ancillary Justice Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:11pm

Religious Order: Books

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

I'm pretty sure this is a debut novel, which is darn impressive. It's garnered some awards, as well. It has some really innovative stuff going on, although not everything works.

The first-person protagonist is an AI who runs distributed bodies to extend her real-world presence. Sweet idea and very well done. Any more details would be highly spoilery.

There are two separate storylines, displaced in time, which come together in a satisfying manner.

There's a goodly amount of societal backstory spicing things up. Most folks mention that the main society is genderless. Her and she are the defaults. You can play at trying to figure out which characters have which genitalia. I don't really visualize characters in books, so it neither thrilled nor annoyed me, once I realized what was going on.

Backstory I found more interesting included the various religions and the gloves. Yes, gloves. Their importance isn't explained, which I liked. I'm reading the second book in the trilogy right now. Still isn't explained. Good.

Two negative things stand out for me.

First, the writing is, well, unclear. Not bad, certainly. Not even clunky. Still, I found my self repeatedly rereading sections, unsure of what I had just read. Sure, this happens when I'm reading some heavy non-fiction or philosophy, but not with fiction. It's not just me, either. I've seen others make similar complaints. I'm having the same issue with the second book in the trilogy.

The second thing is that the basic plot is, well, very similar to the plot of the first book in John Varley's Titan series.

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Burn This Book!

Posted: Friday September 26 2014 @ 6:43am

Religious Order: Books

No, don't. Burn your body, instead. After you're dead. Or try a natural burial.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
- Caitlin Doughty

Doughty's deal is that she's looking to revamp how we, as a society, deal with death. She has a series of fun videos called Ask a Mortician. This book augments her efforts there.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is basically a combination of Mary Roach's Stiff and Steve Almond's Candyfreak. It has some of the inside detail that Roach supplies, combined with the personal connections that you find from Almond. It describes her experiences working in a crematorium alongside her evolving views of death. There's a good balance between the two.

Keep in mind that her criticisms are societal in nature. If you're looking for a rant about the ecological consequences of huge-ass coffins, you'll not find it here. I'm not suggesting those aren't valid concerns, they're just not the focus of this particular book.

The only criticisms I'll lob are that her efforts building The Order of the Good Death get crammed into the very end of the book and the events in the Redwoods chapter seem to come out of nowhere.

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for Late Summer 2014

Posted: Monday August 25 2014 @ 5:43pm

Religious Order: Books

More books!

Going Interstellar - Les Johnson & Jack McDevitt

This in an intriguing combination of fiction and non, all dealing with interstellar travel. The fiction is pretty sweet, going beyond the usual. (Buddhists in space? Really?) The non-fiction is good, but focused solely on drive alternatives. I would have liked to see some other aspects covered.

One bonus is that most of the non-fiction pieces reference other books that would be of interest. I bought a couple, but have only read one, so far. How did that go? Well...

Back to the Moon - Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

China has secretly gone to the Moon, but are in trouble and need rescuing! It sounds like a smaller, earlier version of The Martian. So I gave it a shot.

Ugh. This is awful. I abandoned it after four chapters. It reads like competent-men SF from the fifties, yet is only four years old. The characters? Here's Bill:

Bill rose from his chair and strode to the table, the alpha male in the room by the way he carried himself and his purposeful stride to the chair adjacent to the one Carlton had just occupied.

Here's Millie:

She had been Stetson's secretary, or, to be politically correct, his management support assistant, for almost five years.

Seriously, Millie the secretary?

Then there are the long rants at NASA, for making space travel boring. Legitimate gripe? Oh yes. Do you want to spend time with folks continually making said gripe? I don't.

After four chapters, I checked out some reviews, to see if this got any better. What I found was that the characterization became even worse once the Chinese showed up, and the rants at NASA continued.

Remember, kids, life is too short to waste it on bad books.

Starhawk - Jack McDevitt

McDevitt has a problem. He has this nice series of books about a Space Academy, featuring Priscilla Hutch Hutchins. The books are, generally, really fun reads. The problem? Hutch was getting old. In the fifth book, he moved her into a desk job, to the book's detriment. Turns out, this really isn't the Academy series. This is the Hutch series. Hutch needs to be the star player. Book six put her back into space, which was great to read, but the book suffered in other ways. Plus, now Hutch is, in the book's universe, getting a little old for action-packed space adventure.

What to do. What to do.

Ah ha! A prequel! See the start of Hutch's career!

And, you know, that's not a bad idea at all. The books isn't perfect. The overriding plot is thin. Hutch herself doesn't really do a whole lot of note. (Although that fits the prequel nature.) There are mysteries brought up that aren't resolved, presumedly as fodder for further books. (This sort of thing is awkward in a prequel, as none of the earlier-yet-later books mention these mysteries. Or maybe they do. It's been years since I read them. Hell, they're paper books!) Overall, a much improved read over the prior two books and a nice return to form for a great series.

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