-->
no

"Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari

No comments

Subtitled: A Brief History of Tomorrow

The ubiquitous public discourse about the moral, technical, and ethical implications of  artificial intelligence serves as a pivot point in, and may actually wake people up to, the baffling future that we are in fact facing today. Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian and social philosopher, has done an excellent job recapping a broad range of the outré possibilities humankind faces today. The fact that he calls his book Homo Deus gives a broad hint about some of the things we may see in that future.

Harari briefly treats the prevalent fictions in earlier historical epochs, from our hunter-gatherer roots through to today to trace how these fictions grew and how completely they dominated human thought. First Nature, next God, and finally human beings themselves came to rule the world and to give meaning to the universe. But this historical era won’t last forever, he says. It will give way to a future which features much more extensive human-computer interchange, where machines will know us better than we know ourselves.

Consider: humans already have a broad range of artificial implants in their bodies. They regulate our heart rate, they help motor-compromised people use their limbs, blind people see shades of light, and formerly deaf people hear. Nanobots are currently being used in cancer detection and treatment. We can measure our pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and glucose level with something we simply wear—no implant required. Harari is not alone in thinking that medicine is trending even today toward upgrading the health of healthy people, in addition to its traditional role in treating disease.

Harari spends a significant portion of his book describing the relationship between brain activity and emotion. It’s an acknowledged fact neuroscientists have detected the relationship between areas of the brain and such functions as emotion, perception, language, and so on. Harari hangs his hat on the link between brain processes which we can observe and their corresponding emotions and states of consciousness, and the claim that these process are not free at all, but probabilistic. Here, however, is a quote from one third of the way through the book:
 

However, nobody has any idea how a congeries of biochemical reactions and electrical currents in the brain creates the subjective experience of pain, anger or love. Perhaps we will have a solid explanation in ten or fifty years. But as of 2016, we have no such explanation, and we had better be clear about that.”
 

Nevertheless, the author arrives very quickly at the conclusion that not only are deterministic neurochemical reactions responsible for your choices and outlook, but soon, a network of computers, or super computers, will compile all your Likes, hates, opinions, reviews, and arguments in cyberspace, and build an algorithm of you. You’ll be able to compare two job opportunities, alternative places to live, even choose between potential mates…you won’t have to do your own soul searching, the algorithm will do it for you.

And compilation of everything that I am encompasses and presupposes the most objectionable assertion in the book: that our experiences will mean nothing if we don’t upload them for the world to see. Keeping secrets from the network of information, or otherwise limiting the free exchange of it, becomes the worst crime you can commit. I’m sure I’m just being damned old fashioned when I find this concept a ghastly affront. I cannot see a future in which I agree that I don’t feel anything unless somebody else tells me I do.

Where are the medical advancements headed? Harari sees a possible future where humans who can afford it are given the ability to see in much broader range of the EM spectrum, or can comprehend what it’s like to be a bat, or a dolphin, or an ant. These are the superhumans of the title. One grand thematic contribution of his book: the belief that human life and emotion and freedom will eventually become obsolete (along with free elections and freely consumed goods and capital) in favor of the recognition that organisms are algorithms (already scientific dogma today), and that Earthly existence (or existence anywhere in the universe) will simply be the rapid, efficient, and free processing of information.

This is not a difficult book to read, although long sections of it require you to accept statements that cannot be verified. Harari even says this. This is a visionary piece which deals with human trends and possibilities. As such, it is a highly useful and thought-provoking document. Harari remains one of the more clear-sighted and accessible cultural seers currently available to us. Take this volume up, definitely, if current trends and their possible futures interest you.




 

"Offerings to the Blue God," stories by Shirani Rajapakse

No comments

In her latest collection, Offerings to the Blue God, Shirani Rajapakse revisits themes on which she has expressed herself so forcefully in the past: the cheapness of non-combatant human life when bullies fight wars; the absolute terror many women must feel during life’s ordinary transactions; children forced into a lifetime of slavery, and the particular hopelessness when that child is a girl; and the self-defeating and sometimes infuriating steps one must take to follow pious rituals in supplication to gods whose representatives on Earth are only in it for the money. These themes recur with renewed focus and force in Offerings, plus we glimpse other tropes and new sophisticated structures which flare and flourish in her writing too.

For instance, Rajapakse shows terrific aptitude with stories that harbor surprise twists and “gotchas” at the end, and in each of the two cases here the door slams or the precipice disintegrates, and the results are indeed shocking, even ghastly.

The memorable character in a predicament, and the unadorned, straightforward language are both here in abundance, as we have come to expect from Rajapakse. Her decision to present her evidence in simple, forceful declaratives serves her purpose best, and she uses the tactic to good effect again. She lets her anger show without flash or authorial rant; she lets her readers’ natural vituperation well up from the stories.

But, like a couple of stories published here, this collection itself flies a silver lining, a final story that provides the “gotcha” of a young woman’s decision to turn her back on superstition, cynicism and greed. She makes an emphatic and highly symbolic gesture of discarding the old, which amounts after all to a scrap of paper scrawled with pious claptrap, into a drain in a gutter, flowing with mud and filth. 


Pick up Offerings to the Blue God for her fresh take, and for the promise of hope for a rational world in the future.




 

"The Story of a Marriage" by Andrew Sean Greer

No comments

The Story of a Marriage is an intimate meditation on the unknowability of other people, even people we love, as in spouses, friends, or relatives. A housewife in mid-20th Century San Francisco assumes that she understands her husband, knows who he is, and knows he loves her. This challenging novel is an example and an exercise in finding out how wrong such assumptions are bound to be. As stiff a challenge as this piece was to write, Andrew Sean Greer handles all the structural and all the narrative-order issues with a sure hand, never missing a beat or a cue. The result is convincing and memorable, and satisfies the reader that the author’s powers were equal to the task. The result has satisfying twists and turns which make a gratifying whole.

The story weds Holland, a strikingly handsome man who effortlessly captivates everyone, and Pearl, a woman whom Holland finds beautiful, much to her surprise. They seem destined to be together: they were teen sweethearts in wartime Kentucky before Holland was conscripted; they meet again a few years later by utter chance at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. They embark on married life and have a son, but a few years into this son’s life, a man comes to Pearl’s home and introduces himself as someone who knew Holland during the war.

Thus begins the heart of the novel. It takes quite a bit of time for Pearl to learn why this man, himself handsome, well-dressed, and mannerly, visits their home. Once she does, however, she feels her life begin to spin away from her, her young family and her way of life in jeopardy of disintegrating. The novel consists of her reaction to this realization, the dear assumptions she must abandon, and a suspenseful discussion as she readies herself for wrenching change.

All this is, as I say, very competently handled by Greer. However, Holland remains a cipher throughout most of the book. He’s the fulcrum, the nucleus of the story, and without knowing his mind, or how to read the signs of how he feels, we are held in suspense. The ultimate reveal occurs very near the end of the narrative, but even after the result is made known, this character remains mysterious.

And perhaps that is Greer’s pièce de résistance, the fact that we as the readers remain just as much in the dark about this man as do the characters in the book.

This novel is disciplined, logical, and satisfying. We dwell for a long time in a woman’s mind, a woman who suddenly has a lot to lose, and she comes believably across in that role. It evokes the zeitgeist of the time (the U.S. just as the Korean War winds down, but the Cold War remains at its peak) to a T, and has twists and turns enough to surprise  and give us reason to appreciate the work as well-handled.

 


 

"Hamnet" by Maggie O'Farrell

No comments

 

In Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell takes on the staggering task of imagining Shakespeare’s family life in the 1580s and ‘90s, and particularly, the devastating effect of the 1596 death of his son Hamnet, aged only eleven years. In the face of this forbiddingly risky enterprise she executes a stunning, bravura narrative of the Bard’s family milieu before and particularly after this tragic event. She sets this framework up and aligns it with events we sketchily know about; the result is a vivid, emotional, and utterly believable tale of the composition of Hamlet, the first—and perhaps most personal—of the immortal playwright’s great tragedies.

O’Farrell places us squarely in late 16th-Century Stratford, with vivid people and their fraught relationships; a muddy, smelly backwater town which includes the Shakespeare family and its company of glovers—dominated by John, the brilliant poet’s ostracized two-fisted abusing father. The story of Will and his sweetheart/wife, Agnes (which I, following hints in the text, pronounced with the Continental diphthong, An-yess), while speculation, provides charm, depth, and color. When pestilence strikes its devastating blow and takes their son and heir, Hamnet, the family splinters, and each member (father, mother, two sisters) suffers their own private isolating grief.

The father can turn this personal tragedy into an acclaimed, all-time triumph of art. O’Farrell imagines the immortal playwright doing his very utmost to right the tragic wrong; the production of the play, and an unexpected journey for Agnes form the captivating, gratifying climax.

 

As book-length speculation goes, this novel will stand the test of time. With exceedingly well-known protagonists and events, O’Farrell answers her self-challenge with a work of art of her own. She has fashioned an extraordinary novel: artistic and beautifully paced, she lays it out in a very gracious way that honors her readers; brilliantly does it meet and satisfy the flinty gaze of the expectant reader. So brilliantly that it exceeds any anticipation we might have of plot, result, personality, or setting. Fully, heartily, confidently recommended.

 




"The Cause" by Joseph J. Ellis

No comments

Subtitled: The American Revolution and its Discontents

It was clear to me that in The Cause Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer-winning historian, who sets a high standard for himself, and has covered the American Revolution comprehensively, will go over much of the same ground in this entry. I didn’t expect to learn as much new material as I did, however.

We know George Washington struggled throughout the war to equip, pay, and feed the Continental Army, and really never succeeded in convincing Congress to spend the funds necessary. We know he waged a desperate war, a war in which he could never engage the British toe-to-toe; he led his army through force of charisma and loyalty, and benefited from an inordinate amount of pure good fortune. In this volume, though, we clearly see that Washington’s staff was far from unified in its admiration for their leader; we encounter Washington’s tardy realization that New York was no longer the key battleground at the end of the war; and that the dilatory system of information from and to England played a pivotal role in the outcome.

Some historical facts that I had not known before picking up this volume: I was not aware that George III had literally bought and paid for a majority in Parliament who owed their seats, their very careers, to His Majesty. I learned of the infighting at the top levels of the military on both sides (Horatio Gates and Arthur Lee both had it in for Washington; Sir Henry Clinton was despised, and his orders as commander in chief widely ignored, on the British side).

I finally comprehended the animus in the erstwhile colonies against forming a federal government—they had just succeeded in throwing off a remote, greedy, and tyrannical government. The last thing they wanted was to set up a new one to replace it. And finally, Ellis avers that the war the British wanted to fight was doomed to failure from the start. The only historical fact you need in support of that assertion is the savagery with which the militias in the Southern states treated the British regulars.

Other tidbits worthy of note: the Oneida tribe, alone among the Six Iroquois Nations, supported the Colonists’ cause; and the bulk strength of the French fleet, instrumental in the British Army’s final entrapment, was only off the coast of Virginia because of the approaching hurricane season in the Caribbean.

Needless to say my understanding of the Revolution and the politics surrounding it is more complete and nuanced than before reading The Cause. Yours will be too; if the American Revolution interests you, and you haven’t picked up this book, I urge you to do so right away.



 

"Nickel Mountain" by John Gardner

No comments

At the outset of John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain, Henry Soames owns and runs a diner by the side of a Catskills highway. He does a better job of that than of controlling his own giving heart; because of his charitable nature, he ends up not only married to a young woman who is pregnant with someone else’s baby, but also opens his home to a Jehovah’s Witness no one likes or trusts, and who may be an arsonist. The novel’s events swirl around Henry, its enigmatically passive-active agent at the center, and through it all the locals for better or for ill, prove that in Gardner’s hands, human nature is endlessly fascinating.

Also as fascinating are the apparent machinations of the gods, or impersonal forces with which humans must contend. A young would-be car designer and racer throws his dreams away and attends Cornell Ag school, as coerced by his businessman father. Henry’s bride finds him impossible to live with part of the time, but also unalterably admires his good acts. Other regulars come to Henry’s roadside diner and complain or shake their heads about nature, or the follies of their fellow characters, and nothing apparently changes over time. The town’s doctor, who doubles as its justice of the peace, carries around and expresses the anger and confusion for everyone’s benefit.

The tides of fortune and folly pursue all; no one is immune. Some suffer more than others, as usual, but through all the health challenges and commercial difficulties Henry wrestles with, his surprising wife and child turn out to be improbable blessings, even to the point of a comprehensive upgrade of his business. Gardner prepares us for certain confrontations which end up occurring outside the narrative, and it’s hard to find the purpose in some of the conflict on offer.

But the direct, persuasive, effective passage is always within the author’s repertoire: early on (at p. 66 of 454), as Henry emphatically blubbers on on some subject or other:

“But was he saying anything at all? he wondered. All so hopelessly confused. And yet he knew. He couldn’t do it and maybe never could have, but he knew. He was a fat, blubbering Holy Jesus, or anyway one half of him was, loving hell out of truckers and drunks and Willards and Callies—ready to be nailed for them. Eager. More heart than he knew how to spend.”
A constitutional inarticulateness afflicts the hero Henry: his compelling ideas, in the midst of his trying to express them, become amorphous as he loses his way. In spite of the mental and emotional challenges, he blunders ahead anyway, and comes out somehow ahead of the game. This, and the plain, direct, and vivid descriptions the author gives the other characters and their misadventures, drive the narrative, and attract and reward the reader. It’s all a mystery, and the Henry Soameses of the world, for all their difficulty in expressing it, know it better than the rest of us.

 


 

 

"This Other Eden" by Paul Harding

No comments

 

At a climactic moment in Paul Harding’s This Other Eden a naked, skin-and-bones old man walks off Apple Island and wades out into the Atlantic Ocean carrying a few motley belongings over his head. He struggles against the outgoing tide, just as all the characters in this brilliant, haunting book struggle against the bitter, inexorable tide of American racism. In this spare economical work, Harding reaffirms his penchant for yoking highly effective, beautiful language to serve his lofty goals. This is truly astonishing and gut-wrenching work; after his Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, his current offering has been shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.

Harding sets his tale in 1911 and 1912, to coincide with the real-life Maine legislation to evict a small group of settlers from Apple Island, a small, hardscrabble bit off the state’s coast. First settled in 1792 by a former slave and an Irish woman, Apple Island has been home for more than a century to abjectly poor people, some directly descended from Benjamin Honey, the original slave, and others whose forebears immigrated and stayed. Collectively they display an uncertain racial heritage; most are undernourished and only rudimentally educated, and barely eke out an existence.

The retired missionary Reverend Diamond tries to tend to their souls and to educate their young; this well-meaning soul doubts himself even to the very moment he brings destruction and diaspora. The only exception to the eviction plan is Ethan, a young and highly talented artist, who rates the consideration not only by virtue of his gift, but also his light-skinned, red-haired appearance. The preacher arranges for him to be sent the the home of his distinguished friend in Massachusetts. The boy Ethan,15-ish years old, meets Bridget, a lovely maidservant in the old gentleman’s mansion, and in a bright, golden chapter, they fall in love in their own Edenic time.

The state takes it upon itself to catalog the evils of the other residents, observed and checked off on a list, to be “epileptic, feeble-minded, insane, interbred…paralysis, migraine, neurotic, criminalistic, sexually immoral, self-abusive…” etc. etc., and proceeds to arrest and assign some of the squatters to state institutions for the insane. They consign the rest to the four winds. Thus is this other Eden cleansed.

There are levels of prejudice, levels of narrative nuance, reverberant images, and thought-provoking language here, enough to satisfy, and indeed to surfeit, the most demanding palette. Here is Esther Honey, direct descendant of the island’s original patriarch, musing over her offspring as they return from digging up clams about 33% through the book:  

Esther followed their progress and as they got closer she found herself overjoyed by them, each her own little modest person, each unself-consciously taking care of one another, even as they teased and screeched and laughed and complained.
There is the careful and minute observation of Ethan’s artist’s perception of color: how his sister’s skin changes color as daylight and evening proceed. The staggering sights and sounds of busy, crowded Massachusetts as Ethan tries to process it all after his arrival there:
Shock and aftershock struck and echoed and shaped the vastness of the world across the inside of his skull, or so it felt. It was no more than seeing his first automobile idling at a train stop, and so also seeing his first driver, in a mud-spattered long coat with a pair of goggles strapped to his face…It was no more than seeing brick mills that appeared to be larger than the whole island he came from, with smokestacks that appeared not just to reach the clouds but actually to be making them or possibly venting them from the insides of the earth…”
Such vivid passages draw the reader’s sight and capture the reader’s heart in this novel which pierces to the bone. Take this up and compare it to Harding’s prior triumphs, Tinkers and Enon. It has the same mastery of image and plot, and hits as deeply as either of these masterpieces on the higher thematic plane of faith and prejudice, and the higher artistic plane of language and image, rhythm, mood, and reflection. From Harding, another for the ages.


 


 

"Like the Appearance of Horses" by Andrew Krivak

No comments

 

This novel completes—and adds a great deal of depth to—Andrew Krivak’s stunning and award-winning Dardan Trilogy. Covering the life of Jozef Vinich and his two grandsons, Bo and Sam Konar, these three books—The Sojourn (2011), The Signal Flame (2017), and Like the Appearance of Horses (2023)—state their themes with frankness and power, cover their very memorable characters with charity and clarity both, and exhibit a rare, an ineffable, art, worth every moment you would devote to them. Andrew Krivak deserves the awards which have greeted his marvelous writing.

Like the Appearance of Horses takes its title from the second chapter of the Book of Joel, in a passage describing the unstoppable rush of an army that lays waste to the land. This quote enunciates the principal theme of the three books supremely well. War unites this family in heroism, devastating loss, and in tempering the character of all whom it touches.

This novel belongs chiefly to Sam Konar, Jozef Vinich’s second grandson, who, after a series of misadventures (chiefly, engaging in one too many drag races in his hemi head hot rod) is directed by the authorities that his only alternative is to enlist (in the mid-60s) in the Armed Forces.

What follows fills much of the book. Sam does two tours in Vietnam from ‘66 to ’72, near the end of which he is captured and winds up in the notorious North Vietnamese prison dubbed the Hanoi Hilton. There he is forcibly turned into a heroin addict by a creepy NVA prison guard, and must live by his wits—and extemporize from heroin fix to heroin fix—as he gains his freedom and returns Stateside. Throughout this ordeal, Sam retains his principles, even with their altered focus, and eventually reunites with his battalion commander from when he was in country.

In some ways Sam hoes the most difficult row of any of Krivak’s characters. Within the narrative, his experience wraps up the soldiering history of the Vinich and Konar men. Krivak treats Sam’s heroic re-emergence from addiction and imprisonment with blunt realism and steady sympathy. It is a harrowing, but rewarding, element of the novel, perhaps the book’s most important.

The Dardan trilogy will stay with me forever. Its beautiful prose, its comprehensive insider’s treatment of the natural world, and its oh-so-compelling characters make it a unique achievement. Take these books up and let yourself be carried along by a master.

 


 

"The Signal Flame" by Andrew Krivak

No comments

 

The Signal Flame is Andrew Krivak’s 2017 second entry in the Dardan Trilogy, after a fictional town in Pennsylvania, the stories’ home setting. Signal Flame shares the last events of the multigenerational saga with the third book, Like the Appearance of Horses (2023). The overarching story traces the remarkable life of Jozef Vinich, who fought for the Austro-Hungarians in the Great War, and through hard work, guts, and brains, eventually came into ownership of a sawmill in Dardan, one of the town’s main employers. Please note, the events of this family’s lives, while vivid and dramatic, do not in themselves make the story remarkable. It is the character, abilities, honesty, and strength of the main characters, and in particular the men, which do so.

The second book, The Signal Flame, features Bo Konar, the elder of Jozef Vinich’s two grandsons. After his father dies, Bo spends his childhood at his grandfather’s side and he learns not only the practical lessons of working a farm and tracking game, but also the wisdom and strength of character only available from someone like Jozef. Bo leaves college after only one semester; the shock of the accidental death of a fellow student with whom he was falling in love, moors him to home. At home in Dardan he begins his career at the sawmill, an operation he will eventually own. Events swirl around him and his family: his father is accidentally killed in a hunting accident in 1949 (when Bo is 8 years old); in the 1960s a flood crashes through the town and Bo acts in a superhuman way, jumping from a bridge into a raging, overflowing river, to save the woman who is pregnant with his niece.

Through it all, the stalwart virtues of honesty, level-headedness, receptiveness, fairness, and worldly wisdom carry the main characters, Jozef and Bo particularly, but also the Catholic priest who provides practical help and succor to the family, and Hannah, Bo’s mother, who grieves the loss of her husband. As a follow-up to 2011’s The Sojourn, The Signal Flame fits supremely well, which is a grand recommendation on its own. It continues the clarity and sturdiness of the prose, the gratifying virtuousness of the main characters, and even the non-essential characters have their full human traits, foibles, beliefs, and skills.

This second book in the trilogy is a worthy entry; it stands on its own if you want to immerse yourself in this part of the story, but my recommendation is to start with the memorable and inspiring (and award-winning) The Sojourn. It’s just a book you should not neglect. And neither is The Signal Flame.

 


 

"Is the Algorithm Plotting Against Us?" by Kenneth Wenger

No comments

 

If you have any awareness of current science events, technological advances, social or public conversations, or media editorials, then you have read something about Artificial Intelligence, or AI. The discussion is highly public, held at a high level, and freighted with far-reaching dicta by all involved. These statements all too often—and very unfortunately—feature sweeping gloom-and-doom pronouncements. Additionally they are catnip to media outlets which crave them for the clicks they can get, but do very little to illuminate a very important emerging technology.

Cutting through this thicket is well worth it. This is where Kenneth Wenger comes in. He’s the director of research and innovation at CoreAVI and chief technology officer at Squint AI. His book, Is the Algorithm Plotting Against Us?, is a tonic. It’s a very useful and well-laid-out primer on the nuts and bolts of AI, and a convincing agenda for informing the discussion of many of the concerns being expressed.

He makes the logical assumption that his audience knows nothing about computer science, the structure of microchips, or the architecture of neural networks. And yes, he will lead you step by step to a good grounding in the science and technology of it all. Concise, highly readable, and logical, he takes his readers from Square One to a good basic understanding of the pitfalls and the potential of this technology. That is the main reason he sat down to his word processor, and the chief virtue of the book. He is eminently successful at the task he set for himself.

Without digging too deeply into the normative social issues—you should read the book!—Wenger gives the reader a crystal-clear perspective on current problems, and thereby establishes where the current debate should be. While acknowledging the sometimes rash and far-fetched statements made by scientists and “thought leaders,” Wenger would have us focus on current problems besetting this technology, which is in its infancy. His finishing touch is polemical, in fact, since he has observed, and has grave doubts about, some of the applications to which AI has been put.

I could go on, because I enjoyed and value this book very much, but I would make a hash of it: I would never be able in a review of this length to present the flow and logic as elegantly as he does. There is a fair amount of math in it, but don’t let that put you off! Wenger always explains it, and always in terms that an 8th-Grade math student could follow.

If you want to follow the public debate, or if you want to participate in discussions with friends and family, this book is a superb place to start. It’s a straightforward, basic guide not only to the brand-new technology, but to the social issues surrounding it. Wonderful! Take it up!