Category Archives: Books

The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

19161852You can tell a book is a real page turner when you get through most of it on an international flight. You can tell that the series is even better when you read the sequel on the return flight. That’s how good The Fifth Season and its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, are.

N. K. Jemisin has created a unique world in which the perils of the characters are trumped only by the perils of the planet they inhabit. The Stillness, as the world is known, is anything but. Constantly racked by earthquakes and volcanoes, the inhabitants of this world have learned to survive in the so-called “fifth season”, when weather patterns, food production, and the very survival of humans is disrupted. Against this backdrop exist a set of humans who have the power to control, at least to some degree, these tremors. For this, they are feared and controlled.

Jemisin’s world is almost as much as a living, breathing entity as her human characters, but not quite. Her human characters are simply outstanding, with a depth that goes beyond typical “non-player character” levels of superficialness and delves deep into what makes them tick. Good guys are shown to be cruel and bad guys are given a deeper side that evokes some sympathy for their actions. This is a world that is not black and white in any sense. Rather it is a world of grey burning in fire.

26228034Through this world, Jemisin explores complex social questions with a depth and a bluntness that is captivating. She explores questions of social standing, of slavery, of discrimination and persecution, in a way that adds to her story. At one point in The Obelisk Gate, a community is deciding who gets to stay and who should be forced to go, all based on how they were born. The protagonist disrupts the proceedings with the declaration: “No voting on who gets to be people.”

The world that Jemisin has created is complex, not only in the way that it is constantly under threat of another massive earthquake, but also in how the humans have responded to their circumstances. She delves into how people treat other people as well as how people treat their planet: “Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.” Ultimately, “there is a not-insubstantial chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth.”

Finally, Jemisin’s characters warrant a few more words. Both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate follow an interesting narrative in which three different character arcs are developed in parallel as the story evolves. Not much more can be said without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that this leads to a very interesting narrative structure that keeps the story moving along without revealing too much at once.

Overall, as one might guess, I really enjoyed these two books and highly anticipate the third and final one in the series. Jemisin has created a rich world with a long and detailed history that directly impacts the story. How she resolves it all, how her characters survive what is coming, are questions that I am really looking forward to seeing answered.

The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis

51ZjDS1hAUL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_ The United States has just fought a long and grueling war for independence. Or had it? What was the goal of that war? Joseph Ellis, noted historian, argues that a collective nationhood, a nation of United States, was not a goal of the war and rather had to be constructed by a group of visionaries, particularly the four men highlighted in his book The Quartet.

Ellis argues that the idea and implementation of a nation of the 13 colonies, more than a loose confederation of sovereign states, constituted a second American Revolution, one that embodied the promise of the actual war itself but one that was, in many senses, at odds with the spirit of the war. The war had the stated goal of throwing off a centralized government that did not represent the people at the local level. The establishment of a federal US government was at odds with this view. Further, the very idea of an American nation was something that the vast majority of Americans had never even considered. They were Virginians, New Yorkers, or Georgians, but never Americans.

However, the loose confederation of states embodied by the Articles of Confederation was simply powerless to do anything that required representing the states in any collective way, including collecting funds to pay down the war debt, put forth a consistent foreign policy, or settle disputes between the states. Four men, in particular, saw this problem and led an effort to empower a federal government that could realize the promise of the American Revolution: George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

The whole process of the calling of the convention that would lead to the US Constitution was, in some sense, anti-democratic. These were the political leaders of the time, but they operated in secrecy. Further, the ratification of the Constitution was done by state conventions, which were attended by select representatives. If a modern referendum had been called, the Constitution and the very idea of an American nation would have been rejected by the people. However, the representatives at these conventions were not so beholden to popular opinion.

This whole idea is a central and very intriguing aspect of the process. Madison, in particular, was not a fan of direct democracy. He felt that the will of the masses could be easily manipulated by demagogues and were a central threat to the rights of the minority. He preferred what a republic, in which the foundations of power resided with the people, but in which that power was filtered through layers of representatives that, ultimately, did not have to directly respond to the whims of the people. The US was never established to be a direct democracy, but very consciously avoided such a model. Essentially, he “endorsed political structures that filtered popular opinion through several layers of institutionalized deliberation before it became the law of the land.” “He harbored an eighteenth-century sense that unbridled democracy was incompatible with the political health of a republic.” “There was in Madison’s critical assessment of the state governments a discernible antidemocratic ethos rooted in the conviction that political popularity generated a toxic chemistry of appeasement and demagoguery that privileged popular whim and short-term interests at the expense of the long-term public interest.” Ellis examines this view in great depth. It is an interesting and, to our modern sensibilities, jarring perspective. He summarizes this juxtaposition thusly: the Constitution “manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

There were of course many contradictions in the establishment of the United States, as a nation, and the ideals of the American Revolution. One of the central tenets of the war was that “all men are created equal.” However, the US certainly didn’t view the Native Americans or slaves as equals. The domestic policy of the US was that civilization would naturally and simply march westward, displacing the Native Americans, without any direct claim of imperialism. Further, the slave issue could not be resolved in the convention, as to directly address the issue would lead to a still-birth of the nation.  “…slavery was, on the one hand, a cancerous tumor in the American body politic and, on the other, a malignancy so deeply embedded that it could not be removed without killing the patient.” “Moral purity on this score would come at the cost of American nationhood.” This is how the men at the Constitutional Convention justified simply skirting the issue. However, one does wonder how history might have developed if they had taken the moral high road and pushed to abolish slavery at that time.

Once the Constitution was written, it had to be ratified, and that entailed a whole new battle in the hearts and minds of the citizens of the future United States. Ellis describes the efforts of primarily Hamilton and Madison, along with Jay, to convince the various state delegations to ratify the Constitution. They played a very political game, trying to get enough states to ratify before the heavy hitters — Virginia and New York — held their conventions to ensure enough political pressure on them to ratify. In the end, ratification was not as certain as one would expect from our historical perspective. Ratification did not represent the will of the people, but rather “superior organization, more talented leadership, and a political process that had been designed from the start to define the options narrowly.” The Bill of Rights, first drafted solely by Madison, had a similar political goal of ensuring that the Constitution would not be challenged by any of the states in the newly formed United States.

One key ingredient of this new Constitution was its vagueness. Issues such as sovereignity between the federal and state levels and slavery led to what Madison called a “living” document, one that “was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution.”

We often view the founding of the United States in almost semi-mystical terms, almost deifying the founders themselves as super-human agents of change. However, the truth is far from this picture and the very founding of the United States was never a forgone conclusion. Ellis’ analysis of this uncertain time provides new insight into the birth of our nation. His use of Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Jay as the vehicles of this change provide a human perspective, shedding light into the doubts these men had in their endeavor and the possibility of success.

I highly recommend this book for the historical perspective it gives into the development of the United States as a nation.

Written in Fire by Marcus Sakey

25812667In the world of Brilliance, Marcus Sakey’s trilogy following the adventures of Nick Cooper, a federal agent, some people are born with extraordinary abilities. They don’t shoot laser beams from their eyes, or turn to steel, or anything like that. Rather, they have abilities that all of us have to some degree, but amped up to a much higher level. Some can see the patterns of people moving and thus can slip through a crowd without notice. Others experience time more slowly that normal, and so can react to events much faster than the rest of us. Cooper’s skill allows him to read body language and anticipate what other people are going to do, a useful skill when tracking down criminals.

In Written in Fire, Sakey takes Cooper on his biggest adventure yet. Without going into detail and ruining the plot, things have gotten out of control between the US government and the Wyoming enclave of the brilliant (the ones born with these abilities), to the point that war may be inevitable. Cooper has to both determine who is doing what — who are the bad guys — and try to stop it.

The problem is, it isn’t clear who the bad guys are. No one thinks of themselves as a bad guy, but rather as someone who has to change the way things are. In Sakey’s world, nothing is black and white — everything is grey. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends. No one is evil, per se, but rather commit evil acts in the name of some greater good, at least in their own mind. However, sometimes, events escape them, spinning out of control.

I really like the greyness of Sakey’s world, as it reflects my own views of the world. Further, while Sakey has created a world of extraordinary people, the themes touch on real world concerns: meritocracy, the rights of minorities, the fear of a changing world, terrorism, the government response to terrorism, personal freedom and responsibility. While Sakey’s world is one of science fiction, the foundation of his world is our own world. He has much to say about the world, but in an even way that presents a nuanced and, yes, grey picture that maybe can help promote dialog.

A couple of quotes that I liked that illustrate this point:

Mostly, people believe they’re doing the right thing. Even the ones who are doing bad things usually believe they’re heroes, that whatever terrible thing they’re doing is to prevent something worse.

When people are scared, it’s easy for them to decide anything different is evil.

He’s broken. Most real-life villains are. Usually it’s not their fault. But that doesn’t matter.

That’s the risk of summoning a demon; they don’t tend to follow orders.

Written in Fire is a fitting end to the Brilliance trilogy, taking it to the greatest of heights and the deepest of depths. It is a great ride that provokes reflection, the way all great fiction should.

Boltzmann’s Atom by David Lindley

1009394Ludwig Boltzmann was one of the fathers of statistical mechanics, that field of physics that treats large collections of particles and has allowed us to understand how materials, which are large collections of atoms, behave. That atoms comprise everything around us is almost self-evident today, but only about 100 years ago, many scientists did not believe atoms existed. Scientists like Boltzmann postulated atoms to derive theories that could explain, for example, how gases behave when you squeeze them or heat them up, but, at the time, they were a theoretical construct. Sure, earlier scientists and philosophers had speculated on the existence of atoms, all the way back to the ancient Greeks, but no one had ever seen an atom, so building a whole theory on the assumption that atoms exist seemed, to many scientists, the utmost folly. They thought it was pointless to build theories on hypothetical entities that might never be observed.

In spite of pushback from many established scientists, Boltzmann dedicated his life to developing theories that relied upon the assumption that atoms exist. He was only fully vindicated when Albert Einstein published his paper explaining the origin of Brownian motion, that motion you can see in a microscope in which a particle of pollen, for example, seems to wander randomly around the slide. What caused that motion? Einstein showed it was atoms bombarding the pollen grain from all sides. He did this by using Boltzmann’s theories.

David Lindley’s Boltzmann’s Atom explores the state of physics during the end of the 1800s and how scientists like Boltzmann laid the foundation for modern theories about atoms. Not only did Boltzmann’s work establish some of the pillars of statistical mechanics, but, in some sense, laid the groundwork for the forth-coming quantum revolution. Lindley describes the scientific atmosphere, especially the conflict between pure theorists like Boltzmann and more pragmatic scientists that felt that theoretical physics was not fundamentally science. Ultimately, Boltzmann’s ideas prevailed, but that basic conflict still exists, particularly as modern scientists build theories based on super-strings and membranes, entities that no one knows how we will ever see. The debates we have today about the future of science and whether such theories are really science remind one of the similar debate over atoms.

Not only does Lindley provide a fascinating history of science, but he delves into the life of Boltzmann himself, who was a complicated man. Boltzmann seemed to never be at peace, never happy with the perceived lack of recognition his theories had during his life. He always felt isolated and alone, never in the center of the science world. He always felt like he was missing out, much like the social wallflower that hangs back against the wall at the party. Lindley’s portrayal of Boltzmann and the other scientists of the era shows that scientists are all too human, with their ambitions, egos, and insecurities. That the pillars of such an important branch of physics were such people provides a reality check on how science actually occurs. Breakthroughs aren’t automatically embraced by the community, but often need time to be assimilated, often via the passing of the old guard, before they are truly appreciated. Science, like all human endeavors, can be messy, and the life of Boltzmann highlights this fact.

Having read this accounting of Boltzmann’s life right after that of Alexander Hamilton’s, I am struck by the anxieties we have today. We fret that politics has degenerated or that science is at the cusp of some existential crisis. We always believe that our situation is somehow special, that things are at a tipping point never encountered before. However, reading about these men and their roles in the history of science and the United States, respectively, one cannot but be struck by how little things have changed. Sure, politics are nasty now, but they were nasty way back during the founding. Sure, theoretical physics has an uncertain future, but it did so back when atoms were being discussed. Things are different, but they really aren’t at some level. As they say, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser

fe06a2d4dca55648482cbdfdb0ecf9ed-w204@1xWith the current election season in full swing, there is a lot of talk about the Founders and the Constitution. I’ve had my own fascination with this period. When I was a kid, Thomas Jefferson was my boyhood hero. I thought he was the epitome of what people could strive for, an excellent scientist who made profound contributions to the founding of our nation and to the ideals of human liberties more generally. Because of my boyhood fascination with Jefferson, I’ve made it a point to read as much as I can about that period in our history.

Richard Brookhiser’s Alexander Hamilton, American, focuses on one of the lesser-known figures in our founding. Of course Hamilton features on the $10 bill, but he was one of the few people adorning our money that wasn’t a president (Benjamin Franklin being the other). Hamilton owes his prominence on our money to his role as the first Secretary of the Treasury, in George Washington’s administration. Before that, however, he was a commander in Washington’s army and an ardent defender of the Constitution as it was being ratified by the various states — he was the most prolific of the three authors of The Federalist Papers.

Brookhiser’s account of the life and contributions of Hamilton to our nation is both concise and well-delivered. He provides a good sense of the man, both in his personal and public lives. Hamilton was an accomplished lawyer, and this colored how he presented himself and how he argued, for example, for the Constitution. These days, we hold the Constitution almost in reverence, but back then, it was a document that was not necessarily going to be approved by the majority of the states. Hamilton did a lot in making sure it was.

As Secretary of the Treasury, he was instrumental in providing the new nation a secure financial foothold. While his proposals were controversial at the time, especially opposed by the so-called Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Essentially, the debate was the same as it is today: what is the role of the federal versus state governments in the governing of the nation.

Of the Founders, Hamilton had perhaps the most unique perspective. Rather than being the son of landed gentry in Virginia or other established families in the Americas, he was born in the West Indies and his parents died early in his life. He eventually made his way to what would become the United States to attend school. He was very much a self-made man, but at the same time, he recognized that his rise was often the consequence of luck, of being noticed by the right person to facilitate, for example, his move to the colonies. He believed in his skills and the need for hard work, but he also realized that he could easily have stayed as a poor man in the West Indies if not for some fortunate circumstances.

Just as with the Constitution itself, we have a tendency to romanticize the Founders. We almost think of them as infallible. However, one thing that becomes immanently clear upon reading about the lives of figures such as Hamilton and Jefferson is just how human they were. We often complain about the sad state of affairs of politics in our own times, but it isn’t so obvious that they were much better back then. The leaders of the newly-minted political parties — the Federalists and the Republicans — were constantly attacking one another, revealing dirty laundry, and insulting one another in the press. They wrote letters to other important people disparaging one another. Jefferson, in some sense, was one of the worst. It seems that Hamilton never got overly personal in his attacks, attacking ideas more than specific people, but he ultimately lost his life in a duel due to, in part, his machinations behind the scenes to ensure that Aaron Burr did not win the presidency. They were very political beasts back then, as they still are today.

Hamilton’s contributions to the formation of our nation cannot be understated. He established institutions that provided for the stability and ultimately prosperity of our nation. He also defended the basic ideals upon which our nation was founded with a vigor and depth that continue to inspire. Brookhiser’s biography is certainly worth a read both for the perspective on Hamilton but also the time of the Revolution and the Founding more generally.