Category Archives: Books

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

My grandpa only ever gave me one piece of advice (well, besides “keep your eyes on the damn road!”). He said, “They can take your land, they can take your property, they can even take your family, but,” pointing to his head, “they can’t take what is in here. They can’t take what you know. So, learn as much as you can.”

Well, what if they sort of could? Or at least, take away your ability to think for yourself?

That is sort of the premise of Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical. The Mechanical is set in a world where, sometime after Europeans stumbled across the Americas, the Dutch find a way to make sentient machines, through some alchemical process discovered by famous Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (what?!? You’ve never heard of him? He discovered a moon of Saturn, invented the pendulum clock, and was a major authority on optics). This gives the Dutch a leg up in the world, and allows them to conquer pretty much all of Europe. Seemingly only the French remain to resist, and they must do this from a small enclave in exile on the North American continent. This is the backdrop for an amazing story of court intrigue, international politics, and a different approach to the discussion of slavery.

This is, because, we quickly come to learn that the machines the Dutch build their empire on not only think, but have some sort of free will, a free will that is subdued by whatever process creates them. Whenever they try to do anything that is not in direct fulfillment of their masters’ wishes, they experience extreme pain, a pain that grows until it is completely intolerable and the machine is forced to act to subdue the pain. “The head faded as he [one of the machines] abandoned his own wishes in favor of his masters’ whims.” Thus, the machines are slaves, forced to subvert their own will to that of their human masters’. Tregillis does a great job of describing the torment the machines feel whenever they try to do something on their own.

With this backdrop, Tregillis discusses free will, slavery, and equality, in a way that advances the plot of his story. One of the main characters, Jax, is one of these machines. But, there are several human characters that represent various views of the treatment of these machines. Not all humans are blind to the suffering of these machines, but even some that are against the Dutch would rather use the machines for their own purposes. “The prosperity achieved through slavery had a way of blinding men’s hearts to the evil of their own hands.”

Thus, along the way, Tregillis, while telling an immensely satisfying story, does get into some pretty deep thoughts about the nature of free will itself. Do the machines have free will? Maybe they don’t, by some definition, but then, maybe humans don’t either. For the machines, “Free Will was a vacuum, a negative space. It was the absence of coercion, the absence of compulsion, the absence of agony.” But, what does that mean for humans? “How did they order their daily existence without somebody to tell them what to do? Or was that the purpose of God?” Or are humans “Some squishy biological machine whose structure imbues it with a complex functioning and a delusional belief in its capability to determine its own course, but which all along follows a path predetermined by its own nature or maker?”

It is always nice to find a book that both provides a very interesting plot as well as thought-provoking material. The discussions about free will flow naturally through the course of the book, they are not force fed or heavy handed. Rather, they are integral to the relationship between the machines and the humans. They drive the plot forward. Tregillis does a great job of pulling these themes forward but in service of his story. I think my ony quibble is that, at the end of the story, some of the actions of some of the characters seem less than reasonable. One can chalk this up to the trauma some of them have endured up to that point, but it still seemed a little forced, like Tregillis needed a way to get to a certain point in the plot and this was the best he could come up with.

However, in spite of this, I am greatly looking forward to reading the next books in the series.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Growing up, my hero was Thomas Jefferson. Here was a man who seemingly did it all: he was of course a leading figure in the founding of our nation, but he was also a gifted writer and a deep thinker, embracing a scientific view of the world. He founded the University of Virginia and, as president, drastically expanded the lands that would eventually become part of the United States. He seemed the epitome of a so-called Renaissance man.

However, as with most things, as I got older, I learned that Jefferson was a much more complex figure, full of contradictions. In the Declaration of Independence, he penned “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” yet, he owned slaves. In fact, he had an ongoing relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered several children. He presented a face of aloofness to politics, seemingly above the pettiness of parties, but, behind the scenes, he was actively engaged in attacking rivals and disparaging other ideas. He was against centralized Federal power until he held it and solidified it significantly. He was terribly afraid of what others thought about him but he continued to search out the central position of national affairs.

The point of Jon Meacham’s The Art of Power is to delve into the mind of Jefferson, to explore the seeming contradictions, to understand the full person. Meacham’s goal isn’t to describe in detail all of Jefferson’s accomplishments. In fact, major events such as the revolution, Jefferson’s time in France, even his presidency are, effectively, only briefly described. Rather, it is Jefferson’s innermost thoughts that Meacham tries to probe, mostly through Jefferson’s copious correspondence and the thoughts of his contemporaries. A complex picture arises of a man who, at his core, has two primary drives: he wants to be a great man and he wants the American experiment to succeed.  He needed power and control. He needed to shape his life and society to his vision of them.

It is perhaps this that best explains Jefferson’s political life. He was so afraid that Americans, particularly the Federalists such as Adams, would revert to a monarchy of some form — worse, rejoin Britain — that he made it a key mission in his life to subvert such efforts. He felt that an educated people would make the right decision, that education begat reason and that, in turn, would lead to a good government. He expounded “the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters” and that “reason, not revelation or unquestioned tradition or superstition, deserved pride of place in human affairs.” However, he knew that an uneducated public was a danger: “if the members are to know nothing but what is important enough to be put into a public message… it becomes a government of chance and not design.” To make informed decisions, people must be informed. “In a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.”

The contradictions in Jefferson’s life are best embodied in his views on slavery. It seems that he did make some admittedly small efforts to end slavery, or at least mitigate it, but, after a few defeats, he gave up. He didn’t advocate for outright freedom, but emancipation and deportation. He didn’t believe that the two races could live side by side. He realized that the institution of slavery would lead to a crisis, but he, along with many of his contemporaries, decided to punt on the issue of slavery in favor of establishing an imperfect United States. The country would later suffer greatly for this, but, in his mind, there would have been no country if they hadn’t gone this route. Perhaps Jefferson’s biggest failing is that, while he tried so hard to exert his views and meld society to his vision in other aspects, he simply “chose to consider himself powerless” over the issue of slavery. Even in his personal life, he didn’t act on his principles, only freeing those slaves which were his own children (by an arrangement with Sally when she lived with him in France to guarantee her return with him). This is where Jefferson, as a hero, comes crashing down the hardest. This isn’t simply a case where Jefferson was no less enlightened than his peers. There were many who advocated for the end of slavery. Some of his fellow Virginians freed their slaves. Emancipation was not a foreign concept, something that hadn’t even crossed their minds. As Meacham says “Jefferson was wrong about slavery,” even from a contemporary perspective.

His personal life was often filled with days of scientific inquiry. He had an enlightened view on experimentation, stating that “I have always thought that if in the experiments to introduce… new plants, one species in a hundred is found useful and succeeds, the ninety-nine found otherwise are more than paid for.” Further, he knew that not all discoveries immediately led to an amazing new application. He advocated for science for its own sake: “The fact is that one new idea leads to another, that to a third and so on through a course of time, until someone, with whom no one of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention.” This is a view that science requires sustained effort and encounters much failure for every success, a view that we would do well to continue to adopt in our own times.

Jefferson spoke a strong game when in the political opposition, arguing against any centralization of power and against a strong centralized government. He was a pure democrat. But, upon gaining power, he didn’t hesitate to use it. As Meacham says “It was easy to speak theoretically and idealistically about politics when one is seeking power. The demands of exercising it once it is won, however, are so complex and fluid that ideological certitude is often among the first casualties of actual governing.” This seems to be an insight we could take to heart today. We are often swayed by idealistic arguments about how the government should work, about how society should work, but we neglect the actual difficulties of governing. We are given platitudes about how things will change, but then are frustrated when they don’t change enough. This is how it has been since the founding of the country and is not likely to change any time soon.

Most intriguingly, Jefferson seemed to have a good perspective on his place in history. He was certainly very proud of his achievements, but he also knew that history would inflate them, would place the achievements of his generation on a pedestal to be almost worshipped. “They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and supposed what they did to be beyond amendment… I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions… but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind… We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Jefferson knew that people and societies change and that their laws must change with them.

This book isn’t exactly an overview of Jefferson’s life. Rather, it tries to delve into his motivations, his thoughts, using his own words. It tries to understand what drives him. At times, it is a little frustrating in that the context isn’t fully fleshed out — the historical backdrop isn’t always clearly presented, but rather assumed — though to fully paint the picture would have led to an enormous volume. Further, there is no deeper analysis of what Jefferson was thinking. In some sense, he is simply presented, with all of his contradictions. That we can’t delve deeper is frustrating, but the simple fact of the matter is that this is the best we can do. We don’t have him here to talk to, so we can only analyze what he wrote and what others wrote about him. Thus, we are left with an imperfect portrait of an imperfect man, one who stood above others in many ways, but who certainly had his own failings. As Meacham says, “He was not all he could be. But no politician — no human being — ever is.”

I certainly gained a new appreciation for Jefferson, both his accomplishments and the motivations behind them. As an adult, I know no human is perfect and no one can be held up on an unquestioned pedestal. Jefferson, as part of the generation that led to the American experiment, is a great man, a man that is inspiring both for the depth of his thoughts and the breadth of his activities. He is also a small man, for his failures. He is a real human who made enormous sacrifices in some domains of his life but was unable to make others that were equally important. Is he my hero? No. But he is still a man I can admire, understanding that he was, as we all are, a flawed human being.

A few other Jeffersonian snippets I thought worth sharing:

  • We have no rose without its thorn; no pleasure without alloy. It is the law of our existence; and we must acquiesce.
  • Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
  • Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind.
  • [Good humor] is the practice of sacrificing to those whom we meet in society all the little conveniences and preferences which will gratify them, and deprive us of nothing worth a moment’s consideration; it is the giving a pleasing and flattering turn to our expressions which will conciliate others and make them pleased with us as well as themselves. How cheap a price for the good will of another!

A Split in Time by Vin Carver

Bad things happen all the time, and many of us wonder “what if?” What if I hadn’t failed that test? What if mom and dad hadn’t gotten a divorce? What if I’d asked that girl to the prom?

For Warren, it’s what if my brother hadn’t died of cancer?

Warren’s home life is a mess. His dad, already a heavy drinker, becomes an alcoholic when his son dies. His mom does her best to keep the family together, but it is taking a toll. And Warren, well, on top of all of the typical teenage angst (why does that girl he has a crush on like his best friend instead), is dealing with this mess of a home life.

Somehow, though, he finds his way to another world in which his brother didn’t die, and his life is idyllic. Which would you choose?

A Split in Time, by Vin Carver, follows Warren’s adventures as he discovers this alternative universe in which his life is everything he wishes it had been. Along the way, he meets various interesting characters, some diabolical. It turns out that Warren’s adventures play out in the backdrop of a much greater context, one only hinted at. It is clear that Carver has built a bigger world with epic stories in store, but only touches the surface in this story.

The strength of this book is the characters. They are well developed with strong motivations. Most (but not all) of the story is told from Warren’s perspective and Carver does a great job of conveying the point of view of a teenager. Most of his other characters similarly come to life on the page. As a word of caution, some of the characters can be pretty brutal. I wouldn’t say it is gratuitous, but there is a dose of violence that adds to the darkness of this world.

If there is a weakness, it is only that some of the more supernatural components are not fleshed out enough to understand how this world works. I assume that will be the subject of follow-on novels. Some of the grander elements feel a bit jarring when they are introduced, like they were forced just a bit. What is clear is that Warren finds himself as part of something bigger. What that something is isn’t entirely clear, yet.

As a first chapter in a much longer series, A Split in Time does an excellent job of introducing an intriguing world with captivating characters. It sets the stage for something bigger. I look forward to finding out what that is.

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter

This book is thought-provoking.

When she was fifteen, Amanda Gefter’s father, while out to dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant, asked her “How would you define nothing?” Her father had been thinking about the nature of reality and he had come to the conclusion that it was nothing. Or better said, Nothing. This question led Amanda on a journey, both of personal development and to understand the true nature of reality. She delved deep into what physics said about reality. Along the way, in her mind masquerading as a journalist, she interviewed and discussed physics with leading physicists. She delved deep into what the cutting edge of science said about the nature of reality. And, along the way, she discovered her own voice, writing a book detailing her journey.

Gefter’s knowledge and insight about the nature of reality, and the excitement she conveys as she learns it, is simply inspiring. As she tries to uncover what physics says objective reality truly is, she slowly finds, step by step, that nothing is objective. Beginning with relativity that said that time and gravity are relative, and through quantum mechanics, that tells us that even measurements are relative, she examines what we know, what the gaps in our knowledge are, and what that uncompromisingly leads us to conclude about reality. There is no objective reality. Every observer essentially has their own reality, their own definition of the universe.

She jumps into how that means a universe could arise out of literally nothing. As no observer can know everything about the universe, as our views are limited and finite, it puts bounds on the information we can each collect. That bound essentially leads to the formation of the universe, a shadow that arises out of nothingness. I don’t completely understand it, and not sure I buy it all, but the steps by which she gets there are all based on what our science tells us.

In any case, her examination of the science itself is fascinating. I was unaware of what the most recent developments in cosmology, string theory, and quantum mechanics were concluding. Her excitement in discovery each new twist and turn is infectious. And, along the way, she gives great perspectives of the leading thinkers in this area.

This book is humbling.

Gefter has no formal science training. Her father, though a medical doctor, is not a physicist. But, these two delve so deep into questions regarding the nature of reality, it is simply humbling for someone like me who has studied physics. Granted, I went in a different direction, focusing on the properties of atoms and materials, but still, that these two have the curiosity, the drive, and the deep intuition to really delve into these questions is inspiring. I’m inspired to try to delve deeper into my own fields, beyond the every day drivers of doing practical science. We’ll see if I’m able to follow through.

The ideas that Gefter explores, that she describes, are hard concepts  and I admit that I struggle with many of them. Most of them arise from simply considerations, typically from seeming paradoxes where some assumption leads to contradictions about how reality must be. In each case, those assumptions must be abandoned and soon we are left with very few. The chain of reasoning and evidence that leads to the final picture is well described, but they ideas are challenging. To fully grasp them, I know I will need to read further.

This book is touching.

Gefter is set on her quest by her father’s question and his own ruminations on the nature of reality. She is both accompanied and followed by her father on this quest as she makes it her own. But, the way Gefter and her father conspire as this journey unfolds, the way they discuss their most recent insights, the way they work together to delve into these deepest of questions, is, in some sense, maybe what all parents dream of. Gefter’s father inspires his daughter to undertake the quest of a lifetime. And she takes it beyond what he could have ever done on his own. The deep intellectual relationship between the two, the shared vision, is something that I could only dream of passing along to my own daughter.

This book is awesome.

The way Gefter explores the nature of reality, the way she starts on her quest knowing literally nothing about the physics of cosmology, quantum mechanics, and relativity, and reaches into the deepest understanding we have, is a great way to convey what we know about reality. She systematically crosses off elements of what might comprise reality and delves deeper and deeper into the seeming paradoxes that arise as our science progresses. I certainly learned a great deal, and the ideas presented are thought provoking in a way that is rare in such books. As opposed to other books on cosmology and string theory, this one doesn’t necessarily take a side or advocate for a certain perspective. Instead, Gefter is really trying to understand what we know and what science tells us about reality. And, in doing so, she produces one of the most entertaining and educational forays into modern physics I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

The ideas that arise from modern physics are mind bending. They push the limits of our ability to understand the world around us. They are beyond our wildest imagination. Science is often criticized for its lack of creativity, but modern physics has created a view of the world and reality that could never have simply been imagined, never dreamed up.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley, takes place in London, but a London of the late 1800s, a time when the Irish were rebelling against British rule. Nathaniel “Thaniel” Steepleton works at one of the government offices as a telegraph operator. His life changes, however, when a watch he mysteriously finds in his room at a boarding house saves his life from a bomb by an alarm going off at just the right time. This begins a long and twisting journey in which he befriends the maker of the watch, Keita Miro, a Japanese nobelman, inventor and one-time assistant to an ambassador. He also crosses paths with one Grace Carrow, an ambitious young woman wishing to embark on a career in science — she wishes to prove the existence of the aether — but is thwarted because, during that time, women could not pursue such careers.

The story revolves around the relationships between Thaniel, Keita, and Grace and is devoted to developing these characters. Keita, in particular, harbors a powerful secret that drives much of the plot. Along the way, Pulley evokes a London of over 100 years ago, having done her research on the people and places of 19th century Britain. Her use of language is very adept, using phrases such as “the part of himself he had amputated still twinged somtimes,” to describe how Thaniel feels about having to have given up piano to get a real job, and “the spare room was crooked, as though it had planned to be L-shaped but changed its mind at the last minute,” to describe Thaniel’s room. This kind of word play makes reading this novel a joy.

The central theme of the story revolves around fate. Why do things happen? What is the role of luck or happenstance on those events. Why and how do we end up where we go in life? Pulley has invented a clever fictional device to drive her exploration of these ideas, while also driving an exciting plot, one that becomes a thriller near the end.

Not only does Pulley explore questions of fate, but she also examines the role of science in society. Grace is a typical scientist, awkward, socially inept, and driven to understand. At one point, one of the characters tells her “Your science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living.” I might quibble with the implication that science excludes imagination (as implied by Richard Feynman, science requires great imagination, more so than many other fields as it is constrained by and must be consistent with reality). However, the point is that there are multiple facets of a full life and all are part of a life worth living.