Sunday, 23 November 2008

Review: "An Anthropologist on Mars" by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is a master of translating brain dysfunction into narrative, helping those of us who are fortunate enough to have more less normal brain function understand ourselves by examining those less fortunate.

"An Anthropologist on Mars" presents seven case studies dealing with visual defects, autism, and memory disfunction. My favourite of these is the story of Temple Grandin, the autistic engineer famous for her humane slaughterhouse designs.

What's remarkable about these studies is how well the careful detail and explanation of the underlying science is mixed with quite human details. We hear about the functions of the brain, but also get disarming glimpses of the lives of the real people dealing with these neurological dysfunctions.

This mix of biography and hard science is quite compelling and inspiring. I'm reminded of "The Man with a Shattered World: History of a Brain World" by A. R. Luria, which was similarly engaging.

I recently picked up "The Mind of a Mnemonist" by A. R. Luria, a precursor to Sacks' blend of science and general interest . This book is heavily referenced in Sacks' work, and is often mentioned in combination with the story "Funes the Memorious" by Jorgé Luis Borges, so it sounds thoroughly like my cup of tea. Stay tuned for a review shortly.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Review: "Look to Windward" by Iain M. Banks

"Look to Windward" opens with the same T. S. Elliot quote as "Consider Phlebas", the first of Iain Banks' Culture novels, and the books are in a sense are companion pieces. Where "Consider Phlebas" deals with the Idiran war, "Look to Windward" deals with the aftermath of both the Idiran war and the interference of the Culture in a civil war among the Chelgrians.

Like his other Culture novels, "Look to Windward" has quite a few digressions, but in this case all of the subplots are more less recognizably in the service of the larger plot. As with his previous novels, there are rich descriptions of the natural and constructed environments, which as always are engrossing.

What is singular and enjoyable about this novel, however, are the two central characters, one a Chelgrian, one a "Mind", an artificial intelligence centuries old. As in "Consider Phlebas", the Chelgrian character in part acts as a foil to help us understand the nuances of the Culture by comparison.

I particularly liked the insight into the "Mind", whose perception of time and scope of focus are so far outside human experience that it can live a lifetime of our experiences in an instant and coordinate billions of decisions where we would be hard pressed to handle a handful.

Banks is as always incredibly inventive. Each twist in the plot is an "a-ha moment", an expansion of our own imagination rather than the kind of contrivance that drives your average mystery (or CSI episode, for that matter).

An entertaining read, particularly the last few chapters, in which all the loose ends are tied up. Although for the most part the right are redeemed and the wrong horribly punished, it never seems arbitrary, it always just fits.

A good book, and highly recommended, particularly for anyone who has enjoyed other Culture novels.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Review: "Consider Phlebas" by Iain M. Banks

Having read "Excession", "State of the Art", "Use of Weapons", "Against a Dark Background" and "Player of Games", I was excited to pick up another of Iain Banks' Culture novels, "Consider Phlebas".

"Consider Phlebas" is the first of the Culture novels, but it works very well if you've already read a few in the loose series. Instead of learning about the Culture from the inside, we follow Bora Horza Gobochul (great name), an agent who is at war with the Culture, who opposes its ideals with violent action. I'm impressed that Banks started on this note, most authors would have held this type of narrative device in reserve for a follow-up work.

"Use of Weapons" and "Player of Games" explored how the Culture shapes the destiny of less advanced civilisations through its Contact and Special Circumstances branches. Think of Contact as the arm that does the heavy lifting and Special Circumstances as a hand that practises sleight of hand most of the time, but is always ready to form a fist as a last resort. Horza works for the equivalent of Special Circumstances among the enemies of the Culture, the Idirans. Horza is a shape changer, the ultimate spy, and quite literally a born killer, with venomous teeth and poisoned nails. He fights the Culture because their intelligent machines are in his mind the enemies of all living beings.

As with many of the Culture novels, "Consider Phlebas" takes an impressively long view. There are small and long arcs that nudge forward the larger plot. Most of these diversions do their job well enough, carrying us through the varied set pieces Banks has lovingly crafted and placed before us. As always, Banks provides a lot of descriptive detail, which requires careful reading, and is a kind of workout for the imagination, but is generally enjoyable.

As with many of the Culture novels, Horza picks his way through his own past as he draws closer to his final goal. This is perhaps a mild cliché, but as the reader begins each novel in utter ignorance of the life and history of its main character, a wee bit of self-absorption and reflection on the past are necessary evils to help us understand the emotional weight of the character.

I don't want to give anything away, but "Consider Phlebas" is, if anything, a bit darker than "Against a Dark Background" in its ultimate resolution (thankfully it's a bit lighter than "Use of Weapons"). It's a testament to Banks that this book is neither much better or much worse than his later Culture novels. Each novel finds a way to mine different facets of the same material, and each stands alone in its own right. All are highly recommended.

I'm in the midst of reading "Look to Windward", thus far it's a great read, stay tuned for that review in a few days.