What I read in 2020

3/24 Iain M. Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata

The last Culture novel, and as it happens it's about the end of a civilization: a civilization of age and technological ability comparable to the Culture preparing to Sublime, which is perhaps the way that the Culture will also someday end.

This book also features what I believe is the longest Culture ship name in any of the books. The ship in question usually just calls itself the Mistake Not…, but its full name is Mistake Not My Current State of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of the Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves the Mere Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath. As it says, “Cool, eh?”

3/20 Jon Ronson, Lost at Sea

A collection of pieces, many previously published in The Guardian: journalism in the broad sense, but where there's no effort to make Ronson's own part in the story invisible. Most of the pieces are simultaneously ridiculous and disturbing, in different measures. My favorite was “Who Killed Richard Cullen,” a piece about the workings and consequences of the subprime loan industry.

3/15 Jeanne Martinet, Truer Than True Romance: Classic Love Comics Retold

The front cover promises “Classic Love Comics Retold,” and that's what just what this book is: a parody of DC Comics girls' romance comics from the 50s and 60s, with new captions and stories to go with the original artwork. The stories include “Too Dumb for Love!,” “Psychic Matchmaker,” “Loving Gay Men,” and “Narcissist Heart.”

3/15 Iain Banks, Stonemouth

I bought a copy of Stonemouth some time around 2012 or 2013, soon after it was published, but this is the first time I've read it. It begins with a 25 year old man returning to the northeast Scotland town that he's from — or more to the point, as we learn very early on, the town that he was run out of five years ago and that he's still not sure it's safe to return to, even just returning for a long weekend to attend a funeral.

The book is mostly narrow in scope in both place (the town of Stonemouth) and time (the four days of Stewart's visit) but with flashbacks and memories of other places and times, including just what Stewart did that caused such upheaval five years ago. There's a fair bit of action packed into those four days and even more conversation, reminiscences, sorting out of relationships, trying to understand what can't be repaired and what can.

3/13 Margery Allingham, Mystery Mile

The further adventures of Albert Campion and an international ring of super criminals, published 1930. It's more thriller than mystery, but some things are mysterious. I found the central mystery pretty obvious, some of the peripheral ones less so.

3/10 Jacqueline Winspear, A Lesson in Secrets

I don't think the year is explicitly mentioned, but this book must also be set in 1932. There are a number of transitions in this book; one of the biggest is that in this book it's becoming clear to a number of characters that they're not living in the postwar era so much as the interwar era.

3/8 Jacqueline Winspear, The Mapping of Love and Death

The prologue is in an unsurprising time but a surprising place: August 1914, southern California. A young man of British ancestry buys land that he believes will become a lucrative oil field, learns that war has been declared, and promptly sails for England to try to volunteer. He dies in 1916, as one does. His remains are discovered many years later, in early 1932, by a farmer working the land somewhere in the Somme Valley, and Maisie is hired to investigate the death.

3/7 Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness

Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosophy professor who specializes in philosophy of science, an amateur scuba diver, and a published octopus researcher. Part of the inspiration for Other Minds comes from the philosophical literature on consciousness, including the work of David Hume, John Dewey, David Chalmers, John Nagel (obligatory link to “What is it Like to be a Bat”), and especially Daniel Dennett. It's also inspired by the biological literature, and by Godfrey-Smith's own encounters with octopuses and other cephalopods.

Godfrey-Smith observes that animals with complex active bodies are rare compared to the full spectrum of animal life, and animals with large complicated brains are even rarer: some vertebrates, especially mammals and birds, and some cephalopods, especially octopuses. What's especially interesting is that these animals are far removed from each other. The fork, one side leading to mollusks and arthropods and the other leading to vertebrates and starfish, was probably about 600 million years ago. Intelligence evolved independently at least twice, and it evolved differently. Octopus eyes are a lot like ours, but octopus brains aren't. For one thing, they're much more distributed: a big chunk of the octopus nervous system is in their arms. What it's like to be an octopus must be very different from what it's like to be a bat or a human.

One of the interesting distinctions the book makes, which is becoming more interesting now that biologists and psychologists have started addressing the what-is-consciousness question that previously seemed like the exclusive domain of philosophers: consciousness, with all the connotations of short term memory or unification of sensory experience or the existence of a global workspace, and simple sentience, the existence of any sort of subjective experience. I've previously tended to treat those two words as synonyms, but it's a useful distinction. Maybe a millipede isn't conscious in the same sense as a human or a cat or an octopus, but being a millipede, unlike being a rock, probably feels like something. However consciousness evolved, gradualism and intermediate states are a reasonable assumption.

One of the puzzling facts about octopuses is that they're very intelligent and also that most octopus species have very brief lives. I learned from this book that there is a generally accepted evolutionary explanation of death by old age. Most of the people who study the evolution of aging think of the octopus as an anomaly, but Godfrey-Smith argues that the generally accepted model suffices to explain their lifespans.

3/4 Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

I was following Liberty Hardy's Gideon the Ninth reread on tor.com, so I decided to reread it too. (Also in preparation for the second book in the Locked Tomb trilogy, Harrow the Ninth, which is coming out in a couple months.) Hardy points out that Gideon the Ninth is sort of like The Westing Game with more skeletons and swords and necromancy; it also bears some resemblance to And Then There Were None. It's interesting rereading it, knowing about the things that most of the characters aren't telling, seeing which of them are hinted at, and being able to notice how sometimes there's some extreme misdirection without quite lying.

Most of this book is told from Gideon's point of view, and her voice is one of the one of the fun parts of the book. “The Lady of the Ninth House stood before the drillshaft, wearing black and sneering. Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus had pretty much cornered the market on wearing black and sneering. It comprised 100 percent of her personality. Gideon marveled that someone could live in the universe only seventeen years and yet wear black and sneer with such ancient self-assurance.” Also a reminder of just how young Gideon and Harrow are! Gideon dismisses the heir and cavalier of the Fourth House as kids or “shitty teens,” but she's only a few years older.

2/29 Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine's Castle

The story of a dispossessed king on a quest to regain his throne. The book has a strong flavor of fantasy about it, starting with the title and the cover illustration, but it's explicit from early on that it takes place on an extrasolar planet, settled many thousands of years ago by colonists from Old Earth and other places and still occasionally visited by starships. It's also explicit that the planet of Majipoor is much larger than Earth, habitable by beings like us only because it's also metal-poor and much less dense.

2/24 Daniel P. Friedman and David Thrane Christiansen, The Little Typer

An introduction to dependent types in the context of a lisp-like toy language, Pie. The Little Typer is sort of a sequel to The Little Schemer, sharing the style of presentation (something like a Socratic dialogue, sometimes rigorous, sometimes breezy, sometimes both) and sharing a co-author. I've never read The Little Schemer, or its earlier version The Little LISPer, and I really ought to; I've heard good things about it, and I liked The Little Typer.

So what are dependent types, and why does one need a book about them? The literal definition, which we get at the beginning of chapter 7, is that “A type that is determined by something that is not a type is called a dependent type,” but that doesn't capture what's interesting about the concept. The C++ type std::array<int, 16> is a type that's determined by something that's not a type, and there's nothing noteworthy about it. It starts becoming more interesting in light of other Pie rules. Every valid expression is either a type or is described by a type, and types are themselves expressions: an atom like 'baguette is an expression with type Atom and (cons 'spinach (cdr (cons 'potato 'olive))) is an expression with type (Pair Atom Atom), and Atom and (Pair Atom Atom) are expressions with type U. Also, functions in Pie are always total functions; there's no such thing as a function that fails or that fails to terminate, which means, for example, that there can be no such thing as a function that returns the first element of a list. (What would it return for a list of size 0?)

That's where dependent types start looking interesting. Continuing on this example we can introduce lists of arbitrary element type and length, described by types like (Vec Atom 16) or (Vec Nat 3), and we can have a function that returns the first element of a vector of arbitrary type and arbitrary non-zero length, where the function's type is (Π ((E U) (ℓ Nat)) (→ (Vec E (add1 ℓ)) E)). Or we can have a function that returns a list of an arbitrary number of copies of the atom 'a, whose type is (Π ((n Nat)) (Vec Atom n)), which illustrates the interesting fact that there's no sharp distinction between compile time and run time (the word “compile” doesn't appear in the book) and that types, like any other expression, are things you perform computation over. We can generalize this to other mechanisms of using more specific types so that, in more cases, the type system itself can capture what the function is supposed to do and can rule out incorrect definitions.

And a large fraction of the book is actually about something else. It's about being able to read types themselves as assertions. We can read Π, the qualifier that lets you write generic types, as “for all,” and we can read a differerent type qualifier, Σ, as “there exists,” and we can read the type constructor for function types, , as logical inference, and we can introduce dependent types that represent assertions of equality, like (= Nat j k). This encodes intuitionistic logic into Pie: a type represents an assertion and providing a value of that type represents a proof. (Intuitionistic logic because all proofs are necessarily constructive, so a proof of ¬¬x isn't a proof of x.) A lot of the book is about how one uses this machinery to prove things like the type (Π ((n Nat)) (→ (Even n) (Odd (add1 n)))). In practice, sophisticated dependent type systems seem to be found in theorem provers like Coq and Agda.

Something I'm still unclear about: what dependent types are useful for in the context of a language that does distinguish between compile time and run time and that has not just typing but static typing, and what the most interesting applications are other than representing intuitionistic logic as code.

2/23 Henry James, Washington Square

I think this is the first Henry James novel I've ever read; somehow I just never got around to him before. It seemed familiar to me, though; perhaps I saw a film adaptation long ago (there seem to have been several over the years, including a 1947 version starring Olivia de Haviland), or perhaps it's just because everything that happened in it was so inevitable. It's a short novel with just a few characters, and it's a story about what happens when they don't change in exactly the ways that they say they won't change.

2/21 William Shakespeare, The Third Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Duke of York

Also the death of York's youngest son, and of Lord Clifford, and the Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI himself, and many others. It's a fast moving play! York's third son, crooked Richard, later Duke of Gloucester and still later Richard III, initially seems a sympathetic character but doesn't stay that way for long.

2/17 Margery Allingham, The Crime at Black Dudley

One of the classic British mysteries from the 1920s. I'd never read it before, or anything else of Allingham's.

2/17 Philipp Blom, The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900–1914

It's a commonplace that the years before 1914 were the last 14 years of the “long 19th century,” but that's not what it seemed like to the people who lived then. It was a time of dynamism, when it seemed that everything was unlike the past. The cover illustration is Jacques Lartigue's photo of car number 6 from the 1912 Grand Prix auto race, and the first chapter is about the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle with its Palace of Electricity and its Hall of Electrical Machines. The point of The Vertigo Years is to see the early 20th century on its own terms, rather than seeing it in light of the war that ended the age.

Which is a lot like the point of Barbara Tuchman's classic The Proud Tower, but there's very little overlap between the two books. One reason is that Blom writes about different things: the early feminist movement, homosexuality and homophobia (Oscar Wilde and the Marquess of Queensberry in England, the Eulenburg affair in Germany), the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905, the new scientific version of racism and the new and even more sinister mystical racism, the genocidal atrocities in the Belgian Congo. An even bigger difference is one of method: Blom seems to be primarily an intellectual historian, so this book leans heavily on artists and intellectuals. The only artist who looms large in Tuchman's book is Richard Strauss (whom Tuchman didn't seem to respect very much), but Blom begins his book by quoting from the chapter “The Dynamo and the Virgin” in The Education of Henry Adams, and we hear from or about Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky, Kokoschka, Picasso, both Mann brothers, Musil, Freud, Steiner, Blavatsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, Kandinsky, Woolf, Strachey, Pirandello, Marinetti, and more.

I noticed a few careless mistakes, unfortunately. The discussion of special relativity, and the way in which it differed from Galilean relativity, was muddled, using a too-cute example of someone jumping off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Neither Galilean relativity nor Einsteinian special relativity is about invariance of the laws of nature in accelerating reference frames.) The account of Rutherford's famous gold foil experiment was exactly backward, suggesting that Rutherford was astonished that most of the α particles passed through the foil. (In fact Rutherford was astonished that a tiny fraction were deflected by 180°. In his own words, “It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”) Blom writes that the Sherlock Holmes stories “were serialized by the Strand Magazine from 1887 to 1915,” which is at best incomplete: Doyle was still publishing Sherlock Holmes stories up through 1927.

2/13 Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail

One of the last Culture novels, and the one that focuses most on simulations, on the difference between a virtual world and the Real. Is the seeming Real itself a simulation? That speculation is brought up as a possibility, but not a very interesting one; the interesting questions about simulations in this book are ethical ones.

Also lots of references to the events of previous Culture books, including Excession, Look to Windward, and Use of Weapons. I'm sorry there will never be more stories about one of the more colorful characters to appear in this book.

2/9 Iain (M.) Banks, Transition

In the UK Transition was published as Iain Banks, and in the US it was published as Iain M. Banks. Both versions of the name make sense. There are no galaxy-spanning adventures, no spaceships and aliens; it's not very like Banks's typical science fiction. On the other hand it is a book about people who flit their consciousness across alternate universes, which seems pretty clearly science fiction by my standards. Or there's an alternate reading in which none of this really happens and it's all the fantasies of an institutionalized patient: “Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator,” the book begins, and there do seem to be gaps and inconsistencies. But that's a pretty strained reading, and not a very interesting one.

2/2 Jacqueline Winspear, Among the Mad

2/1 William Shakespeare, The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey

Continuing the story from Henry VI's marriage to Margaret of Anjou (1445) up through the Yorkist victory at the Battle of St. Albans (1455). As the title promises, this play does include the murder of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Also the violent deaths of several other dukes, and many people of lesser rank. The stage directions call for three different severed heads.

1/26 Anthony Cheetham, The Wars of the Roses (ed. Antonia Fraser)

A very short introduction, with lots of beautiful color pictures, covering the reigns of Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III. This book is from the University of California Press's Royal History of England series, and its text is taken from the single-volume The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England.

The scope of this book is that of Shakespeare's history plays from Richard II through Richard III, and to some extent the book mirrors Shakespeare's point of view that the roots of the instability from 1399–1485 came from Henry Bolingbroke destabilizing the politics of royal succession by usurping the throne. The story of the Wars of the Roses itself, though, isn't so different from the previous book I read: England was stable enough until the 1440s, including the time when Henry VI was a child king, until Henry lost both popular and elite support because of his incompetence.

And yes, it's safe to assume that Richard III did order the deaths of the princes in the Tower. He wasn't the first 15th century English king to kill a predecessor whose throne he seized, or even the second.

1/25 Jacqueline Winspear, An Incomplete Revenge

1/24 Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Ruin

Humans and Portiid spiders have been living together on Kern's World for three generations at the start of Children of Ruin (along with another intelligent species, an underwater stomatopod civilization). Communication is still imperfect and largely computer mediated, though, partly because primate and arachnid minds work differently and partly because neither species has the sensory apparatus to perceive the other's speech without technological aid. Communication across difficult barriers is largely what this book is about: Children of Time ends with an epilogue about the launch of an interstellar expedition from Kern's World in response to the detection of radio signals from something that probably isn't either human or spider, and the first chapter of Children of Ruin gives a pretty big hint about one of the things the explorers will find after they emerge from their decades of cold sleep. I appreciated how alien the octopus way of thought seemed, both to the reader and to the human and spider characters, and conversely how hard it was for the octopuses to understand their visitors. And then there are things even more alien…

I was amused to notice that “Adrian Tchaikovsky” is sort of a pen name: the author's name is actually spelled Czajkowski. Presumably he thought that most English-speaking readers wouldn't know how to pronounce it.

1/20 William Shakespeare, The First Part of Henry the Sixth

  • ’Tis much when scepters are in children's hands,
  • But more when envy breeds unkind division:
  • There comes the ruin; there begins confusion.
  • That's the Duke of Exeter near the beginning of Act 4, and it's a reasonable summary of the play. It takes place during the minority of Henry VI and it's about the origin of the Wars of the Roses: Henry comes to the throne as a child, the power vacuum leads to faction and intrigue, the Duke of Somerset and Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York) take red and white roses as symbols of their factions while meanwhile the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester come close to battle, and with all the internal turmoil England loses the Hundred Years' War. Joan of Arc, a.k.a. Joan La Pucelle, makes an appearance.

    Not historically accurate as far as I understand the history, but it's a good story.

    1/15 Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Time

    Children of Time got a lot of attention a few years ago, but I didn't get around to reading it until just now. It's worth reading. I wouldn't exactly call it space opera, but it is science fiction on the grand scale: starships, terraforming, uplift, AIs, the rise and fall of civilizations, a span of thousands of years. Most of the characters are spiders.

    A lot of far-future stories are implicitly post-apocalyptic, but that's usually in the background and in the distant past. Here the needless destruction is much more foregrounded, and we keep seeing echoes and smaller scale versions of the initial catastrophe. Some of the characters notice too. A question that keeps recurring: is it possible for humanity to do better?

    1/11 Jacqueline Winspear, Messenger of Truth

    The fourth Maisie Dobbs novel. The title comes from the epigraph, from Paul Nash (1889–1946). The man whose death Maisie is hired to investigate was, like Nash, a well known war artist who served on the Western Front with the Artists Rifles.

    This book takes place in 1930. Nick Bassington-Hope and all of the other major characters are fictional, but Sir Oswald Mosley (boo, hiss) makes an appearance. Some of the people in the book see him for what he is.

    1/7 John Gillingham, The Wars of the Roses: Peace and Conflict in 15th Century England

    I read this book because we're going to see the Henry VI trilogy this summer and I realized that I knew next to nothing about the Wars of the Roses. I doubt if the author wrote this book for ignorant Americans like me, but I found it an excellent introduction. The bulk of the book is a straightforward narrative history from 1422, the beginning of Henry VI's reign, to 1485, the death of Richard III. I learned a lot from it, including basic things like the role of Warwick “Kingmaker,” or that the Wars of the Roses had nothing to do with the fact that Henry VI came to the throne as a child (they started long after that), or the fact that Edward IV reigned peacefully for 12 years and died of natural causes and that the violence only restarted after Richard III's power grab.

    Straightforward narrative history, but with a point of view: the Wars of the Roses weren't a bloodbath, and didn't (despite what one would think from Shakespeare) represent any deep divisions or structural problems or legacies from Henry IV's time. The author argues, convincingly, that the problems don't go back any farther than the 1440s and that all of the wars can be traced to the personal failings of three flawed individuals: Henry VI, the Earl of Warwick, and Richard III. The author argues that, as best as one can interpret the fragmentary evidence, England between 1422 and 1485 was largely peaceful. Towns weren't fortified. There were rebellions and battles, yes, but they were fought in the field by small forces and they ended quickly; unlike the wars of continental Europe at the time, this wasn't the grim business of siege and starvation and battering cities into submission and devastating whole provinces.

    The first three chapters are more general, and deal with the always important question: what do we know, and how do we know it? We have very little reliable information about any of the important battles: we have chronicles written long after the fact, very occasionally we have pay records, we have local oral tradition of dubious reliability. We don't have good information about how many soldiers fought in any of the battles: some of the chronicles have numbers, but they're obviously very wrong. There was a lot of writing and printing in the 15th century but a lot of it was ephemera, the vast majority of which has not survived. So a big part of the first three chapters is background: what would be a plausible size for a 15th century army (answer: small), what would the logistics of provisioning look like, how would an army have been raised and paid, how would a battle have been fought given the military technology of the time.

    1/4 Iain M. Banks, Matter

    The first time I read this it was one of my least favorite Culture books, but I liked it better rereading it. Also reminds me that I ought to reread Don Quixote, since one of the characters seems pretty clearly inspired by Sancho Panza.

    Matt Austern