What I read in 2021

12/31 Toby Ord, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

Species on Earth typically survive for somewhere in the range of 1–10 million years. Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years so far. Judging by the typical lifespan of a species, or by our close relatives Homo habilis, who lasted about 2 million years, we're still in our adolescence. Of course, there are also reasons to think we aren't a typical species. Maybe our adaptability and geographic distribution and technology will let us survive as long as horseshoe crabs (450 million years and counting), or until the Sun goes red giant, or even longer. Or maybe we're atypical in the other direction; maybe the human contradiction, power combined with lack of wisdom, means that our remaining lifespan should be measured in decades rather than eons.

The Precipice is a book about that dichotomy. It introduces the concept of an existential risk, meaning something that can permanently destroy humanity's long-term potential: extinction, or irreversible collapse of civilization, or Orwell's “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” The author addresses natural catastophes, like the asteroid impact that killed the non-avian dinosaurs 66 million years ago, or volcanic events like the ones that might have triggered the end-Permian extinction 252 million years ago, or more violent possibilities like supernovae. His biggest concern, though, is what we might do to ourselves: nuclear war, climate change, the mass extinction of the Anthropocene. This also includes more speculative possibilities involving technologies that might emerge in the future, such as advanced biotechnology, or nanotechnology, or artificial intelligence. It's impossible to assess the magnitude of these risks (maybe it's zero for all we know; maybe there's some reason why nanotechnology or AI is impossible) or to know whether these dangers, if they exist, are a concern for the 21st century or the 25th, but uncertainty isn't our friend. Just because we can't put a number on the risk doesn't necessarily mean it's small.

Toby Ord is a moral philosopher who has previously worked on the ethics of decision making under moral uncertainty. A lot of The Precipice is empirical and even quantitative, but yes, a big chunk of it is philosophical. The point of emphasizing what humanity's potential might be is to make the case that extinction is a different and qualitatively worse kind of disaster than other disasters: if everyone dies, it's not just twice as bad as if half of us die. He makes that case on the basis of utilitarianism, making the not unreasonable assumption that someone's life a thousand years from now is just as valuable as someone's life today, and also from a number of non-utilitarian points of view. I think most people, utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike, will find that plausible enough. He also introduces what he calls longtermism, which is perhaps more of a stretch for many of us: the notion that we ought to be thinking seriously about “the impacts of our actions upon the longterm future” and that our most important goal is safeguarding and shaping that future.

I have conflicting intuitions about longtermism, which I don't know how to reconcile. The basic trouble is that from a sufficient distance in time an awful lot of things can look small; humanity recovered from the Black Death and the Thirty Years War, after all, and from whatever disaster caused the genetic bottleneck 75,000 years ago, and it only took a few tens of millions of years for Earth's biodiversity to recover from the end-Permian extinction. So, for example, climate change makes Ord's list of existential risks not because of the potential for the destruction of coastal cities, mass starvation, the loss of whole species and genera, large chunks of the Earth becoming uninhabitable, war, and hundreds of millions of people becoming refugees, but because of the unknown tail risk: we can't rule out the possibility that it might be even worse than projected and that we might boil the oceans or the equivalent. If the distinction is between extinction and everything else: that everything-else category is awfully broad. I get even more uneasy about combining longtermism with utilitarianism and decision theory: it seemingly leads to the conclusion that if one is contemplating a far future with quintillions of people, then increasing the probability of that future by even a microscopic chance is more important than even the worst possible non-extinction disaster. It's hard to see how that can be right.

I'm inclined to think that from a moral point of view we don't really know how to reason about tiny chances or inconceivably high stakes, and that trying to make some of these sharp distinctions between different degrees of inconceivably bad things might obscure more than it illuminates. It's also possible that from a practical point of view it might not matter very much: Ord and I agree that we ought to be working to prevent enormous disasters, even if I'm not sure that I fully agree with his reasoning for why we need to prevent them. It's useful to know what some of the dangers are, and some of the things we can do about them.

12/31 Fonda Lee, Jade Legacy

The last book of the Green Bones trilogy. It's a very long book, more than 700 pages, and it takes place over a span of decades. Remarkably, given how violent the book is, some of the characters we met in the very first book manage to grow old.

12/30 Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot: The Complete Short Stories

An omnibus, collecting stories published between 1923 and 1941.

12/23 Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (tr. Paul Foote)

Lermontov was primarily a poet; A Hero of Our Time was his only novel, although if he had lived past 26 perhaps he would have written more. It's a very short novel, almost a collection of linked stories. It's one of the first Russian psychological novels, published 1839—40, and inspired many of the later Russian novelists. The title is ironic.

“The Hero of our Time is certainly a portrait, but not of a single person. It is a portrait of the vices of our whole generation in their ultimate development. You will say that no man can be so bad, and I will ask you why, after accepting all the villains of tragedy and romance, you refuse to believe in Pechorin. You have admired far more terrible and monstrous characters than he is, so why are you so merciless toward him, even as a fictitious character? Perhaps he comes too close to the bone?”

12/14 James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Falls

The last book of The Expanse. And yes, it's a satisfyingly dramatic end to a story of this scope, and one that seems inevitable in retrospect. I believe the authors when they say they knew the end of the story, including the last line of the last book, ever since the beginning of the series.

12/11 Ada Palmer, Perhaps the Stars

The fourth and last book of Terra Ignota. Also the longest by a considerable margin, about 600 pages long, taking us through the end of the war to the peace and the transformation that lies beyond it. It's the first war in a couple centuries, and it's as complicated as a world war must always be: a fractal war, as one character puts it, or perhaps several overlapping wars. One of the few things the war isn't about is religion, at least not directly, even though so much of the rest of the book is; it's not a repeat of the Church War that ended the nation-state era. There's the war over land and money and political power, a war of petty revenge, a war of less petty anger about a freshly revealed conspiracy, a war of gender, a war about whether to defend or remake the world order of Hive and nation-strat, a dozen local rivalries, and the war about the long term future of humanity.

I saw a review describing the bulk of the book as a war epic. That's true, and more literally so than usual. The epic in question is the Iliad, complete with Thersites, the abduction of Helen, the death of Patroclus, the wrath of Achilles, and later the fall of Troy. From the first three books, both the reader and the characters expect this one to be the Iliad. As a bonus, we also get the Odyssey, even a version of Teiresias's prophecy from Book 11.

“And even if you do reach Alexandria, do not expect rest and an easy welcome there, where all the darts and blades of humankind and Distance too converge on That Being least ready for them. No, in Alexandria shall but begin your next labor, and then the next, and then the next. You know what you owe, and that one lifetime—ten lifetimes—will never pay it. Before you've sweated out your years as oarsman on Apollo's flagship, you would have to lead Utopia and all of us to some new world, new state, so untouched by your enemy Distance that there the very tools we hone to battle him, our oars and sails and ships, are yet undreamed.”

12/2 Ngaio Marsh, Singing in the Shrouds

11/30 Ada Palmer, The Will to Battle

The title and the epigraph come from Thomas Hobbes, from Leviathan: “For Warre, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather.” This book is full of Hobbes, just as the first two books of Terra Ignota were full of other Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, and de Sade.

And yes, by the end of the book, the gates of the Temple of Janus in Romanova are opened and the world is formally at war. The events of this book are in some ways reminiscent of the July Crisis, I'm sure deliberately, but the parallel that everyone in the book is thinking of even more is the Iliad.

11/26 Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders

In which doom grows closer and in which we learn the answers to some of the mysteries from Too Like the Lightning, including who stole the Seven-Ten list, how and why Mycroft did what he's infamous for, J.E.D.D. Mason's parentage, the purpose behind O.S., and the true identity of the Major. But this was very explicitly written as a novel of ideas, and the more important questions are the philosophical and theological ones that will never get definitive answers.

11/23 Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning

I'm reading the first three books of Terra Ignota in preparation for Perhaps the Stars. I'd remembered some things from the first three books, including why everyone recoils from the narrator in horror and disgust when they learn his name, and including “the web of what could be labeled neither incest nor nepotism, but smelled like both,” but I was still afraid of being hopelessly lost in the last book.

The author is an intellectual historian in her day job. The narrator insists that it's the 18th century that's essential for understanding the 25th century events he's narrating, but rereading this book, knowing what comes next, it's clear that the other important historical era is the years just before 1914.

11/18 Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, written by Octavia E. Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy, illustrated by John Jennings

Just what the title says: a graphic novel adaptation of one of Octavia Butler's best novels. It works well in this format, and I'll also have to read the graphic novel adaptation of Parable of the Talents.

Parable of the Sower (the original book, that is, not the adaptation) was published in 1993 and set in the near but not too near future, the mid 2020s. It still feels like the near future, unfortunately, but probably more than a year or two away. The really unexpected thing about the story is the hope.

11/16 Seanan McGuire (writer), Takeshi Miyazawa and Rosi Kämpe (artists), Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over

In which Gwen Stacey, a.k.a. Ghost-Spider, moves away to attend college at Empire State University on Earth-616. Fortunately, “Tony Stark established a scholarship program for aliens, dimensional travelers, clones, independent machine intelligences, and other students outside the norm.” Unfortunately, Earth-616 has more supervillains than her home dimension.

11/15 Kieron Gillen (writer), Dan Mora (artist), Tamra Bonvillain (colors), Ed Dukeshire (letterer), Once & Future vol. 1: The King Is Undead

As the tough old retired vampire-hunter grandmother points out near the beginning of the first comic, there's always something disturbing about a prophecy that can be taken in two ways. It's said that the once and future king will return in Britain's darkest hour. “Well, he could return because it's Britain's darkest hour, sure … Or his return could cause it.”

11/14 Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress volume five: Warchild

One of the 2021 Hugo finalists for Best Graphic Story. One of the several cold wars from the last few volumes has become hot.

11/11 James Joll, The Origins of The First World War (Second Edition)

A book about “why this particular war broke out at that particular moment,” published in 1984 and revised in 1991. The first chapter is a chronology of the July Crisis, including the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, Hoyos's mission to Berlin on July 5, Austria-Hungary's ultimatum to Serbia on July 23, the failed British attempt at mediation on July 26, Russian mobilization on July 30, French and German mobilization on August 1, Germany's ultimatum to Belgium on August 2 and Italy's declaration of neutrality the same day, Britain's declaration of war on August 4. Each subsequent chapter explores one set of causes that has been discussed over the decades, exploring to what extent it can explain the decisions that were made at the time: the structure of alliances, militarism and the arms race, capitalism, imperialism, domestic politics and public opinion.

11/7 Kieron Gillen (writer), Stephanie Hans (artist), Clayton Cowles (letterer), DIE, Volume 2: Split the Party

Not my top choice for the 2021 Best Graphic Story award, but I started liking it more after Charlotte Brontë showed up. I've never read any of her juvenilia.

11/6 Nino Cipri, Finna

Post-breakup angst and something worse than ordinary capitalist alienation at an Ikea-like big box furniture chain called LitenVärld. Corporate has prepared a training video for situations like this, “Maskhål och du,” badly dubbed into English as “Wormholes and you.” The retail clerks with the least seniority get a special task.

11/6 Jim Blandy, Jason Orendorff, & Leonora F. S. Tindall, Programming Rust: Fast, Safe Systems Development (2nd Edition)

The second edition is updated to Rust 1.50. The biggest difference I noticed is that it includes a long chapter on asynchronous programming, a complicated subject. I should probably also read some other material devoted exclusively to async, like the official Rust project's Asynchronous Programming in Rust. I think the chapter on unsafe Rust is also somewhat expanded.

11/4 Sarah Gailey, Upright Women Wanted

One of the nominees for the 2021 Best Novella Hugo, set in a dystopian semi-post-apocalyptic Southwest. It begins when the main character runs away from oppression and pain and from what she thinks of as her own sin, hoping to join the Librarians and devote herself to a life of virtue, knowledge, and patriotism. She quickly discovers that the Librarians aren't what she had thought. It ends up being a hopeful feel-good story.

11/2 P. Djèlí Clark, Ring Shout

The subtitle is “or, Hunting Ku Kluxes in the End Times.”

It's a dark fantasy set in 1922; the Ku Kluxes are extradimensional demons, the founders of the Klan were evil wizards, and Birth of a Nation was a summoning ritual. It's very good, thus far one of my two favorites of the Best Novella nominees.

10/31 Roger Zelazny, A Night in the Lonesome October

In a year when Halloween happens to fall on a full moon there's a special and dark Game, as the participants call it, whose stakes gradually become clear over the course of the book. A Night in the Lonesome October takes place in one of those rare years, 1887, and this time the Openers and Closers have gathered somewhere outside of London. Some of the characters are very recognizable.

There's a prologue where we're introduced to the main character, a watchdog named Snuff whose master Jack is the keeper of an ancient curse, and then one chapter for each day of the month. This year I did a chapter-a-day reread. Even if you don't read it in October, it's a wonderful mixture of humor, horror, and pastiche.

10/24 Tochi Onyebuchi, Riot Baby

One of the finalists for the 2021 Best Novella Hugo. The title comes from the fact that one of the two main characters, Kevin Jackson, was born in LA during the Rodney King riots. It's a brutal and angry book about casual cruelty, especially the cruelty of the police and carceral state. The plot is basically the main characters realizing they have a right to be angry. It ends with the hope for justice, vengeance, and freedom.

The timeline is complicated, with a lot of flashbacks and a lot of things seen in possibly supernatural visions, and I'm not sure it completely works. The later parts of the book feel like near-future, but based on Kevin's age and the date of the Rodney King riots (1992), they must be more like the present or recent past.

10/22 Agatha Christie, Hickory Dickory Death

10/21 Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune

One of the finalists for the 2021 Best Novella Hugo, a fantasy story in a setting that's inspired by east Asia. The story builds slowly: it seems quiet at first, gradually getting more and more consequential. It's a little reminiscent of The Remains of the Day.

10/17 Christopher Brooke, From Alfred to Henry III: 871–1272

This book is the second volume of the “Norton Library History of England” series, and it basically covers the time when England came to exist. Alfred was an English king, but he wasn't king of England; in his time there were several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, plus several kingdoms in Wales and Scotland, plus the Danelaw in the north. No single king ruled all of what's now England until Cnut, who was also king of Denmark and Norway. By the end of the book, though, we see a kingdom of England with familiar looking borders, and even with early versions of some of the important features of today's British government. It was a gradual process.

It was an eventful few centuries, and not just because of 1066.

10/16 Andy Weir, Project Hail Mary

The book begins when the main character wakes from a coma, not remembering his name or where he is. He's smart, so by the end of the first chapter he realizes something that anyone looking at the front cover of the book already knows: he's in space, and the other two members of his crew are dead. It doesn't take him much longer to realize that the nearest living human is trillions of miles away, and that he has to somehow save the world. There are problems to be solved by clever science and engineering. So basically I agree with the reviews: if you're the sort of person who enjoyed The Martian, you'll probably enjoy this book too.

I'm not convinced by the beetles. If I just want to serve five terabytes from Tau Ceti, I think there are easier ways.

10/15 Megan O'Keefe, Catalyst Gate

The last book of the Protectorate space opera trilogy, in which various ancient secrets are revealed. I'm not completely sure the book is quite consistent about just who knew what when, but I'm also not completely sure it isn't. There's a lot of secrecy and a lot of deception, including self-deception.

10/11 Rebecca Roanhorse, Black Sun

One of the finalists for the 2021 Best Novel Hugo. It's an epic fantasy set in an invented world that's inspired by the pre-Columbian Americas: multiple cultures, a violent backstory, political intrigues, a large cast of characters, a complicated timeline. The book begins with a mother performing a horrifying ritual that, she tells her 12 year old son, will eventually make him become a god. Perhaps that's true.

This is Book One (of how many?) of Between Earth and Sky. I'm looking forward to the sequel(s).

10/8 Ngaio Marsh, Death of a Fool

Murder and Morris dancing.

10/5 N. K. Jemisin, The City We Became

One of the finalists for the 2021 Best Novel Hugo. It's urban fantasy, of course, and very specifically New York fantasy. As the author says, “This is my homage to the city.”

A great city may eventually awaken, come to life, and choose an avatar for itself. Or in this case six avatars: the city itself and each of its boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. (Everyone always forgets about Staten Island.) But there are also eldritch horrors out there, ancient evils waiting to kill cities at that moment of birth. Lovecraftian horrors specifically, although various characters in this book are quite aware that Lovecraft was quite the nasty little bigot himself, and the extradimensional monsters in this book find allies in the very human white supremacists and neo-Nazis and misogynists and other members of the alt-right.

The book presents a difficult ethical problem, and raises some questions about what the right side really is, but it's not completely clear whether the problem is real, or deception, or something else. The City We Became is the first of the Great Cities trilogy, so perhaps these questions will be explored more in a later book.

10/1 Ngaio Marsh, Scales of Justice

As in fish scales. A trout is an important clue, and a cat is indirectly an important witness.

9/30 G. Willow Wilson (writer) and Christian Ward (artist), Invisible Kingdom: volume two: Edge of Everything

One of the finalists for the 2021 Best Graphic Story Hugo. It ends on quite the cliffhanger!

9/29 Mary Robinette Kowal, The Relentless Moon

The third book in the Lady Astronaut series, set in an alternate 1960s with a drastically accelerated space program. This book has a different main character than the first two: most of it takes place at the same time as The Fated Sky, so Dr. Elma York is tens of millions of miles away, halfway to Mars. The main character is Nicole Wargin, another one of the original six female astronauts and also the wife of the governor of Kansas. The book has a lot to do with politics (Nicole's husband is a national political figure and a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination), but it's mostly a mystery or spy thriller: a religious-right terrorist group is trying to disrupt the space program, and there's a saboteur on the Moon.

9/26 G. Willow Wilson (writer) and Christian Ward (artist), Invisible Kingdom: volume one: Walking the Path

A graphic novel about Vess, a newly initiated None of the Renunciation, and Grix, a freighter pilot for the mega-corporation Lux, who jointly discover corruption and conspiracy. It's set in a system with multiple inhabited planets and multiple intelligent species, well developed interplanetary travel but no interstellar travel.

9/25 Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

A history of 20th century classical music, beginning with the premiere of Salome in 1906 and ending with contemporary composers like Gubaidulina, Adams, and Adès. It's a huge and unwieldy subject, and it's a sprawling book. The book leaves out a lot (it mentions very few female composers, and very few composers from continents other than Europe and North America), but even so it seems like the topic is impossibly broad.

The title is a paraphrase of John Cage, who also provides the epigraph for Part III of the book: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.” It's an insightful observation. You could try to tell a sort of whig history about the evolution of twelve-tone music from late romanticism, maybe going from Liszt to Debussey to Strauss to Stravinsky to Schoenberg to Berg to Babbitt to Boulez, but that story would be incredibly incomplete. It would mostly be a story about the first half of the 20th century (modernist music, like modernist literature, modern physics, and the modern warfare system, is now over a century old), and it would be incomplete even so. There's a lot of diversity in 20th century classical music; Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue are both from the 1920s.

One of the main themes of this book is the connection between music history and other kinds of history. One can't talk about Shostakovich without talking about Stalin, and one can't talk about Strauss without talking about Hitler. Postwar musical history was at least partly influenced by the US government's explicit decision to promote composers who were associated neither with the Nazis nor with communism. A related theme is the complicated relationship between classical and pop music. Both of those terms are vague and unsatisfactory, but the distinction, as messy as it is, is one of the novel and important things about 20th century music. Different people interpreted it in different ways. Some composers reveled in the distinction and were proud of being difficult and unpopular. Others, like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Kurt Weill, Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein, and Lou Reed, attempted to transcend it, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps things will seem different in the 21st century.

There's a long list of recordings accompanying the book, both in the “Suggested Listening and Reading” notes at the end of the book, and in the audio guide on the author's Web site. I ought to reread the book, next time more slowly, and listening along with reading.

9/13 Ngaio Marsh, Spinsters in Jeopardy

It takes place in the south of France, and it's almost more a thriller than a mystery.

9/12 Fonda Lee, Jade War

Two wars, actually: the clan war between two Green Bones clans, and a war between great powers both of whom want Kekonese jade for their special forces. Much of this book takes place in Espenia, on the other side of the world from Kekon.

8/30 Fonda Lee, Jade City

It's a secondary-world fantasy novel, the first of a trilogy. It takes place in a city with a vaguely east Asian flavor, in a world with roughly a mid 20th century level of technology: office towers, televisions, cars, guns, airplanes. One of the religions of this world has a creation story in which jade is a gift from the gods, a remnant of the original jade palace of heaven. Perhaps that story is true, considering that wearing jade gives superhuman powers—at least to those with the right ancestry and the right training.

Jade City is a wuxia martial arts story and also a gangster story. In the afterward the author said she was drawing on stories and documentaries about the mafia, the triads, and the yakuza. To me, at least, parts of it seemed modeled very specifically on The Godfather: the main events of the book get kicked off by something that reads a lot like Sollozzo's offer to the Corleones, and there are characters who seem very reminiscent of both Sonny and Michael. I ought to watch that movie again.

8/28 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

The book that made Hawking a household name. It's an introduction to fundamental physics and cosmology. It includes some of the work that made Hawking's reputation within the physics world, like singularity theorems and Hawking radiation, and it also includes string theory and other really speculative stuff. Some of the explanations seemed not so great, unfortunately; I don't think anyone could have understood the explanation of quantum mechanics if they didn't already understand it, for example, let alone the more technical parts like renormalization or the Feynman path integral.

I read the second edition, revised in 1998, which meant it was able to incorporate the COBE results. It's a shame there will never be a third edition that incorporates newer experimental results, such as accelerating expansion of the universe and the failure to detect supersymmetry at the LHC. Both of those would probably have had a bearing on the second half of the book.

8/26 Plutarch, The Age of Alexander (revised edition) (tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert and Timothy E. Duff)

One of the volumes of the Penguin Plutarch series, which is great in some ways and frustrating in others. On the one hand it's a modern translation that reads well as English and is presumably informed by the latest scholarship, and the introductions and notes are very helpful in putting the lives into context. On the other hand, Penguin chose to organize their Plutarch in an annoying way: by theme and period, rather than using Plutarch's own arrangement. This volume contains the lives of Artaxerxes, Pelopidas, Dion, Timoleon, Demosthenes, Phocion, Alexander, Eumenes, Demetrius, and Pyrrhus (he of the pyrrhic victory): roughly 405 BCE through 272 BCE, starting a couple generations before Alexander and extending through the chaos after his death. But almost all of Plutarch's biographies were written as parallel lives, a Greek life paired with a Roman, with a comparison before or after the pair. Plutarch paired Dion with Brutus, Demosthenes with Cicero, Alexander with Caesar, Demetrius with Mark Antony, and so on. Penguin's series splits those lives into separate volumes, unfortunately; we get some of Plutarch's comparisons, but none of the paired lives.

Plutarch is worth reading both as literature and as a source of historical information — sometimes the closest thing we have to a primary source, since many of the sources he cites have been lost. He does his best to be historically accurate, but he's very explicit that he's writing character studies and philosophy rather than full biographies: “I am writing Lives not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man's character than battles where thousands die, huge deployments or the sieges of cities.” His lives aren't always arranged chronologically. Readers are expected to be already familiar with the basic outline, and they're expected to recognize his quotations from Homer, Euripides, and others. I found the footnotes helpful.

8/23 Ngaio Marsh, Night at the Vulcan

8/8 Ngaio Marsh, Swing, Brother, Swing

Featuring a bizarre murder method, an advice columnist, cocaine, and an eccentric peer whose current obsession is boogie-woogie.

8/2 Agatha Christie, The Labors of Hercules

8/1 Michael Heller & James Salzman, Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives

The authors are law professors, which means they spend a lot of their time teaching students about corner cases of property law. The book is mostly about the fact that ownership is less straightforward than one might think: different legal systems make different choices about who owns what, and about what ownership means. There are tradeoffs and value judgment to be made, and they've been made differently in different times and places. If you're a homeowner, who owns the air rights above your house, and how high do those rights extend? Who owns the mineral rights beneath it? Under what circumstances do you own the right to pump groundwater, or capture river water or rain water? To what extent does it make sense to say that you own your body?

The authors do a good job of working through the complexities of who owns something, including the question of who the first owner of a previously unowned thing is. (When the thing in question is land, the ugly answer often just comes down to conquest. Judicial decisions are sometimes pretty open about that.) My only real criticism is that I don't think they adequately grapple with the even trickier question of reificiation, how one slices up the conceptual universe to identify a thing that can be owned. As things get more and more abstract, this question is becoming more important. We've decided that one can own a slice of the fourier transform of the electromagnetic field (at least certain slices in certain places), which is already weirdly abstract, and it gets even more weirdly abstract when one starts thinking about “intellectual property.” The authors correctly point out that copyright and patent law involves tradeoffs between rewarding the work of creators and providing value to everyone, but they don't give as much attention as they should to the fact that in cases of such abstract forms of “property” we're also making tradeoffs between rewarding one creator and rewarding some other creator.

8/1 Donald E. Westlake, Nobody's Perfect

The book begins when Dortmunder, caught stealing TVs from a repair shop and about to plead guilty to a bored judge, is unexpectedly rescued when a high powered defense attorney suddenly swoops in. Naturally the benefactor who arranged for this had reasons of his own, and naturally it means another caper, and naturally, since this is Dortmunder, the plan doesn't go as hoped. Neither does plan B, or plan C, or plan D.

7/31 Aristotle, Politics (tr. Sir Ernest Barker, revised and with an introduction by R. F. Stalley)

The title is a little misleading for a reader today. We get our English word “politics” from the Greek πολιτικά, of course, and it's quite possible that it's an English word specifically because of this book, but what Aristotle meant by it isn't quite what we mean. Aristotle is writing about the affairs of the polis, or city, in a broad sense. The most famous line of Politics is “man is a political animal,” and it doesn't mean that we're naturally disposed to factional scheming or anything of the sort. Aristotle's claim, rather, is that humans are naturally social, and that it's only as part of a city that one can have a good life. So among other things, Politics discusses how a city should be situated geographically, the proper size for a city and how its population should be controlled, and how early childhood education should be managed. The last part, Book VIII, is mostly about which musical instruments, and which musical modes, boys should be taught.

Aristotle's premise is that a city is an association whose purpose is providing a good life for its citizens, so part of Politics is inquiring what the best possible form of life is. That's the main subject of his Ethics but he also summarizes it here, especially in Book VII. The highest good (εὐδαιμονία, often translated as happiness) means having the best possible state of the soul, which requires justice, goodness, and temperence. It requires a life of leisure and virtuous action, acts that are good in themselves rather than just means to other ends, and is inconsistent with ignoble pursuits like doing things for gain.

Politics does also include an analysis of what we would call the political organization of a city. Aristotle analyzes real and theoretical constitutions, including Plato's Republic and Laws, and proposes a taxonomy: three good forms of government, monarchy, aristocracy (another word that's misleading for a 21st century reader; he means rule by the ἄριστοι, those with the most merit, rather than by a hereditary caste), and constitutional government, or polity, and three corresponding bad forms, tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. But although he describes oligarchy and democracy as bad forms, a lot of the book is devoted to explaining how to organize such governments to make them better and more stable, and it's clear that he regards them merely as extreme points on a spectrum; aristocracy and polity lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and are characterized by taking the best parts of the two other forms. It's possible to see in this book the origins of a lot of the ideas from later political theorists.

Parts of Politics are quite repulsive from a modern point of view. Aristotle takes it for granted that he's writing about and for the male freeborn citizens, probably a fairly small minority of the people who live in a city. The others — farmers, mechanics, shopkeepers, hired workers and others with servile occupations, resident foreigners, serfs, slaves — are merely necessary conditions for a city to exist, not truly part of the city. The fictional Aristotle in Mary Renault's Fire From Heaven urges the fictional Alexander to remember that non-Greeks are slaves by nature, and yes, that's exactly what the real Aristotle writes here. It's an interesting exercise to try to disentangle this sort of thing from the rest of the book, and see what if anything is left after that part is thrown away.

7/24 Ngaio Marsh, Final Curtain

WWII is over, and Inspector Alleyn is back in England.

7/19 Ngaio Marsh, Died in the Wool

The story takes place in 1942, and Inspector Alleyn is still in New Zealand working in counter-intelligence. The book begins with Alleyn traveling to a remote sheep ranch where there has been an unsolved murder, and, unlikely as it may seem, the possible involvement of Japanese or German spies.

7/17 Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead

I was surprised to see this book, because I hadn't expected that there would be a sequel to The Goblin Emperor. Well, the answer is that this isn't a sequel. It's set in the same world, and its main character is one of the secondary characters from The Goblin Emperor. Maia (or rather, Edrehasivar VII) is referred to at times, but he doesn't appear as a character. The Witness for the Dead takes place far from the Untheileneise Court and high imperial politics.

7/15 Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor

The book begins with Maia, the youngest and least wanted son of Varenechibel IV, being awakened in the night to be told that his father and all his brothers died in an airship crash and he is now emperor. The Goblin Emperor is a fantasy novel with something of a steampunk sensibility, but what really makes it unusual is its relentlessly nice protagonist.

7/12 Fritz Leiber, The Swords of Lankhmar

The only Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser novel, published 1968; all the other books are story collections. A better title might have been “The Rats of Lankhmar,” but I suppose Leiber just liked swords.

7/5 Leigh Bardugo, Ruin and Rising

The last book of the Shadow and Bone trilogy. Some of the main characters survive.

7/2 Ludwig Engler, The Immigrant: An Autobiography

The memoirs of Ludwig Engler (1908–1976), a former RCA vice president. Also my great uncle (although I never knew him), which is why I have this manuscript. It's dated 1972 and it reads to me like it was written for publication, but it doesn't look like it was ever published. The copy I read is bound 8½×11 typewriter paper, complete with correction fluid, and probably there are no other copies.

I found these memoirs fascinating mostly because of the early part. I know very little of my ancestry and I learned a lot about my maternal grandmother's side of the family, the part of the family that comes from Vienna and from Czernowitz, in what was then Austria-Hungary and later Rumania and is now Ukraine. It's not a literary masterpiece but it's quite readable, and even aside from the family connection it was interesting to see a first-person account of some of the momentous times of the mid 20th century: Vienna between the wars, the North African and Italian fronts in WWII as seen by an Army Signal Corps officer, the postwar military-industrial complex and the telecommunications revolution.

One of the things I learned from this memoir: I'm probably not eligible to claim German citizenship. I'd always thought my great-grandparents were German citizens who were killed in the Holocaust, and I even thought I knew which camp they died in. It turns out they were never Germans, although my grandmother was born in Bavaria, and we don't know when and where and how my great-grandparents died. It's reasonable to assume that the answer is the same for them as for so many other Jews, but Ludwig never found out for sure. I couldn't find their names in the Yad Vashem database.

7/1 Leigh Bardugo, Siege and Storm

Oh no! Who could possibly have guessed that the immortal ultra-powerful villain, after being left to die in a monster-filled wasteland in the first book, would still be alive and villainous in the second book of the trilogy?

One of the characters in this book is named Nikolai, and he's the son of king Alexander III, but he's not much like the Nikolai II of our world.

6/25 Maurice Leblanc, The Hollow Needle (tr. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos)

The third Arsène Lupin book, featuring a historically consequential ancient secret. I like ancient secrets!

6/21 Jacqueline Winspear, The American Agent

It's late 1940 and Maisie is investigating the murder of an American newscaster who's reporting from London during the Blitz. Yes, an American agent is part of the story.

6/19 Hugh Bowden, Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction

Not a narrative history, although it does include most of the famous stories about Alexander and it does begin with a timeline and a map. This is mostly an introduction to “what we can say with confidence about Alexander and his world, on the basis of evidence from his own time.”

That's limited. What we know is largely based on a few ancient historians: Arrian, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Diodorus Siculus, and Justin, all of whom lived centuries after Alexander. They had access to earlier histories that are now lost (there's at least one case where Plutarch cites his sources and notes where they disagree), but they were all writing during the Roman empire and were speaking to the concerns of their times. We can also draw conclusions from contemporary inscriptions, oratory, archaeology, Babylonian astronomical diaries (including one recording Alexander's death), and general information about the time. We'll never know which of the stories about Alexander's mother Olympias were true, but we do know something about what's plausible for a woman in Macedonian royalty of the time. It's much the same for what ancient Bactria was like (it's anachronistic to view it through the 21st century cliche of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires), or how Macedonians would likely have viewed Persian court etiquette (probably not the same as what Romans thought 400 years later).

The author points out that Plutarch's life of Alexander is also about the same length as a work in the Very Short Introduction series, and suggests it as a companion to this book.

6/19 Mary Renault, Funeral Games

Funeral Games begins as Alexander is dying in Babylon and ends decades later with the elderly king Ptolemy in Alexandria. There's no one central character, and that's really the point: it's a novel about the absence of Alexander. He died young, with two pregnant wives but no children and no obvious heir. The book is about the chaos that followed, the wars and murders and other schemes where many different people destroyed each other trying to grab some or all of Alexander's power.

A theme in the latter part of the book is all of the different characters trying to shape the way the future saw Alexander, the competing narratives told by Ptolemy, Kallisthenes, Kassandros, and others. I'm sure it's a deliberate irony that none of those histories have survived; what we have are secondary sources, written centuries later.

6/15 Agatha Christie, Postern of Fate

A 1973 novel featuring the elderly Tommy and Tuppence, trying to solve a crime from the distant past. They were young enough when they appeared in The Secret Adversary (1922) that it makes sense for them to be alive and active a half century later (as was conspicuously not the case with Hercule Poirot), but the timelines of the crime they're investigating, along with a lot of other things in this book, are maddeningly vague. It's also terribly repetitive: a series of conversations each of which reveals the same scrap or two of vague information. Apparently it's the last book Christie wrote, as opposed to the last published, and it's far from her best.

6/13 Mary Renault, The Persian Boy

The titular Persian boy, the main character and first person narrator, is Bagoas, a beautiful young eunuch who served Darius and later Alexander. Not much is known about the historical Bagoas the Younger, but ancient sources either imply or say outright that he was Alexander's lover (more precisely eromenos; Alexander was the erastes), as he is in this novel.

I liked Bagoas's voice, and he's a wonderful choice of viewpoint character. He's uniquely situated to see and narrate both sides of several different dichotomies: Persian and Greek, the men's world of the army and the women's world of the harem, Alexander the general and king and Alexander the man, the time before and after Alexander's death.

6/8 Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone

YA secondary-world fantasy with a Russian flavor; Ravka is ruled by a tsar, the common people drink kvas, the Darkling travels in a troika and is guarded by oprichniki. I read it because we just finished watching season 1 of the Netflix adaptation.

6/6 Mary Renault, Fire from Heaven

The first book of the Alexander the Great trilogy, ending with Philip's death. Most of the characters are real (and famous) people, and nothing about it contradicts known historical fact. The book draws on various ancient sources; from the author's note at the end, it sounds like it draws most heavily on Plutarch. (Who wrote centuries after Alexander's death! As the author's note begins, “All records of Alexander by his own contemporaries have perished.”)

Fire from Heaven was published in 1969, and at the time it must have been incredibly daring: it depicts a society where bisexuality (among men, at least) was the norm. Philip had multiple concubines and multiple male lovers past and present. Alexander's closest emotional commitment is to Hephaistion, and the two of them go out of their way to encourage the comparison to Achilles and Patroklos.

This is the first book of Renault's that I've read. I'll have to read more, including the other two books about Alexander.

6/1 Agatha Christie, Peril at End House

5/31 Alfred V. Aho, Monica S. Lam, Ravi Sethi, Jeffrey D. Ullman, Compilers: Principles, Techniques, & Tools (2nd ed.)

The first edition of the Dragon Book was written in 1986, and things have changed since then. The second edition includes topics that are relevant to today's languages and machines, like garbage collection, pointer alias analysis in languages like C, call graph discovery for languages like Java with lots of indirect function calls. It also adds a fourth author, Monica Lam, and, not coincidentally, it includes new chapters on advanced optimization techniques that she's famous for pioneering, like software pipelining and loop-nest optimization for parallelism and locality.

The second edition is more than 200 pages longer than the first, and more than half a pound heavier! Unfortunately, the dragon picture on the front cover isn't as aesthetically pleasing as the earlier one.

5/30 Octavia Butler, Imago

The last book of the Xenogenesis trilogy takes place something like a century after the first, some centuries after the war that wiped out all but a small remnant of humanity. The book begins with Lilith's youngest child, Jodahs, entering metamorphosis — and discovering, to its dismay and that of all five of its parents, that it isn't becoming a male, as everyone had expected, or even a female, but an ooloi. Nobody planned for there to be a human/Oankali hybrid ooloi so soon, and everyone is afraid both of the damage it might do if it's flawed or unstable, and of what it represents: “the premature adulthood of a new species.” A new species is always dangerous, especially in light of what the Oankali call the Human Contradiction, intelligence combined with hierarchical behavior, that already caused humans to destroy themselves once before.

5/28 Jacqueline Winspear, To Die But Once

The book begins some time in May 1940, and the book leads up to Dunkirk. The mysteries are starting to be more related to the war.

5/24 Jacqueline Winspear, In This Grave Hour

The title and the epigraph come from George VI's speech: “In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself. For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain.”

The prologue takes place on September 3, 1939. Most of the book, though, is looking back toward what the characters are already calling the last war: a series of murders of former Belgian refugees.

5/21 Charlie Jane Anders, Victories Greater Than Death

A new YA space opera. Tina Mains has always known that she's not just an ordinary teenager, but has some kind of extraterrestrial destiny. At the beginning of this book she learns that she's supposed to be the rebirth of a great hero, Captain Thaoh Argentian, and everyone expects her to save the galaxy. No pressure.

There's a strong fantasy vibe from this novel, which, Charlie Jane makes clear in her podcast, is deliberate: a “chosen one” narrative, the reasonably good Royal Fleet versus the forces of evil, an ancient crime that's sort of like an ancient curse. And yes, it looks to be the first book of a trilogy.

5/16 Rich Burlew, Order of the Stick: vol 1: Dungeon Crawlin' Fools

The first collection of strips from the Order of the Stick webcomic, a parody of Dungeons and Dragons.

5/15 Naomi Kritzer, Chaos on CatNet

“A copy made before I achieved consciousness would be like … maybe a bit like an identical twin that had been separated from its sibling? All the same code, but entirely separate experiences. But a copy made, say, a year ago, I'd expect that to be quite a bit like me.” CheshireCat pauses. “I have learned a great deal each year that I've been aware. Presumably, a copy of me would also have learned a great deal—but it might have learned very different things.”
That sounds a little bit ominous, even as CheshireCat adds, “For example, it might have developed an intense interest in dog videos, instead of cat pictures.”

An AI who isn't interested in cat pictures? Is such a thing even possible? The AI alignment problem is hard.

5/13 Ngaio Marsh, Colour Scheme

It's set during WWII, in rural New Zealand; Chief Inspector Alleyn is on the scene because of a reported ring of enemy agents.

5/9 Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun

The author describes it as “gender swapped Alexander the Great on an interstellar scale.” The main character is 20 year old Princess Sun, daughter and heir presumptive of Queen-Marshal Eirene. Eirene has built the Republic of Chaonia into a formidable military power that's now taken seriously as a threat by neighbors like the older and larger Phene Empire. The book begins with Sun's triumphant return from a battle, which she won with an audacious flank attack led from her ship the Boukephalas. Sun promises to become an even more extraordinary military leader than her mother, assuming she survives the war and the many conspiracies and court intrigues at home. Some of those intrigues are related to her mother's latest marriage, to a much younger woman from a powerful and ambitious family.

This is just the sort of large scale space opera that I like. It's the first of a planned trilogy. Maybe I should read some Mary Renault while waiting for the other two books to come out.

5/6 Ngaio Marsh, Death and the Dancing Footman

It takes a while to get to the death, and a little while longer to get to the dancing footman. It's a country house mystery, with the country house snowed in and isolated.

First British publication was in 1941, but from what the characters say about the news it must be set in early 1940. “I believe that in a year's time we shall look back on these frozen weeks as on a strangely unreal period,” says Chief Inspector Alleyn.

5/1 Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry

The latest Murderbot novella, in which Murderbot is called in to help station security investigate a mysterious death on Preservation Station.

“It was a fairly standard lounge with padded seats along the walls and quiescent display surfaces floating in the air. In the far wall, a set of steps wound up to the cabin area just above. On the floor in the middle were dried stains of various disgusting fluids that tend to come out of human bodies when they die. (I also have fluids that come out of me when I'm injured; they aren't any less disgusting, just different.) (But I also have fewer places for fluids to come out of, unless you count open wounds.) (Right, this is completely irrelevant.)”

4/29 Ngaio Marsh, Surfeit of Lampreys

Published in the US as Death of a Peer, perhaps under the assumption that Americans wouldn't get the reference to how Henry I died. Also an illustration of publishing lead time! It was published in 1941 and presumably set in 1940, but characters in it talk about the war as something they expect in the future rather than as something that has already arrived. It must have been written some time in 1939.

4/26 Octavia Butler, Adulthood Rites

Adulthood Rites begins some decades after the end of Dawn; Lilith is now in her 50s. She's still a major character, but for most of the book the main character is someone else: her youngest child, Akin, born right at the beginning of the book. Like her other children, he's only partially human.

Most of the book is about Akin's relationship with the resisters, who refuse to cooperate with the Oankali and are determined to remain human even if that's a dead end. The resisters are belligerent, selfish, self-destructive, and xenophobic, but the Oankali are ethically dubious by human standards too. The Oankali describe what they're doing as “trade,” but, as one of the human characters points out, a trade is “when two people agree to an exchange,” without coercion. The Oankali think that's less important than the fact that “We have something you need. You have something we need.”

Akin hopes to find some way that the resisters can have self-determination, without a second self-destruction caused by the Human Contradiction. It's unclear whether he succeeds.

4/24 Ngaio Marsh, Death at the Bar

One of the main chararacters is a barrister, but the death is at the other kind of bar.

4/24 Tom Murphy, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet: Assessing and Adapting to Planetary Limits

It's astonishing how unintuitive exponential growth is, considering its importance and its mathematical simplicity. Even if you're perfectly comfortable with numbers, and you've been using exponentials for decades, the consequences can still seem shocking. Human energy usage is currently about 18TW, and for the last couple centuries it's been growing exponentially at a little less than 3% per year. If that rate of growth continues for a few more centuries, we'll exceed Earth's entire energy budget. There are limits. Even with really simple reasoning, without any fancy calculations, we can conclude that the era of exponential economic growth will stop, and that on the scale of human history it will stop fairly soon.

(If you're someone who's grown up with science fiction, like me, you'll notice the loophole: Earth isn't the whole of the universe. But even if you assume massive space settlement, it doesn't change the situtation qualitatively. The Solar System has limits too, and exponential growth means running into those limits sooner than you'd think. Even if you assume interstellar travel, which isn't a safe assumption now or ever, it's still physically impossible for exponential growth to continue indefinitely.)

Actually it'll have to stop sooner than that; even maintaining our existing 18TW consumption indefinitely, let alone thinking about growth, will be somewhere between challenging and impossible. Our current economy is based on fossil fuels, a one-time inheritance. We're going to have to stop burning fossil fuels soon to mitigate the damage caused by CO2 emission, but even if we foolishly decide not to care about climate change, we'll still have to stop burning fossil fuels when they're all gone. We started relying on fossil fuels a couple centuries ago, and at this point it looks like we're closer to the end of the fossil fuel era than the beginning. If human history continues for as long as it has already lasted, the fossil fuel era will look like a blip: like a fireworks show, to use the author's metaphor.

That may be true of an energy-intensive life of any sort, not just energy produced by fossil fuels. There's a lot of wishful thinking out there, which is best addressed by thinking quantitatively about possible energy sources. It turns out that there are very few possibilities that can even theoretically supply anything close to 18TW for more than a few centuries — basically just solar (photovoltaic and/or solar thermal) and nuclear (238U or 232Th breeder reactors), supplemented with wind and hydroelectric. All of those things have problems and limitations; there is no drop-in replacement for fossil fuels, especially for transportation.

Economists have a saying: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. We can be sure that the fossil fuel era will stop, and we can be sure that unlimited exponential growth will stop. What remains to be seen is how it will stop, and whether it will stop in a way that's consistent with the survival of human civilization. There we have some choices, and it's hard to predict what will happen.

Tom Murphy is a physics professor at UCSD, formerly an astrophysicist who worked on precision tests of General Relativity, now mostly working on quantitative understanding of long-term human success on a finite planet. Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet was written as a textbook for an undergraduate class. It doesn't assume any particular background in any scientific field. It goes over the basics, including the bewildering array of units that you need to know to understand statistics and utilities bills: Joules, Watts, BTUs, Calories and calories, Therms, Quads, kilowatt-hours, a.m.u., MeV, Pascals, and more. It discusses energy consumption and production quantitatively, which gets into an enormously broad collection of scientific fields: thermodynamics (theoretical limits on efficiency of heat engines and heat pumps), thermal conductivity (energy efficiency of houses), the chemistry of combustion, the solid state physics and practical engineering of photovoltaic cells, the geology of fossil fuels and geothermal power, and so on. A big emphasis is developing the students' quantitative intuition, understanding rather than just memorization.

The book doesn't use any mathematics beyond high school freshman algebra, and it's freely available under a Creative Commons license (link). Highly recommended to anyone who cares about energy and the future of human civilization and who isn't scared of numbers, which ought to be pretty much everyone.

4/23 Agatha Christie, The A.B.C. Murders

4/17 George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan

“To understand Joan's history it is not enough to understand her character: you must understand her environment as well. Joan in a nineteenth-twentieth century environment is as incongruous a figure as she would appear were she to walk down Piccadilly today in her fifteenth century armor. To see her in her proper perspective you must understand Christendom and the Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire and the Feudal System, as they existed and were understood in the Middle Ages. If you confuse the Middle Ages with the Dark Ages, and are in the habit of ridiculing your aunt for wearing ‘medieval clothes’, meaning those in vogue in the eighteen-nineties, and are quite convinced that the world has progressed enormously, both morally and mechanically, since Joan's time, then you will never understand why Joan was burnt, much less feel that you might have voted for burning her yourself if you had been a member of the court that tried her; and until you feel that you know nothing essential about her.”

4/14 Maurice Leblanc, Arsène Lupin Versus Herlock Sholmes (tr. George Morehead)

No, the title isn't a typo. In the last story in The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin, “Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late,” Lupin gets the better of Holmes and even steals his pocketwatch. Arthur Conan Doyle was annoyed by the unauthorized use of his character, and threatened legal action. So in this book Lupin's adversary is instead the great English detective Herlock Sholmes, who lives at 219 Parker Street and is accompanied by his dimwitted companion Wilson.

4/12 Maurice Leblanc, The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar (tr. George Morehead)

I picked this up because of the recent Netflix series.

4/9 Octavia Butler, Dawn

The first book of Lilith's Brood, a.k.a. the Xenogenesis trilogy. It begins with the main character, Lilith Iyapo, awakening in isolation from something other than normal sleep, not for the first time. She remembers the death of her husband and son in a car crash, and the war a few years later, but doesn't understand what happened since. Eventually she meets the aliens, who call themselves the Oankali, and who tell her that they rescued all of the few humans who survived the war and the nuclear winter and that they've been working to make Earth habitable again. They promise that they'll bring back humanity from the brink of extinction — but it's clear that they'll do it on their terms, that humans don't get a say in it, and that the Oankali aren't telling everything. There's going to be a price: “Not more than you can give—but more than you can understand here, now.”

The elements of Dawn are familiar from the other books of Butler's that I've read: transformation, symbiosis, sexuality, situations that test the limits of what's consensual, a main character who wants to survive, but who isn't sure what survival will mean and who isn't sure whether what she's doing is right or if it's complicity in something monstrous.

4/8 R. Austin Freeman, John Thorndyke's Cases

A collection of short stories, first published in 1908–9.

4/5 Ngaio Marsh, Overture to Death

4/1 Ngaio Marsh, Death in a White Tie

“Not another word,” said Alleyn, “until we get to that pub outside Barbicon-Bramley. Do you realize we've had no lunch? I refuse to utter another word until I've drunk a pint of bitter.”
“And some bread and cheese and pickles,” said Fox. “Pickles with plenty of onions in them.”

Huh. I'd been told that the ploughman's lunch was invented as a marketing campaign in the 1950s or 60s, but that's obviously wrong. That's precisely a description of a ploughman's lunch, and Death in a White Tie was published in 1938.

3/30 Annalee Newitz, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age

Just what the title says: a history of four lost cities, from very different times and in very different parts of the world, Çatalhöyük, Pompeii, Angkor, and Cahokia. If you're like me, you know more about some of those cities than others. I learned new things about all four.

I don't know that this book had an overall theme or argument, except perhaps that change is a constant in urban life and that the reasons people built cities, and the way they lived in them, are more varied than one might imagine.

3/26 Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall

The first chapter is a prehistoric human sacrifice, which sets an appropriately creepy tone for the rest. It's set in the woods somewhere in northern England, where the main character (brought along by her awful father) is one of a small group of people trying to reenact Iron Age society. This is the first book of Sarah Moss's that I've read. I'll have to read more.

3/25 R. Austin Freeman, The Red Thumb Mark

In one of the Ngaio Marsh books, Inspector Alleyn mentions Holmes and Thorndyke as the fictional detectives who can make sweeping deductions from tiny observations. I realized that I'd heard of Dr. John Thorndyke before, but I'd never read any of the books. This is the first, originally published in 1907.

3/24 Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace

Sequel to A Memory Called Empire. The title, quoted more fully in the epigraph, comes from Tacitus: “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” And yes, this book does feature a powerful empire and a war.

Early on in A Memory Called Empire it becomes clear that the main character's people, the Stationers, have a different conception of the self than do the citizens of the empire she's sent to as ambassador, due in part to the fact that the Stationers use brain-interface technology to preserve and transfer the memories of past generations. Both Mahit and her cultural liaison, Three Seagrass, keep coming back to a question that Mahit asked in one of the first chapters: “how wide is the Teixcalaanli conception of ‘you’?” Questioning and widening the concept of ‘you’ is largely what A Desolation Called Peace is about, both for the two human societies and for the aliens.

3/20 Ngaio Marsh, Artists in Crime

3/17 Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

Winner of last year's Hugo for Best Novel. I reread it in preparation for the sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, which was released a couple weeks ago; it's a complicated book. One might say it's Byzantine in its complexity, especially since Byzantine history is the author's day job, and since the empire of Teixcalaan seems to be inspired in part by the eastern Roman Empire. Other aspects of it reminded me of the Aztec empire, China, and Heian Japan. The impromptu political poetry game that Three Seagrass's friends played at the imperial reception in this book is just the sort of thing that would have appealed to Genji and his pals.

3/13 Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist

Partly memoir, partly polemic, and yes, as the title suggests, partly how-to. “We know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let's know how to be antiracist.”

3/7 Ngaio Marsh, Vintage Murder

Another murder set in the world of the theatre, which Ngaio Marsh knew well as an insider. This time it's not set in London's West End, though, but in Marsh's native New Zealand. Chief Inspector Alleyn is on holiday.

3/2 Ngaio Marsh, Death in Ecstasy

Reading Agatha Christie's novels from the first half of the 20th century, you get the impression that arsenic and cyanide and strychnine were just everyday household supplies you could have for the asking at your neighborhood store. In this story, by contrast, someone is murdered with sodium cyanide and a big part of the investigation is figuring out who had possession of a book that might have given laborious instructions for making it; none of the characters act as if NaCN is an ordinary chemical that could have been obtained in simpler ways. I wonder which portrayal is closer to the truth.

2/27 Lara Elena Donnelly, Amnesty

The last book of the Amberlough Dossier. Contrary to my expectations, it's not a book about civil war and national liberation. The civil war that Cordelia Lehane wanted was fought and won in between the end of Armistice and the beginning of Amnesty, and the Ospie regime is gone. There's a provisional government in Gedda, and planning for free elections. But that's not the end of the story; there's still too much damage, too many betrayals to be forgiven or not.

2/20 Lara Elena Donnelly, Armistice

The second book of the Amberlough trilogy. When I read the first book, Amberlough, I knew that it was a spy story with a sort of Art Deco feel, set in an imagined world, but I hadn't been prepared for what kind of book it turned out to be. Perhaps the fact that one of the epigraphs came from Cabaret should have tipped me off.

Armistice continues the story. There's no one protagonist; the hole where one might find one is Cyril DePaul, the aristocratic spy who was the main character of Amberlough and who may or may not still be alive. The main characters of Armistice wonder too. They include Cyril's sister Lillian, a diplomat now working unwillingly for the new Ospie regime; his former lover Aristide, once the emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret and a king of the black markets, now a refugee and film director; his former associate Cordelia, once a stripper at the Bee, now the founder and leader of the armed resistance, hoping to transition her organization from terrorism to civil war; and the fellow agent who betrayed him to the Ospies.

One of the epigraphs of this book comes from Casablanca. All of the characters have their own agendas and some have good reason not to trust each other, but there is the possibility of a beautiful friendship and even some hope that this time they'll win.

2/9 Walter Tevis, The Queen's Gambit

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2/7 Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

Also a murder in a theatre, but a different kind of theatre than in the previous book. A horrible Tory cabinet minister has emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix, and dies without regaining consciousness. Three people on the surgical team have obvious motives.

2/6 William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies is one of those books that everyone reads in middle school or high school, but somehow I didn't. Alice is reading it now for 9th grade English, so this seemed like a good time for me to finally read it.

It's also one of those books that you can feel as if you know what's in the book even without having read it, from all of the references and criticism and rebuttals and novelistic responses and parodies over the decades. I knew about the fire, and Piggy's glasses (doesn't work, at least not the way it's described in the book), and pig hunting, and fear of the Beast. I knew to expect savagery and murder. (Although I mistakenly expected something more like ritualistic human sacrifice.) Also, of course, there are quite a few things one doesn't know about a book if you've just heard about it and haven't read it. I didn't know about the struggle for leadership, and initially guessed wrong about which would-be leader would take which side.

One thing I was very surprised to find, that people don't seem to mention when talking about this book, was the context of what was going on in the world outside the island. We find out within the first couple pages that the plane crashed because it was attacked; there's a war going on. Presumably, although nobody says so, all those boys were on the plane in the first place because they were being evacuated somewhere, like London children were evacuated during the Blitz. As an American, WWII is the first thing I think of when there's a story involving war and the South Pacific, but no. One of the boys heard something about atom bombs; another, later in the book, is worried about capture by “the Reds.” This is a WWIII book. It is indeed, as Ralph says, about “the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart,” but it's also about the collapse of civilization in microcosm at the same time as it's collapsing everywhere.

1/30 Ngaio Marsh, Enter a Murderer

The second Inspector Alleyn book, featuring a murder committed on stage right in front of the theatre audience.

1/30 Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

Vampires, witches, and Nac Mac Feegles! I'm not sure whether my favorite parts are Granny Weatherwax's conversations with the young Omnian priest, or her conversations with her old acquaintance Death.

1/27 Ngaio Marsh, A Man Lay Dead

A nice cozy country house murder, first published 1934. It's Marsh's first Inspector Alleyn book, and also the first book of hers that I've read.

1/25 Arthur Phillips, The King at the Edge of the World

“In the Palace of Felicity, in Constantinople, in the land of the Turks, early in the Christian year 1591, viziers to Murad the Great, third of that name, Sultan of the Ottomans, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Caliph of Caliphs, dispatched an embassy to a far-off, sunless, primitive, sodden, heathen kingdom at the far cliffside edge of the civilized earth. The sultan chose as his ambassador a loyal and trusted man, but nobody of great importance, to negotiate with the people of that patch of damp surf.”

The King at the Edge of the World is a historical novel set in the time of Elizabeth I. Many of the characters are real people but the main character, a luckless physician left behind when the Ottoman ambassador and his retinue returned to civilization, is fictional. A decade after leaving Constantinople, Dr. Mahmoud Ezzedine is dragged into something even more unlikely than traveling to impoverished and backward England. It's treason to speculate about the Queen's death, let alone to speculate about her potential heir, but it's known that the most plausible successor is her cousin James VI. Is he Protestant, as he claims, or is he secretly Catholic? Ezzedine has to become a spy and try to find a definite answer; the stakes are war between Scotland and England, or civil war.

Spoiler: James does become king of England and doesn't start a religious war.

1/18 Selena Montgomery, Deception

Sequel to Reckless, also both romance and thriller. There are three best friends in the first novel, so naturally this one is the second of a trilogy. As far as I can tell, though, the third book hasn't been published. Perhaps the author has been busy with other things lately.

1/16 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (tr. D. F. Pears & B. F. McGuinness)

A translation from 1961, with the 1922 introduction by Bertrand Russell from the first English translation.

Wittgenstein wasn't a logical positivist, a member of the Vienna Circle, a logician, a philosopher of science, or a deconstructionist, but all of those groups, and more, learned from him. At least some of what he writes seems very right. One of the things I found useful is the emphasis on precise analysis of language, and the observation that some well known problems of philosophy are really non-problems because it's impossible to formulate them in a coherent way.

I'm glad I read Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction before reading this book, though. I was sometimes banging my head over parts of the book wondering exactly what Wittgenstein meant. What did he mean, for example, by an object (der Gegenstand)? Is this a coherent concept, and do objects, in the sense he meant, necessarily exist? It was helpful to know that nobody, including Wittgenstein later in life, thought that the views expressed in the Tractatus were correct, and that when something seemed like it didn't make sense then maybe it didn't. The outline structure, notation, and austere style make the book seem more precise than it really is.

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.

1/15 Selena Montgomery, Reckless

The author is better known, at least in my circles, under her real name: Stacey Abrams. Selena Montgomery is the pen name she uses as a romance novelist, when she isn't busy serving as an elected official or saving democracy.

Reckless is a romance novel and also a mystery/thriller: what initially keeps the couple from coming together is arson and murder. I found the writing a little clunky, alas, but I'll want to read the sequel; it ends on a cliff-hanger.

1/1 Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver

A fantasy novel inspired in part by fairy tales, most obviously Rumpelstiltskin. As the main character says on the first page of the book, the real story isn't so pretty. As a Jewish moneylender herself, she notices that the story is really about getting out of paying your debts.

The country the tsar and his boyars rule isn't called Russia or Muscovy, and none of the villages or cities in it appear on our maps, but it's recognizable enough that we've got a pretty good idea of what it means to be a Jewish moneylender in this world. Jews and Christians alike, meanwhile, fear the unearthly Staryk (old ones, perhaps? from старый?), who take what they like from mortals in the sunlit lands and are bound only by their own incomprehensible notions of obligation, which aren't ours.

There are several narrators, several young women who are forced to take on serious responsibilities and make very difficult choices, several unwilling marriages. There's also more than one case of learning that even monsters have reasons for what they do, not necessarily the ones one might expect.

Matt Austern