Briefly noted: Nexus – Ramez Naam

Read Nexus for the plot rather than the sentences; I’m looking for an evocative sentence to quote by way of example and not finding any, while banal sentences are everywhere. In this world, Nexus is a drug or treatment or process (the “right” word doesn’t exist) can link people’s minds directly together, allowing people to experience what another person experiences—or to invade and control another person’s mind. The protagonist is a grad student who figures out the next technical step in the Nexus process.

One could say that the Nexus drug / treatment will radically increase empathy, with unexpected or unforeseen results. In-group empathy seems to have been important to the evolution of human cooperation, so artificially further increasing empathy could have unpredictable outcomes, just like no one foresaw Facebook as being a central part of the Internet experience for most people. Making empathy radically common could decrease some kinds of violence. But it can also leave people susceptible to predation. But as one character observes, “If Nexus 5 ever gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. Permanent integration means a user only ever needs to procure a single dose for a lifetime effect. You can’t fight that on the supply side.” He’s right about the supply side, as we’ve seen from the supposed “war on drugs,” and he’s right that people will likely want a drug that leads to unbelievable euphoria, sex, and knowledge—but note too that the character resorts to cliché: “it’ll spread like wildfire.” Do things spread in some other fashion? Can we fine something better here?

No:

Kim and William furiously hit keys [. . .]

Sam took her time in replying. “I’m human, Kade”.

Does a person take time “in replying” or “to reply?” And is just saying “paused” easier? These kinds of language infelicities can be called minor but when they recur throughout the novel they become major.

Still, properly read, Nexus may be about the dangers of dual-use technology: “They’d built Nexus OS to give people new freedoms, new ways to connect, new ways to learn. Not to use it as a tool for control or assassination.” The Internet was arguably invented in part for new ways to connect and learn, and now it’s used for virtue signaling, character assassination, and petty rivalry blown up to the world stage. Things have not gone as I once imagined they would. I used to be an Internet utopian. No more. Yet maybe Nexus would be different, though Nexus also raises the essential philosophical question: “What is real?” If another person can reach into your mind and rearrange it, what stops them from planting whatever memories or preferences they want? What, in this scenario, makes an individual an individual? “Nothing” seems to be the answer to that last question.

In Nexus, as you can likely tell from what I’ve written so far, the ideas seem more important than the words expressing them, which may say something about the underlying work. The book seems destined for TV, where the quality of its sentences won’t matter. I’m not unhappy to have read the book, but if you’ve not read Blindsight and like SF, start there. Still, I’ll read the next Naam novel after the Nexus trilogy.

“F*cked,” the book by Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson, is not good

F*cked: Being Sexually Explorative and Self-Confident in a World That’s Screwed seems promising and I’m sympathetic to its premise, but the execution is poor. The pull quote for an early chapter says, “Self-esteem isn’t everything. / It’s just that there’s nothing without it.” Is that true? I don’t know, but there is something without self-esteem. Like, say, the earth. “Everything” and “nothing” are too vague to be useful here. In the same chapter, Fisher writes, “Until I began recording the Guys We Fucked podcast, I really had no idea just how bad people felt about themselves.” Do people feel that bad about themselves? How do we know? We get no evidence and Fisher seems unfamiliar with selection bias; someone writing to an agony aunt is likely to feel worse than a random person in a population.

Another early chapter says, “Shame is nothing new—it’s been used for centuries.” But no longer than 999 years? Or more than that? If it’s more, why “centuries?” One minute searching the literature brings up, “Cross-Cultural Differences and Similarities in Proneness to Shame: An Adaptationist and Ecological Approach.” Almost everything they write about has people who’ve spent their careers studying it, but almost none of that knowledge percolates into the text. A pity.

Psychology Today, a pop psych site, appears at least three times, and there are lots of generalizations but no works cited page. In that respect it’s not worse than the books it criticizes (“We were tired of these books that pander to women like we’re all hot messes, unable to handle our emotions without the assistance of a man, a glass of rosé, and a Xanax”), but there is better out there. A book like The Guide to Getting It On is better.

F*cked presupposes so much anxiety in its readers; again, articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” come to mind while reading it, as they did while reading La Belle Sauvage. The books opens, “Are you a degenerate cum dumpster who isn’t worthy of love or affection? Probably not, but odds are someone has made you feel that way at one point in time.” No, and probably no one has. Examples like this are way rhetorical questions should be used sparingly, if at all.

Don’t be like me and fall for the book, even if you are like me and sympathetic to its premise.

La Belle Sauvage — Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage is good but suffers from a problem: it occurs a little more than a decade before His Dark Materials and concerns Lyra as a baby. But anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows that she survives. The supposed threats to her are drained of potency and that in turn drains the book of vibrancy. It feels more like a kids’ book than His Dark Materials, too.

There is even a strange moment on the third page, about Malcolm: “he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm later in life.” So we know he survives, too.

Many sections are charming, though not in a flashy way:

There was probably nowhere, he thought, where anyone could learn so much about the world as this little bend of the river, with the inn on one side and the priory on the other.

There are probably many people who do think that you could learn more “about the world” somewhere else, but an 11-year-old could very easily believe otherwise, as Malcolm does.

Malcolm is also charmingly unmanaged; many passages like this:

“I lent the canoe to someone, and that man brought it back.”
“Oh. Well, get on and take these dinners through. Table by the fire.”

between Malcolm and his mother feel not of this world, or at least the chattering-class part of it. Valuable items like canoes would probably be the subject of much supervision today. Too much. Articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” came to mind as I read Malcolm’s journey towards antifragility.

Scholars are important in the Pullman world, which is a refreshing change from much of our world.

Sprinkled throughout the book is a sense of malevolent bureaucracy, religious in form here but transferable to other kinds. The Consistorial Court of Discipline, the “Environmental Protection” people, the League of St. Alexander: they all have an undertone of official harassment, and even people not formally part of the organization can act like people in the organization. Yet suspicion of bureaucracy is not enough to impede its growth. The individuals matter, even the ones who are “terrifying” like Sister Benedicta. Even those adults who aren’t part of bureaucracies, per se, are making or speculating on bureaucratic pronouncements, like “I should think every boat that exists will have been requisitioned by the authorities.”

Despite moments of interest, La Belle Sauvage is not as narratively compelling as The Golden Compass, though I don’t entirely know why. Even apart from the issue of Lyra surviving, I often found my attention wandering, thinking about other books.

This piece is excellent and discusses the thematic elements, although it’s also spoiler-laden.

Jung’s Red Book, Liber Novus, is like listening to drunk friends ramble

Jung’s Red Book, Liber Novus, is like listening to your drunk friends ramble; there are endless non-narrative, disconnected passages, and this one is representative:

I find myself again on the desert path. It was a desert vision, a vision of the solitary who has wandered down long roads. There lurk invisible robbers and assassins and shooters of poison darts. Suppose the murderous arrow is sticking in my heart?

The whole thing reads like that. Another, much later passage:

Just as the disciples of Christ recognized that God had become flesh and lived among them as a man, we now recognize that the anointed of this time is a God who does not appear in the flesh; he is no man and yet is a son of man, but in spirit and not in flesh; hence he can be born only through the spirit of men as the conceiving womb of the God.

Word salad or profundity? You be the judge. Jung didn’t intend to publish this book and I’m guessing he knew what he was about when he made that choice. I started it due to the reference in “Jung and the Trumpian Shadow.” Don’t repeat my error.

Jung is an interesting writer and figure, especially for narrative artists, but the Red Book is a poor introduction to him and his work. I don’t know what the best introduction is, but it isn’t this. Suggestions welcome.

The Red Book has 100 pages of introductory material and translators notes as well, which is rarely a good sign.

It is very hard and maybe impossible to predict what the future will value

In one of Tolkien’s letters he writes, after The Lord of the Rings has been an unexpected success:

the appearance of the L.R. has landed me in the pincers. Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years’. (238)

But of course those philological colleagues are long dead and forgotten; philology itself has been mostly pushed out of most academic language departments, which are now focused on literature and literary criticism. Still, the larger and more important point is that it’s very hard to and maybe impossible to predict what the future will value; all a person and especially an artist can do is try to follow their instincts and interests. Tolkien’s led him in a direction contrary to what his peers thought valuable, and in this case he turned out to be right. Our peers’ judge of value, especially in public settings, is a pernicious guide to action.

What people really want and really are interested often differs from what people say they want and what they want others to think they are interested in.

 

Who cares when it was released?

A reader asked how I find books like Rapture and why I write, seemingly at random, about older books. The “finding” answer is hard: books get found from all kinds of sources, including other writers, blogs, newspapers, friends, browsing (rarely, but sometimes), essays, and tweets (rarely). A great essay will get me to read a book more effectively than anything else apart from a friend or reader who knows me well; a great essay led me to Lonesome Dove, for example, and in my mind I imagine other people finding this blog and using it to find the right book at the right time.

The “why” answer is also pretty simple: I don’t really care when a book (or movie, or album, or whatever) was released; I care about whether it’s good and whether it should be read. If it’s good I want to read it, regardless of when it was published. Publishing companies may work on marketers’ schedules, but readers don’t have to and shouldn’t. If you know something I should read, send that email.

Briefly noted: The Weight of Ink — Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink invites comparison to A. S. Byatt’s , and after I’d read about half of The Weight of Ink I was inspired to re-read Possession, which is amazing and one of the best books I’ve read, ever. In the beginning of Possession I noticed this; the protagonist, Roland, is studying a fictional Victorian poet named R. H. Ash, and his supervisor is Blackadder:

Blackadder was discouraged and liked to discourage others. (He was also a stringent scholar.) Roland was now employed, part-time, in what was known as Blackadder’s “Ash Factory” (why not Ashram? Val had said)…

That re-use of “Ash,” from “Ash Factory” to “Ashram” (which sounds a lot, intentionally, like ass-ram) gives a lot in a short space: about Blackadder’s drudgery; Roland’s feelings towards Blackadder and the work; and even about Val’s witty personality, which is weighted by material circumstances and her shriveling relationship with Roland. We get a lot of material in three sentences that later resonate throughout the novel as a whole. For a while I spent time trying to find something analogously clever in The Weight of Ink, and failed. It’s impossible to prove a negative, but most of the book feels a little dull by comparison.

In The Weight of Ink there are too many sentences like, “He knew that whatever her reputation—and her staunch defense of departmental requirements, her insistence on diversifying the list of acceptable qualifying languages, and a half dozen other hard-fought battles over the years had earned her a fierce reputation—Helen Watt did not make scenes.” As far as I can tell this is meant as straight comment, not as a joke, and the obvious question—who gives a damn?—isn’t asked. People who have actually fierce reputations don’t have them from university department teapot politics. In Possession academic politics are the joke, for good reason, and human needs are at the humane center of things. The Weight of Ink misses this basic philosophical point and feels silly for it.

Or:

Had Aaron Levy chosen to study Shakespeare’s Catholic roots, it would have been different; that field had been blessed relatively recently with the astonishing gift of fresh evidence—a religious pamphlet found in the attic of Shakespeare’s father. That single document had upended and revitalized that arena of Shakespeare studies, leaving young historians room to work productively for years to come.

Perhaps the real answer is, “Go study a field that is vital and important?” Unfortunately, the modern-era scholars don’t, or can’t. Aaron has the same problem in his personal life. He yearns for a woman he had a one-night stand with, right before she left for Israel. Solution: Go find someone geographically proximate and available, like everyone else. In Possession, scholarly and romantic problems beautifully mirror each other; here, they grind against each other and the reader’s patience.

I gave up about halfway through. The re-read of Possession was great, though. Don’t believe the comparisons. They’re superficially right but in terms of depth totally off.

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