Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2013

February 12, 2013
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(This article was originally published at Three-Toed Sloth , and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Kage Baker, The Hotel Under the Sand
Mind candy, of the "utterly charming fantasy for kids" variety. (With thanks to Rosemary M. for sharing her copy.)
Bruce Sterling, Love Is Strange: A Paranormal Romance
In which Bruce Sterling tries his hand at a paranormal romance novel, and the result is, well, about what you'd expect if the contents of Beyond the Beyond were blended with the love-story of a futurist accountant and a witch, who meet at a futurological congress, and most (all?) of the formal conventions of the romance novel are respected — I won't reveal whether there is a happily-ever-after.
ObChairmanBruce: "Paranormal Romance is a tremendous, bosom-heaving, Harry-Potter-sized, Twilight-shaped commercial success. It sorta says everything about modern gender relations that the men have to be supernatural. It also says everything about humanity that we're so methodically training ourselves to be intimate partners of entities that aren't human."
Update: Remarks by Warren Ellis. (I liked the protagonists more than he did.)
Felix Gilman, The Rise of Ransom City
A sequel to The Half-Made World, though it can be read independently. It takes up further strands of the Matter of America: the myths of the self-made man and of the inventor. It's about traveling wonder-shows; celebrity; bad debts and borrowings that cannot be acknowledged or repaid; corporate take-overs; energy too cheap to meter; the worship of the bitch-goddess Success; the collapse of Powers sustained by faith; beginning the world over again in the blank spaces of the map; the Bomb. Above all, it's a fantastical portrait of the hustling imposter in the same skin as the self-taught genius.
Like its predecessor, it's vastly entertaining, but it goes beyond mere mind-candy. I have a hard time imagining finishing a better novel this year.
Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: Making of the Human Mind
Decent over-view of the history of the study of pre-history, including summaries of findings about, e.g., human evolution, the dispersal out of Africa, the development of early states in various parts of the world, etc., without attempting anything like a comprehensive account of human pre-history. The second half is an extended plea for "cognitive archaeology", and studying how our ancestors' "engagement" with the material world led to developing new concepts*, and to the links between concepts and institutions. This seems fine as far as it goes, but fairly obvious and not specific enough to be really helpful. I'd even say it's full of loose ends; he introduces it by talking about the "sapient paradox", the gap between when anatomically modern humans appear and when we find archaeological evidence of (comparatively) rapid cumulative cultural development, but never really explains this that I can see**.
*: That this sounds rather like Marx and Engels in The German Ideology is no coincidence, comrades. The book however leaves me unclear whether this is through direct exposure, or second hand via modern epigones.
**: The same chapters come down hard in favor of the mind being embodied and social. I am sympathetic to both positions, but his arguments are weak. E.g., he repeatedly conflates whether some skill or other is "in the brain" with whether it could be learned, or exercised, by a brain which wasn't attached to a body, which is very bizarre. (The brain always changes when acquiring a new manual skill; the muscles of the hands may do so.)
Warren Ellis, Gun Machine
A distinguished English author records his impressions of the domestic manners of the Americans. That is to say, mind candy about assassination, ancestor-grabbing, privatized policing and surveillance, and high-frequency trading in Manhattan.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; The Beloved Republic; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Natural Science of the Human Species



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