Where am I getting my awe from?

Last week, I posted about Star Wars, reviews, personal growth, franchises and a bunch of other apparently unrelated stuff. I talked about SF as the literature of awe, and the hyperbolic extent that I care about it. But awe is a commodity I find harder and harder to locate these days. I want books I can believe in, that build on what I know, and open new doors in my mind. So I decided to look back over some the books I’ve read recently and do something like a sequence of mini-reviews, to figure out where I’ve been getting the good stuff from. So here you have it, five small reviews of things I’ve actually been reading in the non-parenting seconds that life has handed me of late.

Something Coming Through, by Paul McAuley
(+) Atmosphere
(+) Settings
(–) Alien tech
This one really hit the spot. Love the mood and the quality of the writing. His mostly tidally-locked worlds in red dwarf systems are bang-on too. This future has real creepiness. How are eidolons supposed to work, though, given the variety of neuronal architectures they’re presumably supposed to co-opt? Paul has fabulous writing and science chops, so I wanted more meat on that. That detail stretched the plausibility of the work a bit, when a page or two of idea diving would have suspended my disbelief.

The Society of Genes, by Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher
(+) Clarity of exposition
(+) Reach of implications
(–) Attempts at empathetic engagement
I’ve been getting more and more of my awe from pop-science books like this one of late. And this one’s fantastic. I still haven’t finished it, but I’m putting it on the list anyway because I’m digging it so much. In drawing such clean, functional parallels between genetic systems and social ones, the authors create something that not only explores modern genetics, but has buried parables about politics and white-collar crime. Awesome. The only lurches for me came when they tried to shoehorn in the ‘human interest’ chapter openings, because that’s what science writers are told to do. Meh. The genes are the really interesting characters here.

Eden, by Stanislaw Lem
(+) Surrealist mood and content
(+) Veiled political commentary
(–) Quality of descriptive prose (in translation, at least)
Ah Lem, you are so brilliant. How I wish you were not dead. Eden is an old book (1959), but it’s great. It’s like reading a Dali painting. Except, it’s surrealism that turns out to be an almost invisible yet scathing assault on soviet governmental policies (IMO). There were passages I had to reread to visualize, but who cares. It’s a classic. (Though, to be fair, I don’t hold old SF to the same standards of plausibility that I hold modern work to. So is he getting a free pass? You decide.)

The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson
(+) Theoretical impact
(+) Ease of reading
(+) Scope
(–) Err…
Wilson is right. Dawkins is wrong. This book is epic. The review won’t be long. This book has changed how I think about eusociality, what humanity is, and its place in the universe. I still haven’t quite finished it. I read it measured chunks like a fine chocolate. The thrust of this book has implications even in arenas Wilson doesn’t talk about, such as abiogenesis. The only flaw I can think of is that it tends toward ponderousness. Like any good fine chocolate, eating a whole bar in one sitting is less good.

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
(+) Flavor
(+) Use of detail
(–) Plot devices
This book felt different to most of the SF I’ve read recently. I guess that’s because the author is informed by a different cultural context than most authors I know, but I loved how fresh the pace and structure felt. I also liked the enthusiastic use of technical detail. When was the last time I picked up a new British or American novel that proclaimed a love for science so deeply? What tripped me up in this book was the dependence on some non-plausible ideas to make the plot function, undercutting the merits of the rest of the work. Most notably, (and this is a little spoilery,) spontaneous, context-free universal translation as concocted by human astronomers in their spare time. Still, a strong book.

There you have it. Five books all worthy of your time. Yay for awe.