Monday, May 11, 2015

Read It, May 2015, Progress Report 1

I finished The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes. It's a dark book, and explores the idea of individual existence and what human beings owe to others. It's a dense work. There's a lot going on: Mitzi is blind, but most of the other characters are metaphorically blinded in some way: blinded by infatuation, blinded by politics, or blinded by post-traumatic stress response. What does the fox represent? Is it the individual's self-consciousness, trapped in the "attic" of the individual body? This one seems like it deserves re-reading. But not anytime soon.

I read a novel by Max Barry, a thriller called Lexicon. It's a very fast-moving, exciting story, quite tightly written and well-paced. There are some great twists and surprises. It's kinda-sorta science fiction. The idea is that a secret cabal of "poets" have taken neuro-linguistic programming, hypnotic suggestion, and psychographic segmentation to the next level, and discovered how to hack the human mind, using words that will allow them to gain "root access" and control people. The plot centers around the discovery of a mythical artifact, a "bareword," a back-door password that will instantly gain root of any person, no matter what personality "segment" they occupy.

This idea that language can hack the brain has been explored before, and better, in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and a little bit in Charles Stross's Laundry Files novels, where certain images and patterns can also hack the brains of susceptible persons. The name "bareword" may be borrowed from Perl programming, where it indicates a variable name that is not prefixed with a "sigil," and therefore is subject to misinterpretation -- a bareword can bypass some of the language's, and through this the computer operating system's, safety features. If the brain has a machine language, and an operating system, then why couldn't it be susceptible to hacking? Hypnotic suggestion, nootropic drugs, etc. -- these things are already "mind hacks." But of course the metaphor of the mind as computer clearly is an imperfect one. The brain isn't literally made of registers, I/O busses, and arithmetic logic units.

There's a lot to like about this book; it's very nicely put together, with some genuinely exciting plot twists that feel very satisfying when they arrive. Howard Hawks, the film director, famously said that a good movie is "three good scenes and no bad scenes." This book has some great scenes. The scene where Emily first encounters the bareword is wonderfully written. The organization that conducts experiments on human subjects is horribly convincing. But it also has some scenes that are, to me, a little unconvincing.

In one scene, Emily has to fix a damaged computer by cannibalizing other computers. She can supposedly figure out how to do this because of her cleverness, and her training in linguistics, history, philosophy, psychology, and neurological anatomy. I'll accept that Emily is very clever; a genius, even. But the text does not mention any background in computer programming or electrical engineering. It doesn't mention any tools such as a soldering iron, a logic analyzer, or even a multimeter. It's kind of laughable. To me, it was just a little too hard to suspend disbelief at this point, especially after accepting all the other plot devices I had provisionally accepted. Maybe this is because I understand this subject area well enough to know what this kind of problem-solving requires. Meanwhile, as the hard science about how the brain processes language is still rather "soft," it felt easier to suspend disbelief in the notion that the brain has a universal backdoor password. But still, it pushed me out of the story.

So, I think this is a pretty good science fiction/thriller, but comes up just short of being a great one. It's professionally done, but at times feels more formulaic and workmanlike than inspired. The author introduces more ideas than he really explores thoroughly. There's a brilliant critique of modern media and the rise of Fox News. There's an exploration of the concept of the "tower of Babel" and the division of human languages, and why that happened, and what it would mean if we had a universal language. These linked ideas themselves really deserve a bigger story and a more convincing science fiction setting. I enjoyed it, and gave up sleep to finish it, but it won't be part of my permanent library.

On deck this week: Red Shift by Alan Garner. (I'm working my way through a whole shelf of New York Review Books Classics, arranged by color, and I'm still in the red side of the ROYGBIV rainbow, with quite a few more unread volumes with red covers to finish before I reach orange). The Fox in the Attic and Nature Stories, the only two NYRB Classics I have with white covers, I (somewhat arbitrarily) placed to the left of red. Having finished The Fox in the Attic, I've been reading bits of Nature Stories to my children at bedtime. It is a slim collection of beautifully written and illustrated short stories about animals, written by Jules Renard. The stories range from haiku-like, even a single sentence in some cases, to a few pages. It's a lovely book.

I've also nearly finished reading my children Doctor Who: 12 Doctors, 12 Stories (we've just started the story featuring the eleventh doctor, the one played by Matt Smith). This story is written by Neil Gaiman and it is quite a good one, although overall, all of the stories in the series have been quite well-done. I recommend this collection to any young Doctor Who fans.

Also on deck: a whole lot of non-fiction vying for my attention; in fact, it is hard to choose. So for the moment I'll finish Red Shift and then see if anything else cuts in line.

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