Monday, January 29, 2018

A Short History of Progress

My brother read A Short History of Progress awhile ago.  I was intrigued and wanted to read it as well.  Earlier this month I asked him to borrow it.  I started it earlier in the week (before reading I Am a Truck; I took a break from this because it's a heavy read and I wasn't in the mood for it the night I started the other book), and finished off the last three chapters today (two in the afternoon, the final one just now). 

Ronald Wright looks at human progress, particularly how civilizations have risen and fallen, to show the pattern and ultimately warn us where we're at today.  His central message is that progress isn't always a good thing.  Progress keeps speeding up - learning to tame fire took a long time, learning agriculture happened a bit more quickly, and each subsequent discovery has happened faster and faster, to the point where multiple new things are being discovered/iterated upon within single lifetimes (rather than over the multiple lifetimes previous things happened over).  He also makes the point that when we get good at something, we sometimes take it too far - his best example of this was when humans learned better hunting methods, we slaughtered whole herds of animals.  This was great for awhile, but ultimately ended with extinct animals and a shortage of food (which paved the way for agriculture).  Likewise, we have a history of starting out with small villages in good areas; but the villages grow and we start paving over the good farm land to make more room for houses (not a great plan).  We lack the ability to long-term plan, and ultimately we need to do so if we want our current civilization not to be our last one in the face of ecological collapse.

Wright looks more closely at six civilizations, four of which completely collapsed.  (The other two have fallen but managed to limp along and survive for thousands of years).  He shows the commonalities between them (and pretty much all of the civilizations humans have created) and just how they collapse.  The worst part is, these civilizations have all collapsed in similar and predictable ways: they outgrow what nature can provide to sustain them, because they failed to sustainably take resources from the planet.  Civilizations also end up in "pyramid schemes," with the wealth and power concentrated in the small top proportion.  Sound familiar?  It should.  But this time we won't have the bonanza that the discovery of the other half of the planet was last time...

While I am now left with a bad taste in my mouth, realizing just how much our current civilization is poised near the end (even worse, how much things haven't changed in the fourteen years since the book was released), I think the book is excellent and very much worth reading.  Everyone should read it, particularly if they are politically in power.  If humanity doesn't collectively do something NOW (and admittedly it may already be too late), we'll have destroyed our home.  And for what?  A little more progress and greed?  For a species that prides ourselves on our intelligence, we're quite dumb if that is the answer.

Friday, January 26, 2018

I Am a Truck

My brother sent me his copy of I Am a Truck in the mail the other day.  He was planning on exchanging it at a used book store, but saw that it was on my Goodreads Want To Read shelf, so he sent it my way instead.  I came across it while looking at the giller Prize nominees (it was a finalist); I think the title is hilarious, and it sounded interesting enough, so I thought I'd read it when I got a chance.  The book is a slim volume, so I started reading it the night it arrived and finished it the next day.

I Am a Truck is the story of Rejean and Agathe.  They're about to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary when Rejean doesn't come home.  His Silverado truck, which was his pride and joy, is found abandoned on the side of the road. Agathe can't imagine him leaving her, but when he fails to come home after a few weeks, she takes a job in the mall.  She spends her breaks fondling the shirts she used to buy Rejean in the Big and Tall department of a nearby store until she falls in with her coworker, Debbie.  Debbie shares her knowledge of rock and roll, a genre Agathe always loved but was never able to listen to because of stigma from her family. 

I liked how the narrative was structured, showing us what was happening with Agathe in the hear and now, and showing what happened to Rejean in the past that led to the Silverado being found on the side of the road.  Rejean had struck up a friendship with Martin, a Chevy salesman.  Martin was an awkward little man who had no family and friends; his friendship with Rejean meant everything to him.

I really, really liked the book up to until the point where you find out what happened to Rejean.  I thought everything was great, and the moment was a real gut punch (even though I kind of had an inkling of what might happen).  But then the book kept going.

Rejean had boosted Martin's truck, and was then hit by a transport.  I figured at that point that Rejean was dead.  But he survived somehow, and was nursed back to health by Colonel Weed, some mobster-type of guy who lived out in the woods making cheese (then getting people to sell the cheese and taking a rather large cut of the proceeds).  For some reason, this whole scenario made me think of the patron of Cancun from Dolphin Dreams.  But anyway, Colonel Weed nurses Rejean back to health (and loves that Rejean is French - the two converse quite a lot).  Rejean has lost his memory, and so just stays out with Colonel Weed for quite awhile, until gradually becoming an enforcer (that's why no one has seen Rejean for months).  Rejean is sent to shake up the manager at the store Agathe works at, which is the only reason she finds him.  He comes back to their home, but he remembers nothing.  Eventually, Agathe decides she has to let him go because it is the better option rather than continuing to live in mental agony with him not remembering her.

In my mind, that whole part of the book was ridiculous.  It robbed the emotional impact of when it looked like Rejean was gone.  And rather than everyone just slowly moving on with their lives (or not, as Martin probably would not have), the book took crazy and unwelcome turns.  It's a real shame, because before all this happened, I would have heartily recommended the book as a quick and interesting look at moving on after loss.  But now it's just this weird thing that had the potential to be so much better.

But hey, it still got nominated for the Giller.  So obviously there are people who don't feel the same way as me about it.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time

I read A Wrinkle in Time years ago and don’t remember it very well (with the exception of a scene where the humans were trying to explain sight to aliens who had no eyes). With the movie coming out in March, I decided to reread it. I got it out from the library back in December and started reading it on my break. Then I somehow managed to lose the book. :/

I started getting desperate, and even phoned a few stores I had been to and friends I had visited, just on the off chance that I had left it there. No luck. I finally found it in a weird spot under my bed - it had fallen against the wall by the window, and was behind a bunch of books that were under there. I have since cleaned up under the bed; there are no longer any books under there, so this should never happen again!

So with that whole fiasco behind me, I also had to get through the holidays and another commitment this past weekend. I’ve also been playing video games a lot rather than read. So last night I finally sat down and started rereading A Wrinkle in Time. I managed to finish it a few hours later (I was planning on stopping, but at that point I was so close to being finished that I just continued on).

A Wrinkle in Time is the story of Meg, her little brother, Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin. Meg’s father has been missing for about a year and the whole town is talking (they all believe he has run off with another woman). Meg is a bit of an oddball, and has a hard time fitting in. Her younger brother is believed to be mute, but is quite intelligent (he just chooses not to speak much to other people). Their twin brothers (who are between Meg and Charles Wallace in age) are rather average (or at least content to seem average).

During a hurricane, Meg, Charles Wallace, and their mother find themselves in their kitchen when they get an unexpected visitor - a strange lady named Mrs. Whatsit appears at their door, having been blown off course. The next day, Meg and Charles Wallace go to visit her; she and a few other ladies have taken up residence in the nearby haunted house. On their way there, they encounter Calvin, who had a strange feeling that he needed to go to the haunted house as well. After speaking with Mrs. Who, one of the other ladies, the three children head back to their house. Later that night, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which arrive and spirit everyone off through time and space to go and save Meg and Charles’ father (and hopefully save the universe or something? The book kept saying more was at stake but I’m not really sure how or why?)

There was an amusing moment where Mrs. Which lands everyone on a 2D planet.  They can't stay though because the children can't survive there. 

To travel through time and space, the immortal ladies (who are stars? Or something? I don’t really know what they were - Mrs. Whatsit was a centaur-angel or something? But later said she was a star who gave her life? Yeah, it confused me. Were Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which the same things? The book never really said.) “wrinkle” time. This was a concept Meg’s father was working on and had discussed with her mom - that there was a fifth dimension, a tesseract, and that you could travel through manipulating it (I apologize, I’m probably butchering this explanation). It’s a really neat concept - it lets you get somewhere much faster rather than travelling the long way from star to star.

Here's the ant on a string diagram the book used to explain the concept:

So somewhere along the way, Mrs. Whatsit shows the children the big evil black thing (I have no idea what it is beyond a black thing). It is around the Earth, but people fight it with art and science and enlightenment. They then travel to Camazotz, a place ensnared by the black thing. Everyone behaves identically (and if you don't you're punished as an aberration).  The children then encounter IT, the central intelligence that controls everything, first through a man.  In trying to divine ITs true nature, Charles Wallace ventures too deep and becomes lost in IT.  Charles Wallace (controlled by IT) then brings Meg and Calvin to Meg's father.  She manages to get him out of the holding cell he's in using Mrs. Who's glasses.  Charles Wallace then brings everyone to IT.  Mr. Murray manages to get everyone (except Charles Wallace) away by tessering.  They encounter the aliens who cannot see, who nurse Meg back to health (she was the worst off in the showdown with IT).  This is also where that conversation I remember reading years ago happens.

Everyone then makes plans to go save Charles Wallace (with Meg throwing temper tantrums because she doesn't think they're wanting to go save him - she blames her father, who she thought would fix everything, for leaving him behind).  Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which arrive around this point.  Meg figures out that it has to be her to go back to save Charles Wallace, because he doesn't know their father at all and only barely knows Calvin.  Mrs. Which brings her (because Mrs. Which is far better at wrinkling time than her father is).  Meg returns to IT, where Charles Wallace is waiting.  She uses the power of her love to free him from IT.  Then they all go home. 

I found the end to be a super abrupt thing - I expected a little more of something (especially since the black thing wasn't exactly defeated).

So that was A Wrinkle in Time.  I feel about the same reading it now as I did many years back - it's got some super interesting concepts, but as a whole the narrative isn't very engaging (hence why I forgot most of what happened beyond that conversation with the sightless alien about what it's like to see).  I looked a bit into the rest of the quintet, but they honestly don't sound interesting enough for me to continue reading the series, especially since this book itself was really just okay.  If it had grabbed me more, I would have probably continued with book 2, but as things are, no thanks.