Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

13235961Jack Glass is Adam Roberts’s best book by a long shot, though in hindsight it has some serious flaws. I think of Roberts (whom I’ve followed since his first book) as a genius premise-generator and so-so storyteller with a particular weakness with endings. The good news about Jack Glass is that (as usual) it is based on some sweet ideas and (not as usual) it is a terrific yarn. The bad news is that, yet again, it has a really disappointing ending — though here the problem isn’t execution so much as incompletion.

The book is divided into three parts that tell two stories. The first story is a prison breakout with the craziest prison and the freakiest breakout I’ve ever read. An asteroid reconstruction company purchases prisoners and then deposits them with minimal supplies and some mining equipment on some godforsaken rock in the middle of nowhere — for eleven years. The idea is that the company will send a ship back after that time, to discover one of two things: either the prisoners have out of horrid necessity carved out a habitable space, in which case the company frees the prisoners and sells the now-liveable asteroid at a healthy profit; or the prisoners are dead, in which case the company writes off the loss and (I would guess) claims a nice tax deduction.

This is a darkly hilarious premise, but somewhat unfortunately Roberts plays it straight. A legless prisoner named Jac [sic] is thrown into one of these asteroids with ten other reprobates, and what ensues could come straight from one of those prison exploitation films complete with brutal maulings, psychological torture, and degrading rapes. The story follows no particular arc except to show how Jac endures while others, rather horribly, do not, but as nasty as the story gets it’s told with a certain panache. More importantly, by the end Roberts gets around to hinting at bigger mysteries just before a spectacular explosion of violence transitions to the second story.

Now before I get to that second story I want to make clear that while I did enjoy this prison tale it basically has nothing to do with the rest of the book, and it leaves unanswered a huge huge question, which is — SPOILER ALERT — how the hell does Jac, moving at sublight speeds in a samizdat spacesuit, get anywhere near civilization?

The second story is in the Golden Age genre of far-future science fiction, and concerns the young daughters of a wealthy and powerful family vacationing on Earth when suddenly a murder takes place. At first the daughters (who are genetic geniuses) treat the murder as nothing more than a pleasant diversion, but the investigation spirals into a deadly political struggle and a thrilling escape.

This story is very good except that it focuses on the wrong thing and ends too abruptly. The conceit of the entire book is that it presents several “mysteries,” and in the second story Roberts does nothing more than answer those mysteries (mostly having to do with how various people died). But it turns out that what’s really interesting about the story is the broader political struggle, both between the families that rule the solar system and between the rulers and the proletariat. These tensions are brought to a boil by the added complication of rumored faster-than-light technology — which must be a fantasy, according to the laws of physics, and yet which is enough as a mere idea to trigger devastating machinations.

I would have loved a book that really wrestled with this political story. But Jack Glass is content to be a mere clever puzzle box of a novel — hinting at all of this delicious conflict but doing little more with it beyond providing a background for its mysteries.


Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

47212It’s a little odd to say that a story involving demons, vampires, and an honest-to-god wizard council feels like a plain old detective novel, but that’s the best description I can give of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front, the first in his long-running series about the magical private eye Harry Dresden. Replace the mystical beasts with ordinary low-lifes and the spells with bullets and you’ve got yourself a story that every mystery fan has read a hundred times, down to the sultry femme fatale and stone cold mob boss. It’s not wholly devoid of interest — there’s a reason this framework is so well known. But it feels stale.

Now Butcher (who by the way has an awesome name and should consider writing horror) does do a few nice things in this book, but most of them don’t seem like they will really bear fruit until later volumes. I’m referring in particular to Harry’s frequent intimations about his past — apparently he, like Luke, was once sorely tempted by the dark side — and also to the never seen but oft invoked White Council, which sits schoolmarm-like in judgment over wizards’ ethical choices.

Also intermittently successful are Butcher’s stabs at humor, which nearly all take the form of poking fun at traditional views of wizardry. Dresden is for example quite defensive about wearing a robe (it’s cold in his lab, he reminds us), and while mixing potions is still a thing the ingredients used wink at how ridiculous the concept is. My favorite bit by far is Morgan, an agent of the White Council, who is as hilariously tight-assed as any pencil-pushing bureaucrat at the DMV you’ve ever met, except that he carries a giant sword and materializes out of thin air to advise Harry that he’s violating such-and-such subsection of the wizard code and now must die. That’s good stuff.

On the other hand this book contains lines like “Things were bad. They were very, very bad!” Yeah, the writing is not a high point.

I did some poking around on the Internet and found that most fans of this series agree that the first books are not really good, but things pick up steam later. Seriously? I mean the books are not too long — I finished this one in a few days while taking a break from an emotionally difficult nonfiction book — but I’m not running a charity with my reading time here.


Why “Linguistic Turn”?

wittI’ve never explained why this blog is called “Linguistic Turn,” but two recent articles on Wittgenstein in (of all places) the New York Times has spurred me to action!

The linguistic turn is a well-known shift in Western philosophical thought that occurred primarily in the early- to mid-twentieth century. Its central insight is that the “problems” of philosophy stem primarily — perhaps exclusively — from a certain fuzziness in our ordinary use of language, and that understanding what we really mean when we use words will reveal why many philosophical puzzles are illusory, poorly stated, or nonexistent.

That’s a very general statement so let me share my own understanding of this insight, taken primarily from my now-corrupted understanding of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

Suppose I were to ask you the meaning of a commonplace word that you probably use every day without any problem — like “chair.” What is a chair? As a first stab you might say that a chair has legs, a flat surface to park your tush, and a back. But what about a chair made from a tree stump? Or an exercise ball chair? If somebody were to refer to these objects as “chairs,” you wouldn’t be taken aback, and yet they don’t fit your initial definition at all.

Fine, you say. A chair is something you plant your butt on. But what about a kneeling chair?

spikesFine! you exclaim. A chair is something you can park yourself on in a semi-folded position. But what about a chair with spikes on it? A chair that’s on fire? You can’t sit on those! At the opposite extreme, does this mean that a desk is also a “chair,” since I can sit on it? How about the floor? A horse?

We can go through the same process with any number of other words. One of the most famous examples is “game.” What is a game? The mind boggles at the sheer range of activities, objects, and abstractions covered by that word, from Monopoly to Gears of War to Punch Buggy to Calvinball. Some games have rules, some don’t. Some use physical objects, some don’t. Some involve many people; some involve only one; some involve none. Etc.

Here is Wittgenstein’s first insight: many, perhaps most, of the words we use are not susceptible to hard-edged definitions that encompass their full range of use. No single concept will cover every attribute that we consider relevant to the meaning of “chair,” or “game,” or — to get into even more difficult territory — “loyalty,” “beautiful,” “poor,” etc. At the very most, we might say that particular examples of a term bear a “family resemblance” to each other; just as Aunt Sally might look like Brother Jimmy but for a different reason than Brother Jimmy looks like Uncle Bob, so an office chair and a tree stump might both be “chairs” for reasons different from why a tree stump and a flaming chair are also both “chairs.”

And here is Wittgenstein’s second, more crucial insight: this is no problem! I mean, who wanders through life taxing their brain over what he really means when he calls something a “chair”? We use words that are not susceptible to hard-edged definitions, and we do so easily, fluidly, and without deep consideration. More importantly, other people easily, fluidly, and without deep consideration understand exactly what we mean! A “problem” with language only arises if you try to impose structure that does not really exist.

As with ordinary words, so with philosophical ones. It’s easiest to understand the linguistic turn as a response (in part) to modern analytic philosophy, which sought to introduce clarity and rigor to philosophical thinking. Much of modern philosophy is concerned with nailing down exactly what is meant by such concepts as knowledge, identity, existence, or consciousness. But if we can’t even figure out what we mean by simple words like “chair,” what makes us think that broader philosophical terms are susceptible to similar analysis? More importantly, why do we insist on a particular type of answer to these philosophical issues — an answer with hard, clean edges, with all messiness cleared up?

brownsLet me give a rather simplistic example. There is a puzzle about identity known as the Ship of Theseus. The question posed by this puzzle is whether a ship is “the same” ship after every single piece has been replaced slowly over time. It’s a very interesting puzzle that quite naturally leads to attempts to deconstruct what we mean by “same.” But in point of fact ordinary non-philosopher human beings have zero problem dealing with far thornier Ship of Theseus problems every day. I give you as dispositive proof ESPN and its coverage of sports teams. The current New York Yankees used to be the Baltimore Orioles. The current Baltimore Orioles used to be the Milwaukee Brewers. And the current Milwaukee Brewers used to be the Seattle Pilots! (Ok, that’s less interesting.) The NFL is almost worse. When the current Indianopolis Colts left Baltimore, Art Modell moved the then-Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, where the team became the Ravens. But wait! The NFL brokered a deal which made the Browns’ legacy stay in Cleveland, and a new (old?) team called the Cleveland Browns sprang into being three years after the actual physical team’s move to Baltimore.

Yet fans of all of these franchises say: no problem. (At least with identity; Browns fans are not happy about Modell.) And that is one answer to philosophical puzzles. Where is the problem with identity in sports teams? A philosopher might say, “Well, I haven’t figured out what it means for a sports team to be the same!” But Wittgenstein’s response (arguably) is: that’s your problem, a problem that you invented, not a real problem that in any practical sense has to be “solved.”

Now many modern philosophers are naturally not keen on this argument, since it calls into question the whole point of their studies, so there’s a somewhat softer interpretation of Wittgenstein that calls into question philosophers’ methods (i.e., armchair introspection) without necessarily calling into question the project itself. But I like the broader approach. In my view it doesn’t eliminate all philosophical problems entirely — it simply shifts the focus from analyzing philosophy to treating philosophical issues and problems in a more anthropological way, i.e., figuring out from actual experience how words and ideas are used, and how disparities in practical usage between people contribute to conceptual disagreements.

Of course none of this explains why a blog based on a major philosophical debate primarily features reviews of science fiction and fantasy books. Now that’s a puzzle.

Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness

monAfter the high of The Ask and the Answer there was basically no way Monsters of Men was going to live up to that level of quality — and indeed it didn’t. But it was an interesting failure.

The Chaos Walking trilogy is all about difficult choices, and each book has had a different take on that theme. The first book was a straightforward chase drama in which the central choice was whether to descend to the level of the murderous townsfolk — and also whether to have faith in a better future. The second book presented an ethical dilemma about how to choose between two compromised sides.

Monsters of Men is superficially about war — but it’s really about how to atone for one’s guilt over terrible wrongs. The setup is great. As the Mayor and the Answer are about to engage in a battle to the death, the Spackle arrive in enormous numbers to avenge their enslaved and then slain brethren. To reflect the new characters, Ness introduces a third POV: that of 1017, the lone survivor of the Mayor’s slaughter of Haven’s Spackle slaves. 1017’s viewpoint is heartbreaking. We discover not only that he lost his beloved in the massacre, but that his long period of servitude also separated him from his fellow Spackle, who are united by some sort of shared consciousness. He is of course consumed by rage and grief and a powerful desire to take revenge — his chapters are essentially an endless howl of anguish and thwarted justice.

The thing is this he’s totally in the right. But the target of 1017’s anger is our very own Todd, who was essentially the overseer of the Spackle slaves during the previous book. Todd knows his role in their suffering and even their death. And yet because of his love of Viola he has no interest in dying — a survival instinct that he cannot root out — even though he acknowledges in his better moments that, yes, he should really be punished.

Finally Viola is horrified that with the arrival of the Spackle, the Mayor and the Answer have joined forces to save humanity. She still doesn’t trust the Mayor and is wary of Todd’s closeness to him — as well as his new inscrutability from mind-reading. And with the arrival of the settler ships she faces the unsettling question of whether to let this precursor to yet another batch of humans get involved in a war not of their making.

Ness should again be credited for setting up an incredibly interesting collection of conflicts and mixed feelings, with everybody literally sitting on weapons of mass destruction ready to be unleashed at any time. That being said the worst features of the first book once more rear their ugly heads.

For instance the book begins with a massive act of stupidity. Todd has the Mayor at his mercy — if not to kill, then at least to humiliate and crush forever — and he lets him go with a stern “I’ll be watching you, don’t try anything funny.” Are you kidding me. The Mayor doesn’t know anything but funny business! And of course he immediately resumes his snake oil charm, to disastrous effect.

In addition, to highlight the ethical dilemmas he poses, Ness too frequently gives his protagonists too much responsibility. At one point Viola is literally handed the trigger to megatons of ordnance and told, point blank, “The choice is yours: kill thousands, or spare their lives?” Of course Viola then immediately shows that she is, after all, still a freakin’ kid by impulsively sending missiles flying based on a fleeting belief that Todd is in danger. Next time, team, let’s keep the big guns away from the half-crazed hormone-flooded teenager.

Next I found the poor Spackle leader, the Sky, just hilariously incompetent. I mean the poor dude keeps acting all “I’ve got an awesome secret plan, trust me to take care of everything,” except that his secret plans keep failing — as in every time! — and he can’t even prevent the most obvious problems (like 1017 going crazy and trying to kill people), and then every time he lays yet another big one he gets all sad and brays “Peace,” i.e., “I surrender.” It is completely pathetic! And completely contrary to what I understand is supposed to be the gravity of his character.

Finally I didn’t like that this book had more climaxes than — well I was going to make an off-color joke but I suppose this is a family blog. Seriously though this book kept coming right up to a seeming conclusion and then something random would happen — somebody would go totally bat crazy, or launch into some inane scheme, or reappear from the dead, etc. etc. etc. By the time the book actually ended I half expected yet another curveball (seriously — I thought a sea monster would make a reappearance), but no all we get is the usual appearance of a sad ending except we can’t leave all the young readers crying so let’s throw in an epilogue that will set their imaginations on fire with thoughts of the hot reunion that will occur not in the book but in their fevered imaginations instead.

I’m actually surprised that Ness, who has been so bloody-minded otherwise, finally shied away from real consequences in the end. This trilogy had the potential of ending on a note as powerful as the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was far from perfect (very far) but concluded with this heartbreaking image of two young lovers in different dimensions sitting in parallel physical locations and imagining each other’s presence. Instead of a gut punch, Ness, perhaps because he too began to love his characters too much, lets them off.

I’ll be honest, in the immediate aftermath of finishing the book I was very happy for the mercy. But afterward I realized it was a glaring burst of dishonesty in a trilogy than otherwise has not flinched from hard questions and worse consequences.