Archive for the ‘From the armchair’ category

The Test by Walter Adams

18 November 2005
Categories: From the armchair

coverA memoir of his nine-month tenure as president of Michigan State University in 1969, this book by Professor Walter Adams lies at a perfect crossroads of several of my interests. I’m a graduate of that pioneer land grant institution, with a deep-seated interest in MSU history. I have studied the antiestablishment movement of that era. Plus as a former member of the Spartan Marching Band, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Adams. He was, after all, the Number One Band Fan.

Sadly, the closest I ever got to taking a class from him was hearing his commencement address at my graduation ceremony. This book is certainly no Econ. 444, but it is a terrific glimpse into Adams’ general disposition: it is, like him, witty and self-effacing, yet deeply insightful. It leads me to believe that, despite his being “encumbered neither by administrative expertise nor experience,” his deep and broad understanding of the university’s role in society, and his genuine love for MSU, its students and faculty, made him a more-than-able administrator. I might even go so far as to argue a point to which Adams himself would have undoubtedly taken offense: that the three greatest presidents of the university were Abbot, Hannah, and Adams.

Theophilus Capen Abbot (1826–1892) presided for twenty-two years during the very early era when the State Agricultural College was still taking its first, tentative steps. He worked hard to make sure the school maintained its focus on scientific agriculture—even when that science was more theory than praxis. He successfully defended the school against forces in the legislature and the general public that wanted the Agricultural College dissolved and reestablished as a department of the University of Michigan.

John Alfred Hannah (1902–1991) was a former chicken farmer and poultry specialist who, almost single-handedly, transformed the school from a little cow college (MSC) to a world-class megaversity (MSU). During his twenty-eight-year reign—and this is the proper term for his office, as he held virtually all the power—enrollment increased from 6,000 to nearly 40,000; the Basic College, among other forward-thinking programs, was established; a massive campus building program was undertaken; and a branch campus was formed, which later gained its independence as Oakland University.

Upon Hannah’s departure, the university faced a difficult juncture. The Board of Trustees, composed of elected officials from across the state, had been pushed to the periphery by the Hannah administration, and the board wanted to reestablish its power base where it belonged, at the top of the pyramid. They were reluctant to maintain the status quo by selecting one of Hannah’s hand-picked successors. In addition, the days of the king-makers, of the trustees choosing a new president in a cloistered setting beyond outside influence—which arguably was how Hannah, the son-in-law of the previous president, had gained the throne—had gone the way of the small-time cow college. After twenty-eight years, not only was the selection process obsolete, but no one had a clear idea of what it had been, or what it should be.

And of course, it was 1969, a time of nationwide unrest, and student protest and uprising. This was a factor that the trustees, and their choice of president, could not safely ignore.

To buy time, the trustees asked Distinguished Economics Professor Walter Adams to serve as interim president. Dr. Adams had been a member of the faculty for twenty-two years. His senior-level undergraduate economics class was widely regarded as one of the most difficult—and most rewarding—courses available at MSU. His stance on the inadvisability of “bigness” in corporations and government, combined with a consummate teacher’s ability to convey complex ideas in accessible terms, made him a frequent expert witness at Congressional budget hearings. But as an administrator, he had effectively zero experience.

Nevertheless, Adams accepted the job, with the understanding that his term would be truly interim and would not extend beyond the end of the year, by which time the selection process would be complete. A self-professed pragmatist and optimist, Adams took up the presidential mantle using, as he put it, a combination of intuition and insight. (One must add “intelligence” to this list.) His watchwords became “openness, honesty, and accessibility.”

Adams’ opening chapters of The Test describe some of the broad subgroups with which he had to deal. They were “the white radicals,” “the black militants,” “the moderate majority,” and “the outside agitators.” The first three are some of the typical factions found on nearly every university campus in the late-’60s. But Adams’ method, of directly engaging these groups in dialogue, paying attention to understand their grievances (and often finding that all they really wanted was a listening ear), was far from typical. He treated them all, even the most antagonistic agitators, as friends and colleagues.

Perhaps ironically, it was his experience as a soldier in World War II, serving with distinction to earn the Bronze Star and a battlefield commission as lieutenant, that informed Adams’ tactics in resolving confrontations peacefully. One of his colleagues, also a veteran, chastized him for walking straight into the fray of a protest against police recruiters at the Placement Bureau, saying “it’s O.K. to sacrifice a second lieutenant in a fire fight, but you never take a chance on the general falling into enemy hands.” The thing is, as a professor Adams saw himself as one of the rank-and-file faculty, in effect a second lieutenant—and that attitude allowed him to think on his feet, with flexibility, in the midst of tense and fluid situations.

The results—open dialogue and a sense that the university was receptive to change, rather than (self) destructive student protest and the inevitable hardline establishment response—make me wish that this book had been available to the governors of Ohio and Mississippi in the year that followed Adams’ tenure.

A chapter titled “The Outside Agitators” could easily lead one to think of radical infiltrators, such as SDS members from other campuses, coming to MSU to cause trouble (like those rumoured to have burned down the ROTC building at Kent State in May 1970). Not so. To Adams, the outside agitators were other members of the establishment: the press, the state legislature, the Nixon administration. Even alumni, whom one would have thought had the best interests of the school at heart, were a “potential source of divisiveness and polarization.” One by one, he shut down their negative rhetoric.

He invited press representatives to the president’s box at an MSU football game, after which they attended a cocktail mixer at the president’s manse where the other guests were members of the student government and leaders of “white radical” and “black militant” student organizations. The social setting (and free-flowing spirits) led to frank, friendly discussions that opened the lines of communication, after which “no newspaper represented at the gathering printed a student-baiting editorial” during his tenure, nor for some time afterward. Coverage of student protests and disruptions continued as before, but now the press understood the issues with greater depth and were able to editorialize without resorting to a simplistic viewpoint and divisive tone.

When a state senator, in the wake of a racial incident at one of the school’s cafeterias, introduced a bill that mainly served to fuel the polemics (and improve his own political visibility), the MSU student government wrote a rebuttal for proclamation on the senate floor. The open letter espoused both improvements in racial equality on campus and the fact that the incident had been swiftly dealt with by the students themselves in a way that satisfied all parties (in part due to Adams having prompted, once again, an open discussion between the factions). A large group of student leaders announced their intention to attend the senate session where the rebuttal would be introduced, and the Senate President-pro-tem, fearing a riot, asked Adams to attend the session. This he did, although he believed his presence was not much of a factor in the students’ behaviour. Justifying his trust in them, the students acted as model citizens as they filled the senate gallery and listened attentively to the entire session. (After it was over, the battalion of state police that had been standing by in the basement of the Capitol—in full riot gear and armed to the teeth—was quietly dismissed without incident.)

In October 1969, campus activists organized a Vietnam Moratorium Day that wound up being a peaceful, focussed protest—thanks in large part to Adams’ involvement. Despite being expressly forbidden to do so by President Nixon, Michigan Governor William G. Milliken (a Republican) attended the on-campus activities, stating clearly—without ever taking the microphone to speak—his opposition to the violent, polemical rhetoric of Vice-President Spiro Agnew and others in the Nixon government. The gathering attracted the full gamut of students (the radicals and the moderate majority), faculty, and even an octogenarian East Lansing resident who, just by being there and showing that she cared, became something of a heroine to the students during the march to the Capitol. President Adams, of course, led the way.

Taking the opportunity of a bully pulpit provided by this memoir, Adams goes on to discuss his attitude toward what a university’s goals and place should be in modern society. With the indisputable dialectic of a master economist he rails against the dilution of a university’s intellectual capital by acceptance of government grants for outside work; among other arguments he shares a particularly interesting tale of MSU contracting to conduct police training in post-colonial, pre-war Vietnam—and its involvement, not unwittingly, with the CIA. He wrote, some thirty-five years ago, that the land grant philosophy pioneered by MSU, holding at its core a mandate to provide higher education to the “industrial classes,” i.e. education for the people and not solely for the elite, was as relevant and important in 1969 as it was in 1869. And it remains a vital goal of the American land-grant university to this day.

A tangent about another legacy of Walter Adams. Beyond his prowess as economics professor, and his tenure as university president, Adams was widely known for his unwavering support of MSU sports teams. Many have told the tales of his vitriolic attacks on Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight (and their subsequent friendship). Fellow econ prof “Lash” Larrowe mentions in his introduction to The Test that Adams once so antagonized a visiting baseball coach that the coach had to be restrained by campus police so that he couldn’t charge into the stands, red-faced and fists clenched, to silence Adams.

It wasn’t so much that he was vocal, although he was, but that he knew a team’s (and a coach’s) weaknesses and would play off of them. For example, he would find the slowest, or shortest, player on a basketball team and loudly suggest to the coach to put that player in on offense. In The Test, in his typical way of being both understated and perfectly accurate, Adams uses this adjective to describe his fandom: “assiduous”—as in “marked by careful unremitting attention or persistent application.” Indeed.

His wife Pauline, professor emerita of American thought and language, recently gave a speech in which she contended that one of the most momentous changes in MSU history was when home basketball games moved from Jenison Fieldhouse to the Breslin Center, because Walt’s season tickets were moved from seats directly behind the visitors’ bench to about the tenth row. This distance, of course, made his needling much less audible and effective.

In fact, nowadays the NCAA has a rule that schools must “reserve or protect the seating or spectator areas immediately behind the visiting team bench for fans of the visiting team, whenever possible.” Rumor has it that Adams might have been a direct cause of this rule. I like to think of this as the “Walter Adams Buffer Zone.”

In conclusion, I found The Test by Walter Adams to be a very fun, interesting read. His shrewd views of the roles of the American university, and its president, are universal and still timely today, and his humour is infectious. He could be an irascible curmudgeon when teaching undergrads—or taunting opponents—but it was his genuine love for his students that drove Adams to teach, and made him such a great president. As professor, he had maybe a few hundred students each term that he considered his “children.” As president, that family numbered 40,000—and he treated each one he met, even in the briefest moment, with love, care, and individual kindness.

Book recommendations: Space Exploration

16 July 2005
coverA Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin

If you only ever read one book on the Space Race, this must be it, the book that was the basis for the award-winning HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. Chaikin explains the events and difficulties of the Apollo project with such detailed understanding that one might think he was himself one of the astronauts, except that no astronaut ever had such a gift for storytelling. Both the exhilirating highs and the disastrous lows will bring tears to your eyes.

coverCountdown: A History of Space Flight by T. A. Heppenheimer

Just a fantastic overview of every aspect of space history: from the early theoretical days, through the German A-4 program, and beyond to both American and Soviet sides of the Space Race, unmanned missions and satellite development, and even the CIA’s satellite programs (see Corona). It benefits greatly from newly released Russian information, and includes commentary on the future of space exploration and the human role in it.

coverStages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles by Roger E. Bilstein

Part of the NASA History series, this is an excellent technological history of the development of America’s moon rocket, the Saturn V. This gigantic booster was the tallest rocket ever built, produced over 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, and was built by hundreds of contractors from nearly all fifty states. Huge leaps in engineering, metallurgy, computers, and myriad other fields were necessary to fly the Saturn V and its smaller sibling, the Saturn I-B. This book is unapologetically technical, but sparks the imagination as well. By the time I finished it I couldn’t look at any major construction—the Sears Tower, the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate bridge—without thinking, “compared to the Saturn, that was easy to build.” (Reissued in its entirety, including all photographs and diagrams, by the University Press of Florida. Order it today at

coverThe Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space by Eugene Cernan with Don Davis

A brilliant and entertaining read, the best astronaut autobiography I have read to date. Eugene Cernan, veteran of three space flights including two trips to the Moon, infuses his memoir with wit, humility, candor, and fascinating detail. Geno’s occasional use of blue language, a habit that got him into trouble during Apollo 10, makes it read like you’re sitting on his back porch listening to old war stories, and doesn’t seem at all out of place. (Who wouldn’t use the s-word if they thought their spacecraft was about to sink in the ocean?) And the events he lived through, such as the near-disastrous third spacewalk in history, make me wonder how he ever managed to cram his big balls into the Gemini capsule in the first place.

Unlike many in the genre that ignore the human element, the book details the strain borne by the family of an astronaut. Geno has nothing but praise for the difficult and untrainable role his gorgeous wife Barbara (now divorced) played as “Mrs. Astronaut.” It drives home the fact that Cernan’s career was, like most, really a team effort.

He doesn’t have much nice to say about Buzz “Dr. Rendezvous” Aldrin, though.

coverCarrying the Fire by Michael Collins

A refreshingly candid and insightful autobiography, and surprisingly so considering it was written in 1974, just five years after Collins’ flight aboard Apollo 11. By that time, he had severed his ties with NASA and was beholden to no one, a fact made clear by some of his frank comments regarding his former employer and some of his former fellow astronauts.

Collins affects a humble, gee-I-hope-I’m-good-enough tone through much of his book, particularly during the astronaut selection process. This is a common theme of astronaut autobiographies, and one begins to wonder if this is because there really is rampant humility in the ranks of the crème-de-la-crème of test pilots, or instead because the authors intentionally tone down their egos so as not to sound like total assholes when writing for posterity. I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. After all, these are certainly incredibly skilled, competent, intelligent men in a highly competitive line of work that must require powerful ego and strength of will to succeed; likewise, that competition, among a tightly knit group of similarly qualified individuals, would make even the most vainglorious egotist doubt his abilities.

He appears to have fared the transition from astronaut to historical figure in better form than his crewmates: Neil Armstrong actively sought a life outside the public eye and now lives quite reclusively on his farm in Ohio; Buzz Aldrin, according to Collins, tried to return to his Air Force career, found that having walked on the Moon doesn’t carry the cachet to write one’s own ticket in the service, and wound up in a state of clinical-grade depression. Collins, on the other hand, played the game with the cards dealt him, went to Washington, and joined the State department for a year as a foreign liason. He then became, appropriately enough, Director of the nascent National Air and Space Museum, which at the time of his writing had not yet opened to the public.

Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing idea in Collins’ book is the notion that photographing the Earth from space is a double-edged sword. Yes, pictures of Earth provided fuel for the understanding that our planet is a tiny, fragile place without the arbitrary boundary lines that we impose on it and fight over; the environmentalist movement especially was spurred by Apollo photos of what Carl Sagan called our “pale blue dot.” However, Collins contends that these pictures—of the Earth and the Moon, and humans voyaging in between—breed a sense of complacency, of having “been there, done that,” of believing that we know all there is to know about the Earth, the Moon, and travelling in space. Of course, he was writing this during a time when we were turning inward again: Apollo was over, the unused Saturn V rockets were left to rot on the ground, and the public looked at Skylab with an attitude of “ho-hum, why bother?” Collins attributes some of this lack of vision and expectation for the future to people getting the sense that they’ve been there because they’ve seen the pictures. But as Michael Collins himself states,

“Seeing the earth on an 8-by-10-inch piece of paper, or ringed by the plastic border of a television screen, is not only not the same as the real view but even worse—it is a pseudo-sight that denies the reality of the matter. To actually be 100,000 miles out, to look out four windows and find nothing but black infinity, to finally locate the blue-and-white golf ball in the fifth window, to know how fortunate we are to be able to return to it—all these things are required, in addition to merely gauging its size and color. While the proliferation of photos constantly reminds us of the earth’s dimensions, the photos deceive us as well, for they transfer the emphasis from the one earth to the multiplicity of reproduced images. There is but one earth, tiny and fragile, and one must get 100,000 miles away from it to appreciate fully one’s good fortune in living on it.”

coverMoondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

A different take on Apollo: rather than ask “What was it like to walk on the Moon?”, the author asked the nine remaining Moonwalkers, “What was it like to return to Earth afterward?”—and finds that they experienced a wide range of emotions and results. In the meantime, Smith ponders what Apollo means today—to him personally, and to human society at large. His conclusions are thought-provoking and, to some extent, iconoclastic. Here’s a further review.

coverFirst Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

A fine biography of the first man to walk on the moon. This book benefits greatly from the fact that Armstrong himself authorized its writing, granted numerous interviews, and provided unprecedented access to his personal papers, yet did not edit nor censure the final product beyond simple fact-checking. Parts of it are almost dull, though appropriately so—Armstrong was, after all, an engineer, not a risk-taker or glory-monger. Hansen gently tears open the hero-worshipping mythology that has accumulated over the past few decades to reveal the genuine human being within, putting Neil’s life in perspective and explaining how a cautious attitude toward his fame could be misconstrued as being anti-social or reclusive. He even pokes holes in the various urban legends, both humourous (the Mr. Gorsky story) and pernicious (the ludicrous notion that the moon landing never happened), that never cease to find traction among the ill-informed. Recommended.

coverFailure Is Not An Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Eugene F. Kranz

We know Gene Kranz from the Hollywood portrayals—Ed Harris in Apollo 13, Dan Butler in From The Earth To The Moon. He’s a hard-edged, crew-cut, steely-eyed missile man. With this book, we find he’s also an excellent storyteller. Kranz was instrumental and present at many of the most momentous events of Gemini and Apollo (including the Eagle‘s landing and 13’s “we have a problem” moment). With his experience, he could have freewheeled this book and filled it with off-the-cuff anecdotes, but instead took the time to research his subject deeply and conducted dozens of interviews with his fellow flight controllers. The result is a book that chronicles with terrific detail and good character development the never-routine day-to-day life of Mission Control. Gene Kranz, Sabre jet pilot in Korea, Langley test pilot, and 24-year veteran of NASA, is an American hero, yet he never aggrandizes his role in history, referring at all times to the team effort and giving credit by name whenever it’s due. Without the apparent help of a ghost writer, this aeronautical engineer has given us an historic tale with a great sense of the human element that made it all possible. His book is well worth a read.

coverDragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir by Bryan Burrough

A fascinating chronology of the Shuttle-Mir program, during which seven NASA astronauts spent extended periods aboard the Russian space station. Most importantly, this book details the behind-the-scenes politicking that led to the program. NASA Administration, concerned over the survival of the International Space Station if Russia’s space industry went bankrupt, worked out a plan to send Americans to Mir and American dollars to Moscow. Sadly, ground support for the missions was barely an afterthought, leaving several of the astronauts high and dry in space. Some, like Shannon Lucid and Michael Foale, managed to thrive. Others did not fare as well.

coverLost Moon by James Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

I read this book before seeing Ron Howard’s movie based on it, Apollo 13. So when the actors deliver lines which are layman’s explanations of technojargon someone else just said, it sounds redundant to me because Lovell explains it all in his book: GUIDO, FIDO, TLI, Main Bus B, and so on. Howard understood that the true story of the mission had plenty of drama, yet his movie still succumbed to Hollywood aggrandisement. The book sticks to the facts, and even without an all-star cast it is gripping, frightful, and entertaining. (Reissued in mass-market paperback as Apollo 13.)

coverAngle of Attack: Harrison Storms and the Race to the Moon by Mike Gray

By the screenwriter of The China Syndrome. Harrison Storms led North American Aviation to build both the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn V rocket’s giant and innovative S-2 second stage. Beating overwhelming odds, the company was ultimately successful, but at the cost of Stormy’s health and career. Somebody should make a movie out of this inspiring but tragic tale, and have James Rebhorn reprise the role he played as Storms in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon.

coverKorolev by James J. Harford

Deke Slayton puts it well in Deke! when he says that Sergei P. Korolev was the Soviet Union’s “Wernher von Braun and Robert Gilruth and James Webb all rolled into one—not only a great engineer but a hell of a politician. He was good at zigging this way and zagging the other to get what he wanted, which was to go to the moon.” Korolev was a brilliant man who was kept a state secret until long after his death. This book is an excellent narrative of his life’s work, marred only by the author’s obsession with the fact that Korolev’s associates have grown old.

coverManaging Martians by Donna Shirley

Donna Shirley was in charge of the development team that created Sojourner Truth, the Mars rover that captured the American imagination in July of 1997. She later became head of the Mars Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the acme of a career that had been her calling since childhood. With an innovative management style she became the first woman to direct the production of a successful piece of space flight hardware, and was able to make more friends than enemies in the process. Part autobiography, part anecdotal management handbook, Ms. Shirley’s book dishes some interesting dirt about the politics involved in this sort of enterprise, and only lacks the Oklahoma twang I found so endearing on CNN.

coverDeke! (U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle) by Donald K. “Deke” Slayton with Michael Cassutt

Astronaut Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven, was Chief of the Astronaut Office throughout the ’60s and was the man primarily responsible for crew selection. This book has far more character than Moon Shot (by Alan Shepard and Slayton), and allows Deke’s no-nonsense manner and individuality to shine through. Especially fascinating are descriptions of the logistical juggling of Gemini and Apollo crew assignments caused by changing mission expectations, hardware failures, and deadly accidents. A nice touch are the “Other Voices” blurbs, which add perspective from Deke’s family and colleagues.

coverAt the Edge of Space: The X-15 Flight Program by Milton O. Thompson

Milt Thompson piloted the experimental X-15 rocket airplane on fourteen flights from October 1963 to August 1965, making him one of only a dozen men uniquely qualified to tell the story of what continues to be the world’s fastest aircraft. Thompson, later to become chief engineer at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, is admittedly not a professional writer nor historian, and sometimes this shows through, especially in the book’s occasional repetition. (In fact, in an afterword he implies that he only wrote the book because it appeared that no one else involved with the program was bothering to do so.) However, not only does he do an excellent job of describing the systems of the plane and conveying the challenges of the endeavour, he adequately captures the pride and camaraderie of the people involved as well. He also has a deep trove of humourous tales. The X-15 program was the pinnacle of flight research and Milt Thompson pays it a much-needed tribute. Includes a complete log of all 199 flights and 32 pages of photographs.

coverChariots for Apollo: The Untold Story behind the Race to the Moon by Charles R. Pellegrino & Joshua Stoff

The tale of Apollo, told from the prespective of the people of Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation of Bethpage, New York, who built the Lunar Modules (LMs). Pellegrino is deeply immersed in LM history and thus his book is chock full of interesting and little-known facts, and worth a read on that basis alone. Unfortunately, I found the writing style annoying. It frequently makes use of repeated phrases, taken out of context and italicized, as if we’re hearing the echoes of someone’s memory. The intent seems to be to create drama, but the result is forced, reminiscent of a film treatment, and ultimately unnecessary since the events (such as the Apollo 1 fire… “problems waiting to hatch out” is such a poor play on words) have enough inherent drama as it is. I was also surprised that the authors glossed over the computer overload errors during the Apollo 11 landing, errors that brought a scramble of activity in Mission Operations and which were important events in LM development. Finally, the book is rife with typographical errors—“Wernher von Bran” and “Lenoid Brezhnev” are two of the more glaring examples—and for this reason the book makes the Shut List. Not to be confused with NASA SP-4205, Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft by Brooks et al.

Book recommendations: Science Fiction (mostly)

23 May 2005
Categories: From the armchair

For those new to the genre of Science Fiction, I cordially recommend to do as I did when I wanted to expand my sci-fi horizons, and look up the lists of Hugo Award and Nebula Award winners. These awards are (with rare exception) given to the very best of the best, and one could do a lot worse than to pick any of those books at random. What follows are some of my personal favourites, several of which have earned one or both awards.

coverThe Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Quite simply, a classic. Read it.

coverThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Up there with Ender’s Game as one of the best sci-fi warfare books I have ever read. Haldeman was in Vietnam, and his first-hand understanding of the infantryman’s role in war makes Heinlein’s Starship Troopers look like some kind of gung-ho ivory tower diatribe. Which perhaps it always was, even before its Hollywood evisceration, but it took this book to drive that point home for me. In short, The Forever War kicks ass.

covercovercoverThe Baroque Cycle (QuicksilverThe ConfusionThe System of the World) by Neal Stephenson
Here’s a book report.

coverSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Here’s a book report.

coverThe Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson
Here’s a book report.

coverCryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
Here’s a book reportShut List nominee.

coverZodiac: The Eco-Thriller by Neal Stephenson
Here’s a book reportShut List nominee.

coverHeaven’s Reach by David Brin
Final installment in Brin’s second Uplift trilogy. Uplift, the central social structure of Brin’s “Five Galaxies,” consists of the idea that pre-sentient races may be “uplifted” to sentience by elder races, thus forming a patron-client relationship. Species and their clans gain eminence by tracing their patronage back over billions of years. Humans, having no known patrons of their own, are considered a “wolfling” race; and since they uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins prior to interstellar contact, are patrons in their own right—the sole fact that keeps older, more powerful, and potentially malevolent clans from declaring patronage over the races of Earth and co-opting their genetic makeup to suit the elder clan’s tastes.

Into this delicate balance comes Streaker, the first dolphin-crewed and -commanded spaceship, which stumbles across ancient artifacts that threaten to destroy fundamental beliefs throughout the Five Galaxies. Suddenly everyone wants to get their hands (or tentacles, or pseudopods) on the ship, Streaker is on the lam, and civilization—as well as the fabric of the known universe—begins to dissolve.

A fascinating series. Brin is an expert at creating sentient races that go far beyond, say, the typical crinkly-headed and pointy-eared humanoids of Star Trek; for example, a tree-like traeki is a stack of independent and specialized toroids, mentating and communicating with each other via scents and wax drippings, and choosing courses of action for the “whole” via consensus. Brin’s neo-chimps and neo-dolphins are most interesting, showing thought patterns molded by their human patrons but with deep-seated traces of their own pre-Uplift social structures and languages. Both trilogies are excellent, though I enjoyed the first a bit more. (SundiverStartide RisingThe Uplift War / / Brightness ReefInfinity’s ShoreHeaven’s Reach)

The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson

27 February 2005
Categories: From the armchair

covercovercoverIn the opening chapter of his 1999 work Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson wrote, “Let’s set the existence-of-God issue aside for a later volume…”. At the time one could easily have dismissed that comment as a typically Stephensonian, offhand “but that’s another story” narrative device. It turns out, however, that the author had something much grander in mind: The Baroque Cycle, all two thousand five hundred thirty-four pages of it, delves into that issue, and many others.

The Baroque Cycle is a dense, intricate, epic tale of Science versus Alchemy, with healthy doses of political intrique and high finance, spanning the years 1655 to 1714. An historical fiction, it places fictitious characters side-by-side with real-life historical figures: e.g. Sir Isaac Newton, King Louis XIV, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, to name just a few. It is split up across three volumes, entitled Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World—but as the author himself says, don’t call it a trilogy. The three volumes are a publisher’s convenience. The Cycle really consists of eight books, divided fairly evenly across the three volumes.

So how is Stephenson’s magnum opus? It’s fun, and entertaining; the science is interesting, and the action is exciting and hilarious. As is typical of his work, Stephenson does an excellent job of maintaining the perspectives of the main characters, as each chapter is told from the viewpoint and with the voice of whichever character it centers on, rather than some omniscient third person. It’s a terrifically complex tale, filled with deep philosophical discussions, a broad historical scope, and (at least early on) more than a few references to the Cryptonomicon of John Wilkins, a (fictitious) work which of course figures prominently in Stephenson’s previous, eponymous novel. And in a much-needed first, each volume contains detailed, well-rendered, hugely helpful maps on each of the endpapers.

If you’re a fan of Neal Stephenson, I can’t imagine any reason why you would not want to read The Baroque Cycle. But even as a fan, I find myself questioning whether it was worth it for me not to read any other books during what turned out to be a solid seven-month stretch (broken up over a 15-month period due to the gaps between publishing dates).

To be honest, its drawbacks may well be entirely the fault of this reader, and not the author. I found the political intrigue somewhat confusing at first, primarily because of all the multiple titles held by the nobility that are used interchangeably with their names. And for someone who never needed to go much beyond Economics 101, some of the wheeling and dealing was obscure to me. I began to be concerned that somewhere in the second or third volume I would find myself hopelessly lost. Fortunately that never happened, but I still found myself thinking that when I finished I would need to go back and read it all again—this time with bookmarks stuck into all the pages containing family trees of the royal houses. But this is not likely to happen for a long while.

Suffice to say it’s not Stephenson’s best work, although it contains some of his best ideas, best characters, best scenes, and best writing. If you have the time (and time it will require) it’s worth a read. But unlike Cryptonomicon, which I was sorely tempted to restart immediately after having finished it, the notion of ever re-reading The Baroque Cycle is one that will require years to fade from being daunting.

Having finished it all, I am now taking a break of a few (or perhaps several) days before starting something new. I have a good reason for this. When I finished Quicksilver, I delved straightaway into O’Brian’s Master and Commander, and found it took me about a hundred pages to put Stephenson’s writing style out of my mind and get the feel for another author’s very different prose. Caveat lector.

Note: spoilers may follow.

coverQuicksilver is the first volume of the Cycle and contains three books within its hefty 927 pages. The title itself can be construed as a metaphor for the multiple layers and themes of the novel, for “quicksilver” contains a wealth of connotations. As a noun it is the element mercury, “a heavy silver-white poisonous metallic element that is liquid at ordinary temperatures and is used especially in scientific instruments.” Mercury is used in many of the experiments conducted by the Natural Philosophers in the novel, and even is consumed as a tonic against syphillis by several characters (though it does them little good). As an adjective, quicksilver means “mercurial, characterized by rapid and unpredictable changeableness of mood,” which describes this novel quite well. It especially has a tendency to careen from ribald comedy to dreadful tragedy within the space of a few sentences.

Book One (Quicksilver) introduces one of the main characters, Daniel Waterhouse, college schoolmate of Isaac Newton, and covers perhaps a dozen years (all told in flashback) culminating at about the time that Newton and Leibniz invented “the calculus.” Book Two (King of the Vagabonds) backtracks in time to introduce the other leads, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza. She is an escaped harem slave turned financial player, and winds up the Countess of Zeur, a pawn (perhaps) in the royal court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Books One and Two tell wholly divergent stories (excepting the appearances of a few common characters), while Book Three (Odalisque) proceeds with both, leaping in chapters from Daniel to Jack to Eliza, with the implication that their fortunes will soon be closely intertwined.

If some of those names seem vaguely familiar to readers of Cryptonomicon, they should be. The Waterhouse and Shaftoe families are central to both works. One could consider Cryptonomicon to be, perhaps, a 20th Century “prequel” to the Baroque Cycle. (One character, Enoch Root, is apparently ageless and appears in both eras, making it quite obvious that each story takes place in the same Universe.)

What I pondered most while reading this tome are the close similarities between the 17th Century players and their 20th Century descendants. Jack Shaftoe, also known as “Half-Cocked Jack” both due to a physical impediment and as an allusion to his rash behaviour, is a wild-eyed vagabond and privateer; if he’d lived during World War Two he might have wound up as a crazy, gung-ho Marine just like his scion, Bobby Shaftoe. And both Daniel and Lawrence Waterhouse are mathematician/scientists who come from a long line of itinerant Protestant preachers (as is, not coincidentally, Stephenson himself).

It made me think: three hundred years, and nothing has changed in these families. It left my disbelief unsuspended for a while, until I thought of an example closer to home. I work in computers. My dad is a professor (emeritus) of computer science, which at the time of his degrees was a discipline of electrical engineering. His father was a mechanical engineer. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a chemical engineer, and his father was an horologist, owning a clock and watch shop. That’s four generations of scientist-engineers. I guess there’s something to be said for a family having a bias toward occupational similarity (even though if I go further back in my genealogy, farming becomes much more prevalent).

coverUnfortunately, all I had to say when I finished The Confusion was “The story begun in Quicksilver continues, as Stephenson sets us up for what’s sure to be a whirlwind finale.” Is that an oblique way of saying it’s convoluted and long-winded and seems to just be biding its time until the third volume could begin?

At the least, Neal has done an interesting thing, structurally, with volume two. Its two books, Bonanza and The Juncto, take place concurrently over a period of several years, although in locations across a continent, or around the world, from each other. So rather than force a major chronological leap backwards as we finish one book and begin the next, he has interleaved the two, chapter by chapter. As Stephenson puts it, he hopes “that being thus con-fused shall render them the less confusing to the Reader.” It solves the issue, even if it is, in a sense, a contrived problem—it’s not as if the two books have significantly different styles, and their mildly differing themes are purely the result of their different players, locations, and events.

Otherwise, the novel begins to suffer from Stephenson’s logorrhea during this volume. Perhaps it sounds like I’m complaining. Perhaps I am. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy The Baroque Cycle. I surely did. There is no question about that.

coverYet I was nearly halfway through The System of the World, in fact a solid four-hundred-plus pages into it, when I took a week off of work. A full eight days in a row, spent not taking the train home from work every day, and thus not reading my usual ten or twenty pages during the ride. And on the eighth day, as I was packing my bag to return to work, I picked up The System and realised that, not only had I not read a single word of it during the break, I hadn’t missed it at all. It was interesting enough that I would doggedly continue to carry and read it day after day, rather than abandon it entirely—yet not nearly interesting enough to keep from putting it away after every train ride. Noting too that I’d already spent over two months on it, I buckled down and finished it off in a few weeks.

That bothers me. This volume is the first thing I’ve read by Stephenson that took half its length to get up to speed. And I feel as if each volume in the Cycle takes twice as long as its predecessor to get rolling. I wonder if maybe, just maybe, Neal could have trimmed things down and gotten the job done in, say, 1500 pages. Or even 2000.

But no. He couldn’t. Because there are so many things that he has to shoehorn/weave into the story, interlocking little details that build into a rambling, convoluted, Stephensonian whole.

For one thing, there are many elements and events that, as in nearly every one of his novels, seem to be there solely as Neal’s pipe dreams. Such as:

  • The grand, face-to-face philosophick showdown between Leibniz and Newton—The Monads vs. The Machine—a hypothetical “what if history had let this happen and we’re the fly on the wall” fantasy. Of course, the whole thing fizzles out, as the Masters only agree to disagree.
  • The duel fought, not with swords or pistols, but with cannon at 200 paces. How typical of Neal to take that logical—and absurd—next step.
  • Jack Shaftoe’s wild ride through the sky, sliding down a rope strung between the Fire Monument and the Tower of London.

Most of these are plausible enough, and entertaining notions. But I just can’t suspend my disbelief at times, and have to wonder about some things:

  • Jack’s afore-mentioned aerial stunt from tower to tower. I’m highly skeptical that the rope technology of 1714 was up to the task of making a line that could stretch from (not even near) the top of the 202-foot-high Monument across a space of (much nearer) 800 yards without sagging to the ground under its own weight, much less that of Jack.
  • Speaking of the tower stunt, I also doubt the state-of-the-art of rocketry in the early 18th century was as accurate as the task required.
  • And finally, the way things all fall together at the Trial of the Pyx, one of two simultaneous Grand Finales. Daniel Waterhouse, Doctor of Philosophy and holder of one of the keys that provide access to the Necessaries of the Trial, is named as proxy for Sir Isaac Newton in his defence. Daniel has conspired a great number of things since his return to Europe from Boston, and his greatest conspiracy will be to doctor the contents of the Pyx so that Isaac will pass his trial. At the Trial there are two Juries, each of twelve men, that are also in a sense Expert Witnesses as they conduct the assay of the gold in the Mint’s guineas. Somehow, it works out that the foreman of the Citizens’ Jury is the same man with whom Daniel rode into town several months previous, and in the interim was co-founder (with Daniel et alia) of a club investigating mysterious explosions in the city. (The fact that he is a skilled prestidigitator, which had been established early in his introduction, is oh-so-convenient for the ploy involved.) Meanwhile, the foreman of the Goldsmiths’ Jury is none other than Daniel’s nephew! (And he’s really a Banker, and only a Goldsmith by family legacy… and the reason for his election as foreman is in honour of his valourous defence of his Bank against the Crown during—ahem—one of Daniel’s other intrigues.) Yet even amid the incessantly gossipy world of interregnal London, no one takes notice of these connections. We’re to believe that Daniel is so milquetoast that he is, even after having served as a Lord Regent, capable of flying quite low under the radar.

I could continue to pick The Baroque Cycle apart at length, but maybe I should just leave it alone. Truth be told, I guess I’m a little bitter about spending so much time reading a novel that starts quite promisingly, squanders some of its potential through long-windedness, and after a couple of good surprises galumphs to an utterly predictable ending. Neal Stephenson is an ingenious author, one of my absolute favourites, and I wanted to enjoy The Baroque Cycle much more than I did. For those who have not yet delved into any of Neal’s work, I highly recommend Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, or The Diamond Age instead.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

13 November 2004
Categories: From the armchair

coverIn October 2004, I went on a weekend-long company trip to New Orleans. Amid the usual (and not-so-usual) team-building exercises we were given some time to explore the city on our own. While many of my compatriots headed out to Bourbon Street immediately after landing for a long evening of drinking and debauchery, I ordered an early wake-up call and hit the sack.

In the pre-dawn darkness of a rainy Saturday morning (a rain that effectively never let up for the entire weekend, as tropical storm Matthew was parked just offshore in the Gulf), I wandered out of our Canal Street hotel and hopped aboard the classic old St. Charles streetcar line.

This may rank as the highlight of a fun weekend. Being a railfan, I really enjoy riding the transit systems of the cities I visit—the cable cars of San Francisco being another recent case. And I’ve come to realise that even beyond the visual treat the outmoded hardware provides, and the operational quirks of the system (such as the fact that twice the streetcar stopped—powerless—when tree branches, soaked from several days of rain and hanging low, knocked the trolley pole off of the catenary wire), for me a big part of the experience must be the unique smells and sounds. For example, I’ll never forget the rich machine-oil aroma of the now-defunct red cars of New York’s #7 line. (I know, I know, it’s a little weird to appreciate the smell of a New York subway.) And in the case of the St. Charles streetcar, the most memorable part was the rackety pucka-pucka-pucka noise that the reciprocating compressor under the floor made as it recharged the cylinder for the air brakes—something you won’t find in the modern cars of the Canal Street line.

With time to spare before an intended eight a.m. breakfast at the Bluebird Café, I figured on riding past my stop for a while and then turning back on another car. But I overestimated the distances involved, or perhaps was having too much fun listening to the air compressor and watching its pressure gauge fluctuate, and I wound up riding right out to the end of the line. It was a surprise to say to myself “well, I’ll get out at the next stop,” step off, and find that the rails ended five feet past the car’s bluff prow. It was there that I took this photograph, a lucky shot that I really like. I like the way the colourful umbrellas brighten up a hazy shot of dark green (the cars and the surrounding foliage) and grey (the gloomy, low-hanging rain clouds), and how I managed to catch the moment where the motorman on the right, pulling on a rope, is just about to set his trolley pole against the overhead wire.

St. Charles streetcar terminus at Carrollton and Claiborne Avenues,
New Orleans, 9 October 2004. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.

After an excellent breakfast at the Bluebird (where the astute waitress suggested a perfect compromise for my indecision and brought a half-order of the huevos rancheros and a short stack of pecan pancakes) and a visit to the National D-Day Museum (which I emphatically recommend), I returned to Canal Street for the afternoon’s activities. It was then that I stumbled across the Chateau Sonesta Hotel—or more to the point, the bronze statue and plaque underneath the hotel’s front awning. It turns out the hotel is an adaptive reuse of the D. H. Holmes department store, where the opening scene of A Confederacy of Dunces takes place, and the statue is of Ignatius J. Reilly, tragic/comic antihero, as he waits for his mother beneath the Holmes clock. The nearby plaque quotes a paragraph of the book’s first page, setting the scene in order to explain the odd, rumpled subject of the bronze.

(To be honest, I have a couple of problems with this statue. One problem is that the scale is too small; Ignatius is both a larger-than-life character and is described as physically towering and massive, yet the statue is fairly diminutive, no more than about 5’8″. The other problem is the placement. Appropriately for a statue, it is prominently centered beneath the clock; yet Ignatius is, above all else, an observer from the fringes of a crowd. He is much more likely to be found lurking about off to one side, and though the book never explicitly states that, it is easily inferred.)

So I’m really talking around the subject here, which is the book A Confederacy of Dunces. Perhaps that’s because it’s a difficult book to categorize or describe. I first read it some time around my freshman year in college, and found it hilarious and endearing and perhaps more than a little subversive. In short, I loved it, and when I first built this web site I was quick to place Dunces on my all-time favourites list. Yet my recollections were becoming increasingly vague, and I had for some time been meaning to re-read the book and re-assess my opinion of it. And so, when I found myself at the site of the D.H. Holmes store, staring into a rendering of those “supercilious blue and yellow eyes,” I knew that Fortuna’s wheel had turned to the right place for me to partake of John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece once again. (During the subsequent reading several other coincidences between the book and the rest of my life arose, which reinforced my decision.)

I still find A Confederacy of Dunces to be a truly hysterical ride. Its characters are genuinely rendered and offer an intriguing snapshot of New Orleans life in the early 1960s. (Many local residents are apparently less than enthusiastic about this fact, and about the book’s popularity in general.) And the crazy interconnected upheavals that Ignatius causes to occur, often merely by his existence—all the while blaming Fortuna—are inspired and unforgettable.

This book has no comparison in modern literature. It’s a crying shame that Toole took his own life without providing us with any other examples of his genius. (The only other Toole publication, The Neon Bible, was written when he was only sixteen and while it shows vague hints of his later abilities, it is a mediocre, formative work that certainly only saw the light of day due to the brilliance of Dunces and its well-deserved Pulitzer prize. The Neon Bible is, unfortunately, both a distraction and a detraction.) But thanks to the diligence of the author’s mother who pushed the book on publishers for years, and the vision of author Walker Percy who knew a good thing when he begrudgingly read it, we are now blessed with a true American classic.