November 13, 2005

Men died, women died, children died. But they went.

Snoqualmie Book Reviews and The Sci-Fi Canon Project jointly present Dune, Three Ways.

The first way is, of course, the original book by Frank Herbert. The second way is the feature film by David Lynch, and the third way is the Sci-Fi Channel's six-hour miniseries. It should surprise no one that a 500-page book packs in more background and character development than a six-hour miniseries, and a six-hour miniseries still manages to contain more than a two-hour movie, and as a result the book is the most fleshed-out and comprehensible while the movie is the least. But I'll be torn apart by Lynch fans if I assert that comprehensibility is the only arbiter of a story's value, and, indeed, they have a point. There's comprehensibility, there's visual style, there's the sheer enjoyment of watching. Call it a three-by-three matrix; Dune Nine Ways. Can you even imagine how long nine Dunes would be?

I have to start with the book, at least a little; it's the source of the characters and story, so it's the standard. As standards go, though, it's got its flaws. You can't get much more overblown than the story of the universe's long-awaited superbeing and the fate of the known world, unless of course you take frequent psychedelic metaphysical-masturbation breaks. Frank Herbert does so. He also makes extensive use of the colors black and white: the good guys are great, the bad guys are really terrible, this is absolutely the most important and widely-recognized thing going on in the universe but god forbid we should have moral ambiguity.

And yet, somehow, it's a good book. That's largely because it's so full; there's a ton of backstory and politics. There are 30 pages of appendices at the end of the book in case you ever wanted to understand how Kynes first met the Fremen or what the history of religion in the universe was before Muad'Dib came on the scene. I suspect that, much like J.R.R. Tolkein planned out languages and cultures before he wrote the books to use them, Herbert came up with all of the background first and then let the story write itself. It makes for good reading; when details are fleshed out that are relevant, interesting, but not actually necessary to get the gist of the story, it seems more like reading a news clipping than a novel.

All of that fleshing-out suffers in translation, though. As I re-watched the movie I noticed how much of the script was used directly from the book, or rather, excerpted directly from the book without Herbert's exhaustive explanation. "The gom jabbar kills only animals," says the Reverend Mother to Paul, but skips the arrogant Bene Gesserit philosophy of humans and animals that makes the remark make sense. Paul quotes his father in the movie as he does in the book, saying, "He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing," but it's apparently simpler and quicker to say that he destroyed spice production than to explain that he only conspicuously demonstrated the ability but never intended to use it. The miniseries does a better job on that count; a few dramatic lines may be sacrificed, but everything that's left is in its proper context. I suppose it's a luxury that comes with having six hours in which to work.

It's also a luxury that comes with sticking to the story instead of improvising. David Lynch improvises like crazy, with varying degrees of success. The Harkonnen heartplugs are, to my mind, brilliant. They're nowhere in the book, purely a Lynchian invention, but they sum up the Baron effectively: he's appallingly cruel and capricious. You could imagine him ringside at the archetypal Roman spectacle, shouting for more blood. If you had to drive that home in ten seconds of film, I can't think of a neater, more effective way to do it than to have him pull out a servant boy's heartplug just because he's happy. How about the weirding modules? Not, I think, so successful. They make filming fight scenes easier, but turn the weirding way, the ultimate weapon, from an art consisting of immense personal discipline into just another gun that anyone can pick up. They also confuse the source of Paul's power; the weirding way is part of the Bene Gesserit training, but the weirding modules are an Atreides weapon.

That's a problem of the movie overall -- Paul's power is made to look like it comes from his father. Duke Leto is the book's whipping boy; he's kind and well-intentioned and utterly impotent. "For the father," says the Reverend Mother dismissively, "nothing." He is not a controlling power in this story, and even as his fatherhood goes there is as much of Leto's father (arrogant, self-aggrandizing) in Paul as there is of Leto himself. He's not training an army in the weirding way; he doesn't even know it. He's got no business telling Paul how the sleeper must awaken. He doesn't know anything about sleepers. The name Kwisatz Haderach would be gibberish to him. Paul's power, all of it, comes from his mother and Leto never even knew what kind of power she had.

I'm running out of segues, but I'd really like to talk about the desert for a moment. If it's not too much trouble, you know, in a story about a desert planet. The thing about deserts is that they're hot, and dry, and pretty fucking boring and bare. If this description is inspiring you to think of grand, swelling, ominous music and a general preponderance of drama and action, I think you may be insane. Deserts are stifling and miserable and slowly suck the life and energy out of you. You cannot appropriately convey this by making 3/5 of your movie consist of glowing nighttime action sequences with an earth-shakingly loud, grandiose, four-note score by fucking Toto. Put some beige in. Turn the lights up. Turn the music down. It's hot, everyone's exhausted by the million small problems of living in a barren miserable environment, they've got headaches and sand in their teeth and they're thirsty, and they and their ancestors have been waiting hundreds of fucking years to stop living like this.

This is where I have to come to a complete stop and just praise the everloving fuck out of the miniseries. The miniseries paid attention in class, and got an A on the test because it paid attention to the fact that the biggest, longest-running war on Arrakis was the war of attrition between the desert and the Fremen. Behind this Big Story of the Atreides and the Harkonnens and the Spacing Guild and the spice, there is the small story of saving the water from your sweat and learning not to waste moisture crying for your dead. And behind that there is the bigger story of adding up all of those saved drops until you have enough to change an entire world; that's the dream of Liet-Kynes, the dream the Fremen committed to even though they knew it would take hundreds of years to come to fruition. If you don't know that, you don't know the Fremen. And if you don't know the Fremen, you don't know Muad'Dib, and if you don't know Muad'Dib, you don't know the story. So what's the point?

The point could be the characters; that's a good place to go next. I'm going to froth at the mouth a little here; just be warned. There are a few places where the casting and directing of people as characters go to extremes of both excellence and awfulness. Take the Baron. I do so love the Baron. You have to love the Baron! He's corrupt, lascivious, violent, megalomaniacal, and a scheming evil genius. In the movie he's a comic grotesque, a pile of sores, jiggling hairy flesh poking out through his robes, a greasy spitting utter fucking dirtbag. In the miniseries he's fey, superior, smarmy, and talks in rhymes -- just to make sure you realize that he's thinking way ahead of you. They both work gloriously. At least, they both work gloriously by themselves. One of them fails to live up to his relationships with other characters, and I'm sorry to say that means it's time to bag on Lynch again.

You can't talk about the Baron without talking about Feyd-Rautha, his lovely and sadistic nephew, and you can't talk about Feyd-Rautha without talking about extreme unsavoriness. Feyd is the young, still desirable version of the Baron, at 15 (yes, 15 at the start of the story) just growing into his bloodthirsty malice but already cruel and arrogant. The Baron of the book looks on him not only with avuncular fondness but also with unmistakable lechery. âSuch a lovely boy,â he says, âwith such a lovely body.â Eeeeeuch! Did I fail to mention the Baron is a pederast? His bedroom is decorated with statues of naked boys; he buys slave boys so he can drug and fuck them. This means, David Lynch, you have to cast someone as Feyd who it's remotely plausible the Baron might find attractive. Not Sting; it doesn't say anywhere that the Baron likes muscley 30-year-old rock stars. The miniseries gets the gold medal for this one, making Feyd an attractive, graceful, 18ish boy with an infuriating air of sarcastic, superior courtesy. He and the Baron flirt so vaguely and casually that you're already trying to scrub yourself down before you figure out why it was that your skin was crawling. That's exactly as it should be; that's what House Harkonnen is about.

To praise Lynch again for a moment, the movie's Piter de Vries is stupendous. The Mentats are supposed to be human supercomputers, and if you take an intellectually superior human and multiply him by a factor of ten, it stands to reason you'll get someone ten times as irritating as the most irritatingly superior geek you know. He's pedantic and socially ungraceful; he lectures and rolls his eyes at the idiocy of his audience, and, in fact, he's a weasely nerd with terrible hair. The Mentats in the miniseries, de Vries included, are Any Advisor, composed, coherent, and friendly. It hardly gives the impression that there's anything remarkable about them. I can't support it. I have to believe that if you train someone into geniusness from birth you'll wind up with a freak; just look at my high school classmates.

This is more costuming than characters, but I was asked a few weeks ago what I thought of the Spacing Guild agents. This was one of the things I had to re-watch the movie to figure out; I couldn't for the life of me remember what they were like. I've got it straight now: contemptuous industrial-punk-looking dictators in the movie, obsequious chinless monks in the miniseries. They're both all right. You can figure that having that much power makes them used to sneeringly ordering even the Emperor around, or you can figure that having that much power makes them used to being sacrosanct and not having to assert themselves. Me, I slightly prefer the mousy version, if only for the contrast between the massive political power they wield and the watery-eyed passivity with which they wield it. The Lynchian ones are more stylish, though, of course. I don't think much of the navigators themselves, which in both adaptations are distorted creatures that don't look remotely human anymore. The movie version is wattley and grotesque, and folds space by blowing it around through a mouth that looks more like an ass than any other mouth I've ever seen. The miniseries version is fragile and batlike, and points delicately to where it thinks space ought to go. It's all a game of how-the-hell-do-we-show-this, since Frank Herbert never explained how exactly the spice gas mutated them. In the book two Guild agents reveal themselves to be actually navigators, meaning whatever the mutations are, they're not visible. It's an appealing thought, but hard to show visually.

I do have to talk about Paul, I suppose. He's a bit of a problem. As a character in the book, he's unthinkably arrogant, demanding, and generally unlovable. Yes, yes, he's the Messiah, he's the superbeing, he's the salvation of the human race, but you really just want to slap him every time he goes off on one of his prescient visions. As Kyle MacLachlan in the movie, dear god, he's more slappable than the book could even approach. It's not so much because he's self-important, it's because he repeats himself constantly and won't shut up. In the miniseries, he's slappable more along the book's lines; he orders people around and harps on his own greatness. Both get the point across, but only one does it the way the book suggested. Chalk it up to a difference between adaptation and interpretation, I suppose.

That's the bottom line of this review: the book sets up an idea, the movie interprets it, the miniseries shows it as it was written. If you were thrilled with the book, watch the miniseries and find it authentic, plausible, and complete. If you weren't thrilled with the book, watch the movie and find it tweaked, stylized, and heavily edited. And speaking of authentic, for god's sake, I know it was 1984 but people who don't have water to wash their hair do not have perfectly clean, blow-dried curls. Put that in the paragraph about the desert; Note To Costumer: More Grease.

I can never seem to refrain from adding one last thing. The whole book is told through a framework of Princess Irulan's obsession with Muad'Dib. Each chapter starts with an excerpt from one of her books on the subject; there's the Manual of Muad'Dib, the Collected Sayings of Muad'Dib, Muad'Dib: A Child's History, Muad'Dib: Family Commentaries, and a half dozen others I can't remember. It's a nice touch; you could say, âIrulan is obsessed with Muad'Dib,â but it's more subtle to let the reader get 100 pages in before really noticing that she's spent her life writing about him. The movie's nod to that framework and that fixation is to show her as a narrating talking head twice or three times and otherwise ignore her. The miniseries says the hell with the narration, the hell with the excerpts, and instead works her in as a character who happens to be studying Paul with a phenomenal singlemindedness. She even seduces Feyd-Rautha to try to get an explanation of the feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, and frankly, anyone who'd touch Feyd-Rautha without three layers of protective armor is really hell-bent. It's one of the few original leaps the miniseries makes and a very nice counterpoint to the book's approach.

Here's my real last word, then, to get back to my original three ways. If you want comprehensibility, read the book, watch the miniseries as a second resort, and throw the movie into a lake. If you want visual style, watch the movie, watch the miniseries second, and feed the book to your dog. If you're just looking for the optimum balance of satisfying and enjoyable, watch the miniseries and fling both movie and book under the wheels of a bus. Take your pick. The comparative study is fun, but when you calculate the hours of my life I've spent on it, between reading, watching, and blogging... well, I think it's high time I look into some new hobbies.

Posted by dianna at 12:52 AM

October 13, 2005

Book review: Coming of Age in Samoa

It's remarkably presumptuous of me to review this book. It's one of the most well-known, well-respected, and oft-cited ethnographies of the twentieth century, and me, I'm barely interested in cultural anthropology in the first place. People who got a watercolor set last Christmas and used it twice do not critique Monet, and undergraduate archaeology majors do not critique Margaret Mead. But just watch me do it anyway.

The issue at hand in the book, as the title suggests, is adolescence. Even in 1928 when Mead wrote it, the pattern in the United States of teenagers coming into massive conflict with their parents, schools, churches, friends, selves, and everything else was not only established but taken for granted as a normal component of adolescence. Mead's research question in going to Samoa was whether the same was true there. In a village, on an island, with limited influence from other cultures, is every girl (she was looking particularly at girls) who hits puberty chafing under authority, confused by the options available to her, rebelling at social expectations of her behavior, and generally not happy with her established lot?

The short answer is no. The long answer is 100 pages of, well, ethnography, which practically by definition varies from enthralling to not enthralling. For instance, the essential philosophy of Samoan child care, The Baby Is Somebody Else's Problem (in which Somebody Else is whichever slightly older child of, say, six years and up who has not already been assigned a baby to haul around) is fascinating. The official protocol for which members of the village should dance to entertain a visiting party from another village falls slightly short of fascinating. Your mileage may vary and you may find the study of dancing protocols to be your calling in life. If you do not, may I suggest that you skim pages 8 to 107 and pick up reading closely again on page 108?

What follows the ethnography part of the book is an evaluation of the difference between various aspects of Samoan and American childhood and adolescence, to try to explain how certain behaviors can be taken for granted in one culture and entirely absent in another. For instance, why aren't Samoan children prone to major fights with their parents? It could well have something to do with the casual approach to residence, in which a child (or any member of a household, really) is considered totally free to live with any relative he or she pleases, and whatever fights do occur just result in someone moving down three houses to live with Aunt Lola until the matter gets dropped. Parents know this, children know this, so what's the point in starting a fight? There isn't any. Why isn't there a major delinquent population, that is to say, adolescents and young adults who refuse to do what's expected of them? It's entirely possible that it's got something to do with the fact that what's expected of them is unarduous by pretty much anyone's standard. "Presuming above one's age", that is, working too hard and knowing too much, is one of the most dreaded criticisms a young person can receive. (Jeez, Mom, get off my back, okay? You're always bugging me to relax and slack off.)

This latter part of the book, the last 30 pages which can really stand alone as a social-commentary essay, is the part that I'd recommend to anyone who isn't particularly interested in anthropology. It's very thoroughly thought-out and looks at each issue -- sex, residence, material dependence, social standards, family relationships, etc -- from as many different angles as Mead can think of, which is a pretty fair number. She's got some impressively progressive ideas for 1928, some of which are still impressively progressive in 2005, and isn't afraid to lambast the hell out of her own culture and its institutions where she finds them comparatively lacking. That last point is a little funny; there's a certain element of what I have to think of as false nostalgia, the idyllic picture of the simple, natural life that's reflexively painted by people from industrial societies talking about preindustrial ones. I'm skeptical, myself. Talk to me about nutrition and healthcare and we'll see who's wistful then.

It might be me, honestly. I'm just saying I don't trust it automatically. Not even on the advice of an excellent, though occasionally overcompensatory, book.

Posted by dianna at 10:55 AM

September 23, 2005

Book review: Digging Up the Past

I've recently realized something about myself, and that is that I bought a lot of anthropology books at Powell's in July.

The one that I just finished reading is Digging Up the Past by Leonard Woolley, an early-twentieth-century English archaeologist. It's a very short book based on a series of radio talks that he gave for the BBC; it's a book about archaeology rather than a book of archaeology. If I had a couple of dozen copies of it I'd hand one out every time someone asks me, "why archaeology?", but since it was published in 1930 and Powell's only had a single fragile copy on its shelves, you suckers are out of luck.

If you compressed the textbook for my Introduction to Archaeology class into 115 small pages with large type, you'd have something like this book. Woolley explains with amazing conciseness why you'd want to dig through old things, how things get buried so you have to dig to find them in the first place, what it is that you can determine from them when you do find them, why the hell you should care, how you know where to dig, how you know where to start digging, why you can't just go pull the whole thing up willy-nilly and then deal with what's left, what it is exactly that you have to do to prevent willy-nilly-ness from creeping in, who does all this digging anyway, what's there to find, why and how you have to find the things that aren't there anymore, and a few tales of great archaeological triumphs and embarrassments just for good measure. Hot damn. What's left?

I'm incapable of reviewing a nonfiction book without adding an embarrassed note about the biases of the author, so here it is. Woolley was a much better archaeologist than he was an anthropologist. Actually, to judge by his remarks about anthropology, he didn't consider himself any kind of anthropologist at all. That's probably why he felt himself at liberty to, for instance, discuss the Ethiopian pharaohs of Egypt in terms of the shortcomings of "the Negro race". It's a hazard of reading old books: you'll find that ideas like race is not an all-determining biological fact and "primitive" is not a good catch-all term for pre-modern and non-Western cultures are much newer than you thought. But even as a post-structuralist, apologist, cultural-relativist, Hippie Dippie Anthropologist appalled at Woolley's nonchalant chauvinism you (rather, I) can still find this to be an excellent piece of accessible explanatory writing about archaeology.

Available for loan to all interested parties as long as they promise to be careful with it. I concede that demand in this case is likely to be limited, but feel free to make me happy and express interest.

Posted by dianna at 10:53 AM

September 15, 2005

Book review: Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf.

Words cannot express my relief at being out of the dark and threatening woods of Symbolic Literature and breathing freely again in the sunny meadow of Clever, Bleeding-Heart Investigative Journalism. This book is a thing of beauty and a joy to read forever.

The essential point of the book is to find out where, exactly, beef comes from. Driving past the big feedlot in Coalinga on I-5, which is how urban dwellers like me see cattle, doesn't explain how animals turn into hamburgers. Where are they born, how, who owns them, why, how are they traded and for how much, how fast do they grow, how are they treated, what are they like, what do they eat, how long do they live, who decides when they're going to be slaughtered, when is that anyway, where do they go then, under whose control, how, and what then? So the author, Peter Lovenheim, bought two calves and followed them "from conception to consumption".

Really. Conception. Slightly further back than that, even: he went to the artificial-insemination company that provided the semen that was used to impregnate the cow that gave birth to the calves, and he watched them collect it from the bull. This is a new, and impressive, definition of thorough. He just went right ahead and bought a pair of barn boots and spent two years driving back and forth between his urban home and the farms where his cattle were kept. If the farmers, milkers, cattle haulers, vets, auctioneers, buyers, inspectors, or absolutely anyone else did absolutely anything, he wrangled a way to see it and ask about it.

Despite that fact, it isn't an exposé. It's just a description. There aren't any tales of sneaking into barns and hiding in the hay to watch cackling farmers feeding rusty nails and chicken droppings to the cattle (moldy bagels, yes, but last I heard it was still legal to give expired bread products to cows). Breaking news: some people are nice to cows, and some people aren't so nice to cows. People with jobs involving manure and getting kicked in the knee by irritable animals three times their own size are essentially the same as people with jobs not involving manure and getting kicked in the knee by irritable animals three times their own size. The indignant meat-eschewer can still find things to be self-righteous about: domestication is by definition an unnatural state for cows, and I wouldn't really want to be fattened up and kept standing in my own shit either. Not an exposé, though; for that you'd want Fast Food Nation.

I read most of the book a few months ago, got distracted, and only recently picked it up again to finish it. Once I did, I remembered that it's a hard book to stop reading, and I went back to the beginning and read the whole damn thing over again. It's that good. I should probably buy my own copy so I can give the one I've got back to my sister, because I'm likely to want to pick it up and read it again. Consider it vehemently recommended.

Posted by dianna at 10:05 AM

September 13, 2005

Book review: Ways of Dying

"There are many ways of reading!" the Reviewer shouts at us.

There are two things you can pay attention to when reading a novel: What Happens, and What It Means. This, Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda, was the first novel I've read in quite some time where reading What It Means was really important. Then again, since this was the first book I've read in a long time with other people's analytical notes scribbled in the margins, maybe it's only that I noticed What It Meant more than I usually do. Honestly? I'm not that good with What It Means. 9 times out of 10 when I'm reading a book for fun it just doesn't occur to me to stop and think about epithets and narrative voices.

Ways of Dying was a grand panoply of epithets and narrative voices. My sister's notes helpfully brought them to my attention, and they turned out to be delightful. There were characters with strangely ironic titles, like that stuck-up bitch which never meant what I thought it did. Most of the story was told by We, The Community, a bossy, all-knowing looker over shoulders that sniffily insisted that we didn't believe what so-and-so said, or we all thought such-and-such was scandalous. People and events were described so slyly that halfway through the book I was still just barely getting a sense of characters who had been appearing since page three.

Halfway through the book is where my problem started. My sister's notes dwindled to a few scribbles and underlines, my attention wandered, and I went back to reading What Happened instead. What Happened in the second half of the book, stripped of its analysis and faded from the novelty of the first hundred pages, wasn't arresting. Most of the questions that I'd been asking for the first half of the book -- how did this boy die, how was he born, what happened to this man's father? -- ended up being answered with either mystical surreality or smirky ambiguity, which fell far short of what I'd been hoping for.

This is probably the most thoroughly mixed book review I've given lately. When I was excited about what I was reading into what I was reading, I was supremely excited about it. When I found myself disappointed with the story I was being told, I was profoundly disappointed. First I raved, and now I'm bitching. I have no real idea whether I'd have loved the second half of the book if I'd been analysing it, nor whether I'd have hated the first half if I hadn't been doing so. I can't even figure out whether to recommend it or not. Caveat emptor and try it if you want?

Posted by dianna at 02:35 PM

August 29, 2005

Book review: The Linguist and the Emperor.

I have to preface this review by retracting almost everything I said last week about The Ancient Engineers. I need to do that so that I can then take those things and say them about The Linguist and the Emperor instead.

The Linguist and the Emperor (Daniel Meyerson, 2004) is not, as I first imagined, a history. It's ostensibly the sweeping historical tale of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, the recovery of the Rosetta Stone, and the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs by the linguist Jean-Francois Champollion. It is undoubtedly a sweeping tale. It was undoubtedly written with the aid of a great many historical sources. That isn't necessarily saying much; The Clan of the Cave Bear was written with a great many historical sources too. It is not a history. This is not a history either.

This isn't to say that histories are the only acceptable reading material. I finished this book in under a week and raved about it the entire time. The writing is lyrical and sensual, and the main characters - Napoleon and Champollion - are written as strange, vivid, twitchy visionaries. The book's timeline is so bizarrely turned around on itself that without the year and place headings at the beginning of each chapter the reader would be utterly lost. With the headings, of course, the reader is merely (delightfully) lost after three paragraphs when, say, Champollion is reading about a late Egyptian prince who is reading about an early Egyptian prince who has heard of an ancient book made by the god of writing himself. At points like that a single unclarified "he" can unseat the reader for pages at a time.

That's part of the reason it's not a history: stories from the texts that the characters are finding and reading are woven into the main story anywhere and everywhere they'll fit. In some parts there are so many secondary stories tucked in that the main story is more like a framework for them than a proper story of its own; think Arabian Nights with the book itself as a narrator, if that's not too self-contradictory. The other part of the reason it's not a history is that, wherever a piece of a story (digressive or otherwise) is unclear, the author grabs freely whichever interpretations of it are most interesting and dramatic. If the most interesting version isn't the one most likely to be true, well, truth can go and hang.

So is this a rave review or a scathing one? Mostly rave. It's a lavishly, flowingly obsessive book that's impossible to put down. It imparts to the reader the wild-eyed engrossment of the characters: as long as there's more story to unfold (which, thanks to the convoluted storyline, there always is), you the reader can no more stop reading than Champollion could stop deciphering or Napoleon could stop trying to conquer the world. That's a fantastically enjoyable experience.

Now the comparison to The Ancient Engineers. If that was a history, this is a novel. If that was a description of people's work, this is a paean to their personalities. If that could be trusted on the essential facts, this should be read with a real history in the other hand. Er, if that tended toward war, this one tends toward pederasty. No, I'm not too sure why. It's a good book. It's a fun book. It's not necessarily a true book. As someone (please claim your credit because I can't remember who you are) said about the last Star Wars movie, you need a separate seat for the huge grain of salt that sits next to you. Buy it a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the book, both of you.

Posted by dianna at 11:56 AM

August 25, 2005

Book review: The Ancient Engineers

This morning on BART I finished the geekiest book I've read lately, which is a treatise on the history of engineering written in 1960 by a strange and opinionated man named L. Sprague de Camp. It's one of the four books that I picked up from the anthropology section at Powell's in Portland, the other three being one seminal ethnography, one seminal archaeological treatise (sorry, I like the word treatise), and a new dramatic history of the translation of the Rosetta Stone.

The Ancient Engineers is 400 pages on the gradual development of the optimal arrangement of oars in a trireme, the responses of castle builders to gunpowder and clockmakers to gears, and why exactly London Bridge was falling down. It's a little like what you'd get if you stood over James Burke with a calendar and a whip and told him to tell you everything he knows without skipping more than two centuries at a time on any given subject.

It's both appallingly technical and short on technical details. I really should have been reading it with an encyclopedia in my other hand, since the definitions of basic engineering concepts were kind of spotty. It was assumed that I knew what a corbelled dome was, but the working parts of catapults and water clocks were thoroughly defined. Then again, with the exception of the corbelled dome, the things that were skipped were either picked up two chapters later and better explained, or used in a context where it wasn't strictly necessary to understand them completely.

All told it was an extremely interesting read. I'll admit that I'm terrible at finishing anything that's not fiction (and some things that are) without getting bogged down and bored 5/6 of the way through. I hardly finished an assigned text in four years of college, but I finished this. More, it was easy to pick up again each time without losing the thread of what was being discussed, even though I was only reading about 15 pages at a time on BART. It's reader-friendly and interspersed with enough non-technical history to give some reference points by which to navigate. It also covers enough of a range of engineering that if, for instance, you're hopelessly bored by siege engines you needn't tune out the entire Hellenistic chapter because you can still read about roads and plumbing.

It's got one major failing which becomes clear only in the second-to-last chapter, and that is a profound cultural chauvinism. De Camp actually spends several paragraphs explaining why the Chinese language is ridiculously limited and entirely unsuitable for scientific thought. He sneeringly remarks that a Turkish invasion of India ends any interest the reader might have in that particular subcontinent more or less forever after. The final chapter, on medieval Europe, begins by explaining that while the entire East was lost in contemplating its own mystical navels, the vigorous West was pursuing useful technological advances. Essentially, if you wanted to know anything about the history of engineering east of Constantinople, you'd need a separate book because the mention given to any Asian invention in this one consists of a few grudging sentences followed by an enthusiastic digression into what exciting things the West did with the technology once it heard about it.

With that important caveat, it's still an excellent book. At the very least, it's an excellent read, which I recognize is not the same thing. It's well researched and probably factually correct, but not necessarily a good, sober unbiased history if that's what you're looking for. On the other hand, who looks for a sober unbiased history to read for fun? Just keep the date of publication (1960) in mind and read the bloody thing.

Posted by dianna at 10:27 AM

June 15, 2005

Sikander the Madman.

I've been running around like the proverbial headless chicken for the last three days. It's the chaos and confusion of moving a small business and ten years of accumulated clutter into a new office that's still full of its own clutter. To sum up: chaos, confusion, clutter, cluck.

The title of this entry comes from the excellent book I'm reading, Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra. (Do not read the Amazon review on that page, because it's full of horrendous plot spoilers. Really.) I've had the book on loan from my sister for several months now, but have been totally unable to read it because of the dazzlingly evocative title. I've glanced at it on the shelf, picked it up and considered the cover, then thought of five hundred pages of sticky heat and thick sucking mud and decided to read something a little lighter. I made myself start it in a park in Ashland over the weekend (sunny, not too warm, pleasantly dry) and realized it's been my loss.

It's a grand epic tale told by a monkey with a typewriter. No, I'm not kidding. It has chapters like "The Game of Cricket" and chapters like "Sikander Learns the Art of War". I'm forming the suspicion that they have more to do with each other than is immediately obvious, but so far I'm still being strung along in ignorance. "Be wily," the narrator monkey is told in the second chapter, "be twisty, be elaborate... Let us luxuriate in your curlicues." Damned if that isn't exactly what the furry bastard is doing.

Posted by dianna at 12:17 PM