The Core Dump

The Core Dump is the personal blog of Nic Lindh, a Swedish-American pixel-pusher living in Phoenix, Arizona.

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[By Nic Lindh on Thursday, 15 December 2016]

Book roundup, part 22

Lots of fiction series in this one. Includes Grunt, 1177 B.C., Louder Than Hell, Smarter Faster Better, The Hanging Tree, Death’s End, Chains of Command, and Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?.

Non-fiction

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach ★★★★☆

Tons of interesting science about humans at war, especially modern war. Not so much about weaponry and combat, but the stresses violence and existing in chaotic circumstances puts on the body.

As an example:

For every American killed by battle injuries during the Mexican War of 1848, seven died of disease, mostly diarrheal. During the American Civil War, 95,000 soldiers died from diarrhea or dysentery. During the Vietnam War, hospital admissions for diarrheal diseases outnumbered those for malaria by nearly four to one.

Roach writes in an energetic and engaging way, though sometimes the humor feels a bit forced to this stodgy Swede, and there’s some padding even in a short book. But it is fascinating in an often icky way. Roach does emphatically not flinch from ick.

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline ★★★☆☆

Bad stuff out front first: The book has very little meat on its bones and spends a lot of time being carefully scholarly by telling the reader more about what we don’t know about the late Bronze Age than what we do. And (spoiler) at the end we aren’t really sure what caused a cataclysm around 1177 B.C.

The good stuff: We know a lot about what life and civilizations were like in 1177 BC! Which was a long time ago, the Bronze Age, Old Testament times. And it was a complicated world of civilizations, religions, and above all trade around the Mediterranean.

It is pretty metal that some Mediterranean civilizations left behind records about the Sea Peoples, who were supposedly doing some serious ravaging, but that we can’t be sure who they were or where they came from.

There’s also surprising pathos in some of the old clay tablets, like this one from the city of Ugarit after it was overrun:

When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burnt and the vineyards were also destroyed. Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!

Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman ★★★☆☆

Oral history of heavy metal as told by the people who lived it, from the first bands to be considered metal in the 1970s up to today.

Louder Than Hell is interesting both if you’re a metal fan and if you’re fascinated by unstable, self-destructive humans. Because most of the people involved are amazingly damaged in so many ways. I mean, seriously, these are people who need intensive counseling. And I’m not saying that in a condescending way, but in a concerned way. If you have any kind of empathy you’ll read Louder Than Hell and want to help these people.

Sure, it’s great you’re able to have all your escalatingly weird sexual fetishes met and you have access to all the drugs, but dude, really? Is this really good for you?

Perhaps I’m just old and in dad mode.

The biggest issue with the book is that it aims to be all-inclusive, so it suffers by including much too much. There really are only so many stories of drugs and groupies you can read before they start to blur together. If it was edited down to about half the length it would be much less repetitive and more interesting.

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg ★★★☆☆

A neurotic New York journalist decides to be less neurotic and neurotically works super hard at finding the best way to be more productive.

At times reading this, I just wanted to tell Duhigg to mellow the heck out and perhaps go into therapy. The problem is inside you, dude; it’s not a societal problem.

But he does talk to a lot of people, some of whom have really good ideas, so Smarter Faster Better is a worthwhile read.

The ideas he finds include taking control of your attention and setting goals in a mindful way.

To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge. When you’re driving to work, force yourself to envision your day. While you’re sitting in a meeting or at lunch, describe to yourself what you’re seeing and what it means. Find other people to hear your theories and challenge them. Get in a pattern of forcing yourself to anticipate what’s next. If you are a parent, anticipate what your children will say at the dinner table. Then you’ll notice what goes unmentioned or if there’s a stray comment that you should see as a warning sign.

It’s a good book. New Yorkers especially will love it.

Fiction

The Hanging Tree, by Ben Aaronovitch ★★★★☆

The Hanging Tree is the sixth installment in the Rivers of London series and after the kind of pause and hemming and hawing that was Foxglove Summer it moves the story arc and the character development forward in able fashion.

Basically the series follows a policeman called Peter Grant who becomes part of a spook unit of the London Metropolitan Police which investigates supernatural happenings.

It’s a really charming series.

If you’re a fan, this is a fun read with all the things you like. If you’re not already a fan, you obviously need to start at the beginning with Midnight Riot (which confusingly enough is called Rivers of London in the UK).

Death’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past), by Cixin Liu ★★★☆☆

Hoo, boy. Death’s End is the final installment in the Three-Body Problem trilogy and it’s … well … just not that good.

If you’re a fan of the trilogy, you probably do want to read it to get closure about the Trisolarians and what will happen to our planet, but Cixin really turns up the darkness that started in The Dark Forest and, well, if you’re looking for a happy ending, prepare to be disappointed.

The Universe is dark and hostile, my friends. Dark and hostile.

As a Western reader, though, it’s interesting to get the Chinese perspective, and even more to get the Chinese perspective packaged into a traditionally Western form like hard sci-fi.

As an example, there’s a scene that really caught my attention where Earth is being evacuated. Our protagonists are at the space port with their ship and find a school class of young children also trying to evacuate, but they only have three seats available.

Here’s what happens (AA is a character’s name, because future):

“You pick three, then,” said AA. The teacher let go of AA and stared at her, even more terrified than before. “How am I supposed to pick? How…” She looked around, not daring to meet the eyes of the children. She looked to be in utter pain, as if the gazes of the children burned her. “Fine. I’ll pick,” AA said. She turned to the children and smiled. “Everyone, listen up. I’m going to ask three questions. Whoever gives the right answers first gets to come with us.” She ignored the stunned looks from the teacher and Cheng Xin, and held up a finger. “First question: Say we have a light which is off. After one minute, it blinks. Half a minute later, it blinks again. Fifteen seconds later, it blinks a third time. It keeps on going like this, blinking at intervals that are half of the immediately preceding interval. I want to know how many times it will have blinked by the two-minute mark.” “A hundred!” one of the children blurted out. AA shook her head. “Wrong.” “A thousand!” “No. Think carefully.” After a long pause, a timid voice spoke up. The speaker was a gentle and quiet little girl and it was hard to hear her with all the noise. “An infinite number of times.” “Come here,” AA said, pointing at the little girl. When she walked over, AA guided her to stand behind herself. “Second question: Say we have a rope whose thickness is uneven. To burn it from one end to the other takes an hour. How do you use this rope to track the passage of fifteen minutes? Remember, the thickness is uneven!” This time, no child spoke up in a hurry, and they all fell into deep thought. Soon, a boy raised his hand. “Fold the rope end to end, and then burn it from both ends at the same time.” AA nodded. “Come over.” She pulled the boy behind her to stand with the girl. “Third question: eighty-two, fifty, twenty-six. What’s the next number?” “Ten!” a girl shouted. AA gave her a thumb up. “Well done. Come over.” Then she nodded at Cheng Xin, took the three children, and headed for the shuttle.

It’s obviously reasonable to want to save the smartest to ensure humanity’s future, but damn, that’s cold. I can’t see a Western novel pull off the same scene without a lot of handwringing about it. But in Death’s End it’s just done and nobody talks about it afterwards.

And that isn’t even the dark part of the novel.

Chains of Command, by Marko Kloos ★★★☆☆

Chains of Command is the fourth installment in Kloos’s very good military near-future sci-fi Frontlines series. In order to remain spoiler-free, let’s just say the series involves humanity escaping from a dystopian Earth and starting to colonize other planets and running into scary aliens. If you’re into military sci-fi, Frontlines is a solid series.

Chains of Command, though, is fine, but doesn’t really advance the story arc of the series—it feels like Kloos doesn’t know where he wants to go and is stalling a bit while he figures stuff out.

Hoping for more story progression in the next installment.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?, by Paul Cornell ★★★★☆

Yes, the ghost of Sherlock Holmes is murdered in the beginning of the third installment of the Shadow Police series about police officers in contemporary London who are accidentally given “the sight,” enabling them to see all the supernatural things going on in the city.

The setup may sound a lot like Rivers of London, but it’s tonally very different—Rivers of London is charming and fun, while Shadow Police is grim and dark, with some extremely unpleasant things going on and with a creeping sense of existential dread.

If you’re in the mood for gritty urban fantasy, you won’t go wrong with Shadow Police. But of course, start at the beginning with London Falling.

Note: The links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase through them I get a tiny kickback, which motivates me to keep writing these reviews. It’s appreciated.

You have thoughts? I’m @niclindh on Twitter and I want to know what you think.


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