Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book Review: Order Out of Chaos by Prigogine and Stengers

It's often said that an author really writes only one book, over and over again in different ways. This has never been more true than for Ilya Prigogine. I have read three of his books over the past few months, and each is making the same points in different ways. The most useful distinction is audience: From Being to Becoming (the earliest) is for chemists and physicists; The End of Certainty (the most recent) is for the sci-curious at a popular science level; and Order Out of Chaos is for the academics and philosophers. OOoC has the most material for my undergraduate classes. I appreciate especially the historical foundations provided by Boltzmann, Carnot, and others, because those were not detailed in my physical chemistry classes and knowing the history makes the physical chemistry a lot clearer. I took several historical notes about WHY we have different laws of thermodynamics with different emphases. This historical and philosophical richness must be attributed to Isabelle Stengers, and her contribution really makes this book work differently from the others.

For all that, I'm glad I read this book after the other two, mostly because there's not enough room to include the full arguments. As a result, many of the crucial arguments come down to important elements that must be tucked into a citation or waved away -- you can't fully derive the true mathematical germ that explains why it has to be this way, or at least you don't have the tools to fully challenge it when it's asserted. So I don't think OOoC would convince a skeptic in the same way From Being to Becoming did, at least in the areas of kinetics where I am equipped to be skeptical.

On the other hand, From Being to Becoming was a difficult read for me and I still don't have the tools to really use what Prigogine says about quantum mechanics. That's not really my area. But FBtB was like a scenic mountain hike, a lot of climbing and some fog but ultimately worth it, especially for the kinetics/non-linear dynamics part, which is Prigogine's specialty.

It's also possible that Prigogine downplayed his QM ideas in his later writings, after they were challenged (which I know they were and they don't seem to have taken hold at least for QM). Still, in my opinion, the heart of what he has to say is nonetheless intact. So I don't worry about the QM, I'm happy to take the kinetics and run with it.

Another issue is that I would have liked more philosophy at the end, thinking about what this all means. We have some of that but it's not as thorough as the historical review itself.

But this story is worth telling three different ways in the end analysis. So I recommend reading all three books, and not reading this one first, but reading it nonetheless.

A Letter to My Son About the Soul


Monday, May 7, 2019

Dear Aidan,

It was a blessing and a curse watching you compete Saturday. Yes, it was Bible Quiz (of all things), but it’s the same emotions any parent feels watching their kid play a weekend sport. I hoped you would take to this, and you have beyond any expectations.

So it was a blessing watching you remember words precisely and play the little parts of the game expertly, especially when you guess right and gain a lot of points.

But your high-risk strategy has a necessary downside, when you guess wrong and lose a lot of points. You take a lot of three-point shots, and the percentage is worse, but they’re worth more.

After that one prelim round, when your losses clustered all together, I saw my own reaction mirrored in yours. You couldn’t talk. You collapsed into yourself and walked away. I tried to put a hand on your shoulder but I don’t know if you even felt it. I could only let you be, and wait for the next round, if there was a next round.

There was, and you brought it all. You sailed through it with a tight precision. Then you went on, climbing step by step to take the top prize, winning a trophy so big it can only be classified as baggage. The trophy shows in its own ludicrous size that it is not the point. Who wants this chunk of wood and “gold” paint?

I wasn’t happy to have to make space for that thing in the trunk, but I was happy because it culminated months of your hard work. You wanted this, you considered the cost, planned a path, executed a strategy, ran into an obstacle, and overcame it.

I thought about why you were doing this, and I recalled the musical version of Percy Jackson that we had seen two nights before. The first song was all about the young demigods trying to catch their distant god-parents’ attention by accomplishing something big, something that the distracted gods just HAVE to notice. Did you notice how even their camp schedule was based around competition, and how the daughter of Athena honed her own battle strategy so that her god-mother would notice her? That’s the natural consequence of a world of competition: winning forces people to take notice. It was true for the Greeks, it was true for the Egyptians, and the Norse, and the soccer moms today.

Percy Jackson is missing his god-father, and that aspect to his character fits with the Greco-Roman world. All the powerful people believed this 2000 years ago: a god was a powerful man who gave you life but is off on business now and has left you to make a mark. Make some noise and maybe he’ll notice.

Jesus contradicted all this. He said God is near, God is love, God scatters life through a world like a sower scattering seed through a world of obstacles -- but God doesn’t just leave it there. God makes every seed grow, even the tiniest mustard seed, without us knowing exactly how. God gives Godself, overflowing as the Spirit, a bubbling stream to anyone who asks.

This is very different from a world where the person who captures the flag or wins the quest might get his father’s attention. Jesus was building on a foundation of Hebrew prophecies, laws, and songs showing that God is the good creator and sustainer of all things. Jesus took it farther by saying God is so good at giving gifts that God knows not just what you want but what you need. What we need is, ultimately, the Spirit of the Good Giver, who made us to need that Spirit.

Since it’s the week after Easter, I’m reminded of John’s picture of Jesus, risen from the grave, giving the disciples the Spirit by breathing on them. Kind of weird -- not the kind of image that has been repeated in Western Art that often -- but deep and resonant in its weirdness. That action means a lot:

First, don’t miss the obvious. Jesus had breath, a physical body that does the one thing physical, living bodies do all the time, in that it exhaled air.

Second, he gave that breath away, emptying himself to lift them up.

And he did so in a deliberate repetition of what happened thousands of years before in the Garden of Eden, when God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul.

This last image is from Genesis 2. It takes place in the same Bible as John 20, but many pages before, written at a different time in a different language. The Genesis verse doesn’t have much detail beyond a few solid, earthy words: “blow”; “nostrils” (they were face to face); and the mysterious term “soul.”

At this point in the story, God had formed Adam’s body from the dust, but that wasn’t enough. God was the good father to the first man and gave the gift of breath, and Adam started to move. I like the Latin term for soul best: “anima.” (Knowing the many sides of this word is why you’re learning Latin!) God blew on Adam and Adam became ANIMA-ted. “Soul” is an earthy term like “dust” and “nostrils,” and can be applied to all things that move. But in Adam’s case it was a special gift of God, reflected in the special phrase “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” God only knows precisely how that worked, but somehow something thin, active, and without parts flooded the physical, soulish body of Adam.

I can take apart an animated thing in the lab and learn something about how it works. The amazing thing is how much I can see. Living things are built from an untold number of chemical cycles, in which food comes in, is broken down, is used to build new cells, is breathed out as carbon dioxide, which a plant can “breathe in” and build up. The atoms are constantly cycling. As you breathe in and out, some atoms get lodged in your body but others fly away. I read once that 98% of the atoms in your body are replaced every year.

But you’re clearly the same Aidan who competed in Bible Quiz last year, right? So whatever it is that makes you “you,” it’s not the atoms. And whatever made Adam Adam, it wasn’t the atoms. The point of Genesis 2 is not to trace the atoms, it’s to show God giving the soul, face to face with the first man. (The point of chemistry is to trace the atoms, and that’s so relatively unimportant that we could wait a couple more millenia before learning it.)

Adam’s body of chemical cycles, reproducing and repairing, breathing air in and out, it all came from the earth. Each cycle moves because it is missing something: the atoms bind and the chemicals react to make something new. Also, each cycle has a hole in the middle. There’s a lot of empty space in the cycles. Even the atoms themselves, which seem so solid to us, are mostly empty space, with each dense nucleus relative to the atomic radius being only the size of a pea in a cathedral. Even the most solid things and the most dynamic things are open and empty, matter moving in the void. If this seems inadequate, that’s because it is inadequate. I think this is a sign that behind the void is a Creator without parts who has non-material, non-dissectable ways of filling all that emptiness.

Can I reiterate how much I don’t know here? It doesn’t really matter how long it took for these cycles to build from the dust, because there wasn’t anyone around to be impatient about it. Adam only became a soul when his eyes faced God’s (we know that that means on his side but not on God’s) and God’s breath became his. Whatever atoms were involved would soon leave him.

What would always remain in him was thin, strong, and without parts: Adam’s memory of the fact that there was once a relationship, face to face, Creator to creature. God had the same memory. God remembered Adam and his descendants.

The word-picture in Genesis 2 is like the verse in Genesis 1 where humans are all made in God’s “image,” to bring in another mysterious word. The simplest way to make an image of something is to hold a mirror to it. When Adam saw God, imagine God’s own image reflecting off Adam’s eyes, being pieced together in Adam’s brain, and therefore flooding and shaping Adam’s being. Carefully put Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:7 side by side, and imagine Adam face to face with God, reflecting his Creator, shining for all others to see.

There’s a lot of questions you probably have about the rest of Genesis 2, but this letter’s already long enough. In the rest of Genesis 2 relationships are made, and in Genesis 3, they are broken.

The image language shows up in a few other places scatted through the Hebrew scriptures. In Psalm 73, the same Hebrew word for image is used for God looking on the proud and mighty, the demigods of this world, but here something is broken: “Like one waking from a dream, Lord, when arising, you will despise their image.” We’ve all warped the mirror and defaced the image in some ways, all of us except Jesus, the perfect and accurate image of God. Paul uses the word “image” to say this exact thing in Colossians 1.

Adam’s body was a bottle of flesh, made with dynamic cycles of atoms with empty space scatted throughout, from the dust of this world, according to the patterns of this world. God gave Adam a puff of “breath” that made him a living soul, able to move deliberately, think, and speak, able to relate. God gave you this same “breath,” through Adam and Eve, through Cain and Cain’s wife or Seth and his wife, through … … … , through Grandpa and Nana, through me, to you. You can also move, think, speak, relate, and choose. For example, you can choose to work hard to win Bible Quiz, and I respect and admire that choice. I want it to pay off, even as I know it won’t always.

The gift of God comes from above and is not subject to scientific study or dissection. It has no parts we can pry open, but a secret center only you (and God) can detect. The rules of science, worked out over hundreds of years, apply to atoms, but the soul was forged by a relationship with a God not made of atoms, or any parts at all.

Science can only dissect what’s below it, so that God’s gifts of spirit and soul were excluded from it at this beginning. We can hear the sound of God’s breath with our own God-given minds, but we can’t tell where it came from or where it is going.

But we have something better than science for studying the soul. I have my own soul and you have yours. This is the secret place at the center, the closet where Jesus says only the Father can see. Only God knows what was going on inside you when you had that terrible round of quizzing, I could only guess. I couldn’t reach you, but God heard every word you prayed, however frantically or half-heartedly or even unknowingly in groans too deep for words.

Others have talked about this mystery: the soul as a gift of God, embedded in but independent from the atoms of the flesh. Philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza might have something to offer, some good, some not. However, my current favorite word-picture for the soul comes not from a philosopher but from a poet.

That poet is John Davies, who lived around the time of Shakespeare, when people were struggling with this same question and we started to learn how to take the world apart. From this struggle, Davies wrote a poem in which he approached the problem systematically, like a scientist, but with poetry in the place of the scientific method. Davies tries on eight metaphors and discards each as not fitting:

The soul doesn’t dwell in the body like a tent;
it’s not like a pilot sitting in a ship;
or a spider in its web;
or an imprint in wax;
or water in a bottle;
or as a liquid mixed in another;
or as heat emitted from a fire;
or as a voice spreading through the air.

Each of these has its points (I’m intrigued by the idea of a soul as an imprint in wax), but each also has a flaw (if the soul’s an empty imprint, then what is the part that thinks and feels and stays with God, that part of the dying thief that Jesus promised would be with him this day “in Paradise”?).

Davies finds a metaphor that exceeds the rest when he finally compares the soul to sunlight through air. Specifically, the soul is in the body the same way that morning light fills a room, which “in an instant doth herself unite / To the transparent air, in all and part.”

This works really well as a metaphor, especially given all the empty space inside atoms and in the biochemical cycles of life. Imagine how the light is independent of the air, how it can be blocked by the air, but it’s still there. The sun still shines outside, and the sunlight is still given to even the most clouded room.

In the same way, if the body corrupted by disease or decay, or weighed down by stress or depression, the soul is still there, given by its Giver, diffusing every part of the body as the sunlight fills the room. You can’t dissect or control the sunlight, you can only reflect it. And I read somewhere that God made the light and Jesus is the light of the world: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,  begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father” as Christians have recited for more than a millennium in the Nicene Creed.

Another Christian picked up on the same sort of image in a different way, this one a father of four called J.R.R. Tolkien. You probably figured I’d bring him into this sooner or later. Tolkien’s metaphor of soul and body is the Phial of Galadriel. Galadriel, one of the characters closest to the Creator, gives Frodo a tiny bottle. I remember being disappointed the first time I read this. Bilbo got a glowing sword, but Frodo gets a fragile bottle?

Of course, this isn’t just any bottle. The water holds the light of Earendil’s star, from a jewel called a Silmaril that itself holds the brilliant light of the Two Trees that once lit the world, in a chain reaching back to the beginning of creation. Imagine it glimmering like the light of Venus or Jupiter, unwavering in the western sky on our evening walks. It doesn’t seem like much, but it drives the darkness of monstrous, entangling evil away.

Your soul is a light filling the bottle of your flesh. You choose how you hold it up and pour out its light. This is the gift God gave to you, through Adam and through me.

Jesus reflected and embodied this light, with a hidden, humble glory that only some saw. Take care of your soul like Frodo took care of the Phial of Galadriel, and at a moment when “even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought” you may find yourself holding it high as you recite ancient words in the moment of need. Frodo found that “another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.” This voice can speak through you too.

As you trudge along the path, you might wonder if that light is even there, but in the darkness it will shine. When you struggled on Saturday at the Quiz Meet, things got dark and you had to trust that the habits you formed in secret would return by God’s grace. That’s just a foretaste to the bigger challenges that you cannot meet alone. Saturday, you met a big spider, but Shelob herself is out there.

Fear not. Jesus defeated the darkness by standing firm and taking the worst sin can do – which is that it killed him and stopped all his motion, all his “anima,” down to the atoms. Jesus stood firm as others mocked because he knew that all they could do was destroy his body. Jesus trusted that God would give him a new “bottle” after the old one was destroyed.

Jesus was right. God’s light shines on even when the body is destroyed by death, and that part of you that perceives and feels and dreams will be with Jesus always. God will hold you safe, as the good Father who is better than we can ask or imagine.

Jesus studied his Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, as you studied. Those scriptures told him that God has always worked this way: God’s Messiah would suffer shame and would die, then would rise after three days. Even study itself is filled with empty spaces and pauses, with times of blankness that God fills with the light of God’s Spirit. As you work to push these words into your memory, they shape faith and literally reshape the atoms in your neurons into windows that light can shine through.

I believe that shaping your brain to follow his words will open the space to let God’s light fill your body and soul. It’s not about the words themselves, but the space they open for God to move.

Even if this space closes, and you lose sight of God’s grace in the heat of competition, and if a fleshly and idolatrous brain drains the meaning from words by rote repetition, even if the quiz round crashes and burns and you don’t move on, God is in the failure too, because God himself failed according to the world’s standards, yet we call that day of failure “Good Friday.” Trust that God sees in secret and God gives life in secret, even in the face of failure, whatever befall.

Even in a stuffy Bible Quiz room when you’re hungry and tired and you have hours to go, and you’ve disappointed yourself after months of work, you have never disappointed me and you have never disappointed your heavenly Father, who always runs with open arms toward his prodigal son.

Remember that God’s light shines like the sun behind the clouds, and that Jesus himself is the reality that made everything and sits enthroned above and behind everything. Let God’s light be your vision, filling you and lifting you to see the hidden, generous glory of Christ that has sustained creation since God first said, “Let there be light.”

On March 25 fifteen years ago God said “Let there be Aidan.” I held your tiny form and saw that light when I first looked into your eyes, face to face. The light between us revealed to me that God gave us to each other. At that moment God created a truth that will never change: that I am filled with light when I remember you, because I love you. And I love you because God loved you first, and made you for this.

Love, Dad

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book Review: Disorder And Order: Proceedings Of The Stanford International Symposium (Sept. 14 16, 1981)

This was a hard book to track down, but it was worth it. Cynthia Haven's biography of Girard describes a conference he helped host in the 60s in great detail. In 1981, after moving to Stanford, Girard co-hosted another conference with a Nobel Prize winner ... in Chemistry. The Nobelist was Ilya Prigogine, who has some very interesting ideas about complex chemical systems that help reinterpret quantum mechanics and even challenge the common conception of time itself. What do Girard and Prigogine have in common? I wished I could attend that 1981 conference. And lo and behold, in a sense, I can. Every talk from the conference, with discussion, is recorded in this book. Some of the essays are five-star essays. There's enough essays not up there that my rating's brought down to four stars, but the essays worth reading are very much in the majority. Here's my favorites with a sentence about how I liked each one. (Full text is here: https://archive.org/stream/DisorderAndOrder/Disorder%20and%20Order_djvu.txt)

ILYA PRIGOGINE, "Order out of Chaos": One of the best summaries of Prigogine's ideas for a general audience ... well, a more general audience than Ph.D. chemists, at least. 
RENE GIRARD, "Disorder and Order in Mythology": A fine summary in itself, although I was mostly familiar with this from my recent reading already. The discussion afterwards may be more originally illuminating than the talk itself.
JEAN- PIERRE DUPUY, "Shaking the Invisible Hand": A nice take on how Adam Smith and Girard fit together. Also, might be a better summary of Girard's application than Girard's own talk!
JOHN FRECCERO, "Cosmology and Rhetoric": The hidden gem of the conference. I expected a wonderful reading of Dante from a Dante scholar, but this is a reading of my favorite image from The Divine Comedy that extends to show how Augustine of Hippo anticipated an answer to one of Einstein's big questions, and it all has to do with reading the universe like a poem, with attention.
FRANCISCO J. VARELA, "Living Ways of Sense-Making: A Middle Path for Neuroscience": Another hidden gem. Varela raises some very good questions about perception of color and puts things together in a way that's new for me, and bridges both Prigogine's ideas about the importance of the observer and Girard's ideas about order from chaos.
Workshop 1: Girard's comments are of course good, but the best parts are when Isabelle Stenger (Prigogine's colleague and co-author) speaks. Pay attention -- I wish she had been given her own talk.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

This collection of stories has two big award-winners. I was floored by one (5 stars!) and only merely impressed by the other (3 stars). The other stories fall in between those extremes -- which means the collection as a whole is impressive. Chiang has a gift for taking an original, plausible, intriguing idea to its logical conclusion -- then blowing past mere logic to fully realize the implications, both scientific and personal. His science is prescient and creative, but it's in combination with its effects on people that it really shines. Each story is at least as good as a good sci-fi novel. And "Story of Your Life," the basis of Arrival, is one of the best stories I've ever read. This is my fifth time experiencing it (third time reading and have watched the movie twice), and it opens up new depths of meaning each time. This time the theological implications fell out, and the deep connection between mother and daughter. The other award-winning story, "Hell is the Absence of God," on the other hand, took an excellent idea but showed how science takes religious concepts and ossifies them into idols, and I think it showed a lack of theological sophistication, which would have been fine if that had been the point. I still think it's far better than most sci-fi depictions of faith, but it felt as wrong and dystopic as The Hunger Games. God is not like that, and this story contains really good reasons why God is not like that. Even that of course has distinct value. Each story is intellectually provocative and this book by itself makes me want to read more short stories. Chiang's newly released book is going in my queue now.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Book Review: The End of Certainty

This is the book by Ilya Prigogine that I will send people to. It's genuinely for a general audience and seems to have been influenced by the success of A Brief History of Time. I actually think this book is more interesting than Hawking's, but I'm a chemist, so of course I would. Even here, fascinating connections are made and not fleshed out: I'm particularly intrigued by connections to music, and his frequent insistence that non-equilibrium dissipative systems allow matter to "see." Most of his argument from On Being and Becoming is recapitulated here, and its later publication date allows for more interaction with the scientific community (although he doesn't really engage with critics significantly, I guess when you've got a Nobel prize you don't worry about that so much?). This is a book with an argument that catches fire and makes connections you never saw coming. Time itself is reformulated. I haven't had time yet to be completely convinced, but I do want to think more about how the cosmos is musical from the description Prigogine gives.

Book Review: From Being to Becoming

This seems like Ilya Prigogine's post-Nobel victory lap book. It claims to be written for a general audience, but, no, it's not. Prigogine is challenging the very way physicists and physical chemists do calculations, and that's not going to be accessible to a general audience. This book lays out his case in one place for chemists and physicists, and it's probably not enough to convince skeptics, but it worked for me to see a bird's eye view of his argument from outside the field. I'd say it requires at least a BS in Chemistry or Physics to read this book and recommend his other books for people who actually want to read an argument rather than deduce it from equations and figures.

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller is in the same league as Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze) and Kate Tempest (Brand New Ancients). Circe's perspective as a mother is the most compelling part of this book. The parts about her relationship with her parents and siblings, and about her sorcery, all feel like something I've heard before, but her relationship with her son feels urgent and vital. Maybe I've just had too many isolated underdog stories lately, but I'd prefer to know more about her positive relationships than her negative ones. Of the other characters, Odysseus is particularly well drawn: it's a long time before he's named, but it's clear he's a magnetic and brilliant (and cunning) personality. Telemachus is fascinating, too, and is very different from his father. Come to think of it, the brief role Icarus plays in the story is another standout moment, so parents and children are a strong theme here. The story itself avoids the problems of pacing that go with a story of exile, although the conclusion feels faded, just like the myths do at that point. I prefer Tempest's mix of today and yesterday, and I think myth isn't quite represented by Miller the way it really works, but as a novel set in a mythical context, this worked.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

In my quest to read interesting books off other people's best-of lists regardless of genre, I recently listened to One Day in December. I don't know what section it would be in at Barnes and Noble, and that's probably for the best. It's a story about a woman who sees a man at a bus stop, falls in love, then a few months later her best friend brings him home as her new boyfriend. This could definitely go either way, and it definitely does. Some scenes verge on plot contrivance and romance-novel purple prose. However, those scenes are few and far between, and there's more originality and strong writing here than I expected. One of the strengths of the book is Silver writes (mostly) convincingly from the man's perspective too, and flips between the two perspectives expertly to hide things and create tension as well as to reveal. Most of the central plot points are driven by character and logical progressions rather than coincidence. I especially like how the conflicts between characters are set up with that inevitability that you see coming but hope won't happen nonetheless. It's hard to write a story in which a relationship is developed for more than a decade, revealing, advancing, putting up barriers, people changing, etc. That's something only a book can do convincingly, and I think this book does that. Silver is also aware of ALL the movies and tropes (Love Actually is referenced in the first few pages), and while I would prefer it challenges more of them, I think it at least captures the zeitgeist so that someone could analyze and challenge the tropes from the outside (don't get me started on the Girardian rivalry of the best friend duo). So, yes, I can see why this was on someone's best-of list. Though it's not in the center of my own Venn diagram, it had its moments and told its story well.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Book Review: The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin

No spoilers here, but it's nice to be blown away again. I found the second book in this trilogy underwhelming, but the third one is outstanding but in a different way from the first. If the first book plunges you into three converging stories about a post-apocalyptic world with an allusively thermodynamic kind of magic, then the third book finally shows you the pre-apocalyptic world with an allusively magical kind of science. (Note that you could actually shift the labels "magic" and "science" and get almost the same sentence I just wrote.)

This third book is apocalyptic in the real, deep sense of the world, that of pulling back the veil to show you that an apparently wonderful world is built on exploitation and cruelty. There's a real question of whether this world is even worth saving. The harrowing bloody foundations of the world cut deep and linger long after the story is done. In this dark context, the simple acts of love do stand out (though I wish there was more of it, but I wish that in real life too).

Halfway through, Jemisin writes "If you love someone you don’t get to choose how they love you back." If the book had reflected or expanded more on this astounding quote, if it had been set in a world in which that truth was baked into the bones of its universe, as I believe it is in OUR universe, this book might have climbed up to one of my all-time favorites. As it is, it follows the strands in its own sort of fallen, silent universe and adds everything up well.

Even now I ask, is this a sci-fi or fantasy novel? I continue to think of it as sci-fi, but in practice it ends up working like fantasy. And the stubborn insistence of my brain to call this sci-fi may account for my misgivings about the world. I'm frustrated by the ways in which this world is impossible, because it's so realistic in so many other ways, and its revolutionary message is diluted by the fact that it's ultimately a dualistic, even Gnostic world, and it is definitely not our world. Because I don't think creation really works that way deep down, I can't completely enter into the world or its characters. Because the way the world works is a fantasy, I think I must classify this as fantasy deep down. (Though there are some interesting parallels in the ways in which Jemisin and James S.A. Corey both embrace a sort of panpsychic universe when explaining consciousness. I don't think that works in the end but I absolutely allow that it's the second-best philosophical option over simple materialism.)

This gives enough detail and history that I think some day I'd like to sit down and compare this series, The Expanse (by Corey), and our actual universe, to show just how I think our universe is truly "very good" relative to the other options and philosophies ... but that will have to wait for another day. For today, I will affirm that this book is very much worth the hype, even if I don't know exactly which shelf to put it on.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Book Review: Tiamat's Wrath by James S.A. Corey

My spoiler-free review can be summed up in one image: I received this 531-page book on paper at a very busy time in life, and yet somehow still finished it in less than a week. It's a satisfying continuation of the story of The Expanse, and keeps the pace up after a previous book that was a little slow. It also sets up Book #9 very nicely. The science in the sci-fi reveals a few more things about the overall arc of the story, and I like how they do it. Even the aliens are super-weird but in a way that's consistent with quantum physics and what we know about the universe. The mystery of consciousness is one of the fundamental themes, and now that I see where they're going, I admire what they've done (though I disagree on philosophical and theological points). Not to mention one of My Favorite Things, convergent evolution, makes more appearances than it has since Book #4. This book is about the underdog vs. the (sort of) evil empire and there's two indelible scenes I will remember long after I've put down the last book: the empty space ring scene and the woman vs. machine scene both wowed me as much as anything in any of the books. More than anything, I found myself admiring the craft of how the authors dole out information: they out-splash the best final splash pages of comics in chapter after chapter. Even as they telegraph the future to the attentive reader, it doesn't feel predictable, it feels like you're in on the joke. This story has a fantastic shape so far, and even if they don't quite stick the landing in the upcoming ultimate volume, The Expanse is going to be one of my all-time favorite epics.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Book Review: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

I hate to break it to you, but this story isn't all that remarkable. It's more like an old story updated to the 21st century, the story of The Mysterious Artifact and the Puzzle Posed to All Humanity. What it gets better than I expected was the hall of mirrors that is mimickry and rivalry on social media, and how it can lead you into an addiction to likes, views, and clicks. The hollow nature of fame and the cost of constant self-branding, acting as Dr. Henry Higgins on yourself, that strikes home and even resonates with the writing of My Favorite Intellectual This Year (Rene Girard). It's truly insightful about modern communication, and if the author dared to be a little more critical of his own characters, and become a little more satirical, this could almost touch the hem of writing like Stendahl's. But the other parts of the story don't work so well. The Puzzle Posed to All Humanity is OK but feels far too much like Ready Player One. At least here it's decidedly not the main point. The fact that it feels so half-hearted is kind of charming, and some of the puzzles involve chemistry, so that will always get you extra credit with me. The real disappointment to me was how it deals with relationships. Nothing in the attraction or flirting even seems to approach actual selflessness or love, and none of the other characters seems real, even when one narrates a short section himself. I know that we're dealing with a flawed central character, but I find the whole scene and set of assumptions to be lifeless and discouraging, and the "everyone loves her" element that drives the plot annoys me rather than intrigues me. There's no evidence that she's earned admiration for anything but a pretty face, and you can't write about a pretty face and expect the reader to buy it. The real problem is deeper in the well. Characters have freedom to do anything they want and it destroys and deflates romantic tension rather than enhances it. Oh, and don't expect anything of the sci-fi to be explained satisfactorily. They really should retitle this book, and I should stop writing before I talk myself out of the three-star review for the Girardian themes alone.

Book Review: Christians at the Cross by NT Wright

This little book of sermons was fruitful for me, which is all the more striking because I found this by chance, needing some reading material in a pinch on Good Friday. It's a window into NT Wright's pastoral side: his messages to a neglected community during Holy Week. I'm familiar with the main points of his speaking, but seeing them adapted to a specific group of parishoners brings them alive in a new way. Also, most of these sermons pair a passage from the gospel of John with a passage from Isaiah, and they sent me back to read the Servant Songs of Isaiah more fully. In this context, they came alive for me in a new way as well. The Servant is a teacher, and we see his thoughts and doubts transparently, as well as his conviction that God is near and God will save. That spoke to me most of all, and isn't the point of Holy Week to hear God's word in a new way?

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Book Review: The Fall of Gondolin by JRR Tolkien

With this book, Christopher Tolkien's repackaging of his father's legendarium should be complete. Although there have been versions of Beowulf, Sigurd, and even Lancelot from Tolkien's old cabinets, the books like this centered on Middle-Earth form a trilogy, and each has a purpose: The Children of Hurin shows Tolkien's tragic roots, Beren and Luthien shows his heart, and The Fall of Gondolin shows his trajectory.

The Fall of Gondolin doesn't have any of Beren and Luthien's crystalline, transcendent moments, nor does it have any of The Children of Hurin's depth of narrative or mythological resonance. What it does have is both early Tolkien and late Tolkien telling the same story, so you can contrast his growth as a writer. The last version of the story was written after Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings and leaves off in 1951 at a low point for him, when he despaired that his grand story would never be told. But the last version has some turns of phrase and imaginative inventions that only Tolkien can really pull off.

The first half of the book only shines in contrast with the last half. The real surprise for me was in the retellings of the story of Earendel at the very end of the book, because those put Tolkien's theodicy and eschatology -- what's wrong with Middle-Earth and how it will all be fixed (basically the Purpose of Middle-Earth) -- more clearly than even the Silmarillion does, possibly because they're repeated and redrafted in quick succession. I KNEW why the Elves had to leave Middle-Earth, but I had forgotten, and now I'll never forget again. It's a revelation that I believe puts to rest all the misgivings people have about Tolkien's old-fashioned talk about bloodlines and light vs. dark. If Peter Jackson had this book (and paid attention to it), I'm convinced the Hobbit movies would actually have been good.

So this is a fitting conclusion to Tolkien, and this trilogy is far more approachable and digestible than the Silmarillion. It scratched my Tolkien itch, probably for the last time (with new material). Guess it's time to start reading it again, then.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Book Review: The Red and the Black by Stendhal

I'm rating this book subjectively rather than objectively, and experienced through the ears (as an audiobook) rather than through the eyes. I wanted to see -- well, hear -- what this great 200-year-old novel would be like when I couldn't catch everything. The fact that it's divided into two books is helpful in this regard, because they provide different experiences. The first book, which takes place in a small French village, is simple and straightforward, as shown by its Wikipedia plot synopsis being 1/4 the length of the second. It was perfectly enjoyable to read and easy to follow. I laughed out loud as much as I did listening to Walker Percy or Flannery O'Connor, and for many of the same reasons: all these authors really do hit the same points deep down, although the points are made in very different ways. The second book, which takes place in Paris, gets political and convoluted. I couldn't completely follow the plot. There's some reference to the revolution happening at the time which I didn't even know the name of. Too many revolutions in the 19th century, I guess. For all that, I still caught the main point and could see little things I would not have seen otherwise. The role of "copying" is perhaps the central human activity of the hero, and it's easy to see how this book inspired Rene Girard so profoundly. Book II is probably more important but was less enjoyable. The most telling fact is that I was so determined to go in blind that I wasn't sure if this book was written in the 19th century or the early 20th century, and the dark humor and social critique feel so modern that I thought it was written in 1910, when it was actually written in 1830. Talk about ahead of its time. Next on my "listen to long old books" list is Don Quixote but that's even longer so I'll spend some time in my own century first. Yet despite the cultural and temporal barriers to understanding, the message and wit of this book shines through and makes the whole exercise well worth it.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Book Review: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

On the surface, this is a story about a new doctor caught up in World War I. You need a bit of a strong stomach to get through some of the medical descriptions, especially in the first half of the book, which are described well (perhaps a little too well!). The story's told from the perspective of the young doctor Lucius, and his baptism by fire in the medical profession is intense. But the story is really about the attachments he makes as a doctor to those around him, and how those attachments are broken, and his quest to reattach. Lucius is awkward and endearing at times, but there's not enough tragedy or inner pain to his awkwardness, except in a few scenes late in the book. He doesn't seem to notice his own brokenness enough. There's a love story with some beautiful scenes, and its trajectory is different and poignant, sweeping you along in the last third of the book, but it was paced oddly and I feel like I never got to really appreciate the best parts. There's a lot of mystery and things left unsaid, which sometimes feels like a romantic mist but other times becomes just an inert fog. Part of the problem may be that it's not as good as an audiobook, which is how I experienced it. This book is different from your usual wartime novel, and the closest analogue I can think of is All the Light We Cannot See, but this is more literary and less inventive than that (although possibly better written in terms of descriptive language). This is a complex, puzzling, unique book, like a good indie movie that you enjoy the characters, setting, and story, but doesn't quite come together for you.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

This is better than Harry Potter.

It's imaginative, epic, well-paced, romantic, and psychologically realistic about loss and isolation as well as longing and fulfillment. It's got alchemy (that feels like authentic Medieval alchemy), expert foreshadowing, likeable characters with pressing burdens that make them all the more likeable, and a philosophy where the old stories hide the highest truths. Not to mention it's got the best twist of an ending since the end of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes, I realize that was 1990).

Even though it's got complexity and bitterness -- it is a story about a misfit, orphaned librarian, a God-slayer, and a cloistered royal family of teens -- in the end analysis it's intensely sweet.

Only the secondary characters fall short of the rest of this world's exquisite detail and I-didn't-expect-that-but-yes-it-had-to-be-that-way surprises. Against the backdrop of excellence they stand a bit dim, like sunspots, and pull this down from five stars. My comparison to Harry Potter also falters in audience: this one's decidedly narrower, for older teens and up, so it's not exactly putting the "Y" in YA lit.

But my goodness, what a story.

I won't say anything else except to note that there is a sequel, for which I scrupulously avoided all information except the title, and I wish I had avoided that. Want to avoid spoilers from the sequel? Go read this now.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Book Review: The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

This book was both shorter than I expected and even better than I expected. I came for Morrison writing about Flannery O'Connor and for the insights into HOW a writer writes and a thinker thinks, and I was not disappointed. I found that Morrison's thoughts on "othering" coincide eerily with Girard's thoughts on scapegoating (and O'Connor's as well). I'm always delighted to find examples of literary convergence like this. One final note is that Morrison talks about her own works in a way that does not assume the audience's familiarity, so you can use this as an entry to her writing if you like. All these great writers are essentially saying the same thing.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Book Review: The Message by Emmanuel Carrere


I keep wavering on this book, and I think in the end I’ll take the optimistic, glass-half-full attitude and consider Emmanuel Carrere to be a “second friend.” I take this term from how CS Lewis described Owen Barfield:

“But the Second Friend is the man who disagrees with you about everything. … He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one. It is as if he spoke your language but mispronounced it. How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right?”

I’ve always found too much to agree in with Barfield to argue with him this much. Barfield introduced me to Coleridge, and that is worth all of Barfield’s flaws in itself. But Carrere fits the bill. Carrere is fascinating and frustrating, and his greatest assets are his compelling style and transparency. I think he’s transparent enough that you can see where he’s fooling himself. I know them’s fightin’ words but the whole book is a fight – Carrere struggling with an angel – and I disagree with many of Carrere’s conclusions. Because he includes his “methods section” and “background information” (to use the terms from scientific literature), I think I can even trace our disagreements back to how and why.

First, a note about genre. The Kingdom’s Amazon blurb represents it as a work of fiction but that’s not right. At least the first third is memoir, as Carrere recounts his life as a writer of books and screenplays who once had a three-year Catholic revival phase. Now, decades later, Carrere looks back on the man he used to be and tells us his historical theories about how the New Testament was written. Much of the book focuses on the life of Luke as a writer of his own gospel, Acts, and (in Carrere’s theory) the Epistle of James (because of course he has to have His Own New Theory about biblical authorship). This leads to some valuable insights, even inspiring ones, as Carrere projects the process of his life’s work onto the historical person of a 1st-century lower-middle-class physician.

But Carrere projects his own doubts onto Luke as well, and he clearly goes too far in putting himself at the center of this story. He even suggests at one point that Luke put his notes from his “religious phase” into a trunk and tries to forget about them, exactly like Carrere did with his own three years of religious notes. At this point, we’re not talking about Luke anymore.

Carrere has a strong voice that carries the reader along. He’s nothing if not confident. He assumes he knows what words mean and what people are like and walks the line between funny and glib, between self-mocking and sneering. Too often, he confidently assumes the worst and imports a modern view that comports suspiciously close to that of Imperial Rome, confirming my own suspicions that Roman empires and modern empires alike both have a visceral, unconscious antipathy to the gospel message that they cannot see themselves.

Like Lewis’s Second Friend, Carrere gets a lot of things right, and I found a few historical nuggets I didn’t know before. Carrere gets how Christian worship and Eucharist are ordinary things filled with glory and grace that run counter to default human behavior. But he can’t seem to extend this insight to ordinary events, like those in the life of a writer putting pen to paper.

A long passage struggling with Paul’s injunction to “Pray without ceasing” ultimately ends in a shrug, because Carrere insists on his own definition of prayer rather than realizing glory of God can fill ordinary space and time without me even being aware of it. My awareness is not the point of prayer, so I can even pray without being aware of it. God’s faithfulness is what matters, not human attention or thoughts, even with something as intimate and human as talking to God.

Carrere’s self-centered narrative ends up in some odd places. In Carrere’s telling, Paul becomes a masochist because he never mentions his Roman citizenship till after he’s been scourged (never mind that the Sermon on the Mount points directly to this type of behavior). Phrases like Jesus referring to himself as the “Son of Man” get stripped of their deep allusions to Jewish scriptures as Carrere insists that the phrase means “simply man” (um, not in Daniel 12 it doesn’t). Likewise, Paul’s constant Jewish allusions are downplayed – because they aren’t important to Carrere, he assumes they weren’t important to the Roman or Galatian church. Carrere follows the age-old academic argument of putting a wedge between Jesus and Paul, and between James and Paul, and between Old Testament and New Testament witness, and even at a late point between Luke and Paul, no matter how central Paul is to Acts!

I shake my head most at Carrere’s blithe insistence that early Christians were expecting the world to end like we 21st-century modernists expect the world to end. This puts a wedge between the early Christians’ expectations and reality when people in the church start to die. This was a crisis but not the earth-shaking crisis that Carrere assumes. Like with prayer, Carrere is overly literal about end of world and adopts an attitude that presents itself as modern but literally predates atomic theory. When Paul says don’t marry because the time is short, that’s about receiving what God gives and being content, not about expecting everything to end – the return of Jesus is a beginning of a new age, not an obliteration of all material. Obliteration is the return of a Gnostic Jesus! Several times Carrere indicates that his biggest influence is Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus is 150 years old now, and it shows in sections like this. Everything old is new again.

By taking a hard line on what the “end of the age” (note: NOT “the world”) means, Carrere is forced to put a wedge between 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, proposing that the second contradicts the first, and predictably he puts a wedge between Galatians and Ephesians, between John of Patmos and John the Beloved Apostle, etc. etc. The differences are real and probably do reflect some authorial differences, but maybe not. Just look at 1st and 2nd Corinthians and note that the style differences between these (even within these!) are at least as wide between these other letters, and no one seriously doubts that these were all written by Paul. Personally, I’m getting bored of the academic wedge strategy, which seems to be more avoidance mechanism than actual theory.

Two of the best parts of the book are in the Epilogue for opposite reasons. The first is the final scene in which he truly gets a glimpse of the Kingdom in all its ordinary glory (I won’t spoil it). The second is much scarier. Carrere starts to imagine why good Roman emperors would nonetheless harass and murder Christians. He says it must have seemed like Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which your friend is not your friend anymore, and implies that your friend is not even human anyone. He’s right. This is entirely plausible and a chilling window into how very good people can be led to do very bad things. Once you alienate your friend for following Christ and convince yourself they’re not the same person anymore, you don’t have to feel bad for turning them into a human torch. This is how it happens, and with this wedge between the human and the Christian, Carrere plays the role of the good Roman citizen with his confident allegiance to Empire uber alles.

All these wedges end up convincing me that the center does not hold in Carrere’s world. The Christian community is different views living together, Jew and Gentile, men and women, all one in Christ. We have a model of that community in the canon itself. The different views of the authors of Scripture are jarring and puzzling at times, and yet after all the exertion and juxtaposition, I’m convinced that the differences are not the most important thing: Christ is.

John, Paul, Mark, and Luke are indeed contrasting voices but the question is whether they relate in harmony or dissonance. As a reader of the community of scripture, I can choose to embrace each author, learning to love and live together, or I can try to place wedges, saying one must be right, and I have to choose between them. The canon itself shows you can’t do it alone and that when there’s a conflict you don’t have to chase it down or wedge it out, but you can stand your ground, contemplate, and turn the other cheek as a reader. Accepting the different voices of the canon is itself an act of following the Sermon on the Mount and emptying yourself.

Carrere slices away everyone else and is left with himself and Renan. Dante’s vision of the embraces of Paradise (after the isolation of the Inferno and the steep hike of Purgatorio) includes Carrere’s vision but goes beyond it, showing that the Kingdom is far more expansive, hopeful, and ultimately compelling.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book Review: The Obelisk Gate

N.K. Jemisin's middle book in The Broken Earth Trilogy continues to build a world that may be second to none in what I think of as science-based fantasy. I thoroughly enjoyed its fast pace, vivid characters, and surprising moments. I also found it to have a more accessible overall structure with two mostly parallel stories rather than the three mostly disparate stories in the first novel. As for the surprises, I didn't expect to have a whole new "power system" introduced in this one, and I would have preferred to know more about the first "power system" rather than to have a mysterious new one revealed step by step. The first system (orogeny) was especially resonant, because it appeared to obey the Laws of Thermodynamics and felt like a solid science. But the second system (literally called "magic"!) feels as false to me as the first system feels true. It's vitalism and dualism and undercuts the realism of the narrative. For all that, it means that the introduced elements feel like things I've seen before, where the first book felt empirically solid and new. I'd be curious to know if there's others from other walks of life who felt the opposite, because I think this is colored by my scientific profession through and through. Also, the third book may reveal scientific elements to the "magic" that would make me change my mind. I'm eager to finish this off, nonetheless. The fact is that expectations have been lowered a bit, but they're still very high.