Review: The search for the perfect language, by Umberto Eco

I enjoyed this book. There’s only one problem with it – I’m not erudite enough to make it the fast read it should be; it’s so stuffed with information I had to stop every fourth page or so to digest what I’ve read.

Eco states in the preface that it is written with the layperson in mind, but his idea of a layperson knows way much more about linguistics and the history thereof than I do. Apparently. Even if he also states that this is not a book on linguistics but on the history of ideas, which it is, in part – he sketches a history of European thought during the most recent 1000 of the years that led us to be where we are today, using the search for the perfect language and how the idea changed and evolved throughout that millennia as a method for dissemination. This gets especially interesting when he links it with the industrial revolution, the evolution from alchemy to science, and the formation of the nation states and colonisation.

In the conclusion he tells the reader that the discussion could had been even more interesting if he’d included extra-European though and efforts on the topic. I cannot but agree and I’m sure I’m going to seek out some book elaborating on this.

As for now I’m glad I pressed through and actually read the book through, but I’m also glad it’s over. Recommended reading for everyone with an interest in linguistics and European history of ideas. Everyone else is allowed to spend their time on something else.

Review: Heavy Time, by C. J. Cherryh

I know, I’m reviewing them in the wrong order, but it’s a reread review and I started out with Hellburner just because that was the book I remember liking the best.

It was not my first reread of Hellburner, either, but this was my first reread of Heavy Time. In retrospect I think that was because when I finished the pair I a) felt them to be very different, and b) while I had enjoyed Heavy Time I had enjoyed Hellburner more. Well, now is the time to admit it – I was wrong!

Hellburner does stand on it’s own. Yes. But – reading both of them is preferable; even recommended. At least by me.

Heavy Time tells three different tales, at least on the surface. It tells how Ben Pollard, Sal Aboujib, Meg Kady and Paul Dekker came to know each other. It tells about how small people are exploited by big corporations. And is sets the stage for the Company Wars suite, in which this is the first book, chronologically; sketching how the push to build the carriers affected corporations and small people both. While the perspective is intensely personal, often claustrophobic, it’s also more issue-oriented than it’s sequel; the politics are obvious there too, but the focus is on the people and what happens to them – that we might not agree, from a value judgement point of view, that sinking money in military tech aimed for use in a war Sol is doomed to lose is sane we still want the ‘program’ to succeed. Because that’s what the protagonists want.

In Heavy Time the we don’t get to see much of the military but they’re part of the “establishment”, and the “establishment” is presented as corrupt; as being backwards; as having the “wrong” ideas about what’s going on out in space – we view life from the eyes of the disenfranchised, the alienated and the outcast, with all what it means.

Maybe this difference between the books was what got to me the first time, and what made me decide I liked the sequel better. Today I’d say they are both good, both worth reading.

I recommend reading them back to back, preceded by a reading of Downbelow Station but prior to Merchanter’s Luck, Rimrunners, Tripoint and Finity’s End.

Review: Hellburner, by C. J. Cherryh

I honestly thought that my first 2010 review would be of The Search for the Perfect Language. Instead, with 80 pages to go on that one, I got dragged heads on into Cherryh‘s Hellburner. It’s a reread – I think this was my third or forth read of it – but according to records the last time was 2 years ago, and despite loving it I had not planned to reread it again, any time soon; too many unread books stacked on the shelves to leave much time for that.

The reason for the unplanned reread was I got it in ebook format, and my first intention was to just test the reader software. But once I started I found it impossible to put it away, even though I know everything that happens, and despite the frequent conversion errors (“com” often spelled as “corn”, for example).

Hellburner is the sequel to Heavy Time, but both books works as standalones (yes, I’ll reread Heavy Time as well, now that the ereader turned out so good) as well. In Hellburner we follow how Pollard, Meg and Sal is co-opted into a program that developed the rider ships that was attached to the EC carrier ships, featuring in the later books in the Company Wars sequence. Dekker is already in the program, by his own free will and choice, but when “accident” strikes his former partners are brought in, as a way to save the program.

The story captures the different cultures at work – earther, insystemer, and deep spacer; the misunderstandings that results, how politics interfere with rational judgement, how powerful people can destroy the life of the powerless, but most of all how skillful spin can pull the tables in your favour… if you lack what could be called decent ethics.

Cherryh’s stories are seldom one-dimensional or “easy”, and that is why they lend themselves to rereading – even if you know what’s going to happen on the surface there’s always new dimensions to explore.

This is also what makes the Merchanter and Company Wars books special. Each on its own may not be a special piece of literature but taken together they paint a multidimensional picture involving lots of people with different positions and loyalties – a picture that challenges our ideas of who the “good” and “bad” guys really are.

Science fiction when it’s real good. A recommended read, for anyone.

Review: The Stanza ereader, on iPhone

A handful of days ago I still thought it would be some time before I read an ebook. Main reasons being a) I like the feel of paper books, and b) I don’t own an ebook reader – like the Kindle – and don’t enjoy reading on screen; the back light kills my eyes.

Then Cherryh released Heavy Time and Hellburner as ebooks, though Closed Circle. Hellburner is one of my favourite A/U books, so I decided I’d look into ebook reader software for my iPhone.

It wasn’t easy to find anything useful, but after some research I decided to try Stanza, from Lexcycle. By then I had already purchased the aforementioned books, the files sleeping on my laptop, unused, and as expected the tricky part was to get the files from there and onto the phone. iTunes was not helping, refusing to accept the files. Lexcycle had the “from desktop to phone” question down in it’s FAQ, though, thankfully, and after finding that the rest was easy.

So, what about the reader software? Not having used any other modern ebook reader software I can’t compare it with others but to me Stanza held up well. Once I had figured out how to transfer the files they were easy to find, and easy to access. The flipping of pages were intuitive, and it was easy to change both font and font size. There are two modes – a daytime and a night time mode, utilising different templates for showing the book, and both templates are easy to adjust to the colour scheme of roughly your own preference – no free choice of colours, but enough to go around.
It was also easy to adjust the back light, to annotate and to bookmark, and there’s also a dictionary available (didn’t use it so can’t comment on it).
Throughout the read you can follow your progress on the discreet but readable progress bar, at the bottom of the book.

The unintended bonus was I could read in bed without the light on.

All in all an enjoyable experience. I’ll definitely read use it to read other books.

Winter wishes

By the wharf

Today the light out was fantastic, so I managed to snap a few wintry pictures. Hopefully this weather will not only stay the season but also return next winter as a change from the rain we had the winter of 2008/2009.
Perhaps I’ll even dare purchase cross country skis – something which I have wanted for a long time but with winter lacking in the snow department the investment has seemed senseless…

Our love for arbitrary givens

This planet takes approximately 365 days to complete one circuit around the sun. Where we start counting these days is totally arbitrary. If you start at Midsummer’s Eve or August 15th or February 2nd you’ll get the same amount of days. There’s nothing intrinsically different, except where in the continuous circuit across the universe the planet is, happening on January 2nd if compared with December 29th. Indeed some cultures starts their counts according to other calendars, not coinciding with the western/xtian one.

Despite this most people uses this arbitrary date, the break between December 31st and January 1st, to signify the beginning of something new, something Other. If it, like now, marks the end of an equally arbitrary thing like a decade, then it also is a signal to start a summary of the past 10 years, trying to figure out what’s so special about that particular time. It’s often funny, because as we all know these transitions are not clear breaks just because we want them to be so, and some of the things marked down as ‘typical’ are forgotten the the next day.

I think maybe we humans needs these anchor points in the time-space continuum, to make us feel more real, as a way to validate our being here. We are so afraid to face the reality, of there being no higher reason for us being here, nothing else beyond the biochemical reactions making us function. It makes us construct a reality that essentially aren’t there but without which we wouldn’t survive as a species.

Or – would we? Dare we try?