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review 2017-12-16 01:01
The Power of Narrativium
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart

Murder by Death and BrokenTune have essentially summed up a lot of the points I'd want to make about The Science of Discworld.  (What a misnomer that title is, incidentally -- and not only because the science part is really concerned with "Roundworld," i.e., our world ... the science part in this book expressly negates what chiefly makes Discworld tick, namely narrativium, which is described here as the narrative imperative, but actually stands for so much more.  But I'll get to that in a minute.)  And there is quite a bit of more discussion in MbD's post here and in the comments sections of BT's posts here and here, so little remains for me to add. 

 

There is one point in particular that is bothering me about the assertions made by the scientist co-authors, though, and that is their constant poo-pooing of any- and everything that isn't scientifically quantifiable or measurable, even though (in one of their many contradictions) they do admit in the book's final chapters that the "How-to-Make-a-Human-Being" kit we have inherited and are, ourselves, passing on to future generations (both individually and collectively) includes "extelligence", which constitutes not only collectively shaped knowledge and experience, but also virtually every abstract concept known to mankind today ... as long as -- according to Stewart and Cohen -- a person's response to such a concept can be measured and recorded in some way, shape or form.  That, however, still doesn't stop them from talking down the concept of a soul (human or otherwise), or from insisting that narrativium doesn't exist in our world.  I disagree, and largely in lieu of a review I'm going to throw their co-author Terry Pratchett's own words right in their teeth (and incidentally, Pratchett was, for all I know, an atheist, so religion -- which seems to be a key part of Stewart and Cohen's objection to the notion of a soul -- doesn't even enter into the discussion here):

"I will give you a lift back, said Death, after a while.

'Thank you.  Now ... tell me ...'

What would have happened if you hadn't saved him?' [the Hogfather, Discworld's  version of Santa Claus.]

'Yes! The sun  would have risen just the same, yes?'

No.

'Oh, come on.  You can't expect me to believe that.  It's an astronomical fact.'

The sun would not have risen.

She turned on him.

'It's been a long night, Grandfather!  I'm tired and I need a bath!  I don't need silliness!'

The sun would not have risen.

'Really?  Then what would have happened, pray?'

A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.

They walked in silence.

'Ah,' said Susan dully. 'Trickery with words.  I would have thought you'd have been more literal-minded than that.'

I am nothing if not literal-minded.  Trickery with words is where humans live.

'All right,' said Susan.  'I'm not stupid.  You're saying humans need ... fantasies to make life bearable.'

Really?  As if it was some kind of pink pill?  No.  Humans need fantasy to be human.  To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

'Tooth fairies?  Hogfathers? Little --'

Yes.  As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.

'So we can believe the big ones?'

Yes.  Justice.  Mercy.  Duty.  That sort of thing.

'They're not the same at all?'

You think so?  Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy, and yet-- Death waved a hand.  And yet you act as if there is some ... some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

'Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point--'

My point exactly.

She tried to assemble her thoughts.

There is a place where thwo galaxies have been colliding for a million years, said Death, apropos of nothing.  Don't try to tell me that's right.

'Yes, but people don't think about that,' said Susan.  Somewhere there was a bed ...

Correct.  Stars explode, worlds collide, there's hardly anywhere in the universe where humans can live without being frozen or fried, and yet you believe that a ... a bed is a normal thing.  It is the most amazing talent.

'Talent?'

Oh, yes.  A very speccial kind of stupidity.  You think the whole universe is inside your heads.

'You make us sound mad,' said Susan.  A nice warm bed ...

No.  You need to believe in things that aren't true.  How else can they become?  said Death, helping her up on to Binky."

(Terry Pratchett: Hogfather)

So you see, Messrs. Stewart and Cohen, there is narrativium everywhere where there are humans.  It may not have been part of the universe from the time of its creation (however we attempt to pinpoint or define that time).  And we don't know whether any of the long-extinct creatures who populated our planet millions of years before we came along had it -- if they did, it seems they at any rate didn't have enough of it to create a lasting record beyond their fossilized physical remains.  But humans wouldn't be humans without narrativium.  Because that's how the rising ape becomes something more than a mammal (call it a falling angel or whatever you will).  Because that's why it is the sun we see rising every morning, not merely a ball of flaming gas.  Because that's why the stars are shining in the sky at night, not a collection of galactic nuclear reactors that just happen to be close enough so we can see them with our naked eye.  And because that's what enables us to hope, to dream, and to consequently make things come true that nobody previously even thought possible.

 

It's narrativium that got us where we are today.  Not alone -- science, technology, and a whole lot of parts of the "How-to-Make-a-Human-Being-Kit" helped.  A lot.  But narrativium is the glue that holds them all together.

 

And since as a species we also seem to be endowed with a fair share of bloodimindium, maybe -- just maybe -- that, combined with narrativium and scientific advance all together will even enable us to survive the next big global catastrophe, which in galactic terms would seem to be right around the corner (at least if our Earth's history to date is anything to go by).  If the sharks and a bunch of protozoons could, then one would hope so could we ... space elevator, starship Enterprise, or whatever else it takes, right?

 

P.S.  Like MbD's and BT's, my love of the Discworld wizards is unbroken.  And clearly there is no higher life form than a librarian.  (Ook.)

 

P.P.S.  I said elsewhere that I'd be replacing Val McDermid's Forensics with this book as my "16 Festive Tasks" Newtonmas read.  I'm still doing this: at least it does actually have a reasonable degree of actual scientific contents; even if highly contradictory in both approach and substance and even if I didn't much care for the two science writers' tone.

 

 

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review 2017-12-11 14:16
Review: Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole
Let Us Dream - Alyssa Cole

This is a novella that was originally published in the anthology Daughters of a Nation.

 

I read this for square 7 (International Human Rights Day) as it takes place in Harlem (in 1917) as the state of New York prepares to vote in the November elections, especially the amendment to the state constitution giving women the right to vote. Bertha is a business woman running her own restaurant/night club/whorehouse and is working hard to help the suffragettes get the vote. She also has to fight off some men who were former clients when she was selling sex now that she is widowed. Her dead hubby wasn't a great guy and there is no lingering grief going on....seems Bertha saw it as much of a business decision as anything else in her life. Bertha wants the right to vote so that she can help her fellow women business owners and her girls, pretty much every woman who are often overlooked or mistreated. She also has to contend with the vice squads that are bringing down the hammer on clubs like hers due to selling sex and race mixing. I liked Bertha as a boss lady and teacher (she taught civic classes to her girls and other people when the club was closed so that those that can (or will soon be allowed to) vote can do so with a foundation of knowledge.

 

Amir left the British navy as a cook hoping for a more stable and socially upward mobile life in America. Unfortunately he has only met with brick walls and is just trying to survive. He is unsure if he wants to return to Bengal and live as a farmer under British rule or keep surviving in America. He has no papers, so staying out of law enforcement's grasp is a daily reminder he is Other. Bertha needs another cook to help/sub for her club's cook who is mightily pregnant. Amir has political/community organizing, along the lines of labor unions, but Bertha's lessons open him up to refining his political beliefs. I really liked Amir and his friends/roommates, especially Syed. I also like how Amir is identified as a Muslim, first in the dialog between him and Bertha and then later on while he was praying for her safe return from jail.

 

The characters were great, the setting and issues of the day were well written, but the romance sucked. I did believe they had sexual chemistry, but not an emotional connection. Bertha acted like a cold bitch to Amir several times and every time he apologized but she never admitted she was out of line. Maybe if the story was longer, there would be more time for Bertha to open up to Amir the way he did with her.

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review 2017-12-08 16:38
Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco
Burnt Offerings: Valancourt 20th Century Classics - Robert Marasco,R.C. Bray

Marian is a 70’s housewife and she is tired of city life and coerces her husband, Ben, into checking out a summer rental with a beach that is far from the sweltering heat, stink and noise of the city. He says it sounds too good to be true and whines, “but honey, we can’t afford it”. But he caves. Should’ve stood your ground, man!

 

The rental turns out to be a giant estate on 200 acres. There are 30 rooms and all they have to do is pay $900 for the summer and leave “Mother” sustenance three times a day. Ummm, what? Yes, Mother is staying! Apparently, Mother doesn’t leave her room and will be no trouble at all as long as you keep to the feeding schedule or so say the weird brother and sister who are renting the place and who skedaddle out of town leaving no contact information as soon as the couple agrees to rent the place.

 

Marian immediately takes to the home as if it were her own, obsessively preparing meals for Mother and cleaning and fretting (which sounds like a vacation in Hell to me) while Ben, his aunt and their young son fritter away their days in the sun. But that doesn’t last long. Soon enough eerie events start to occur and Marian’s obsession with the house intensifies. They can try to escape but the house wants what it wants!

 

This was an unnerving listen that allows the dread to slowly build. It is read expertly by R.C. Bray who is perfect for this kind of old-timey story. His voice is so serious and wizened just enough to set the scene and make the words even creepier. But, folks, it was written in the early 70’s and its 70’s roots are definitely showing in some of the dialogue.

 

“I’ll do the talking. Just look pretty and keep your mouth shut.” Ben says this to Marian and she doesn’t punch him the face.

 

At another point Marian says (out loud, mind you) to Ben, “You know I’m the dumb one.” He accepts this as fact and again does not get punched in the face and they move along with their day.

 

Ahhh, the 70’s. I am so very glad I was too young to have to deal with this WTFery!

 

If you like haunted houses and haven’t listened to this story on audio, what the heck are you waiting for?

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text 2017-12-04 12:28
Reading progress update: I've read 135 out of 385 pages.
The Science of Discworld - Terry Pratchett,Jack Cohen,Ian Stewart

Well, so far the science writing is pretty neat for what it set out to do, and this one will definitely replace my Newtonmas read for the 16 Festive Tasks.

 

Still, can I just say that I nevertheless prefer the Discworld chapters?

 

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review 2017-12-02 20:49
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 13 - Hogswatch Night
Hogfather (Discworld, #20) - Terry Pratchett
Hogfather: Discworld, Book 20 - Random House Audiobooks,Terry Pratchett,Nigel Planer

Ponder and his fellow students watched Hex carefully.

"It can't just, you know, stop," said Adrian 'Mad Drongo' Turnipseed.

"The ants are just standing still," said Ponder.  He sighed.  "All right, put the wretched thing back."

Adrian carefully replaced the small fluffy teddy bear above Hex's keyboard.  Things immediately began to whirr.  The ants started to trot again.  The mouse squeaked.

They'd tried this three times.

Ponder looked again at the single sentence Hex had written.

+++ Mine!  Waaaah! +++

"I don't actually think," he said gloomily, "that I want to tell the Archchancellor that this machine stops working if we take its fluffy teddy bear away.  I just don't think I want to live in that kind of world."

"Er," said Mad Drongo, "you could always, you know, sort of say it needs to work with the FTB enabled ...?"

"You think that's better?" said Ponder, reluctantly.  It wasn't as if it was even a very realistic interpretation of a bear.

"You mean, better than 'fluffy teddy bear'?"

Ponder nodded.  "It's better," he said.

Finished -- and there will have to be an instant reread.  My life needs this right now.  Urgently.

 

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