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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 2017-11-23 19:57
A Good Read -- Which Could Be So Much Better
Lonely Magdalen: A Murder Story - Henry Wade

Sigh.  How to rate this book?  There's a good story stuck in here, both as far as the mystery and the police investigation is concerned and as far as it comes to the back story.  Inspector Poole is a likeable enough detective (much more so than his boss, who is decidedly more of the plodding persuation and who, in addition, couldn't give a fig for an accused's / suspect's rights); his investigation is inspired, and he manages to feel true emphathy for everybody involved in the case, from the victim to the witnesses and the suspects ... or so I thought until I reached the final chapters.  Moreover, Wade, who had seen WWI battlefield action himself and thereafter entered public service, clearly knew what he was writing about in both areas.  In fact, the middle part (which unravels the witness's back story as a sort of story within the story) was what I liked best, and it made me wonder why Wade (apparently) never tried his hand at literary fiction -- like all the leading lights of the Detection Club he was certainly a good enough writer to have been able to pull it off successfully.

 

But ... but.  My enchantment wore off -- not entirely, but enough to take this book down a notch from the 4-star track on which it had been until then -- the further I got into the book's concluding third part.  There had been one comment even in Part 2, concerning the supposed inheritability of a proclivity for a "profligate lifestyle" (which Wade, highly educated as he was, ought to have known better than to buy into, and which smacked uncomfortably of the notion of inherited "evil genes" or "criminal genes"), but I decided to let it go, thinking that maybe Wade had resorted to this notion in an attempt -- and probably not even such a misguided one, with a large part of his original audience -- to make the victim appear more sympathetic and her back story even more tragic ... as if the fall from baronet's daughter to prostitute wasn't dramatic enough in and of itself, especially in class-conscious 1930s England.

 

What began to grind on me after a while in Part 3, though, was that class consciousness also began to play a role in Inspector Poole's thought processes -- and it impacted his investigation, not to mention his acquiescence in his boss's misconduct. 

 

When -- through Poole's own investigation -- suspicion falls on people from the victim's former life among England's nobility, we suddenly witness the inspector ruminating on what a shame it would be if people with that background would actually turn to murder to solve their personal difficulties, and we find him reminding himself with great effort that everybody is equal before the law and the suspects' personal background doesn't constitute grounds per se to exclude them from the investigation on the grounds of noblesse oblige (I didn't count how frequently exactly that expression cropped up in this context, but it certainly felt like a lot).

 

[Comments on the novel's resolution in both below spoilers; don't open them if you haven't read the book and are still planning to do so.]

Worse yet, on the novel's final 2 pages it becomes clear that Poole has let this very sentiment get away with him after all and has, despite spending sweat-soaked sleepless nights over the issue, refrained from even investigating another possible suspect -- the one who turns out to very likely have been the true culprit -- who likewise belongs to the nobility, just because he couldn't bring himself to go down that particular road, focusing instead on the two more obvious upper-class suspects and hoping and praying they'd be able to eventually prove their innocence (as if that were their job to begin with) ... which, at considerable personal cost, they eventually do -- and even worse, ultimately letting a very likely innocent but lower-class suspect, who is not so fortunate as to be able to remove the presumption created against him, go to the gallows instead.

(spoiler show)

And when, in order to clinch the investigation shut, Poole's boss resorts to bullying the suspect who, at the time, has the strongest presumptions against him -- against all rules of proper police conduct and procedure, as both Poole and his senior officer realize perfectly well -- Poole stands by his boss when the issue is brought up before the judge, committing perjury rather than seeing the law that he himself is sworn to uphold actually be enforced, and the illegal interrogation thrown out. 

Which is even worse since we learn on the book's final pages that Poole at this point is harboring at least a very strong doubt whether this particular suspect isn't innocent after all, but also a suspicion who the real killer might be -- and yet, he can't bring himself to speak up.

(spoiler show)

It can be argued of course (and Martin Edwards does in The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books) that Lonely Magdalen's conclusion is intended to expose police brutality.  If so, the attempt is not exactly a rousing success in my book, however, and frankly, I don't actually buy it.  Poole himself is too much caught up in the sort of corps spirit that makes his boss's misconduct possible in the first place -- he sweats a bit over his perjury, but he never seriously considers not to back up his boss; this sort of thing is just not done.  And Poole is certainly leagues from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who would always put the discovery of the real culprit first, no matter who and how well-respected they are (because it just "wouldn't do" to let a murderer go free and see an innocent person hanged in their stead) -- not to mention the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot (decidedly no respecters of class, either of them) and, by the same token, also the occasionally very class-conscious Lord Peter Wimsey, who likewise, as even his very first investigation makes clear, would rather see a highly respected member of society be convicted of a murder they've actually committed than let an innocent person without the means to afford a proper defense go to the gallows in his stead.

 

Since it was "only" the ending of the book that was marred in this way (and not everybody seems to be reading it in the same way as I do in the first place), I've decided to only take my rating down to 3 1/2 stars.  Still, it's a pity, because there actually is much to both contemplate (in terms of the story) and to enjoy (in terms of the writing) here, and I'd very much hoped for this read to end on a different note.

 

I read this for both the "Long Arm of the Law" chapter / square of the Detection Club bingo and the Pancha Ganapti square of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season.

 

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-11-09 11:58
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 1 - Calan Gaeaf: Nemo Granny & Greebo Impune Lacessit*
Carpe Jugulum (Discworld, #23) - Terry Pratchett

Well, I guess that's what happens if you p*$$ off Granny Weatherwax (however unintentionally) and make her take to a cave in the Lancrastian mountains ... next thing you know, you have vampires moving into the castle, and into the kingdom as such.  And since they were foolishly invited in to begin with, they're near impossible to get rid of again; and let's face it, Nanny Ogg, Magrat and Agnes between them might be witches; they might even meet the requirements of a proper coven now that Magrat is a mother, but they aren't Granny, not even with all their forces combined.  (Perdita, now ...) 

So all of Lancre and the reader have to jointly suffer for well over half a book before Granny decides she's let things go on for long enough and finally makes an appearance.  And of course she ultimately saves the day, even if only by the skin of her neck and with the assistance of inner voices, a few drops of blood, the general and specific allure of tea, and a meak priest discovering his inner Brutha just in time.  (Of course it also comes in handy that somebody thought of bringing a double-edged axe, and that some vampires of the older generation still have a sense of tradition left.)

(spoiler show)

 

Nice going, at any rate, on the debunking of what "everybody knows who knows anything about vampires" (including the vampires themselves, who however just don't learn ... or didn't until this new breed came around, that is), and big grins all around for the co-starring Wee Free Men.  My favorite moment, however, came courtesy of Greebo -- who by the way also has decidedly too little stage time -- with the incidental appearance of an otherwise entirely negligable vampire named Vargo:

"As the eye of narrative drew back from the coffin on its stand, two things happened.  One happened comparatively slowly, and this was Vargo's realization that he never recalled the coffin having a pillow before.

 

The other was Greebo deciding that he was as mad as hell and wasn't going to take it any more.  He'd been shaken around in the wheely thing, and then sat on by Nanny, and he was angry about that because he knew, in a dim, animal way, that scratching Nanny might be the single most stupid thing he could do in the whole world, since no one else was prepared to feed him.  This hadn't helped his temper.

 

Then he'd encountered a dog, which had triled to lick him.  He'd scratched and bitten it a few times, but this had had no effect apart from encouraging it to try to be more friendly.

 

He'd finally found a comfy resting place and had curled up into a ball, and now someone was using him as a cushion --

 

There wasn't a great deal of noise.  The coffin rocked a few times, and then pivoted around.

 

Greebo sheathed his claws and went back to sleep."

(I think someone else included this in their review recently, too, but it's just too good not to do it again -- all the more since Greebo, overall, really is as woefully long absent as Granny in this one.)

 

Read for Square 1 of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, Calan Gaeaf: "Read any of your planned Halloween Bingo books that you didn’t end up reading after all, involving witches, hags, or various types of witchcraft."

 

* "Don't mess with Granny and Greebo."  Or somewhat more literally: "Nobody messes with Granny and Greebo unpunished."

 

Merken

Merken

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