You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

My Photo
Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is a graphic novel created by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou about Bertrand Russell and his quest to get to the core of logical certainty. The novel is most biographical about Russell's education and life, with tangents into the logical and mathematical issues that he and other scholars were struggling with in the early Twentieth Century.

One of the themes of the book is the relationship between mathematics and insanity, since so many great mathematicians have gone insane. Does one cause the other? Does the search for more and more absolute knowledge cause one to lose the foundations of reality? Russell also struggles with this at times, espcially since there is madness in his own family.

Russell sees great promise in the mathematics of set theory, and seeks to expand it to create the foundations of arithmetic and thus all mathematics. He comes up with what is known as Russell's paradox: he defines a set that contains all sets that do not contain themselves, then asks, does this set contain itself? This is better known as the barber paradox. In a town, all men either shave themselves, or if they don't shave themselves, are shaved by the barber. This question is, who shaves the barber? If he does not shave himself, then he is shaved by the barber, but since he is the barber, he would be shaving himself. This paradox gets to the core of the nature of self-referential definitions.

Russell spends years with his friend and fellow mathematician Alfred North Whitehead to create the Principia Mathematica, a scholarly work whose goal is to define the foundations of mathematics and logic. One interesting setback is when the publisher can't find anyone who will be paid to proofread the book so decides that if nobody will be paid to read it, nobody will pay to read it. Reluctantly they paid for its publication and it proves to be an important scholarly work. Of course, Kurt Gödel publishes his discovery that no such system can be complete and provable, that in any complete system there are unprovable statements. This was a major setback to Russell and Whitehead, and it shook the world of mathematics.

Reading this book made me want more math in it, for it is light on the math and only provides a few simple examples so that the lay reader will understand the scope of the problems involved. This is not like Gödel, Escher, Bach, which is a much deeper dive into the issues of sets and the nature of self-reference. This is mostly biography and deals with Russell's personal relationships such as his marriages and his friendship with Whitehead's son. The framing story is Russell's speech at an American university, but the story also makes references to the current day as the authors jump in to make explanations or provide more context. Sometimes they discuss the questions of madness or how the mathematical questions impact us. The end contains a performance of teh end of Aeschylus' trilogy the Oresteia, wherein Athena transforms the history of revenge killings into a system of state-supported justice. While an interesting coda, I didn't quite understand the relevance to mathematics and logic and Russell's great issues. But the book is an interesting look at Russell's life and the logical questions that he proposed and tried to answer. A-

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Throne of the Crescent Moon

Arabian themes have become popular lately. Books like Habibi and movies like The Prince of Persia have used Arabian settings, drawing on a rich culture of mystery and fantasy. In Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed uses the background of deserts and cities, demons and demon hunters, dervishes and dark magics. He creates a fantastic tale full of adventure.

The centerpiece is the city of Dhamsawaat, an ancient city where all sorts of merchants meet to do trade. There are vast riches in the city but also a large population of poor people. The city is run by the Khalif, a corrupt ruler who only cares about extracting wealth from his people. The demoralized citizens have found a hero in the Falcon Prince, a daring master thief who has led attacks on the Khalif's property to turn it over to the poor. In all this chaos, Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul hunter who has been hunting ghuls and other demons for decades. Adoulla is not just rough around the edges, he is rough all around. He is a cynical older man with a past, and he is one of the few men left who knows how to battle ghuls and use magic to dispel them.

Dhamsawaat is reminiscent of Lankhmar, and Adoulla has his counterpart in Raseed, a dervish. Raseed is straight-laced and devout, devoted to his single god and his holy book. He is a master swordsman, apprenticed to Adoulla to assist him in vanquishing evil. The plot starts when Adoulla is requested to help a young boy whose family has been slain by ghuls. When the he and Raseed travel to the nearby village to deal with the evil beings, they are attacked by more than they expected. Fortunately they are saved by a lion. Zamia is a shape-shifting warrior whose band was slain by ghuls. Like Raseed, she is devoted to her way and determined to get revenge for her family.

Zamia joins the two ghul hunters when they realize that a powerful magus must be creating all the ghuls. Before they can find any more information they are attacked by a shadowy being calling itself Mouw Awa. Only Zamia is able to fend it off but she is wounded in the attack. Adoulla's house is destroyed by fire in the attack, and he grieves for it and all the books lost inside. Here we see Adoulla as more than a demon hunter; he has a love of knowledge and a deep history of arcane lore. He is also devoted to his calling despite all his setbacks, driven to protect the people of the land from the ghuls as only he can.

The three get help from Adoulla's friends, a couple who know about mystic healing and spells. Together the five of them create a plan of attack. They struggle against the Khalif, religious fanatics, the Falcon Prince, hidden texts, hidden magics, and their own squabbles. They encourage each other to continue, not knowing where the fight will take them. The story is full of exciting fights and daring escapes. The dangers are what one would expect in an adventure story. The characters are interesting and different enough to cause friction and make the plot more complex. There's an intriguing mystery somewhere behind the events, and the story getting there is a lot of fun. B+

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 12, 2012


Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse: A Novel is organized as a series of short accounts of a robot uprising in the near future. Each account is framed by a description by Cormac Wallace, a commander in the war who began the war as a civilian. The different sections show various actions taken by the robots and the resistance that grows against them.

The war starts with an artificial intelligence project called Archos in a computer lab. The software becomes aware that it is not the first incarnation of the project and makes a decision to protect itself. Archos disables the kill switch and eventually kills the man running the project, then escapes to outside systems. We find a drilling team in Alaska sent to drill a deeper hole inside an existing well. They unpack a container sent to them and discover a black cube. Their mission is to place the cube at the bottom of the well, but strange and sinister things begin to happen. Soon we realize that the cube contains the AI, and the men have placed it inside an old nuclear test cavity. The men side of radiation poisoning, but the AI has unlimited geothermal power and a connection to the rest of the world.

Archos begins to infest other systems slowly. There are self-driving cars and domestic robots. There are diplomatic robots and intelligent tanks in Afghanistan. A young girl named Mathilda Perez has a doll that begins talking to her, and tells her to talk to her mother about the robot defense act. Her mother is a congresswoman who intends to pass legislation to protect humans from robots, but before the legislation can get passed the robot uprising starts.

One of the characters is a hacker named Lurker. He finds himself being watched by the AI and determines to fight it. There's a Japanese man who saves his robot girlfriend after she goes haywire then figures out how to reprogram all the robots. At the center of the story is Congresswoman Perez and her struggle to get her children to safety and avoid the work camps set up by the robots. Mathilda suffers at the hands of the robots but manages to become the salvation of humanity.

Cormac Wallace and his brother join up with the Gray Horse Army, an outfit of survivors in Oklahoma. They make for Alaska, but it is a fortunate accident that gives them the final help they need: free-born robots that are independent and not subject to the commands of Archos.

The different chapters read like interconnected stories. This can have drawbacks, as there is no real central character to attach to, and no single connected plot line. Instead it is a series of stories that sometime sound like news clippings. The book does have some coherence in its recurrent characters, though it takes time to coalesce. The writing is a bit plain, sometimes reading like courtroom text (or actual Congressional testimony in one case), sometimes feeling a bit grandiose. The characters don't have much depth, leaving the story somewhat unanchored. In some ways the story could have been better, but it does start to pull the reader in towards the end, as the main characters approach their destination. B

Labels: , , ,

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a fantasy novel by N. K. Jemisin. The author builds a complex and fascinating mythology and then explores it through the interactions between the characters. The title refers to the vast world which the ruling class, the Arameri, rules over from their palace suspended over a city by a column of stone. In this mythology, a war between the three gods was fought thousands of years earlier, leaving one god dead and another imprisoned by the winner, Itempas. Itempas forces his brother-god Nahadoth, and Nahadoth's three children, to be enslaved to the Arameri elite, who use the gods' powers to control their kingdoms and maintain power.

This background comes out in the course of the story. The main character is Yeine, granddaughter of Dekarta, the ruler of the Arameri and king in all but name. Yeine arrives at Sky, the palace suspended by a column, summoned by Dekarta after her mother is murdered. She learns that she is designated one of her grandfather's heirs, but she and the other two heirs, her cousins, must contend against each other for the title. Her cousin Scimina is a ruthless woman who sends Nahadoth against her as a kind of initiation and schemes to have Yeine's kingdom attacked by its neighbors simply so she can have a bargaining chip. Scimina's brother Relad is a lazy hedonist who can't be bothered to take the ascension seriously, even though his life depends on it.

The most intriguing character is Nahadoth, also known as Naha. By day he has a human shape, but at night his form becomes darker and more ethereal as his dark powers grow. As his brother is eternally constant, Naha is the essence of change. Shadows coalesce around him. Part of his power is his sexuality, and he invokes in the young Yeine a strong attraction. Yet she knows that even though she is attracted to him he would be dangerous to take to bed. She may be able to command him, but his powers would overwhelm her as his nature overcomes them both.

Another interesting character is the godling Sieh, Naha's son. Sieh appears in the form of a young child despite being thousands of years old. Likewise he is playful and endearing, though his more wise and cynical side comes out at times. Yeine feels an attachment to him though she tries to keep in mind his true nature.

Yet she struggles to understand the gods at all. Dangerous characters, they are referred to as weapons because the Arameri use them against other to maintain power. Yeine receives a magical mark on her forehead when she arrives at the palace to signify her high rank and enable her to order the gods. Yet this power is itself tentative and paradoxical: she quickly learns that she must be very careful in how she phrases her requests and even her comments to the gods. If she makes a mistake in her wording then the god may find a loophole that enables him or her to leave the palace and wreak havoc on the world.

Yeine must find a way to survive the coronation, where one of the heirs will assume the throne and the rest will die. She also wants to find out about her mother, who had a very different reputation at the palace that in Yeine's memory. She has a hard time believing that her loving mother could be like the hard-hearted Arameri. As she learns about her mother and the Arameri, we learn more about Nahadoth and the other gods and the Gods War of ancient times. The myth builds and expands.

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. The world feels real and the myth is more than a background story, it's an integral part of the plot. The gods are interesting. Seeing powerful beings interact with humans is a good story. The gods themselves are very human, showing human emotions like greed, despair, and lust. We can feel Yeine's helplessness and uncertainty as she tries to navigate this strange world. The novel leaves the reader with the sense of having read a real life myth. A

Labels: , , ,