Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Review of Reviews (The Courtier and the Heretic, Exultant, The Slow Professor, Cosmonaut Keep, Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon)

It's been awhile since I posted an old-fashioned review of reviews (as opposed to a "round up"), so here it goes!  In this one I'm reviewing three non-fiction books and two fiction books: The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart, Exultant by Stephen Baxter, The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod, and Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, edited by Sydney Perkowitz and Eddie von Mueller.

And if none of those pique your interest, I will be posting an all-Stephen King review of reviews soon!

The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza & the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart

I'm a big fan of 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and I deeply appreciate his German contemporary Gottfried Leibniz, so I was delighted to read this philosophical biography that revolves around the time Spinoza and Leibniz met in person in The Hague in 1676.  It was even more fun to read parts of this while I was visiting the Netherlands recently (including The Hague, Voorburg, and Amsterdam).

While one could get a lot out of this book never having read Spinoza or Leibniz before, I think at least a little bit of background, like a survey course in modern European philosophy, would enhance one's appreciation.  Stewart does a pretty decent job explaining the views and arguments of each philosopher, but of course there's no substitute for reading for oneself.

People who have tried to read Spinoza and Leibniz, though, will be pleased that Stewart's book is light reading by comparison.  I learned a lot about the biographies and general historical context of each philosopher, and the story of how these two men and their respective philosophies are related was intriguing.  Hard-core Spinoza and Leibniz scholars may not be impressed with Stewart's interpretations, but I at least found his contention that Leibniz was forever haunted by the specter of Spinozism to be intriguing, even if a bit over-done (Leibniz was reacting to what he saw as the threats of modernism in a general sense whether that always meant specifically Spinoza in his mind or not).  

I also greatly appreciate Stewart's attention both to the internal details of each philosopher's views, but also their contexts, influences, personalities, and legacies.  I enjoyed getting to know each philosopher a little bit.  Spinoza was loved by his neighbors later in life despite the tumultuous times of his early expunging from the Jewish community of Amsterdam and his publication of a radical book that was widely scorned as dangerous atheistic heresy. Leibniz fans may feel that Stewart shows too much favoritism to Spinoza (and they would have a point), but I came away feeling like I knew Leibniz and could forgive his personal idiosyncrasies and foibles in light of his tremendous intellect and breadth of interests.  (I loved learning about Leibniz's various money-making schemes, like his project to convince France to invade Egypt, which was really an excuse to travel, as well as his failed work in mining and his pretense at royal genealogy.)

To sum up, this is a book for lovers of philosophy especially, but also for anyone interested in the history of early modern Europe and its legacy today.

See my Goodreads review.

Exultant by Stephen Baxter

What have we got here?  Enough Big Ideas for several novels?  Mind-bending physics? Characters that are just kinda there? The feeling that you just experienced something really cool that you can't completely explain? Must be a Stephen Baxter novel.

This is nominally a sequel to Baxter's Coalescent, which I read several years ago and enjoyed.  Exultant takes place in the same universe over 20,000 years later, so I guess it's a sequel in roughly the same way that Dune is a sequel to Hamlet.  Especially if you're looking for far-future space opera, you could skip Coalescent and dive right into Exultant.  This is a bit of an overstatement: there are connections (the descendants of the "coalescents" or hive-like humans show up once or twice), but this is really another installment in Baxter's sprawling Xeelee sequence.

Our main character, Pirius, is a pilot in the war with the alien Xeelee, a war that has consumed humanity and slowed its progress for 20,000 years.  Pirius captures a Xeelee spacecraft (something nobody has apparently done before), but he uses his FTL drive and finds himself two years in the past (for science reasons).  He and his self from two years ago are put on trial for disobeying orders.  He is sent to boot camp for army grunts while his past self is whisked away by a bumbling absent-minded professor type who has the radical idea that the war should be won and has an idea how to do it.

The rest of the plot is fairly simple, if a "simple" plot can involve two iterations of the main character in different parts of the galaxy (helpfully referred to as "Pirius Blue" and "Pirius Red"), plenty of helpings of mind-bending physics, several religions/philosophical persuasions, thoughts on war, bureaucracy, and politics, and several particularly mind-exploding chapters describing the evolution of life (but not as we know it) from the very beginning of the universe.

As a philosopher, I appreciate that Baxter refers to philosophy a lot.  He even name drops Leibniz at one point - there are creatures called monads!  Given that there are two iterations of the main character (and maybe one more...), of course personal identity issues abound.  A lot of the characters seem to be confident that one is "real" and the other is a "copy."  There's also a lot to think about with regard to war and its effect on society: does it hold us back, culturally, philosophically, scientifically?  I would like a little more treatment of these issues, which Baxter brings up but doesn't delve much into.  But then again there's a fine-to-nonexistent line between philosophy and all the super weird theoretical physics (this is something I say because it's true but also to annoy scientistic types).  In any case, your mind will get a workout trying to keep up with Baxter.  Be sure to stretch and drink plenty of fluids.

If you've read Baxter before, you have a pretty good idea what to expect from his brand of Big Ideas Hard SF.  If you want interesting, fleshed out characters in your science fiction, read Lois McMaster Bujold or Stephen King.  Baxter's characters are, as usual, really more vehicles for the ideas.  I tend to read SF for the ideas, so I'm okay with that.  Baxter is one of the best contemporary practitioners of Arthur C. Clarke-style Big Ideas SF working today, although the galactic empire stuff reminds me a lot of Asimov, too, especially the archetype of the bumbling professor with radical ideas.

So all in all, while I can't say I liked or enjoyed everything about this novel or that this is my favorite Stephen Baxter novel (that's probably either Evolution or Ultima), but there's enough of what I was hoping for from Baxter to keep me reading.  That stuff on the evolution of life in the early universe in particular will probably stick with me for awhile.

See my Goodreads review.

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber

As an academic myself, I can't say I disagreed with the main point of this book, but I also can't say it was Earth-shattering.  It was nice to read someone expressing concerns about corporatization and "busyness" in academia, though, at least for a sort of solidarity that might help moving forward.  I personally didn't get much from the time management or teaching chapters (I figured most of that out for myself in grad school), but there were a couple nice tips on research and collegiality.  But the real point of the book isn't to give tips, it's the sense of solidarity against the acids of business and "busyness" that have been corroding academia in recent decades.

The book does have some limitations.  Some reviews from academics in STEM fields complained that this book was too humanities-focused, which I find amusing because we humanities people are used to feeling left out.  When I'm faced with something obviously meant more for STEM fields (like interdisciplinary discussions or, increasingly, funding applications), I try to translate it into something that makes sense in the humanities.  STEM people might do the same with this book, but it definitely does come from a humanities perspective.

Also, this book is written by two English professors who have tenure, so a lot of what they say is probably more applicable to tenured professors who have a lot more freedom to slow down than untenured or contingent faculty, for whom slowing down may mean unemployment.

As others have noted, this book doesn't give solutions to the bigger problems of corporatization, although it doesn't claim to.  Still, one wonders if it's too late, if the by-gone era of leisurely chats with colleagues in the hall and humane teaching and research loads is gone forever.  I sincerely hope this is not the case, but I fear that it is.

See my Goodreads review.

Cosmonaut Keep by Ken MacLeod

I'm almost out of Iain M. Banks SF to read, so I thought I'd move on to his friend Ken MacLeod.  MacLeod isn't the genius Banks was, but this is entertaining and interesting enough.  I would have liked a lot more development and explanation of a lot of aspects of the plot and setting and I honestly could have done without most of the "romance" (or at least it could have been done much better), but there's enough cool stuff to keep me interested: a far future Epicurean quasi-religion (which I find interesting because I've always thought that if Epicureanism has survived to modern times we'd call it a religion), dinosaur hunting, aliens, microorganism "gods" that control the universe, political/economic intrigue, and let's not forget: Area 51.

I enjoyed the alternating plot strands more than I thought I would (I was in the mood for far future space opera, but the near future storyline was interesting, too).  I suppose that a lot of things feel under-explained is purposive, since this is the first book in a series.  I might pick up the next one to see where it all goes.

See my Goodreads review.

Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon, edited by Sydney Perkowitz and Eddie von Mueller

An anthology that celebrates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with pieces on the novel, the various film adaptations (including an interview with Mel Brooks), the larger cultural impact, and some contemporary ethical and scientific issues.  I would've liked to see more on philosophy (I may be biased here), but otherwise this is a a nice overview of the novel and its tremendous influence over the last 200 years.

Note: I read this to prepare for teaching Frankenstein in my class on philosophy and horror.

See my Goodreads review.

So, there you have it!  Stay tuned for my Stephen King review of reviews coming soon!

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