Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review of Reviews: Cloud Atlas, Perdido Street Station, Sisterhood of Dune, Classical Indian Philosophy

This is my second Review of Reviews (see the first one here).  Here are short reviews of four books I've read recently.  Enjoy!

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Since I saw the Wachowskis' movie version a few months ago (which I reviewed), I've really been wanting to read this.  I'm glad I did.  While the book and the movie have roughly the same six stories in different genres (historical fiction, crime thriller, science fiction, etc.), the book and the movie are different, but equally worthwhile, experiences.  

The structure of the book is one of the most remarkable things about it.  I compare reading the six interrelated narratives to moving through a series of concentric spheres from the outside through the center to the other side.

The Big Idea behind it all has to do with the question of whether humans are doomed to domination and slavery or whether we might aspire to something better in our social relations.  In the last few pages a character writes, "... one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.  Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost.  In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction" (p. 508).  The character's father calls him naïve for becoming an Abolitionist (this particular story takes place around 1850), saying "your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!"  To which Ewing replies, "Yet what is any ocean but multitude of drops?" (p. 509).

Cloud Atlas is a beautiful novel in that it encourages readers to ask themselves: to which tide in the ocean of humanity does my drop of individuality belong?

Rating: 96/100.  See my Goodreads review for more.

I read and didn't love Miéville's Embassytown.  I didn't think it worked as science fiction, although it had some cool ideas.  Apparently, Perdido Street Station is the kind of thing he's known for and I felt like something weird, so I thought I'd try it out.

This is a hard book to categorize.  It has elements of steampunk and urban fantasy, but without what I find so gimmicky about those genres.  Miéville obviously owes a lot to Lovecraft (and to the eldritch corners of his thesauri), but it's not quite as cosmic.  Miéville is at the vanguard of what is called "New Weird," which is apt.  This book is pretty weird, but in a mostly awesome way (although it does drag on a bit longer than it had to).

Rating: 87/100  See my Goodreads review.

I love the original Dune series by Frank Herbert.  Yes, all six of them.  See my reviews of the classic Dune and my second favorite in the series, God Emperor of Dune.  I also recommend the book Dune and Philosophy: Weirding Way of the Mentat.

If you've been to the science fiction section of a library or bookstore in the last ten years, you may have noticed these latter day Dune books by Frank Herbert's son Brian and author Kevin J. Anderson, written decades after Frank Herbert's death in 1986.  These "expanded universe" Dune books are controversial among fans of the original series.  Some fans call them "McDune" on account of subpar writing, weak characterization, plodding plots, etc.  I mostly agree with this assessment - these are a far cry from Frank Herbert.  

But here's the thing: sometimes McDonald's hits the spot even though - and precisely because - you know it's not really good (my fast food poison of choice happens to be Taco Bell, but the basic phenomenon is the same).  If you love the Dune universe and you can accept that these books are not really even trying to be as good as Frank Herbert, you just might like this.

Rating: 75/100.  See my Goodreads review for more.

And now to end with some regular philosophy.

In teaching a survey course on Indian philosophy, I was looking for something newer than the old Radhakrishnan and Moore Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, which was originally published in the 1950's.  Sarma's book is newer (published in 2011), but I'm not sure it's better overall.  I appreciate that Sarma structures the book as a modern day doxography (like the classical text, Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha - Collection of All Philosophies), but it could have used more context and perhaps more careful editing of the translations used. 

Rating: 78/100.  See my Goodreads review for more details.


  1. Thank you, Ethan, I read the review of Sarma's book here and at Goodreads and it is quite useful to get an idea of what is going on in the book. A real "honest review", as every one should be:-)

  2. Thank you, Elisa. I thought I would try the book in class. It does have its good points, but I think we still need an adequate replacement for the Radhakrishnan and Moore anthology. Maybe someday the contributors to the Indian Philosophy Blog will create one!