I just read Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Possibility of an Island. It was a mistake for me to do so. Given my literary tastes (Pynchon, Nabokov, Kafka, Borges, Cortázar, Calvino, DeLillo, etc.) I’ve long thought that Houellebecq would just my style but unfortunately, instead of reading what is likely a better Houellebecq novel, Elementary Particles, I picked up up The Possibility of an Island. On the surface, this book sounds great – a provocative, imaginative French writer does a sci-fi-ish, post-human, post-apocalyptic novel. What’s not to love?
Well, the tedious writing for one. While there are some good riffs in here, in general the flat prose is repetitive and tiring, executed with a light ponderosity that quickly becomes boring. I’ve got nothing against ‘novels of ideas’, but my experience is that a novel centered around ideas (as opposed to say, one focused on plot or character sketches) is generally a failure unless it also succeeds as art, because without art this kind of a novel typically is about as compelling as the classic dinner party bore who spends the whole evening droning on with poorly articulated banalities. Continue reading “Michel Houellebecq does post-apocalyptic clones”
Carl Zimmer is not just one of my favorite science writers, he’s also someone who is constantly experimenting with new ways to reach readers in the rapidly evolving online ecosystem. He’s got a short comment in Nature on eBooks (subscription required). What I find interesting is his enthusiasm for mini-books, or, if you’re a glass half-full kind of person, long-form essays (the writing of which is a rapidly disappearing art):
Continue reading “Carl Zimmer likes eBooks”
Just added to the stack: Wetware, by Dennis Bray. Bray has been a systems biologists at the University of Cambridge, since way back before they were calling people like him systems biologists. His papers have long inspired me, and I recently had the pleasure of conversing with him over lobster dinner at the Cold Spring Harbor Computational Cell Biology meeting earlier this year. (Yes, I lead a glamorous life.)
The blurb on the back of the book is exactly the question in biology that fascinates me more than any other:
How is a single-cell creature able to hunt living prey, respond to external stimuli, and display complex sequences of movements without the benefit of a nervous system?
Of course, this question does not just pertain to single-celled organisms. Think of the prey-hunting macrophages in your own body, or really any cell, whether it hunts or not – all cells sense and respond to their environments without nervous systems.
Stay tuned for updates on the book.
If you’re interested in the intersection between science and literature, you might be interested in my recent musings on Julio Cortázar’s book From the Observatory, recently published in English.
And even if you’re not interested in my musings, you should still check out the book.
Along with Gleick’s outstanding biography, Lawrence Krauss’ Quantum Man is now one of the essential Feynman books. While Gleick’s book is biography at its finest, Krauss’s is the best picture of Feynman’s position within the physics community, which is obviously something that could only be written by a serious physicist, like Krauss. Krauss, better than anyone else, has explained why Feynman was seen as a great scientist by physicists themselves, who are not the types to be swayed by the anecdotes that made Feynman popular with the public. Feynman was a great public communicator, and purposely developed a particular public persona, but his physics accomplishments were completely equal to his fame, as Krauss makes clear. I learned more about Feynman’s style of doing science (including its weaknesses of insularity) from this book than from any other.
So here’s how I would categorize the existing Feynman biographies: Continue reading “I can’t decide whether Quantum Man is the best Feynman biography”