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Mon, 3 Aug 2009

July 2009 in books

Some of these reviews can also be found on Amazon.

In July 2009 I read the following books:

1. The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins

I was surprised when I realised that I hadn't actually read this. I wish I still hadn't. It is tediously repetitive - for example, at the beginning of chapter 10 he says " This book is mainly about evolution as the solution of the complex 'design' problem; evolution as the true explanation for the phenomena that [William] Paley thought proved the existence of a divine watchmaker. This is why I keep going on about eyes and echo-location. " We already knew from the first few pages what the book was about! But not only does each chapter repeat stuff from previous chapters, each chapter also repeats stuff from earlier in the chapter. The editor was obviously asleep when this manuscript came in. Thankfully, it's not a very important book so you don't have to read it. The same author's "Climbing Mount Improbable" is a much better-written exposition of the same subject matter.

2. Utopia, by Thomas More (trans from the Latin by Paul Turnet)

This short story is, depending on who you ask, an early Communist manifesto, or a Catholic apology, or a veiled criticism of domestic English politics, or ... well, just about anything really. Arguments for and against some of these are well-covered in the very accessible introduction, along with a brief portrait of the man himself - he looks like a jolly interesting (if occasionally barking mad) chap, so I shall have to look for a full biography.

The work itself was influential enough to give its name (which means "No [such] place") to a genre - utopian works these days are those that purport to describe a perfect happy society. They are sometimes self-contradictory, usually fanciful, often ridiculous, and always betray the author's prejudices. The grandfather of them all has all of these flaws in spades.

It's particularly interesting that while More was executed for opposing Henry VIII's split with Rome, and was even declared a martyr and saint by the Roman church, that quite early in the book there are some strident condemnations of Catholic practice - " most of [Christ's] teaching is far more at variance with modern conventions than anything I suggested, except in so far as his doctrines have been modified by ingenious teachers, doubtless on [the church hierarchy's] recommendation " for example. Or when analysing who actually does the work that keeps society running, he lists amongst the lazy " all the priests and members of religious orders ", who do nothing to produce what is needed for a comfortable life. And that last clause is Saint Thomas More speaking, not me.

In his description of the physical and political setup of Utopia, who does what work, the Utopians relations with their neighbours and so on, More's vision is, if admittedly ridiculous and putting (just like most socialist and christian writers) far too much faith in human nature, but it is at least fairly consistent.

But the Utopians' social structure and religious outlook are contradictory. Much is made of their placing high value on human life and that all people are equal. But on the other hand, women are subservient to men and must confess their sins to their husbands. And More makes the very surprising mistake (surprising in that such an obviously intelligent person would make it even though it was a common fallacy of his time and indeed still is among certain contemporary morons) of assuming that atheists have no incentive to behave like decent people. According to him, because they lack the fear of eternal damnation, atheists will look out solely for themselves and ruthlessly exploit everyone else for their own pleasure, and that this is a Bad Thing. This is obviously false. Being nice to people is pleasurable even when the recipient of your grace is a stranger. Additionally, being nice to people means that people will be kindly disposed to you and behave decently towards you in turn - being a nice person generates its own worldly reward.

Of course, in all that I'm sure I'm just as guilty as those I mentioned in the first paragraph, and have simply read my own prejudices into More's words. I invite you to do the same and commend this book to you.

Let me also commend this book as an instruction manual to the scoundrels who lurk in Parliament and the Inns of Court. More's ideal society believes that the entire set of laws and regulations of a society must be short and clear enough to be readable and comprehensible in toto to a normal person, and that normal people should represent themselves in court. In fact, there are no lawyers at all.

3. The Misplaced Legion, by Harry Turtledove

This is a delightfully silly romp, much as one would expect from Turtledove. The premise is absurd, but once that's over and done with the tale is enjoyable, if also lacking in any merit whatsoever. But who cares? I certainly don't.

4. An Emperor for the Legion, by Harry Turtledove

Not as well-formed as the previous work, this doesn't feel like a single novel, and while I am sure it makes a good bridge from the previous to the next volume in the series, it certainly doesn't work at all well on its own. And that's despite the short "What has gone before" at the beginning. That's something that more authors of series should write.

Posted at 08:22 by David Cantrell
keywords: books
Permalink | 1 Comment

Dawkins' "River out of Eden" covers much the same ground as the Blind Watchmaker (i.e. a general introduction to evolutionary theory and Dawkins' take on it), but always seemed to me to be a sharper, more accessible and more elegantly written book.

Posted by Costigan Quist on Sun, 2 Aug 2009 at 07:50:28

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