...Prove Their Worth...

"Problems worthy of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back." - Piet Hein

A kind of running diary and rambling pieces on my struggles with assorted books, classes, and other things, as they happen. You must be pretty bored to be reading this...

Sunday, September 22, 2002

So. It's been a while. Long story. But not one I'll be talking about this time.

I've seen Mr. Thumpy twice in the interregnum. He ran off swiftly both times - but that's normal. I've also learned a lot of new words. (No, 'interregnum' isn't one of them, I've had that one in my repertoire for a while, waiting for a chance to whip it out.) Unfortunately, I only recall one of them at the moment: 'arras'. This means 'wall hanging or tapestry.' As in, "I hid my fat arse behind the crass arras." I have learned these words from a book that I'm reading. Now, not to toot my own horn too much, but it is rare that I happen to find a book which utterly obliterates what feelings of self-worth I have when it comes to English vocabulary. Well, John Clute's Appleseed does so, and then dances on the ashes. But what a breathtaking dance...

I'm only about a third of the way in, but I can already recommend it, highly. If you read the Amazon.com reviews, you'll find that people seem to either love or hate this book. The ones that hate it seem to mainly complain about a) vocabulary and b) lack of plot. The latter assertion is bollocks. The plot is there, in spades. It's just that if your vocabulary isn't up to snuff and/or you don't wish to hit the dictionary and/or you're easily flustered by a barrage of obscure words that seem to be gratuitous (but are actually just right, once you look them up) then you're not likely to follow the plot.

(Well, ok, there's a review there that liked the book and the vocab and still thought it was thin on plot - but I disagree. I love the guy's description of it, though: "the outrageous lovechild of a menage a trois between Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks and the Oxford English Dictionary".)

Clute manages to set up image after glowing image, layer upon layer of allusion, until it all starts boiling in your head, and you go from cursing his erudite show-off arse to bugging your eyes out and trying to hang on for the ride. I recommend it.

Anyway, enough of the purple prose. There are potential reasons to avoid the book. First is, as I have said, vocabulary. For me, it has been extremely challenging. Not unlike reading a really, really good technical text in terms of difficulty, but it is a far more visceral thrill. I, at least, have gotten to the point where I just 'go with the flow' where I don't understand some of the words in a sentence - most of the time, it works out. Sometimes I have to double back and cogitate, or hit a dictionary. So, unless you are really confident about your command of English vocabulary and/or aren't looking for a workout, don't ignore this: it is a potential fun-killer, as those negative amazon reviews show.

Another reason is that John Clute wrote it. John Clute is the author of the canonical science fiction encyclopedia. He really, really knows the genre. He's a professional science fiction/fantasy critic and scholar (his review column* on SFW is fantastic). And this book is his first novel. There are allusions within allusions in Appleseed. Even the warts have allusions. I don't think this is a fun-killer, as the vocab issue can be - if you don't see the allusions, it's no big deal, they're powdered sugar on the cake, as it were. I suspect I'm missing most of them. But this might not be the best SF book to read if you've never read SF before.

With all that said, hit your local library or bookstore and check it out. I'll probably have more to say about it once I'm further into it.

Appleseed also happens to be that very rare case of a science fiction book with a Cover That Does Not Suck. Nay, this is a Cover That Rocks (see above link). I had thought this was an all but mythical beast, but here it is. Uh-oh. Rant coming on...

I'm twenty two years old. I may be a loser extraordinaire, but I don't fucking want to flaunt it. Beeing seen with most science fiction or fantasy books is flaunting it. Just who are these things being targeted towards? I don't want pictures of fucking half-naked vixens on the cover. When I want pictures of half-naked (or fully naked, for that matter) fucking vixens, I'll jump on the bloody information superhighway, thank you very much. I also don't want pictures of strapping young half-naked bucks on the cover, whether they are rescuing the aforementioned vixens, sexing them, or just striking a heroic pose. I don't want pictures of tentacled hell beasts fondling said vixens, or cheesy mid-90s-quality rendered pictures of implausible-looking guns-n-FutureCities-n-spaceships on the bloody covers. In short, I don't want to walk around with a book with a cover that screams "I am a sexually bewildered twelve year old boy in the throes of early pubescence, and/or a twenty-two year old loser who is mentally twelve".

In the peachy-keen word of platitudes, I'm not supposed to "care what other people think." Fuck that. When the day comes when what other people think of me stops having rather direct effects on my life and prospects, I'll stop caring. Until then, it's one of the dumbest platitudes I know. It works if you're Dick Feynman. Otherwise, you don't get away with it.

And people wonder why there are fewer women/girls reading science-fiction than boys/men, and often taped-eyeglasses-nerds (Represent!) at that? Gee. I wonder. Could it possibly fucking have to do with the fact that the overwhelming majority of SF books seem squarely targeted at the twelve-year-old-loser-boy demographic? Or, to put it more accurately, their marketing, the things everyone sees first - the bloody covers - are.

The sad thing is, the covers don't have anything whatsoever to do with the book, often. Grr. That is a rant for another day.

In other news, I'm beating my head against a corrugated wall, self-study-wise. I'm making progress, but right now, it's Count of Monte Christo style. Slow.

I'm having a lot of trouble with tensor products of representations. (Or of anything, for that matter.) Turns out if you tensor product-ise two irreducible complex one-dimensional representations of U(1) (i.e., the unitary group in one dimension), you get another 1-dim complex irreducible representation of U(1). Which is strange. Because the idea was, I'd thought, that 'tensor products' are a way of making large representations from smaller ones. And 'irreducible' representation seems to be sort of the bloody definition of 'small', in context. Then again, I see glimmers of ways of why it might all make sense...

I'm tired. To infinity and beyond! (Well, a bit of a quick net-news-browse followed by bedtime, but whatever.)

* - Take the linked review of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, for instance. Who else is going to pull off a literary review of a children's book full of stuff about memes, Friedrich Nietzche, the virtues of being a cow, and the salutary effects of getting high, and find a way to use the word 'cloaca' in the process? Whee!


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