Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Read Log, April-December 2023
By Tal Cohen Monday, 01 January 2024
The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Translation into English Verse, Introduction, Synopsis, and Notes by Kimon Friar. Kazantzakis will forever be remembered as the author of Zorba the Greek, but he probably viewed this volume as his most important work. It is, as the title says, a sequel to The Odyssey, so I thought it fit to read this after consuming three translations of the original.
      There are very clear allegories to the Biblical story of Moses, but the author also gives Odysseus some sort of Hemingwayian masculinity. The text in general is extremely sexist, objectifying women mostly as a need for men (“our deepest outcries are bread, women, God, and Death”), repeatedly highlighting their “spreading, always hungering, loins.”
      While the original text relies heavily on rare Greek vernacular from various fishing communities (in the original, the author includes a lexicon), the translation is sometimes a bit too distant from the culture it depicts, using, e.g., American vernacular (phrases like “once upon a time---and that’s the low-down truth--- / seven ripsnorters, ...”, or “We’ve had a giddy shindig, lads, a rousing, bang-up time”).
      Overall, this was a very challenging read (much longer than The Odyssey, much less humoristic, much more complicated), and I am, to be honest, not sure it was worth the effort.

The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses: The 1922 Text with Essays and Notes by James Joyce, edited by Catherine Flynn. Yes, well. If we’re following The Odyssey, then let’s do it properly, shall we? It was only natural to proceed with Ulysses. However, I’m not sure this was a good choice of edition. The commentary is invaluable, but the text is based on the original, out-of-copyright print, whereas the comments, line numbering, etc. refer to the much more accepted “corrected text” edition published by Hans Walter Gabler in 1986. The Cambridge edition has disappointing editorial quality. Too many typos, inaccurate copying of sequences to the bottom (for the sake of annotation), annotations being out-of-sequence (which is very confusing, given that they are not marked in the main text), etc.
      Did I say A Modern Sequel was a challenging read? Huh. But in this case, it was definitely worth it.

Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman. While the annotations in The Cambridge Centenary edition were useful, they do not rise to the level of detail presented in this volume (which does not include the text of Ulysses itself). While many of the notes presented here are annoying details that I hardly cared about (“Mr So-and-so was indeed a tailor in Dublin in 1904,” and suchlike; not to mention the repeated phrasing, “Mr So-and-so: not known outside of current context” or, in other words, “We have nothing to say about this.”), other parts were extremely useful for understanding the text.

James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study by Stuart Gilbert. A few interesting insights and notes, but all in all, does not add much to my understanding of the book. This volume was first published in 1930, when Ulysses itself was still banned in the US, and therefore quotes heavily from the text, under the assumption that some readers are unable to obtain the book. I’d estimate that about 15-20% of the text is quotes from Joyce, sometimes more than a page long.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Read mostly as context for Ulysses.

The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu: including The Three-Body Problem (translated by Ken Liu), The Dark Forest (translated by Joel Martinsen), and Death’s End (Ken Liu again).
      Overall, this entire trilogy, starting from the first volume, was a disappointment. I was told this is “different” SF because it’s Chinese, but in fact it is very much in the tradition of classical SF. The idea of a computer game through which alien intelligence communicates with us appears, for example, in Ender’s Game and its sequels. The tri-solar world and its effect on civilization, including the cyclical crumbling of civilization, appears in Asimov’s Nightfall (and the book, in fact, references Asimov, although in a different context). Cyclic civilizations appear also in, e.g., The Mote in God’s Eye. Using nanomaterial wire (“Flying Blade”) as an invisible weapon appeared, e.g., in Stand on Zanzibar. The problem of the Starship Earth’s fleet (in The Dark Forest) not having enough resources, so somebody has to die, is clearly based on Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations. The concept of dehydration/rehydration in the game, though, is strikingly original, I believe; a mode of cryogenic sleep that does not require technology. But this was also what made me suspect that the Trisolars are... tardigrades, or tardigrade-like. This also explains their ability to survive extreme heat and cold.
      The science in the series is... sub-par. This starts with simple things; for example, after the in-game Von Neumann shows the emperor how three soldiers can function as a logic gate, he further explains that he needs 30 million soldiers to build 10 million gates. But the output of some gates will be the input of others; and gates can also share inputs. With 30 million soldiers, you could build far more than 10 million gates (depending on the specific configuration). In The Dark Forest, Zhang Beihai fakes a “meteor shower” accident by shooting people in space using bullets fabricated from meteorite material. But he’s floating in space, in his spacesuit, when firing some 30 bullets to make the killing. He “felt the recoil,” but... it had no effect? The first shot didn’t send him spinning? Who killed physics?
      There are other examples, but all of this is dwarfed, of course, in comparison to the whole concept of “reducing dimensionality.” The whole creation of the “sophon” computers is nonsensical, not to mention the plot of the whole third volume. The whole four-dimensional bubble story... I mean, how do human eyes even work there? How do they focus and see “into” things? Not to mention the question of how do human brains interpret what they see. And how about human brains (as well as electronics) working just fine when the speed of light is slowed down?
      But given that the sophons exist, there is no good reason whatsoever to believe that the Trisolars would send the explanation about them to their Earthly supporters. There is a lousy attempt to explain this in The Dark Forest, where we find out that the Trisolars “think aloud,” meaning they can’t hold secrets. This doesn’t hold water, because the Trisolars can hold secrets, as shown, for example, the interrogation of the Trisolar who sent the “Do not reply” message; they would have preferred choosing not to reveal that, so why do they choose to reveal their tactics? The very fact that the sophon itself was designed to hamper scientific progress by misleading and confusing indicates that they are aware of, and use tactics of, deceit. And so, again, revealing the whole plan made zero sense (“We’re going to slow your progress by lying to you! And here is how we’ll do it!”). In Death’s End we find another example of the nonsense of not being able to hide thought: in the tea ceremony, “Cheng Xin understood very well what was meant but not said” — and it was deceit.
      Decision-making by characters is flawed; it is even worse when examined at the level of society, both on Earth and by the aliens. The Trisolarian droplet is an amazing piece of technology; it defies everything we currently know about engineering (both its structure and its ability to maneuver in space). The technology is so amazing, in fact, that it seems hard to believe that its makers could not have solved their own environmental problems (by, e.g., creating a fully climate-controlled environment on their planet). It is also not clear why, given their tech level, it takes them 400 years to cover four light-years: accelerating in 1g to 0.1c would take slightly over a month; total travel should take about 40 years. And 1g is presumably a comfortable environment for them, since otherwise Earth wouldn’t have been a valid destination for their trip. And from the side of humans, the huge 2,000 ship formation (the entire space fleet!) present at the capture of the “droplet” makes absolutely zero sense, when “welcoming” an unknown alien artifact. Even at this small weight, this could have been an unknown weapon, for example. Human society decisions are unrealistic in other aspects, too; how come the reaction on Earth (which includes several movements and theories, listed in detail by the author) doesn’t include a “Samson’s Choice,” an anti-environmentalism movement that aims to literally burn the Earth before the Trisolars arrive? (This comes up as a very late notion, decades after, and is only mentioned briefly.) And also, how come there are no disbelievers, conspiracy theorists who claim this is all just a huge lie?
      Generally speaking, there is an underestimate of the intelligence of the human population. The fact that nobody understood how Lou Ji’s “spell” on that random star, for example, worked is pathetic; humanity as a collection of idiots. In reality, the notion of “the dark forest” (though not using this name) has been known for years, with scientists (in reality) begging governments to avoid sending strong signals to space for this very reason.
      Style-wise, the amount of “tell, don’t show” in the first volume is appropriate for SF from the 60s and 70s, not modern SF. This begins with small examples (characters talking between themselves and repeating what, for them, should be obvious, just for the benefit of the reader) and evolves into whole lectures (e.g., in the ETO convention). Multiple characters are introduced by telling their (detailed, long, well-told) story to others; and so on. This is somewhat improved in the second and third volumes, but they switch to an equally dated style of an all-knowing storyteller, rarely sticking to a given character’s point of view.
      All in all, it takes Cheng Xin 18,903,729 years (plus six centuries) to understand that “she was but a mote of dust in a grand wind, a small leaf drifting over a broad river.” Truly, they should listen to more 70s progressive rock.

Venomous Lumpsucker by Ned Beauman. Finally, high-quality and highly enjoyable science fiction! This book is a great parody on carbon offsets, through the notion of “extinction credits.” Made me laugh out loud more than once. The plot does lose credibility in the final chapter or two, but given that this is a parody, that’s probably not a big deal. I’m not going to say much about it here, except: if you love SF, or if you want a good parody of modern economics, you should probably read this book.

The Argonautika by Apollonios Rhodios; translated, with introduction, commentary and glossary by Peter Green. The text, according to Green, presents an anti-hero story; rather than one hero leading the narrative, the point is about success as a group. It is not by mere chance that Herakles (the hero) is left behind: he alone could have made the trip too easy. Green also claims that the text of The Argonautika is a parody, or criticism, on the old heroic epics, deconstructing the world of ancient heroic myth.
      This was a fun and interesting read; but make sure you read the text first and the introduction afterwards, unless you’re an academic focused on this work.

Understanding dBASE III PLUS by Alan Simpson. A reread. Don’t ask.

Programmer’s Primer for FORTRAN Automatic Coding System for the IBM 704 by Grace E. Mitchell. (Mitchell’s name is not mentioned anywhere in the book; her credit is based on a mention in the book Code Nation by Michael Halvorson.) A fascinating read about the first commercial compiler in history. While the book discusses the language, I was reviewing it from the compiler-writers’ point of view, and gained many interesting insights.

Game Engine Black Book: Wolfenstein 3D and Game Engine Black Book: DOOM, by Fabien Sanglard. Horrible typesetting, numerous English mistakes, and such a fun read. It was fun to understand the Wolfenstein 3D algorithm (the DOOM one was too much for me; it’s been too many years since I’ve dealt with this kind of math); and I loved the way the author modified the program source to highlight some examples (such as the need to address the fisheye effect).

The Transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius, translated by Robert Graves. Amusing.

The Oresteia by Aeschylus, translated by Oliver Taplin. That makes the fourth translation of this trilogy that I’ve read. It’s good, but not the best.

Molora by Yaël Farber. A play, retelling of The Oresteia, set in modern South Africa.

The Man Who Created Zorba: Kazantzakis’ Work and Struggle, by Mordechai Avishay (Hebrew). A very short book that focuses on Zorba more than any other part of Kazantzakis’ work, and with too much attention to Kazantzakis’ (positive) attitude towards Jews and the State of Israel.

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Read following a mention in Eli Bendersky’s read log, plus a recommendation from a personal friend, both of which I could not resist after having read Farmer’s To Repair the World (gifted to be by that same friend) in 2022, and given my old love for Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. This was an enjoyable read but I would still recommend Farmer’s own writing (specifically, To Repair the World) as an introduction to his world-view and life’s work. The man, for me, is a legend. Kidder’s bibliography includes nine pages (!) listing Farmer’s publications, including six books and dozens of book articles, as of May 2003 (and he lived for nearly 19 more years); so it could very well be that other volumes of his work could be even better than the single one I’ve read.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander; volume one of the Chronicles of Prydain. Even as a children’s book, this was disappointing, and way too clearly influenced by The Lord of the Rings.

The Mysteries by Bill Watterson (yes, that Bill Watterson) and John Kascht. Disappointing. A childish tale with a shallow morale (unless, of course, it all flew over my head). The illustrations, though, are beautiful.

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson. Overall, a very good translation. I’m not sensitive enough to capture the nuances of the English meter; but the text is flowing and easy to read, and the choice of changing the line-count allows her to keep all information without ending up with long and complex lines (as Green seems to have done, for example). This is in contradiction to her Odyssey, where she chose to keep the same line-count “because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop”. Likewise, her choice of using repeated phrases, claiming “It seemed to me essential to provide the reader or listener with a sense of the repetitive qualities of Homeric poetics, and I have used many repeated phrases to echo those of the original. These may seem alien at first, but after a few instances, they can serve to orient any listener in the poem’s world”, is in direct contrast to her approach in The Odyssey, where she wrote that “In a highly literate society such as our own, repetitions are likely to feel like moments to skip. They can be a mark of writerly laziness [...] and can send a reader to sleep.” I prefer her choice in the current work. (See here for my notes on her translation of The Odyssey.)

All the World’s a Stage by Boris Akunin, translated from Russian to Hebrew by Yigal Liverant. Volume 12 in the Erast Fandorin series, and not the best of them.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann. I was gifted this book by a colleague of native American descent. Alongside Ackerman’s Boss Tweed, which I’ve read back in 2014, this exposes the thin, thin layer of culture on top of the deeply wild and corrupt modern society that we live in.

From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming. For some reason, The Folio Society decided to drop the comma from the book’s title. It’s interesting that Fleming intended to have Bond killed before he published the next novel in the series, which ended up as the basis for the first movie. Also, Fleming’s blatant racism (against Turks, in this case) is jarring.

A History of the Hellenistic World by David Golan (Hebrew). 787 pages (plus appendices) of, for the most part, the Greek cities fighting each other rather than realizing the power they could have if they unite; if only they had a counter-example. Oh, wait, that’s what the first chapter, the history of Alexander the Great, is all about.

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