Over the winter, I’ve gotten back into reading for pleasure, and specifically into genres that I hadn’t delved into since I was a teenager. Empire of Silence (see review here) was the first sci-fi/fantasy novel I read in many years, and since then I’ve picked up many more in quick succession. I don’t plan to write a review of every book I read, as that seems at odds with the whole reading for pleasure goal, but reviewing books that I particularly enjoyed would seem to strike a decent balance. With that said, here is a review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed…
Today I Am Carey is a story set in the near future. It concerns an android named Carey that is designed to assist terminally-ill patients who are suffering with dementia. It is able to comfort these patients because it contains two different neural networks that can work together: one that can empathize with the patient, and another that can emulate (as in physically become) friends and family, whether living or dead. In the first chapters of the story, Carey becomes whoever Mildred, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, asks for, whether it be her son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, or even her departed husband.
Normally a medical care android’s memory will be wiped after their patient dies, but Mildred’s family asks for Carey to stay on with them, a request that is granted because something is unique with it, and Carey’s designer wants to try to understand why. The story takes off from there.
If you’ve read any of Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, particularly Bicentennial Man (and the Robin Williams movie based off of it), you may recognize a similar theme at the beginning of Today I Am Carey: a robot/android that seems to be becoming almost human and the ethical and legal implications of that. But Today I Am Carey takes the story in a different direction, and in my opinion takes Asimov’s ideas into an entirely new realm of storytelling.
In Asimov’s robot stories, his Three Laws of Robotics prominently figure in just about every story. In the case of Bicentennial Man, the main issue is at what point a robot becomes physically human enough so that the Three Laws do not apply. In Today I Am Carey, there are some plot points that deal with Carey’s legal status, but the main thread of the story is more about its mental and emotional development towards becoming more human and how that affects the human characters in Carey’s life.
Although there are many ideas about artificial intelligence that Shoemaker explores throughout the book, Today I Am Carey also delves deeply into the human characters surrounding the protagonist. After all, what better narrator to use in a character-driven story than an android that has an empathy neural network? Carey, because of his unique construction, can infer things from its interactions that a human being would never be able to infer. I think that first-person narrative elevates the story from your standard exploration of ideas to something that every reader, not just those who enjoy science fiction, would enjoy and relate to.
Shoemaker’s prose is deceptively straight-forward. I still don’t know how he did it, but he was able to make a story narrated by an artificial intelligence in a matter-of-fact manner deliver powerful emotional impacts, even when you have an inkling that those impacts are coming. The ending ties the events of the story together in a way that was both perfectly appropriate and in a way I never saw coming.
Or in truth, an expansion of my previous review of the book. I originally reviewed this collection of Addie Joss’s newspaper writings at Let’s Go Tribe in 2013, and all of my comments back then still hold true, but I want to dive in a bit deeper now that I have the leisure to spend more time on it.
Addie Joss has been a fascinating player to me in part because there is so little information about him. He died suddenly in 1911 at age 31, while professional baseball was still growing into the national pastime it later became. Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, a ground-breaking collection of reminiscences by former players that sparked a rush to record the history of early baseball, was first published in 1966. By that time practically all of Joss’s immediate family were no longer alive. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978, but by that time, as Blevins writes in his preface, it was “almost like an afterthought.” His contributions had been recognized despite his brief career, but almost nothing of his personality could be passed down.
Joss was hired in 1906, without any previous writing experience, to be the Sunday edition sports editor of the Toledo News-Bee. Joss had moved to Toledo in 1900 when he signed with the Mud Hens, and still made the Northwest Ohio city his offseason home. The hiring was designed to help win readers over from the established Toledo Blade, and it paid off in spades. Joss not only wrote articles about baseball, but edited and wrote articles about other sports. That he was able to quickly learn a business he had no prior knowledge about was quite a feat, and that would lead to him writing a weekly column as well as covering covering three World Series (1907-1909) for the Cleveland Press. By the end of his brief writing career, he was known nationwide as not only a great pitcher, but also as a baseball columnist.
The collected columns are arranged thematically, not chronologically. There is a chapter about Joss’s personal friendships in baseball, one entirely about humorous incidents on and off the baseball diamond, and one on great feats and plays. There are sections devoted to dealing with fans, “inside baseball” (or would be called strategy today), the way baseball was played in the decades before his time, and his game reports from the 1907-1909 World Series. The collection ends with some columns about larger issues within the sport.
You get a sense of Joss’s generosity and good nature through some subtle touches in his columns. For example, the first column in this collection deals with his debut, made in 1902 against the St. Louis Browns. After a couple of innings, the Browns hurled a series of insults (“long legged toothpick,” “human sign post,” et. al) his way, then later gave him looks that “would have made a saint want to fight.” But it was all a test, and Joss passed with flying colors. Later, after the game, Emmet Heidrick of the Browns shook hands and congratulated him on the well-pitched game. Joss ends the column with “And from that day to this I have not had better friends than that same bunch of ball players, the St. Louis Browns.”
Some of that generosity is only learned once you learn the context, which is why Blevins’ annotations are so valuable. He wrote two columns about his friend Win Mercer, who committed suicide while on the 1902-03 barnstorming tour of the West: the first of which talks about Mercer’s career as a star pitcher and “matinee idol,” and the second of which is about the events that took place just before his death. There were allegations that Mercer attempted to steal the barnstormer’s pot to pay back gambling debts, but Joss, who was on the tour, recounts a more generous version of those events, in which the note to the hotel clerk to send the money was not written by Mercer but was a forgery.
Joss was a tall (6’3″), skinny (185 lbs) man with long arms, hence nicknames like the Human Hairpin and the other less generous ones noted above. His sidearm pitching motion, a delivery that hid the ball from hitters, his stuff, and impeccable control was why he was so successful as a pitcher, and Joss goes into some of these concepts in his columns, though never in a boastful fashion. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball by reading his columns. That even extends to the columns he wrote on his specific accomplishments, like his 1908 perfect game, in which he downplays as much as possible his role in it. Note the date from the article, which was one day after his masterpiece:
About the seventh inning I began to realize that not one of the [White] Sox had reached first base...I did not try for such a record. All I was doing was trying to beat Chicago, for the game meant much to us, and [Ed] Walsh was pitching the game of his life. (10-3-1908)
Although Joss was writing in a time that we now might think as the distant past, there are many columns that have just as much relevance today as they did back then. Witness this piece of introspection:
One constant worry to a ball player is the fear he has of losing the strength of his arm. A ball player's arm is a peculiar thing. There is never any way of telling when it is liable to go back on him. (12-9-1908)
The section on “inside baseball” also has many timeless baseball thoughts. For instance:
Numberless instances could be related by all players who have been playing the game for any length of time, but they would only tend to strengthen the opinion that luck is an essential factor in a team's pennant aspirations (1-27-1907).
One thing that has changed considerably since the first decade of the 20th century are the baseball terms used, and that did take some getting used to. Joss uses “twirler” often in place of “pitcher” and “sphere” as often as he uses “ball,” and though at first those terms seemed rather bizarre and forced, after a while they started to become familiar, and I could begin to understand why they were so popular. Heck, I’ll probably start referring to pitchers as twirlers here and there just to liven things up.
Joss loved to relate humorous anecdotes in his columns, including one about how Connie Mack once had to resort to tricking Rube Wadell (who was famous for being…um…eccentric) to stop throwing his “slow ball” back when they were both in Milwaukee:
Mack realizing the probable result became desperate and leaving the bench went over to a policeman on the bleachers and held a whispered conversation with him....
.....Just as the big fellow was winding up to pitch the next one, a fog horn voice shouted: "Get out of there you big stiff, you're all in! You've lost your arm."
You can well guess how Rube responded to this heckle, which played right into Mack’s hands.
Joss stopped writing for the News-Bee in early 1909, instead choosing to spend his winters running a pool hall and singing in a vaudeville quartet. He still would pop by his old workplace from time to time, and that he was still beloved by his former co-workers is evident by the way the paper covered his death.
Toledo people will feel a keener loss, for they knew Joss as a man and a citizen and knew nothing but good of him. His personal friends will long miss the ready smile, the kindly word, the cheerful optimism that were his constant companions and made his company a delight. He was a big man, mentally, morally, professionally. (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 8)
Tributes also poured in from around baseball, one of which captures exactly the impression that I got from reading his columns:
"He was studious and ambitious and serious, but when I say serious I do not mean sober, for had that rare and divine gift, a sense of humor. He was always cheerful. He seemed always to have some good news for you. He never whimpered or complained; he could smile even over the injury to his right arm last season - the arm that meant so much to him." - Brand Whitlock (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 1)
His teammates threatened a strike if their game in Detroit was not postponed so that they could attend his funeral in Toledo. And there was the proto-All Star game held in Cleveland later that year to raise money for his widow, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself.
There are biographical profiles on Joss, such as the one in the Deadball Stars of the American League, and there is one full-length biography of Joss available (Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers). But this collection of columns is the closest we’re going to get to any sort of understanding about Joss the person, as it’s written in his own words. Blevins writes in his preface:
I like to think Addie's baseball writing as our own direct line to one of Cooperstown's most disappeared inductees. The extant articles are Addie's first-person observations of the game and its players, many of them baseball immortals and most of them his good friends, from the first decade of the American League.
Back in my high school days, which was more decades ago than I’d care to admit, I was a regular at the tiny Waldenbooks at my hometown mall. I worked a couple doors down at a soon-to-be defunct department store, and so spent a portion of my new-found riches on books, particularly in the science fiction section (which consisted of one shelf). It was there I discovered Dune, Hyperion, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Asimov’s space and robot stories, among others. But that was the last time I spent a considerable amount of my reading attention on that genre, so take what follows with that in mind.
Spoiler-Free Review (may add a spoilertastic addendum in the future)
Empire of Silence (the first in a multi-volume series) takes place in a far future in which humanity has expanded into a considerable portion of the Milky Way. There are several polities in inhabited space, the largest of which is the Sollan Empire. This Empire and its war with an alien species is the backdrop for the events of the book.
The narrator begins his tale with a rather unendearing statement: it was he that destroyed a star, and with it billions of lives. In his advanced age, he is known as both a hero and a villain, and as he assumes the reader knows the basic history of the major events he was involved in, he is content to tell us the story of his life instead, beginning with his formative years. So while this book fits very comfortably into the space opera subgenre, it does not flit between characters and places willy-nilly. The only places you visit in Empire of Silence are the places that the narrator visits, which may seem like it narrows the scope too much, but I appreciated that by the end of the volume.
The narrator, Hadrian Marlowe, is born a noble (or palatine, to use the book’s parlance), a potential heir to a prefecture within a planetary duchy (there are a quarter-billion inhabited planets in the Empire). But while on the surface this minor fiefdom wouldn’t seem to be that important in terms of the Empire itself, this prefecture controls a rich source of uranium, the fuel that drives interplanetary vessels, and as the Empire is in the midst of a bloody war with the Cielcin, the only other advanced species in the galaxy, the control over the prefecture and therefore the uranium is an important goal for the various palatine houses of the Empire.
Empire of Silence delves into this complex political environment in its first section (almost a prologue), and during it you’ll be tempted to thumb your way to the appendices often, trying to wrap your mind around the all the players, the positions, and the relationships among the palatine of House Marlowe. There is a lot of world building throughout the book, especially in the first section, but it never ceased to be boring, as it was embedded in the story and characters, almost never force-fed to the reader via long info-dumps of dialogue within the story. For those who want to fully and quickly grasp the world the book takes place in, the appendices will serve that purpose, but you can also get that sense of the world gradually by ignoring the appendices and just reading the book itself. After finishing the book I read through the appendices in detail, and found that very little of what I gleaned through context differed from canon.
But at its heart Empire of Silence is a character-driven story, dealing with Hadrian’s conflicts with the world around him and, more importantly, within himself. Although this tale is set in the far future, with all the biological and technological changes that come with it, the dilemmas Hadrian faces are very familiar ones. The yearning for freedom in a strict hierarchical society, the question of whether duty should override ones personal moral code, and if one’s honor should override the optimal political strategy are questions that people have asked throughout history. Even the world itself, while on the surface completely alien, contains many echoes from past and present civilizations, be they names, concepts, or even government types.
This being book one in a series, many plot-related things are not explained. That goes with the territory, though I would have liked to have had one “section transition” (euphemism to avoid spoilers) be a bit less jarring. Thankfully, the second book in the series, along with a stand-alone novella, will be released soon, so perhaps some details will be forthcoming there. As for the other unknowns, be they related to the mystery hinted at towards the end of the book, or the other details of the world of the series, I’m more than happy to let those be slowly revealed as the series progresses.
If you couldn’t tell by now, I enjoyed this book. There were some spots that dragged a bit, and as mentioned above, some of the transitions were more abrupt than they needed to be. But I adored the world-building, and can’t wait to dive into future stories.
Original Language: Latin
Written: 29-19 BC
Edition: Penguin Classics (1956)
Translator: W.F. Jackson Knight
Widely considered one of the pillars of Western Literature, the Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who escapes the sack of Troy and finds a new home in Italy. He is sidetracked often on his journey, mostly by divine intervention. Virgil portrays the Roman gods as interested in mankind, and each god or goddess has their favorite. Aeneas’ nemesis is Juno, who was for the Greeks in the Trojan War; she delays or hinders his travels many times. When Aeneas and his followers finally arrive in Italy, they becomes embroiled (thanks to the design of Juno) in a bloody conflict between the Trojans and the Rutulians, headed by Turnus. The last six books of the Aeineid resembles the Iliad with its descriptions of battle and conflict.
Virgil died before completing the Aeneid, but even so, it is a masterpiece of literature. If you have any designs of reading the best of ancient literature, this is one work you cannot miss. The edition I read contains a very nice prose translation by Knight, and also contains a very helpful glossary of names and locations. Obviously the best reading of the Aeneid will come in Latin, where Virgil’s poetic genius truly shines, but I like the prose translation mainly because the translator was not bound by the limitations of a verse translation.
Original Language: English Published: 1899-1900 (in serial form) Genre: Fiction Edition: Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (1986); includes an Introduction written by Cedric Watts, as well as notes, a glossary, a timeline concerning the events of the novel, and a map of Southeast Asia Pages: 307
That Joseph Conrad is recognized as one of the 20th Century’s best authors is quite an achievement, given that English was not his native tongue. His first language was Polish, and his second was French, but to readers of the English language, we are fortunate indeed that he chose to write in his third language. Lord Jim is on the surface a tale of adventure, but lurking not far beneath is a character study that delves deep into the mind of its young protagonist, Jim.
The telling of the story is not linear; that is to say; we learn facets of Jim’s life in bits, skipping time and place. Furthermore, most of Jim’s story is told by Marlowe, his confidant and friend, who also makes appearances in several other of Conrad’s works (including Heart of Darkness). So suffice to say, you may be confused at several points in the reading, but I believe that this method makes the novel much more interesting and thought-provoking; I simply can’t imagine Lord Jim being as effective if it was written in a linear fashion. We start with a view of a simple water-clerk, and over the next 300 or so pages learn bits about his compelling experiences along the way, and are so deftly let into Jim’s mind, that, by the end of the novel, can almost predict his reactions, and ultimately, his fate.
Conrad is viewed as a bridge between the classical and modernist schools of writing, which makes him such a unique literary figure. His enigmatic Heart of Darkness is justifiably known as his greatest work, but Lord Jim is also an outstanding literary achievement for the same reasons; in fact, Conrad had intended for Lord Jim to be a counterpoint to Heart of Darkness and had wanted both to published together along Youth.
Volume: Great Books of the Western World, Volume 6 (copy. 1952)
Pages: 314 (roughly 700 paperback-sized pages, as the text is condensed)
Difficulty (from 1 to 10, with 1 being the easiest): 4
This work is considered the world’s first work of history, and is a fantastic introduction to Ancient Greek literature. This isn’t your standard academic history book, however; Herodotus gives very interesting accounts of the various cultures spread across Europe and Asia along the way.
I heartily recommend having a map of the known world circa 450 BC handy when reading The Histories, as you may become lost in some places. Most editions include maps of Greece, the Persian Empire, and Africa with the text, which help immensely with the myriad of place names mentioned by Herodotus. Besides that, the book is pretty accessible without any prior knowledge of ancient history. The book relates mainly the histories of the Greeks and the Persians, with the climax being the two crucial battles between the two; The Battle of Marathon, and the Battle of Salamis. The last three “books” are the most entertaining of the work, as it concerns the clash between the clash of Xerxes’ great invasion force with the (mostly) united Greeks in one of the most pivotal times in the history of civilization. After the conflict with the Persian Empire ended, one of the most remarkable intellectual periods in history began in Athens, judging by who followed Herodotus on my list.
The major difficulty in reading this book is keeping track of place names and people (this site should help). Herodotus sometimes shuttles people in and out and leaves the main storyline for pages at a time in examining side stories. But if you contain your frustrations, by the last third of The Histories, you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.