And so, this week, I read a couple books recommended by one of the interesting people I met and conversed with this past weekend. In fact, it was the latter of the two diner visits, and mostly the conversation outside in the portable furniture that convinced me to read two books I had avoided thus far, for basically the same reasons. Those reasons, as applied to pulp fiction, are that it would be a dreadful read with no particular educational value, and therefore not worth the time. Reading for entertainment may be a waste of time (of a sort), but it is a different thing to deliberately read something unenjoyable, or frightening.
Tom Clancy may be a world expert on military technology, and his knowledge is, well, alarmingly current. He is still only a passable writer of fiction (as you are all no doubt aware). His plots are incredulous, and his characters rarely interesting or even dynamic. (There were more that three dozen named characters in the novel, and I cannot recall any of them going through significant changes. Some of them are aging, if that counts for anything.) Anyway, this eleven and a half hundred page tome is no different than anything else he's done lately. Although his use of cliches and characterization is steadily improving, it is doing so very slowly.
The Bear and The Dragon is ostensibly about a war between Russia (FRS) and China (PRC). And that was enough to make me pass when my father finished the paperback and offered it to me. I had given up on Clancy after he made his pet character President. (Perhaps as on Rice when she had her pet character win a tussle with Lucifer) I was right to. Clancy's White House is notably less believeable than that of "The West Wing", a televisions series which freely admits to unworkable idealism and petty politics (I am just talking about the writing of the show here). And I just won't talk about the jingoism and ethnic stereotypes the book is riddled with. I have a sneaking suspicion that he wrote the book just to showcase one technology. My bet is on the UAVs. Another explanation for the length of the novel is that he had to try and make an American audience understand the mindset of the Chinese. Well, he made some good effort here, but mostly I am just convinced that the author really doesn't like the People of the Middle Kingdom. Too subtle? Clancy hates the Chinese, and has only recently come to respect Russians. (maybe)
The fellow who insisted I at least look over parts of the book first admitted that the premise was, well, imaginary. "An imaginary find," in his words. He wanted me to focus on an intelligence operation in the book, which he thought highly of, involving computer networks and stealthy penetration. Clancy doesn't seem to understand computer technology, and (I am guessing ) he was briefed by a flack who didn't either, but who had spoken to someone who did. The resulting description is dissapointing, and barely useful as a description of a potential uber-sploit (or some crap). And since that was what I was reading for, this book was a waste, even if mildly entertaining in spots (such as a plug for Victoria's Secret. He will be able to keep his teenaged fanbase happy with crap like this for awhile, but why grownups read it (other than veterans) is beyond me. Fail. And I need to explain some things about cracking to the geek who told me about the book (as it's not his field).
I can't trace back how we got started talking about eschatology, but it comes up often enough in geek conferencing that it is of little concern how we got there. I was relating (somewhat poorly) current Singularity related ideas to someone who hadn't heard of them. [Soon] Human technology wil produce something post human, and we won't recognize them, or they us. Popular bets for this are bio, nano, and AI. Simply put the popular theories are genetic manipulation to speed evolution, nanoscale technology, or emergent sentient lifeforms (AI). The outcome is roughly the same, but scientists, philosophers, and pundits have their bets variously on differents squares. The important point is that the three contenders are irrelevant in contrast, as any one will bring on the other two immediately. He didn't see this immediately, but he extended belief to what I was saying, and presented an example of how close we were to working nanoscale manufacturing. To which I said, "Yeah, yeah, killer gray goo. Whoop-de-[bleep]." And so he described the barest outline of a maker/worker manufacturing paradigm for vat grown nanobots. He was particulary impressed, or scared by the idea that they needed a very small amount of memory to exhibit emergent behaviour. He kept ranting, "Only 32 bits!" over and over again. I reminded him about qbits, which required the obligatory explanation to the other occupants of the boat (who were working on consensual reality, deliberate complexity ("The universe doesn't want to be figured out." and such.)). After a few minutes explaining the importance of prime [product] factoring to computer security and a quick reference to the answering machine in a Dan Ackroyd movie (Redford, too), we parted threads again. Turning back to me he reacted with near-violence, insisting that no one would ever be fool enough to give a nanobot q-bits. And then, I think, the Singularity meme crashed in on him. Poor guy. While he was reeling I tried to explain to the other two how we didn't have to figure it out, or get it all right. We just had to get one thing wrong, just one stupid suit had to decide to save money by using frog DNA and then Bam!, mammals have maybe 72 hours. Estimates vary of course.So, I agreed to read Prey, Crichton's latest, to see the vats, and amuse myself with the deus ex machina nonsense that the author would use to save his protagonist, and humanity. As I finished up the Clancy tome, I tried to recall if Crichton had written one in which the humans lose, but as I could recall then and now, he has not. Which is a little odd. A quote from the book: "It was so dumb it was breathtaking." (And, the mistake in question is totally believable. In fact I should toss a copy at a couple of neural-net hackers I used to know ..) It's a good read, and less incongruent than the relevant parts of the Clancy tome. The author actually understands computers (he helped to shape their design in his early works), and he has a convincing understanding of AI dogma. You can actually pick up a little of that from the novel (whereas you can learn about artillery and UAVs some from Clancy but nothing about computers). He (MC) apparently did his homework on nano-tech as well, and the book includes a brief but impressive bibliography. It also, oddly, includes an introductory note in which he urges the audience to sit up and pay attention to the underlying issues he brings out (nano Singularity stuff?). He may well be more scared of nanoswarms than of dinosaurs, alien viruses, airplanes, and EuroDisney. He's still in the camp convinced that we (humanity) will destroy ourselves (and soon). Go team!</p>
Anyway, Prey is a good, fun, fast read (~364 pages) that might teach you something. The Bear and The Dragon is a ponderous tome ( ~1150 pages) that offers little in useful lessons of any kind. These nuggets include that a technologically superior force can defeat an substantiantly larger force that is led by dullards (Ooooh, fascinating.), that the US Presidency is a lousy job, and the Congress full of crooks (Do tell!), and that the solution to the problems of American government (and society) is to blow up Congress (after Denver) and then invade, well, everywhere you can. (Hmmm... ). This will settle the American government down and lead to peace and democracy in Russia, Colombia, Persia, Europe, and China. (pfui!). Skip it, or use it to straighten furniture. It's fairly dense.And here are your refs, apologies for the delay: Official Clancy site: http://www.penguinputnam.com/static/packages/us/tomclancy/ Official link for Prey: http://www.crichton-official.com/prey/index.html Portalish singularity definition page: http://singularity.org/ An IBM 7 qbit rig, factoring (small) numbers: http://www.research.ibm.com/resources/news/20011219_quantum.shtml