A STAB IN THE DARK by Lawrence Block

Number 3 in the Matt Scudder slightly noir mid century detective series.  Look at that, I got it all in one sentence.  In this mystery, Louis Pinell, the recently apprehended Icepick Prowler, freely admits to having slain seven young women nine years ago — but he swears it was a copycat who killed Barbara Ettinger.    Matthew Scudder believes him. But the trail to Ettinger’s true murderer is twisted, dark and dangerous…and even colder than the almost decade-old corpse the p.i. is determined to avenge.

That was the official less-than-helpful plot description.  The blurb writer must be getting bored.

Mz Ettinger was stabbed by a sharp object, looked like probably an ice pick, ten years ago.   A criminal confesses to the killing of several other unsolved ice-pick murders, and since Ettinger’s murder looks the same, don’t investigate thoroughly, assuming it is the work of the confessing criminal, even though he swears! he didn’t kill her, that it was not his work.   Ten years later,  the murdered woman’s  father, a well-heeled  lawyer approaches our boy Scudder and asks him to look into the old case.

Scudder manages to scratch up some leads, all the while continuing to battle his worsening alcoholism.  Did you guess that in fact the woman was NOT murdered by that criminal guy?  You would be right.  But I am not telling you who did the stabbing.  I am withholding out of spite, because I did not figure it out.  Yeah, I have a mean streak.

 

Do people still use these?

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THE GONE-AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway

This is a stunner of a sci-fi /fantasy/thriller,  a huge chunk of a book.   It is a science fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic world crippled by the ‘Go-Away War’, and ….

But let me preface all of this with some quantum physics, because unless you have a frail grasp of the theory on which is it based, you will still enjoy the book, but not nearly so much, and it might leave you scratching your head a bit going  Heh?     OK, ready?  One of today’s more radical theories suggests that information is the most basic element of the cosmos.  If we knew the exact composition of the universe and all of its properties and had enough energy and know-how to draw upon, theoretically, we could break the universe down into ones and zeros and using that information, reconstruct it from the bottom up.   It is the information locked inside any singular component that allows us to manipulate matter any way we choose. Of course, it would take deity-level sophistication, a feat only achievable by a type V civilization on the Kardashev scale*. (Never heard of the Kadashev scale? Sigh.  See end of this post to learn more.)

From a quantum viewpoint, the positions of particles, their movement, how they behave, and all of their properties, give us information about them and the physical forces behind them. Every aspect of a particle can be expressed as information, and put into binary code. And so subatomic particles may be the bits that the universe is processing, as a giant supercomputer.

John Archibald Wheeler said the universe had three parts: First, “Everything is Particles,” second, “Everything is Fields,” and third, “Everything is information.” The idea is that the universe emanates from the information inherent within it.

OK, so now that you know everything there is to know about information theory, we can get on with the plot.  The Gone-away World is set in a post-apocalyptic world crippled by the ‘Go-Away War’.  It tells in first person narration the story of the unnamed main character and his best friend Gonzo Lubitsch and their experiences during and after “The Go-Away War”, a conflict that reduces the world population to 2 billion. The “go-away bombs” and similar weapons used by the belligerents were designed to simply make anything and anyone subjected to them cease to exist, leaving no carnage or wreckage behind. The weapons, however, produced an unanticipated after effect. The matter that had “gone-away” was still there but merely stripped of the information which formerly differentiated and defined it.   (AHA!  Now you see where your information theory knowledge starts to come in handy?)

The Jorgmund Pipe is the backbone of the world, and it’s on fire. Gonzo Lubitsch, professional hero and troubleshooter, is hired to put it out, but there’s more to the fire, and the Pipe itself, than meets the eye. The job will take Gonzo and his best friend, our narrator, back to their own beginnings.This “Stuff”, as it’s called, floats around the world in great storms and pools in various locations. When it comes into contact with people, a process referred to as “reification”** occurs. The Stuff takes the form of whatever those present are thinking about. The results are often horrific. Apparitions, as well as whole individual persons, appear out of nothing. These people become known as “the new.” To combat the Stuff, the war’s survivors rely upon a substance called “FOX” which is produced by Jorgmond, a corporation, which, for all intents and purposes, functions as the only governmental authority by virtue of the constant and universal need for their product.   It is delivered through “the Jorgmund pipe”, which snakes around the globe and permits the population to live in a thin ribbon of habitable land banded on either side by wasteland.

The story begins with the characters in the “Nameless Bar,” a title that is a reference to the main character’s namelessness. The company they work for, the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company is hired by Jorgmund to deal with power failures and a fire that has broken out on the Jorgmund pipe itself, endangering the “backbone” of their world and their very existence. As the company sets off, the unnamed protagonist starts thinking about his past, from the day he first met Gonzo. It recounts his relationship with Elizabeth Soames, whom he meets as a youth studying martial arts under the tutelage of Master Wu. Wu’s school, the Voiceless Dragon is the mortal enemy of the Society of the Clockwork Hand. The struggle between the two eventually converges with the protagonist’s efforts to oppose the misdeeds of Jorgmund in the Go-Away War’s aftermath.

As if all that isn’t interesting enough to take up about a kabillion pages, (I told you it was a doorstop of a book),  somewhere about three-quarters through the story, we are hit with a real smacker, and I cannot tell you what it is because it would be a real spoiler.  But I will hint at information theory and reification again.

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book.  LOVED it.  There are some critics who felt there were too many diversions and some felt it was too wordy and some believed there were too many characters, but I say, Fie! on them and their houses.   Any mash-up of   a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure is super-duper in my book.

BTW,  Harkaway is the son of John LeCarré.   You would never know it, comparing the two writer’s work.

  • The Kardashev scale was originally designed in 1964 by the Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev (who was looking for signs of extraterrestrial life within cosmic signals). It has 3 base classes, each with an energy disposal level: Type I (10¹⁶W), Type II (10²⁶W), and Type III (10³⁶W). Other astronomers have extended the scale to Type IV (10⁴⁶W) and Type V (the energy available to this kind of civilization would equal that of all energy available in not just our universe, but in all universes and in all time-lines). These additions consider both energy access as well as the amount of knowledge the civilizations have access to.

First, it is important to note that the human race is not even on this scale yet. Since we still sustain our energy needs from dead plants and              animals, here on Earth, we are a lowly Type 0 civilization (and we have a LONG way to go before being promoted to a type I civilization).                Kaku tends to believe that, all things taken into consideration, we will reach Type I in 100 – 200 years time.

Type V. Here beings would be like gods, having the knowledge to manipulate the universe as they please.

** Because I have to tell you everything, Reification is making something real, bringing something into being, or making something concrete.

 

TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE by Lawrence Block

This is the second in the Matthew Scudder series.  I got into this series after having read Eight Million Ways to Die,  and decided a mid-century noir-ish detective series was just the ticket for those cozy times when I read in bed before turning off the light and counting zzzzs.

The official plot description:  Small-time stoolie, Jake “The Spinner” Jablon, made a lot of new enemies when he switched careers, from informer to blackmailer. And the more “clients, ” he figured, the more money – and more people eager to see him dead. So no one is surprised when the pigeon is found floating in the East River with his skull bashed in. And what’s worse, no one cares – except Matthew Scudder. The ex-cop-turned-private-eye is no conscientious avenging angel. But he’s willing to risk his own life and limb to confront Spinner’s most murderously aggressive marks. A job’s a job after all – and Scudder’s been paid to find a killer – by the victim…in advance.

OK, so Scudder starts his investigation by acting as if he had inherited the business, the blackmailing list of Spinner, and he goes to each of the victims in this pose, seeing what he can find out, who might have been tired enough of the game to want to take out Spinner and save him or herself some heartache, not to mention a lifetime worth of payment money.  Not a bad investigatory angle, and gives us insight into the blackmailees.

As we learned in Sins of the Father, his first in the series, Scudder’s alcoholism is going to be one of the central pillars of the stories.  So we get a tangle of detecting and alcoholism and denial of said alcoholism and little spurts of detecting genius and some interesting characters all mixed up into a colorful ball of a storyline.

So, maybe not as good  as Eight Million Ways to Die, but definitely still pretty good.

THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS by Arundhati Roy

This is the latest from Arundhati Roy, she of The God of Small Things fame.  It is a big, sprawling stewpot of a novel, that weaves together the lives of two main characters.   One strand of this giant braid follows Anjum, a hijra, or transwoman, struggling to make a life for herself in Delhi. The other follows Tilo, a thorny and irresistible architect turned activist (who seems to be modeled on Roy herself), and the three men who fall in love with her.

The book begins and ends in a graveyard.   Anjum lives in a multigenerational joint family of other hijras; together they raise a child. Later, she and a few other characters move into a graveyard. They sleep between the headstones, plant vegetables, create a new kind of human family that can obliterate the divisions between the living and the dead. This graveyard is the inverse of the Garden of Eden—a paradise whose defining feature, rather than innocence, is experience and endurance.

 

 

 

Conversely, we follow Tilo the activitist into Kashmir, and is a lot about the war in and for Kashmir, the struggle between at the time of this story, India and the Kashmir resistance.  It is a story of horror and violence and unimaginable cruelty, while the story of Anjum is one of a resistance movement of a different kind.   In the end, we see the two stories converge, somewhat unconvincingly, but by this time, we readers are so exhausted by the journey we are just relieved and happy to see an ending in sight.

The whole book is about resistance — the gays, addicts, Muslims, orphans, and other casualties of the national project of making India great again.   The book is filled with characters, but most of them, if not all of them, are  stand-ins for causes, which while not subtle, is still effective for this Western reader.  It is colorful, demanding of the reader’s attention,  and has something to say about oppression, resistance and hope.  Something we Americans can use right about now.

 

THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB by Louise Erdrich

Official Plot Description:  Having survived World War I, Fidelis Waldvogel returns to his quiet German village and marries the pregnant widow of his best friend, killed in action. With a suitcase full of sausages and a master butcher’s precious knife set, Fidelis sets out for America. In Argus, North Dakota, he builds a business, a home for his family—which includes Eva and four sons—and a singing club consisting of the best voices in town. When the Old World meets the New—in the person of Delphine Watzka—the great adventure of Fidelis’s life begins. Delphine meets Eva and is enchanted. She meets Fidelis, and the ground trembles. These momentous encounters will determine the course of Delphine’s life, and the trajectory of this brilliant novel.

Why Argus, North Dakota, you may  ask.  Because, that is where he ran out of money to travel any further west.  He sells his sausages along the way to obtain money for food and further train fare. And Argus is where he ended up.

Delphine, the only child of her single parent father — the town drunk and ne’er-do-well,  leaves home to make a career maybe on the stage, meets Cyprian, the absurdly handsome feller.  They create a balancing act, take it on the road, and eventually end up back in Argus, where she meets Eva, Fidelis’ wife,  who treats her like a mother would, and the two become fast friends.

The evolving events suck us into a mystery involving dead people in the locked cellar of Delphine’s house, a sheriff obsessed with the town mortician — a young woman who inherited her family business and can’t get a boyfriend due to her profession, a strange woman, Step-and-a-half, so named for her long strides, who wanders the town in the night looking for scraps and throw-aways.   And of course, the butchers singing club, composed of the town’s two butchers and a number of other men who like to sing.  Think Barbershop Quartets.

A lovely story, a love story, a friend story,  fun characters, a nod as usual for Erdrich to the Native Americans of the area,  and a description of life in the Dakotas in the period between the two great wars.  It is a story of pairs:  friends, lovers, non-lovers, enemies-no-longer-enemies, children-parents, life-death.

Just a fine book.  Gotta get me some more of her work.  Yessiressbob.

Oh, by the way, she tells us that the picture of the young butcher on the cover is her grandfather Ludwig Erdrich.  He fought in the trenches on the German side in WWI, and his sons served on the American side in WWII.

IN THE MIDST OF DEATH by Lawrence Block

This is the second in the Matt Scudder noir crime series, set in mid-70s NYC.  Scudder, a poster boy for the hard drinking ex-cop turned PI, is drawn in broad strokes, and we love him for it…. even though we are glad he isn’t our brother-in-law or anything.

For a little more filler about Scudder and the series, take a peek here,  and here.  As my mother used to say, I don’t like to chew my cabbage twice.

In this story, bad cop Jerry Broadfield didn’t make any friends on the force when he volunteered to squeal to an ambitious d.a. about police corruption. Now he’s accused of murdering a call girl.  Scudder doesn’t think Broadfield’s a killer, but the cops aren’t about to help the unlicensed p.i. prove it — and they may do a lot worse than just get in his way.

We learn a lot about police corruption, as if we had no idea, right?  And just how popular a cop can be with his fellow cops if he decides to work with the Special Prosecuting Attorney on police corruption.  Spoiler — it doesn’t go well.

One of the characters that Scudder interviews is a prissy, prim, proper guy, assistant to the D.A., named Lorbeer.  To give you some flavor,

Most people have trouble speaking in sentences.  Lorbeer spoke in paragraphs, structurally complicated paragraphs, and he delivered his little speech with his pale eyes fixed on the tip of my left shoulder.

Good read.  I am certainly enjoying this series, although so far, the fifth, Eight Million Ways to Die, is the best.

 

PHILOSOPHY IN CLASSICAL INDIA: An Introduction and Analysis by Jonardon Ganeri

Lest you think that all I read are mid-twentieth century noir detective stories, I bring you…. ta-da ….. philosophy.  I read a while ago an article which I now cannot find, the gist of which was our idea of philosophy is western-centric.  It is all about Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Kant, etc. etc. with nothing about Eastern philosophy, which we tend to dismiss as ‘religion’, or ‘mysticism’,  not ‘philosophy’.

Gameri, a Fellow of the British Academy,  has set out to set us straight on this by way of this original work which focuses on the rational principles of Indian philosophical theory, rather than the mysticism more usually associated with it. Ganeri explores the philosophical projects of a number of major Indian philosophers and looks into the methods of rational inquiry deployed within these projects. In so doing, he illuminates a network of mutual reference, criticism, influence and response, in which reason is used to call itself into question. This fresh perspective on classical Indian thought unravels new philosophical paradigms, and points towards new applications for the concept of reason.

Some of that is from the official blurb, and it explains it very well.  This was certainly interesting reading, a lot of it concerning how to think about how to think.  Consciousness, ideation,  and what makes a rational thought.  Made me think of AI and how possibly we are approaching the task of trying to teach a robot to think when we don’t ourselves know how we think.

Just one quote for you, should you be in the mood for some mind bending:

… a sophisticated theory of content.  It is alleged that a person witnessing a mirage does not see the refracted sun’s rays, even if in the right sort of physical connection with them.  Neither does he see water, for there is none to be seen.  Someone witnessing a mirage does not see anything, but only seems to see water.  And a person who witnesses a ball of dust in the distance does not see the dust if he is uncertain whether it is dust or smoke.  An object is not seen if it is not seen distinctly.

So when you ‘see’ a mirage of water, you are not seeing the water, because there is no water to see, and you are not seeing the defracted particles, because they have been converted into the ‘water’.  What exactly are you ‘seeing’?

How do you teach an AI about mirages?