Book review: The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

The Three Secret Cities (Jack West Jr #5)The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world is only days away from destruction. Again. Again.

With only a few hours rest after winning The Great Games, Jack West Jr is thrown back into the fray. The secret ruling elite’s world has been thrown into disarray with only a few days to save the world. They don’t think they need Jack’s help, so they send a secretive order of assassins after him. But without Jack and his team, the chances of saving the world are close to zero.

I finally got around to reading my Xmas present. I have a standing order for Matthew Reilly books that my parents dilligently fulfil. Ever since picking up my first Scarecrow adventure, I’ve been hooked on Reilly’s fast-paced thrill-rides. The Three Secret Cities was once again a fast-paced thrill-ride.

But…

After thoroughly enjoying The Four Legendary Kingdoms I was excited to see what else would happen in this three-part Jack West Jr adventure. One of my earlier criticisms of the Jack West Jr series was that it often felt like stuff just happened, that you were reading a series of explosions without the peril and tension. The Four Legendary Kingdoms didn’t have that feeling. But after finishing The Three Secret Cities that sense of stuff just happening was back.

This left me with a troubling thought: have Reilly’s books always been heavy on the explosions and light on the peril of those explosions, has Reilly lost a step, or am I just not as entertained by Reilly as I once was? I noted in my revisit review of Ice Station that several things suddenly annoyed me and were suddenly distracting. So it is possible that I’m not enjoying Reilly’s novels like I once did.

While this does sound like strong criticism, The Three Secret Cities was still solidly entertaining. I just hope the next instalment has plenty of peril. Suddenly.

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Book review: Whispering Death by Garry Disher

Whispering Death (Inspector Challis, #6)Whispering Death by Garry Disher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cat burglary seems like a career that should involve more standing near open doors deciding whether to go out.

Inspector Hal Challis is reaching the end of a chapter in his life. A new relationship, a career he’s frustrated with, a dying car, and a finished hobby. But the town of Waterloo has become the scene of a series of sexual assaults by a man disguised as a copper, a bank robber is making the rounds, and a cat burglar is making her presence felt. A great time to tell the local press exactly what you think about budget cuts.

If I’m remembering correctly, this is my third Garry Disher novel and second Challis story. Disher is to Australian crime writing what Ian Rankin is to the UK and Michael Connelly is to the US. He is respected, consistent, and knows how to tell a tale. Whispering Death is one of those solid and consistent crime novels.

I’m writing this review a few days after having finished reading Whispering Death. And I think my characterisation of this novel as “solid and consistent” is also partially a criticism as well as praise. It’s an entertaining read and I think many will want to read more about Grace the cat burglar in a future instalment (or spinoff). But I’m also noticing that even though it has only been a few days, I can’t really think of anything that memorable about the book to mention here.*

That said, Disher continues to entertain and I look forward to reading more of his Challis (and Wyatt) series.

* As my wife pointed out to me, this could be a factor of my age. I’m no longer a twenty or thirty-something. A solid book has plenty of other solid books to blend in with in my increasingly fuzzy memory (having kids ruins your brain) compared with a decade or more ago. So as I age and read more, the harder it will be to entertain me. The fewer thrills I will receive from even great authors with great books. Until finally, no longer able to find joy in the simple pleasure of reading, I commit suicide by Dan Brown.

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Book review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing you have to lose is your car keys. And chains.

“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

The Communist Manifesto was part of my reading project to have some actual knowledge about the current bogeymen of cultural discourse. How could it not be? Various (sarcasm alert) intellectual giants, including Canadian self-help gurus and fake universities, have blamed Marx personally – poor Engels, always the bridesmaid, never the bride – and communism generally for every malady of the last 150 years. Obviously, they would know this after having studiously analysed the Manifesto… oh, and all of the hundreds of other texts on the subject.

What struck me about this text is how it captures a few essences of society, both then and now, with an insight that resonates. But it also manages to feel immature and underdeveloped compared to the later writings from Marx and Engels. From my further reading, this appears to be a common criticism.

There were interesting insights into women’s and workplace rights. These ideas from Marx and Engels’ have had to be implemented in our society. They realised that a capitalistic society couldn’t function the way it did. So those changes have been implemented. And it took social and union movements to make our society function, but not the communist revolution Marx and Engels expected.

Another interesting aspect was the definition of bourgeoise socialists. The idea of people advocating for small manageable changes to gradually improve society sounded an awful lot like centrist liberals or socially conscious millionaires/billionaires. They will admit the system is rigged and that it is unfair, but do you honestly expect them to sleep on less than 800 thread count sheets? Who is the real victim here?*

That isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms of the Manifesto. As an example, people like Sloterdijk have criticised Communism for channelling rage from their life in the direction of an “other” – in this case, the rich/capitalists. This rage is channelled by the ruling class of the communist movement and used to empower themselves. I.e. it becomes just another control mechanism, exchanging one oppressive power for another.

But it is clear from the Manifesto that this is/was not the intention. Something many critics miss.** Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal. Maybe this was a fatal flaw in his thinking, such that if he had been more prescriptive his writings wouldn’t have been used by authoritarian/totalitarian people to seize power.

There has been a lot of academic and scholastic work on Marxism since The Communist Manifesto. But this short work still remains a worthwhile read.

* See my review of Winners Take All.

** And let’s be honest, it is deliberately missed. Communism is the “other” of the 20th century. They were the evil we could rally together to defeat. So actual understanding of communism has been deliberately negatively framed. “Look at all those starving people under communism! Ignore all the starving people under capitalism!”

See my review of Socialism a Short Introduction.

Further reading: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/

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Book review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it does take PhDs in math and physics to explain where babies come from.

In 1952 Elma York and her husband are on a weekend retreat when a meteorite wipes out the east coast of the USA. Elma flies them to safety only to realise that this strike was an extinction-level event. The fledgeling space program is thrown into overdrive, with Elma and her husband deeply involved. But in the race to colonize space, a few people are being overlooked for humanity’s future, and Elma wants to see women go into space too.

Quite simply, I loved this book.

There were so many moments where you feel the frustrations, joys, and unfairness of the 1950s. This is a very human tale mixed with the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the early space program – reimagined, of course. And while this comes across as hard sci-fi, it doesn’t make the plot nor pacing drag.

Normally I’m not a fan of the alternate history tales. Often they feel gratuitous and unnecessary, like dragging in various famous historical figures for cameos – hey look, Mark Twain is on the Enterprise!! But here the alternate history felt like it served the plot and themes well, and not just some stoned writer saying, hey, what if…

Well worth reading.

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Book review: Woken Furies by Richard K Morgan

Woken Furies (Takeshi Kovacs, #3)Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those feels when you have to take time off from murdering religious zealots to overthrow the establishment.

Kovacs is a one-man army stalking a series of religious zealots on his home planet of Harlan’s World. In the aftermath of one assassination, he runs afoul of the Yakuza and befriends a mercenary. The merc, Sylvie, invites him to join her team decommissioning sentient military hardware in the un-settlement zone. During this operation, Sylvie collapses and appears to take on a new personality, the long-dead revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer. Together they are being hunted by the ruling elite, a revived younger Kovacs, and the Yakuza. Their only hope is to restart the Quellist rebellion.

I’ve read all three Takeshi Kovacs novels over the last two months and have enjoyed them all. There is the entertaining surface level to the stories: a hard-boiled noir detective story, military adventure, and in this instalment a more standard thriller. Then underneath that, there is an interesting socio-political discussion that has culminated in the plot of this final novel in the series. In some respects, Woken Furies is the most in-depth look at the socio-political world Morgan has created, as well as having the most social criticism. For some, this could be a bit offputting, but I’ve really enjoyed this aspect of the series.

The only problem I had with Woken Furies was that it felt as though it was padded out a bit too much. It is significantly longer than the previous novels (probably 40% longer at a guess) and I’d have preferred it at roughly the same length as those other two. It’s a little churlish to complain about a book you’re enjoying giving you hours more entertainment, but in many ways, I’m a petty man.

A good conclusion to an enjoyable series.

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Killer Car Fallacy

If you read the news daily you may have noticed that humans really like hurting each other. While this popular pastime is generally on the decline, it is still at concerning levels. Whether it be the latest school shooting in the only country that happens in, or the suppression of the people by regimes in all countries, violence happens. And violence is big business.

Many people would obviously like to reduce the amount of violence occurring on our planet. They will often point out the war profiteers, the gun manufacturers, and the lack of regulation on the sale of weapons to oppressors. And without fail, there will be someone who will bravely stand up and defend these practices that facilitate (and perpetuate*) violence. These brave defenders will always use the individualist argument that places the onus on the user and not the tool. One common example used is “Do you blame the driver or the car?”

On the surface, this seems like a sound argument. A bad worker blames their tools, and all that. You see, it isn’t a killer car, it is a drunk driver or a driver who is trying to kill someone.

Of course, this is a false equivalence, a fallacy, a load of nonsense. It’s The Killer Car Fallacy.

Below is a common example of this fallacy in action during an exchange I had on Twitter. The original point being discussed was about US companies being complicit in the suppression of the democracy protests in Hong Kong via their manufacturing of the weapons of suppression. You may remember the USA from their tireless promotion of democracy in the Middle East, Vietnam, and South America.

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Source.
killer cars
Source.

As you can see in my last tweet**, the comparison people try to make between a car and a weapon are nonsense.

A car is designed to transport people and their stuff in comfort, style, and with as much complaining about other drivers as possible. If a drunk driver kills someone with their car, they have misused their car and are at fault. The car can and does kill people, but that is not exactly the advertised selling point. I’m currently unaware of any car manufacturer advertising a toddler per kilometre death rate as a feature.

Compare that to a gun***, which was designed for violence. It is never being misused if it kills someone. Even if the gun was designed for hunting or target shooting, using it to hunt a human or use a human as a target isn’t a misuse in any equivalent way to the car. Unless driver training involves trying to aim the car at pedestrians since I sat my driver’s test.

target-human_silhouette
Target Shooting…

This is without getting into the larger discussion about how cars require licensing, insurance, and safety assessments. Drivers have to prove they are passingly competent – when paying attention during a test, the rest of the time, let’s just hope for the best – and be licensed. There are rules about car operation. One of the rules is about not being too drunk to safely operate the car because we recognise that’s probably not a good idea.

Car manufacturers also have some rules they have to follow. They can’t just sell a car to people without a license. They have to provide certain features to improve safety for drivers (e.g. seatbelts) and non-drivers (e.g. lead-free fuel****). These are all acknowledgements by the car manufacturers, governments, and society at large that there is a larger moral responsibility in the making and selling of cars. It’s pretty clear that there is no equivalence here.

But the Killer Car Fallacy persists. Because apparently selling weapons designed to harm people has no moral responsibilities attached.

The logical fallacy of false equivalency. (self.GunsAreCool)
by GabourKilled by a gun nut

Why am I here? You are a person who used an NRA talking point in the form of a false equivalency.

So? What is a false equivalency? It is a logical fallacy.

You are a libtard/pinko/homo, why should I listen to you? Logic rules remain the same wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Even after showing gun owners the Wikipedia entry, they will continue to use it immediately afterwards and cling to it desperately. That is why this was created.

What is the definition of false equivalency? “False equivalence is a logical fallacy which describes a situation where there is a logical and apparent equivalence, but when in fact there is none.” Wikipedia

I still don’t believe you. What is the structure of the argument? If A is the set of c and d, and B is the set of d and e, then since they both contain d, A and B are equal. Id.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Why does my argument look nonsensical to people who aren’t supporters of my position? I will put it in terms that would offend a gun owner so that you have a better understanding of why you look bad. Nuclear weapons explode (c) but are still just tools (d). Guns are merely tools (d) that shoot people (e). Since they are both tools they are both equivalent. Because they are merely tools, nuclear weapons should be treated the same as guns under the Second Amendment, and citizens should be allowed to conceal carry them into schools, courthouses, or government buildings.

Well that’s a stupid argument, what are other kinds of false equivalencies that gun owners use?
The variations are endless, but here are some common ones:
-Guns and alcohol are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and cars are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and knives are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and bleach are equivalent, because they both ______
-Guns and fists are equivalent, because they both ______
-Gun and stamp collecting are equivalent, because they are both _____
-Guns and _______ are equivalent, because they both _____

And those are all false equivalencies? Yes.
Are you sure? Yes.
Really? Because I would really like that to be not true. Everyone in /r/guns uses them constantly, and they get tons and tons of upvotes for it! Doesn’t that mean they are even a little right? No. Justin Bieber is pretty popular within his bubble, doesn’t mean it makes sense to people viewing it from the outside.

Can you do it for me? Imagine cars are just as legal as they are now, resulting in 33,000 traffic fatalities each year. Now, imagine guns are completely banned and there are zero deaths from their use each year. No government body would pass a law that instantly implemented the current United States gun proliferation laws while simultaneously handing out 270,000,000 guns to the civilian population. Especially considering the fact that 30,000 people would then be killed each year and 100,000 wounded. And they would certainly not do so under the pretense that guns and cars should be treated equivalently. This example applies to each of the false equivalencies given above.

Why has this been downvoted a million times? Because there are few good arguments for guns in our society so taking away a popular one, however incorrect it may be, further weakens the talking points. We also only send pro-gun types here to view this and they are not particularly happy to learn that their father was wrong when they taught them this false equivalency or that they have been using a really stupid argument around their loved ones unchecked for most of their lives.

What do you think about gun control? The ability to use logic and to correctly reason should be a basic skill for everyone, but is essential for those who carry lethal weapons. Gun owners should have to complete the following sentence before purchasing a gun to show that they can perform basic reasoning: Comparing guns to ________ is a false equivalence because __________.

* Because what industry making weapons of violence wants to see the amount of violence decline?

** This conversation did continue, but I bowed out after they tried to use my own arguments as though it applied to their points.

*** I’m using guns here despite the original example being the use of non-lethal devices like teargas. Direct deaths from a tool are easier to show the fallacy than the use of non-lethal force to suppress others. But it is still the same bad thinking. Some will try to use knives as an example because it is a greyer tool. Knives can be used to kill and are often designed to do so. But for knives, the context of their use switches from tool to weapon based on use and still fits this paradigm, albeit in a more complicated way.

**** Regulations they fought long and hard against despite the harm they knew it was doing.