The Electric Commentary

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The 50 Book Challenge

The 50 Book Challenge

#13. The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
#14. Parliament of Whores, by P.J. O'Rourke
#15. What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank

#13. The Diamond Age

Every story set in the future contains some futuristic prop to let everyone know, without a doubt, that we’re in the future. Sometimes it’s flying cars, or pervasive virtual reality, or silver one-piece jumpsuits. In The Diamond Age, it is nanotechnology. Everything in the Diamond Age is made at the atomic level by matter compilers, and nothing is made quite right. However, as a result of being able to assemble matter at will, scarcity is all but a thing of the past (certain repressive regimes are running out of water), and nation-states are smaller, more tribal, and more ethno-centric.

The story centers on a girl named Nell who happens upon an interactive book called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” intended for a princess. Nell uses the book's teachings to climb the social ladder and eventually, to have a large influence on the development of the world.

Stephenson writes this as a futuristic dystopic fairy tale, and the juxtaposition works well. The most prominent tribe in the book, the Neo-Victorian tribe, creates an air of English mysticism. They still ride horses (albeit mechanical horses) and appreciate things that have not been compiled using nano-tech.

A point that Stephenson frequently includes is that anarchy and relativism are limited because they don’t give any guidance, and that those with some beliefs, even if they don’t really make sense, at least have some rules to work with. Generally, he makes the comparison of some religion to an operating system. An operating system is, after all, a fairly arbitrary set of rules established to make a make a computer more user-friendly. In the Diamond age the “arbitrary rules” are civil society itself, and those who have established a civil society prosper. This quote says it better than I ever cold. As usual, a very good Stephenson book.

#14. Parliament of Whores

P.J. O’Rourke takes on everyone here. The President, the Supreme Court, a bunch of legislators, environmentalists, big agriculture, subsidies of all kinds, and most importantly, voters. This book is especially interesting due to it’s portrayal of Ken Starr before he became a household name (PJ covers the Supreme Court flag burning case in which Starr argues for the state), and due to the fact that PJ was in Afghanistan the first time around, and noticed that Pakistan had played the US into instituting a weak but repressive government.

It’s always funny, and a nice reminder of how we ended up where we are today.

#15. What’s the Matter with Kansas?

As it turns out, the problem with Kansas may be people like Thomas Frank. I read this because I’m going to see him speak in a few weeks, and frankly, I’m underwhelmed. His main point, which he repeats over, and over, and over, is that Kansas folks have been blinded by the religious right into voting for meaningless social issues instead of for favorable (liberal) economic policies.

This book only serves to portray Kansans as hicks. Maybe Kansas is populated exclusively by hicks, but I think not. Franks suffers a rather enormous logical problem in this book. He states that the social issues supported by Kansans bring with them evil “pro business, free market” conservative economic policy. He also spends some time nominally defending republican social moderates that used to dominate Kansas. However, these moderate conservatives also tend to favor evil free market economics, and Franks offers no examples as to what exactly the mods did better economically.

He also makes frequent use of an annoying phrase: “Faith in markets.” For the record, I do not have “faith in markets.” I have carefully reasoned evidence, and a lot of it, that says that markets generally lead to superior outcomes. That is not faith, it is reason.
Franks makes a lot of points, generally critical of the social right, that I agree with, but he frequently loses focus and lapses into ad hominem attacks. He never connects the dots. This is the type of book that you will probably like as long as you already agree with it.

On deck:

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon (This will take a while)
Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein

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