October 16th, 2006

ozarque figure

Reading science fiction; Chris Moriarty's spinstories....

One day not long ago my snailmail brought me a surprise copy of Chris Moriarty's Spin Control, in the Bantam trade paperback edition. I'm at least a decade behind in reading science fiction, and this book didn't appear to be about linguistics, which should have sent it to its proper place in my reading-queue ... but the woman in the cover illustration -- who not only glows golden but is not rail-thin-with-huge-breasts -- caught my eye, and then another thing or two caught my eye and my ear, and maybe my skin, and I read the book.

I use the words "read the book" loosely, however. I read it using a rough approximation of the method taught by the UCSD Linguistics Department for learning to read a foreign language:

Start with Chapter One. Read (as in "look at") every word whether you have any clue to its meaning or not. Underline every fifth word you don't have a clue to the meaning of. At the end of the chapter, stop and look up every underlined word in a dictionary. Go back to the beginning of the chapter and read it again, underlining every fifth word you still don't understand. Repeat till you have a rough idea what the chapter was trying to tell you. Then go on to Chapter Two and repeat the process. And so on through the book. By the time you get to the end of the book you will know how to read in that foreign language.

It's a tribute to Moriarty's skill as a writer that I read all the way to the end of Spin Control despite being lost in cognispace almost all of the time. Moriarty is so skilled that I wanted to find out what happened in the end, even though I basically had no idea what was happening as I went along. Here's a typical example of a paragraph that I understand almost not at all, from pp. 57-58, to show you what my problem was:

"Router/decomposer had originally called himself just plain decomposer. And a decomposer was exactly what he was: a fully sentient massively parallel decomposition program supported by a vast Josephson Array currently holding in a low lunar orbit carefully calculated to keep its spin glass lattice operating at a crisp refreshing twenty-seven degrees Kelvin. But when Cohen's last communications routing meta-agent had decamped in protest over Li's arrival, decomposer -- albeit with endless grumbling over being dragged away from his beloved spin glass research -- had also taken over the management of Cohen's ant-based routing algorithms."

[I did understand "himself" and "exactly" and "sentient" and "algorithms"; because I'm fluent in Academic Regalian I understood "albeit" ... but none of that helped much. I could of course have posted to this journal and asked youall to explain the paragraph to me -- and I'm sure you'd have been able to -- but I don't like to impose. Plus, that would be cheating.]

Well. By the time I got to the end of the book I was both frustrated and furious, because I'd read the whole thing and I still didn't know what had happened, and I was very distressed by that. [This is different from the way things turned out when I tried to read Neuromancer; I was equally baffled reading that one, but when I got to the end of it I no longer cared what might or might not have happened in it.] Knowing what had happened in Spin Control had become a matter of principle by then, so I went to amazon.com and ordered the book that it's the sequel to -- Spin State, Bantam 2003, same packaging -- and read that.

Much better. Clearly, if you're going to read two sf novels in a series, both based on hard science you don't understand, the proper method is to read the first one first. I don't agree with Elisabeth Carey's statement [at http://nesfa.org/reviews/Carey/spincontrol.htm ] that Spin Control is a better book than Spin State; I would put it the other way around. Perhaps this is because I need to read the second book again now; I wouldn't be surprised. I don't agree with most of the grumpy pronouncements of Catastrophys [at http://quaderat.blogspot.com/2006/01/bose-einstein-congealation.html ] about the flaws in the science; probably because I know almost nothing about the science. I now know what happened in both books, thanks to Harriet Klausner's review of Spin Control at http://www.baryon-online.com/baryon103/spico.html and the review of Spin State at http://trashotron.com/agony/news/2005/01-03-05.htm and the review of both at http://www.scifi.com/sfw/books/sfw13315.html -- undoubtedly because those reviews explain the plots to me with clarity and dispatch.

And now that I'm better informed I realize that in fact there is quite a lot of linguistics in these two books. Talk about crosscultural pragmatics!

Highly recommended.