Category Archives: Books

Artemis, Andy Weir

Why doesn’t Artemis work?

I really enjoyed Weir’s first novel, The Martian, but his sophomore Artemis falls flat.

The Martian had simple, but realistic and likeable characters. Mark Watney was not Falstaff, but that was OK – it was a book about science and space travel, with Watney and his crew in the background. Still, I liked Watney, I wanted him to win, and he deserved to win. Artemis, in stark contrast, had the worst of both worlds: Shallow and unlikeable characters who made bad decisions, whose emotionally turbulent inner lives were front and centre.

Jazz, the protagonist of Artemis, is similar to Mark Watney in many ways: She’s smart, light-hearted in tense situations, and has a cheesy sense of humour. I liked these traits in Watney, so why not Jazz? One theory I have is that this sort of character only works when they’re completely isolated. Watney cracking bad jokes to himself when he’s all alone on Mars is fun, but when Jazz makes pointless wisecracks to her friends in the middle of a life-or-death, every-second-counts scenarios, it makes her character less intelligent, and less realistic.

And it’s not only Jazz. Most of the characters in Artemis consistently make bad or unrealistic decisions. Contrast with The Martian, in which Watney and his crew are all pretty sharp.

I didn’t hate Artemis – I actually read it in one sitting. Good world-building, a good plot, and mediocre characterization. I think it’s worth your time if you loved The Martian, but give yourself the gift of low expectations before you read it.

The Hungry Brain, Stephen Guyenet (Book Notes and Hypothesis Pre-Registration)

This week’s book is The Hungry Brain, by Stephen Guyenet, is an interesting and engaging pop-sci tour of the neurology and endocrinology of nutrition, concluding with some actionable suggestions for improving health and weight management from both an individual and public policy perspective. Check out this SlateStarCodex review for a detailed summary:

There’s a sort of fatalism to talking about “food reward”. If the enemy were saturated fat, we could just stick with the sugary sweetness of Coca-Cola. If the enemy were carbohydrates, we could go out for steak every night. But what do we do if the enemy is deliciousness itself?

Calorie-dense, highly rewarding food may favor overeating and weight gain not just because we passively overeat it but also because it turns up the set point of the lipostat. This may be one reason why regularly eating junk food seems to be a fast track to obesity in both animals and humans…focusing the diet on less rewarding foods may make it easier to lose weight and maintain weight loss because the lipostat doesn’t fight it as vigorously. This may be part of the explanation for why all weight-loss diets seem to work to some extent – even those that are based on diametrically opposed principles, such as low-fat, low-carbohydrate, paleo, and vegan diets. Because each diet excludes major reward factors, they may all lower the adiposity set point somewhat.

I enjoyed the book, and found it persuasive enough to justify a one-month experiment of following the Hungry Brain protocol. (Basically: minimizing added sugar, grains, salt, and fat from my diet. Everything that tastes good must go! I will also be minimizing the use of spices and seasonings, with the goal of making every meal as bland and boring as possible. So, the majority of diet will be unseasoned lean meats, vegetables, beans, and nuts.

Starting stats: 6’3, 233lbs, 21% Body Fat (according to my Fitbit Aria scale). I would like to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 210lbs, 12% BF. If I can make 5-10lbs of progress toward that goal over the coming month, I will take that as evidence in support of Guyenet’s interpretation of the research.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

An easy, impulsive, nostalgic read. I picked Lord of the Flies out of the library while home for the holidays, and recalled it fondly from when I first read it in high school. Below are some thoughts:

  • Do all English teachers feel an obligation to impute political allegories on literature, or just mine? I recall my high school lecturer had strong opinions about characters representing political systems, but I think its a stretch
  • The trichotomy of Ralph, Jack, and Piggy maps easily onto the Team America World Police political spectrum (NSFW)
  • Ralph, as the physical protector of Piggy and persuasive advocate for his ideas, is a good model for Effective Altruists whose comparative advantage is communication.
  • Growing up in a secular household, the biblical undertones (initial paradise, fall from grace, Simon’s temptation by the pig’s head and subsequent sacrifice, the gradual fall to evil before 11th-hour salvation) were completely lost on me until this re-read

Some good passages I highlighted, mostly exploring the interpersonal power dynamics of Ralph’s leadership:

*

Ralph’s final word was an ingracious mutter.

“All right. Light the fire.”

With some positive action before them, a little of the tension died. Ralph said no more, did nothing, stood looking down at the ashes round his feet. Jack was loud and active. He gave orders, sang, whistled, threw remarks at the silent Ralph—remarks that did not need an answer, and therefore could not invite a snub; and still Ralph was silent. No one, not even Jack, would ask him to move and in the end they had to build the fire three yards away and in a place not really as convenient. So Ralph asserted his chieftainship and could not have chosen a better way if he had thought for days. Against this weapon, so indefinable and so effective, Jack was powerless and raged without knowing why. By the time the pile was built, they were on different sides of a high barrier.

*

No one said anything but the faces turned to Ralph were intent. He flourished the conch. He had learnt as a practical business that fundamental statements like this had to be said at least twice, before everyone understood them. One had to sit, attracting all eyes to the conch, and drop words like heavy round stones among the little groups that crouched or squatted. He was searching his mind for simple words so that even the littluns would understand what the assembly was about. Later perhaps, practised debaters – Jack, Maurice, Piggy – would use their whole art to twist the meeting: but now at the beginning the subject of the debate must be laid out clearly.

*

Power lay in the brown swell of his forearms; authority sat on his shoulder and chattered in his ear like an ape

 

Verdict: 9/10, a short, easy, fun read with a high insight-to-reading time ratio.

Book Notes – Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang

First book of the new year (week 1) was Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang.

Reviews from the book club were highly varied. Some loved it, some hated it, some had mixed feelings. I fell somewhere in the middle, giving it a solid 6.5/10.

The collection was evenly divided between stories that I thought were pretty good (Story of Your Life, Understand, Liking What you See) and others that I found pointless and plodding (Tower of Babylon, 72 Letters). They were generally strong in their world-building and premises, but weak at characterization, pacing, and giving the reader a feeling of payoff. Chiang’s stories start off strong, provoking curiosity by introducing us to interesting worlds, but they tend to sputter across the finish line, leaving me with a feeling of, “oh, so that’s it?”

This seems to be the author’s conscious choice, to eschew the standard plot beats and narrative checkboxes that we find in most western storytelling, but it doesn’t always work for me, at least not in this execution.

6.5/10, I somewhat enjoyed the book, and I’d recommendit to anyone who loves the genre, or has liked the author’s previous work.