Reading List 2011 (12/99)

Recent reading:

  • The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh
  • Blood Music, Greg Bear
  • Oaths and Miracles, Nancy Kress
  • They Shall Have Stars, James Blish
  • A Life for the Stars, James Blish
  • Earthman, Come Home, James Blish
  • The Triumph of Time, James Blish
  • Phases, Elizabeth Moon
  • Globalhead, Bruce Sterling
  • Great Work of Time, John Crowley
  • The Dreaming Jewels, Theodore Sturgeon
  • When Atheism Becomes Religion, Chris Hedges

With the exception of Ghosh and Blish, I found this batch of books oddly disappointing – more so in retrospect than when I first read them. Usually I’m a sucker for time travel stories, like Crowley’s novella; disaster novels, like Bear’s; or science thrillers like Kress’s. I can’t even put my finger on what’s left me less than delighted with these books, except perhaps that I’ve read a lot of really excellent things since I finished these.

The Calcutta Chromosome is worth a note; it’s a science fiction / thriller / lit-fic / ghost story set in, unsurprisingly, Calcutta. I particularly liked the section on the history of malaria research, which fictionalizes the personalities and discoveries to the tune of “Isn’t it so very strange that anything ever gets figured out this way? Perhaps there’s a secret conspiracy!” I also enjoyed the way Ghosh pulls from many different literary traditions – a bit of a British spy novel here, a bit of a Japanese ghost story here – to make something that’s entirely his own.

The other book here I won’t soon forget is Hedges’ work on atheism. I picked it up because I’m a firm supporter of separation of church and state, but deeply put off by the atheist movement. I wanted to try to understand what’s going on in that movement that makes me so uncomfortable*.

Hedges argues that movement atheism, or at least several of its prominent leaders, places science as the deity in a fundamentalist worldview. Progress becomes an almost eschatological event. If only humans can be perfected and freed of their foolish beliefs, the world will be transformed; any little bumps** in getting there are worthwhile sacrifices to this vision. Perhaps you can see the trouble with this approach?

After talking about the book with my husband, though, I wonder whether I read the book I wanted Hedges to write, not the book he actually wrote. The book in my head was a beautiful paean to not-knowing; to the glorious imperfection of humanity; to the unending struggle to be good and kind and loving, in a world that is none of the above. It argued against a teleologically driven fundamentalism, in favor of a questioning path that acknowledges the messiness of day-to-day life. It showed the reader how to live more honestly, with God or without.

If that’s not the book he wrote, maybe someday I’ll have to write it myself.

* Besides, of course, being hostile to women. See Richard Dawkins’ recent misogynistic spewings for an example. I really enjoy his science writing, so it’s a shame I can’t buy anything he writes ever again.

** Like, say, the pervasive Islamophobia Hedges documents. Seriously disturbing.

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