Review: “The Andromeda Strain” by Michael Crichton

andromedaThis review is my second review for the Guardian 1000 Books You Must Read challenge. It does not count toward any of the requirements other than the 10 books, since it is also in the Crime section. You can also see all the reviews for this challenge.

In The Andromeda Strain, after a spacecraft crashes to Earth a “biological crisis” ensues and certain Top Secret government protocols are initiated. Can the most brilliant scientists in America prevent disaster?

This book is very short and very easy to read. It only took me three days to blow through it. This is in stark contrast to most of Crichton’s other work that I’ve come into contact with (like, say, Jurassic Park). I think this was mainly an artifact of the abrupt ending; the book could have probably been twice as long as it was, it just sort of ends with a twist instead and leaves you to sort out the pieces.

I was also surprised to find it in the “Crime” section on the list: I would have thought it more science fiction, although I suppose the bulk of the book is CSI-style investigation using fairly realistic science. The only unrealistic science (at least, it seems that way to me) is when Crichton extrapolates the technology he feels the government must have in its secret labs based on what technology was available publicly at the time.

Ths book rubbed me a little bit the wrong way on some things, mainly due to my libertarian sensibilities. Crichton appears to put great confidence in the ability of the government and top scientists in the private community to both make and keep secret scientific discoveries for long periods of time. One such example is a pill that causes all bacteria in your body to die that apparently “cures cancer” though with negative side effects. Another example is the existence of the lab featured in the story itself. I don’t feel the government is competent enough to conceal this kind of information.

Overall this is a book definitely good enough and short enough for everyone to enjoy. The Guardian made a good choice here.

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Review: “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell

postmortemThis review is my first review for the Guardian 1000 Books You Must Read challenge. It counts as the book I had never heard of and as the book from the Crime section. If I want to finish the challenge, I’d better hurry up!

Postmortem, a mystery by Patricia Cornwell, is a dated but still exciting mystery story set in Richmond Virginia. The story is told primarily from the point of view of Dr. Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of the state of Virginia, as she attempts to assist in solving the case of a serial murderer. Other characters include her precocious niece, a grizzled police officer and several politicians doing their normal political maneuverings.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was its inherent feminism. Though it is not incredibly blatant, many of the main characters are strong-willed and competent women. There are Dr. Scarpetta herself, her niece who is a computer whiz, her sister who writes successful children’s novels, the database tech where she works, an intrepid reporter and the first murdered character who is also a doctor. While I don’t think it would be notable today to have women in all these strong roles, they seemed somewhat anachronistic to me because the novel is set in the late 80’s or early 90’s (as far as I could tell).

Additionally, many of the men in the story (including both initially sympathetic characters and fundamentally evil ones such as the murderer) treat women very badly; as either objects of desire to be manipulated and discarded or lesser beings to be ignored and dismissed. This plays into the stereotype of all men as fundamentally rooted in the patriarchy, another aspect of some branches of feminism.

Another thing that felt anachronistic to me was all the smoking in the book; The main character and most of the people she interacts with smoke and do so in their offices and even in the morgue where she works. This brought me out of the story, although it is of course perfectly expected in the time period in which the book is set (especially in Virginia). It also repelled me from some scenes; it not only brought me out of the story but also made me want to leave the room that the characters were in; even to imagine watching the scene in the smoke-filled room was repellent. This is interesting to me because I don’t have any problem watching movies where people are smoking.

The role that the medical examiner plays in the political system and the fact that Dr. Scarpetta’s office appeared to do multiple autopsies a day reminded me of the recent flap among Libertarian circles about Dr. Stephen Hayne, who performed thousands of autopsies a year in Mississippi and Louisiana and served as an expert witness for the prosecution who was willing to back up whatever claims they wanted him to, which resulted in many false convictions. The book helped accentuate the political power and the responsibility that a medical examiner faces; their mistakes or a lack of ethics can cause great tragedy (such as false imprisonment or even execution of the falsely accused).

Overall, ignoring those anachronisms, it was a well-structured and paced mystery story. While I am somewhat unfamiliar with the genre, certainly seems like it could stand as an archetype. This may be why the Guardian selected it for their list of 1000 Books You Must Read. I am reminded of a post I recently read about the fact that the business model for mystery books could be changed in a technologically advanced world: the first 90% of the book could be free, with a charge necessary only to see the final 10%. I think this book would do well with this business model.

Mini-Review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Those of you who saw my bookcase filled with recommendations may have noticed two books on there by Cory Doctorow: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Eastern Standard Tribe. I am a fan of Doctorow’s work, and his newest title, Little Brother, did not change that. Like all of Doctorow’s books, you can read it online for free. This is the first book of his where I went that route instead of buying the hard copy.

Ostensibly written for the young adult crowd, Little Brother is the story of a young man from San Francisco who gets caught up in a DHS dragnet after a terrorist attack.  He is treated like a suspected terrorist and vows to take his revenge the only way he knows how: by using and spreading technology that will help people keep themselves safe and secure, and that will foil any DHS plans that violate the bill of rights and the freedom of Americans.

Doctorow always writes very simply and forthrightly, and I think that he did not have to work very hard to fit his style to the young adult genre.  The book is perfectly accessible to adult audiences as well, and actually some of the simplified explanation of various technologies such as cryptography and DNS is helpful to the average adult reader as well.

I thought the book very good; I generally don’t review things I don’t like, but I did find a few faults, and no review would be complete without at least mentioning them.  The characterization, I felt, was pretty weak.  I didn’t identify with the characters as strongly as I thought I would; I generally share their politics and their passion for technology but their personality and personal details were left very vague.  The somewhat stilted nature of the romantic and sex scenes didn’t help.

Overall the strength and passion of the politics of the book are what make it worth reading.  What is a society like when everyone is a suspected terrorist?  What is it like to be arrested and imprisoned as an enemy combatant?  Why is the bill of rights important and in what ways is it being trampled?  Do we have a responsibility to fight for freedoms we cherish dearly?  I’ll leave you with a quotation from the Declaration of Independence which features prominently in the book:

Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Revolutionary!  Read this book!

Mini-Review: Radicals for Capitalism by Brian Doherty

So, I’ve been reading this book for two months, and I finally finished it.

I mostly only read on the Metro on the way to work and back, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking instead of reading, due to recent events. Whenever I bring my book into work, people ask “what are you reading?” and I know there are at least a few people who I had to tell it was the same book four or five times. I don’t know what this says about the book, it’s not *that* long, but it speaks more to my state of mind lately.

The book itself is a history of the libertarian movement, specifically focusing on four of the leading lights in the movement: Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Everyone I tried to explain this to had only heard of Rand, and only vaguely, but I was already familiar with the works of all four. I, of course, recommend that everyone know who they are, but doubt that anyone will.

Two things struck me about the book, mainly. First: every name that could have been dropped, was. I think this is a testament to the amount of research that went into the book, and is also indicative of my second point: the movement, from the 50’s to the 80’s, seems so small and so interconnected. Anyone who was a libertarian was at most two steps away from someone mentioned in the book. Nowadays it’s so different. I don’t really correspond with anyone in the movement, I just learn about it on the internet.

And that meant I didn’t know the history of the movement, until now. I think the book is definitely useful for people like me where that is the case.