|« December 2013|
We lived in Australia for a few years in the early '90s, and naturally made some wonderful friends there. For Christmas this year, our friends Doug and Trisha Paice sent me a copy of The Parrot's Theorem, by Denis Guedj. It's a novel about the history of mathematics, and it fits my criteria for great gifts: I wouldn't have bought it for myself, but I'm delighted to have it. I'm halfway through, and it's a lot of fun.
If you're looking for just a good page-turner of a novel, you can safely skip it -- the story probably won't grab you if you don't have at least a passing interest in the history of mathematics. And there are some distinct weaknesses in the writing (which I think may be due to a sloppy translation from the original French). But it's fantastic for me ... I find the basic theme interesting, and I would love to know more about it, but I probably wouldn't bother to slog through a serious book about the history of mathematics. But the fictional story of The Parrot's Theorem gives the topic a narrative structure that makes it a fun and easy read.
(Additionally, through this book I was reminded of another book that I had heard of but forgotten: Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. Supposedly it is a terrific book, working better as a novel than The Parrot's Theorem. I'll have to add it to my wish list.)
About a week before Christmas I was rereading Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. It's a really interesting book, in part because of its form: it is quite definitely a science fiction novel, but it is structured as a Victorian novel, complete with the distinctive chapter headings: a little graphical ornament, and a short synopsis of the events that will happen in the chapter.
Then I spent a lunch break at the bookstore, and came across a book I'd heard many good things about: To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. Based on universally good reviews, I've been wanting to read it for a few years, and I was in a hurry, so I just snatched it from the shelf and bought it on an impulse.
Lo and behold, it's another Victorian science-fiction novel. Without planning it, I find myself in the position of simultaneously reading two Victorian science fiction novels. There can't be too many books that fit that description; what an interesting coincidence.
The excerpt definitely made me want to read more. (I've been getting hungry for more from Stephenson anyway.) It takes place around the turn of the 19th century, on the cusp of the Enlightenment. We see the ancestors of Lawrence Waterhouse and Bobby Shaftoe, along with Isaac Newton, Liebniz, a young Ben Franklin, the founding of MIT, and -- as many have suspected -- Enoch Root.
It's the first volume of a series called The Baroque Cycle, and apparently it will be published in October, 2003.
It could still slip, of course, but the transformation into three novels rings true: shortly after the release of Cryptonomicon, Stephenson talked about his next book and said it was nearly finished, but that there would actually be several books in the loosely coupled series begun with Cryptonomicon. Since then, however, he's been saying stuff like "I have this book I want to finish, and I'm a long way from finishing it." It's been clear for a while that there was some sort of major change in direction for Quicksilver, so maybe this explains something of what happened.