May 29, 2011

N-Space, by Larry Niven

I once again return to my favorite science fiction author, Larry Niven. This is a collection of short stories and excerpts drawn together to commemorate the anniversary of Niven's first published work. I was pleased that I'd only already read one of the stories, and was, as usual, thrilled with his other works. One story that particularly stands out is a little different from Niven's usual in that it is, at heart, a love story, and rather less snarky than his writing is normally. Niven's introductions to each piece are illuminating and interesting. I especially enjoyed the few essays in the collection, which display what is clearly a towering intellect that is often toned down for novelizations. These works, again, leave me hungry for more Niven, and I look forward to one day owning his entire body of work.

May 4, 2011

A World Lit Only by Fire, by William Manchester

Since I first expressed interest in the Middle Ages, people have been telling me to read this book. Funny, since it's actually about the Renaissance...

The writing is undeniably engaging. Manchester, despite his penchant for rather esoteric vocabulary, is quite readable. His narrative is impassioned and informative, without ever sounding dry. He tends, in fact, to get a little over-emotional at times. The end of his book quickly becomes a paean to heroism, generally, and Ferdinand Magellan, specifically, and it ends on the rather uncomfortable note (even for an atheist) of insisting that religion and the belief in God are dying and will continue to fade away. I don't necessarily disagree with Manchester on this point - though in light of recent cultural happenings, perhaps it is too soon to reach such a conclusion - but the tone is almost denigrating towards those who do still espouse religious beliefs.

I also ran into the same problem that I did with Charles Freeman, namely, that Manchester seemed to begin with the base assumption that the medieval period was absolutely, positively, disgustingly horrendous. Now, I'm not about to argue that it was a fantastic place and time to live, but I do try to withhold certain judgments because, as a product of my own time and place, it is impossible for me to truly comprehend what it was like living back then. Sure, life expectancy was terrible, and hygiene wasn't even close to acceptable, and religious/"superstitious" (Manchester's own term) beliefs were unquestioned, but had I actually lived then, having not known anything else, would it really have been all that bad?

In short, though Manchester's writing is excellent and informative, I prefer my non-fiction reading to be a little less judgmental, and a little less preachy.