Mini-reviews of books I read last month: two fiction and two non-fiction. 1. "Civilisation: The West and the Rest" by Niall Ferguson <http://www.amazon.com/Civilization-West-Rest/dp/1594203059> Written by Niall Ferguson, a Scottish-born Harvard history professor, this is an ambitious attempt to explain why Western civilisation has been dominant for the past five hundred years. Obviously, a lot of what is written is open for debate, and any broad analysis of history can help but be both selective and subjective. Over the years several historians have written overviews of civilisation before (e.g. Kenneth Clark). Ferguson argues that there are "six identifiably novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours". He calls them the West's "killer apps": competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. He argues that "it was not just Western superiority that led to the conquest and colonization of so much of the rest of the world; it was also the fortuitous weakness of the West’s rivals". He also asks, in light of the Global Financial Crisis and the rise of China as an economic superpower, if we are witnessing the decline of the West's latest golden age. This a very readable overview of the past five centuries. While you could argue with the generalisations and interpretation of events, the author makes an interesting case. The mixed ratings on Amazon reflect the at times divisive and contentious nature of some of the views presented. In the preface, the author says that his motivation was in response to the lamentable and politically-correct nature of history education, as he sees it. A six-part TV series is based on the book, and is currently screening on SBS Australia: <http://www.sbs.com.au/documentary/program/885/Civilisation:-Is-the-West-History?> <http://www.channel4.com/programmes/civilization-is-the-west-history> The author recently wrote a timely book on the history of finance called "The Ascent of Money", which was also made into a TV series. 2. "Embassytown" by China Miéville <http://www.amazon.com/Embassytown/dp/0345524497> This is the latest "New Weird" novel by award-winning British author, China Miéville. Avice lives in a colony called "Embassytown" on the planet Ariekei, out in deep space. Humans and the native race of insectoids, called the Hosts, have developed a symbiotic culture over many years. This is quite an achievement given the vast differences between them. For example, the Hosts have a language that requires two mouths, each speaking different words simultaneously. In order to communicate effectively, the humans have genetically engineered clones/ twins that speak the language as an "Ambassador" pair. Another complication is that the Hosts' language is entirely literal. There is no concept of symbolism, and no facility to tell lies. The delicate social and political balance on Ariekei is upset when a new ambassador arrives, and literally intoxicates the Hosts when the ambassador pair speaks to them. There are many interesting ideas in this novel. Some are weird takes on traditional sci-fi concepts, such as hyperspace travel, alien civilisations, colonisation, biotechnology and terraforming. But these mostly just set the scene. The novel is basically an exploration of language, and the idea that language influences thought (part of linguistic relativity). The plot is an excuse to explore this idea, with political intrigue and an inevitable clash of civilisations as the climax. Arguably there are too many ideas here, and not enough space is given to explore them properly. Normally I don't like thick novels, but some of these ideas could've benefitted from more elaboration, or left out altogether. The reader's job is complicated further by time differences and made-up words, which need to be determined from the context. This is standard fare for science fiction, but even seasoned sci-fi readers could struggle. Overall, an interesting novel. It's been nominated for several awards, though I wouldn't recommended to people new to sci-fi. Unless you're particularly interested in the underlying premise that language shapes thought, or like reading about new and strange things. Instead, I'd recommend "The City & the City" by the same author, which is more satisfying and easier to follow. If time is short and you want to hear what other people have to say about the novel, check out this episode of The Incomparable Book Club podcast: <http://5by5.tv/incomparable/52> 3. "Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying" by Roald Dahl <http://www.amazon.com/Over-You-Stories-Flying/dp/0141189657> Roald Dahl is mostly known for his children's books, such as "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Fantastic Mr Fox". But he also wrote books for adults. This is a collection of ten short stories based on his experiences as an RAF fighter pilot in North Africa and southern Europe during World War II. As such, they are quite different in tone and much darker than his more famous works. In this collection we get a pilot's eye view of life in the air force in wartime. He rather de-glamourises life as a fighter pilot. There's a lot of anxious waiting, boredom, and the looming hand of fate. Several stories have unexpected twists. My favourites are "An African Story" and "Beware of the Dog". 4. "Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think" edited by Andy Oram and Greg Wilson <http://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Code/dp/0596510047> This is a collection of over thirty essays and case studies about software, written by a professionals in the field. Each chapter presents and discusses "the most beautiful piece of code" the author has seen. As such, the book is probably aimed at people working in or familiar with the software development process. A broad cross-section of programming languages is presented, but usually it isn't essential that the reader knows the intricacies of each language to understand what's going on. In some cases, authors saw beauty in the fine detail of the language statements themselves, while others were more concerned with the overall architecture and structure of the program. Various problem domains are covered, including text processing, project management, genetics, mathematics, operating systems and accessibility. I generally found the chapters on "big picture" issues more interesting, largely because they didn't place the emphasis on the specifics of the individual languages used. Overall, I found this book a bit patchy. This was in part due to each chapter being written by a different author. The nature of the problem being solved and the language used also had a bearing. Beauty is subjective after all. My favourite chapters include: "Treating Code As an Essay" (by the inventor of Ruby), "When a Button Is All That Connects You to the World" (which discusses a program that had the one line spec: 'Professor Stephen Hawking can only press one button'), "Code in Motion" (based on "The Seven Pillars of Pretty Code") and "Writing Programs for 'The Book'" (where the task was to determine programmatically if three points all lie on the same straight line).