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Monday, 12 February 2018

Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life - Adam Greenfield (2017)


Rating: Excellent


An excellent analysis of where we are at and where it all could take us; covers smart phones, the internet of things, augmented reality, digital fabrication (3D printing), cryptocurrency and blockchains (I understand it all now, sort of...), automation and machine learning (AI). Greenfield writes too much like an academic - lacking a bit of flair, but this is a small criticism. As Brian Eno says on the back cover blurb - 'This is an essential book.' I say - beware the hegemony of the stacks!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison (1952)



Rating: Excellent

A challenging and inventive examination of what it was to be a black American in the mid twentieth century. Complex, surreal, disturbing and unfortunately still relevant reading within the context of the ugliness of our times.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Hiatus







It has been a while coming, but I've decided to stop writing book reviews for the time being, perhaps for a year or so, in order to concentrate on other things. I will, however, be posting what I've read, including ratings and perhaps the odd comment.

Over the last six weeks or so I've finished reading three novels:





The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams (1979): Excellent

I first read this novel when I was 15, and it turns out that it is still brilliant; genuinely funny, weird and full of unforgettable characters. A deathless classic basically. 






In Search of Lost Time - Volume One: Swann's Way - Marcel Proust (1913): Excellent

One of the greats of the European literary canon; best to let yourself be absorbed into Proust's world if you attempt to read it.
 





Daniel Martin - John Fowles (1977): Excellent

A seriously adult novel, full of meditations on the self, sex, nationality and love.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

2017








It has been quite a year and looking back over what I’ve managed to read I feel a certain degree of satisfaction. Half of what I read is dictated by the book clubs I run at work and this year it has been a mostly satisfactory group of books. Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988) proved to be both the best book club book and the best book I read all year; it’s a near work of literary genius. Following close behind was The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (2011), which is a brilliant example of genre fiction that transcends perceived boundaries that come from those who feel that fantasy should not be taken seriously.

Ideas: A History From Fire to Freud by Perter Watson (2005) proved to be one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015) was the best science fiction book I read during the year, with Rudy Rucker’s Wetware (1988) a close second. Most of the other books I read this year had something going for them, even Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection (1999) had its moments, however not enough of them to avoid being selected as the worst book I read all year. Sorry Kate, who am I to judge really? When have I actually written a novel? Still, I can honestly say that I mostly hated it!

Now, if only I could get around to finishing that John Fowles novel....


Wednesday, 20 December 2017

All That Man Is - David Szalay (2016)








In 2010 Canadian born David Szalay was ranked seventeenth in The Telegraph’s list of Britain’s best novelists under 40 years of age. So what does it mean to be considered one of the best writers on such a list? Does it I mean that you write entertaining stories, that you are a leading ‘voice’ of a particular generation of writers, or that you are a writer who is pushing the boundaries of the novel? I have not read any of Szalay’s other novels, but if All That Man Is is typical of his writing then I’d say he falls under the latter definition. All That Man Is challenges the conception of what a novel is, being ostensibly a collection of short story like sections that are linked thematically. Szalay has presented All That Man Is as a novel, having given none of the sections titles and talking it up as a novel in interviews. He has also spoken of a degree of frustration and pointlessness regarding the novel at this point in history, and his desire to move beyond its ‘typical’ format. I admire both Szalay’s artistic verve and his efforts to expose readers to something new, but is the novel any good?

The answer to that question is yes, it is a fairly successful novel, with some reservations, and presents some serious themes that have relevance. All That Man Is is as much about the state of Europe (sans the refugee crisis though...) as it is about the state of manhood in this hyper-stimulated and fragmented age. All nine stories are set in Europe, beginning with two seventeen year old British students traveling the continent and ending with a retired seventy-something English civil servant in Italy, who is the grandfather of Simon, one of the teenagers in the first story and the only direct character link between the stories. Many of the stories share the weighty existential themes of a crisis of masculinity, coupled with a crisis of purpose. All the main protagonists are disaffected in some way, except for Kristian, a Scandinavian journalist who is at the peak of his powers professionally, yet tellingly he is also hypocritical, ruthless and morally bankrupt; however at least he is seizing the day, unlike the most of the other male protagonists. The underlying theme of the importance of living decisively is introduced early on in the novel when Simon reads a passage in an old Penguin classic called The Ambassadors (which I assume is the Henry James novel from 1903), in which the narrator makes an impassioned plea to live in the moment to avoid living in regret regarding what could have been experienced in life. Simon underlines the section and writes - “Major theme”, yet ultimately, and ironically, he fails to heed Henry James’ advice. Curiously Bernard, from Belgium, who also appears in a different story early in the book, is portrayed as a dead set loser, but ends up seizing more than the day when he is seduced by an obese mother and daughter combo in a tourist trap on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus (cue Bowie’s great 1979 song - Move On). Unlike many of the male protagonists I actually admired his spirit of adventure and enjoyed his story much more than some of the others that featured banal men leading banal lives, which is no doubt the point, but it still makes for some boring reading.

Female readers may be turned off by the portrayal of modern masculinity in All That Man Is, as the novel is a fairly honest but damning expose of men’s darker sides. Despite this there are moments of sympathy to be had. Murray, a down and out Englishman trying to chance his luck in Croatia has a singular lack of personal awareness, a charmless way with women and an emphatic guileless misjudgement of his fellow humans. Murray’s story provides some much needed pathos among the bathos (although there are both in his story). There are some nice shades of grey to be pondered over as well in some of the other stories. Who is the better man? The exploitative ‘boyfriend’ of Emma, the gorgeous Czech prostitute, who takes her to London for appointments that will bring much needed money; or Balazs, the amateur bodyguard who lusts after Emma but protects her with a noble intent despite it costing him his job in the end. Both men are dubious to say the least, yet both also display a degree of vulnerability and morality that belies their stations in life. Such subtle characterizations bring some depth to what might have been a simple exercise in condemning modern (European) man to the literal and existential gutter.

With All That Man Is Szalay does successfully stretch the boundaries of the novel somewhat, which is admirable even if some readers (many of my book club members detested the book) and critics are not enamoured with the novel. In a way it’s indicative that, as a format, the novel can withstand attempts to distort its form and Szalay joins quite a number of contemporary authors producing experimental work of varying degrees. Thematically perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this novel is Szalay’s portrayal of the European Union, rather than the behaviour of the men themselves. Many of the characters in the novel lead fluid lives, moving about Europe freely and decontextualizing themselves from their original nationalities in the process. The last story blends darkness and light, with Simon’s grandfather clutching onto an adolescent existential truth within his grandson’s poem that was sent to him in a letter, giving him a potential way through the last part of his life that is proving to be much more difficult than what came before. He faces the twilight his life having essentially lived a lie, harking back to the advice that lay within the Henry James quote read by Simon at the beginning of the book, advice that also seems to be offered to the reader, advice I will gladly take, whether I’ll act on it or not.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Ware Tetralogy: Software & Wetware - Rudy Rucker (1982 & 1988)








I’ve long had a kind of peripheral awareness of Rudy Rucker as a significant cyberpunk writer, but it has taken a long time for me to get around to reading his novels (seems like I’m always saying this...). I’ve had this omnibus of his Ware novels sitting on my shelf for sevens years now, still, here I am. Software and Wetware are the first two novels of the Ware Tetralogy. Software won the very first Philip K. Dick award in 1983 and Wetware won the award in 1988, which is extremely apt as both novels have a definite P. K. Dick feel about them thematically. Previously I’ve encountered Rucker via a story in the great cyberpunk collection Mirrorshades (1986) and his wild but strangely plausible essay 'The Great Awakening' that features in the brilliant book Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge (2008). Fortunately Rucker’s stylistic verve and psychedelic array of ideas displayed in 'The Great Awakening' is evident throughout both of these cyberpunk novels.

Software quickly introduces key protagonist Cobb Anderson, inventor of AI robots collectively known as boppers. In Rucker’s near future scenario (the novel is set in 2020) the baby boomers have created the greatest concentration of old people (now known as Pheezers, short for freaky geezers) that the planet has ever seen and the financial strain of trying to pay their pensions has resulted in the government handing over Florida to the elderly hoards, where they live for free supported by food drops. Anderson, who is both old and washed up career wise, is living in Florida waiting for the end. Meanwhile the boppers have rebelled and are mostly now confined to the moon, where they are engaged in a kind of civil war between the boppers, who are individualistic ambulatory robots, and the big boppers, who are large cybernetic ‘brains’ who want all robot consciousness to merge. At first Software comes across as a bit cartoonish and it is obvious that Rucker is no great stylist, however his prose is snappy in the way that the Beats were snappy, which is a definite advantage. Rucker also has a way with pacing and the narrative moves along briskly with regular plot developments and features dialogue that exudes a knowing sly wit.

The principal human characters are not overly complex creations, but they are rounded enough to take you through a world in which the bopper robots mostly dominate the narrative. The boppers have their own culture and thanks to Cobb are hardwired to constantly evolve, which means switching body types, creating ‘scions’ with other robots and rebelling against their initial Asimov inspired directives which had kept them under the control of humanity (to protect humans, to obey humans, to protect robots, unless it means harming humans). Cobb Anderson is joined by a young twenty something human known as Sta-Hi Mooney (meaning - stay high, of course...). Mooney, who takes full advantage of the era’s relaxed attitude toward drugs, is generally irreverent and irresponsible throughout the novel. They make quite a pair, particularly when they are smuggled to the moon by some of Cobb’s loyal boppers who want to ‘eat’ his brain in order to make him immortal. If it sounds like this novel is a wild ride into the outer realms of psychedelic science fiction then you are exactly right and if it’s your kind of thing them look no further, if it isn’t I advise you to be more like Sta-Hi and chill out and read it anyway.







Wetware is appropriately dedicated to Philip K. Dick and begins its particular brand of Rucker weirdness with a first chapter entitled ‘People That Melt’. Wetware is set 10 years after Software and both Cobb Anderson and Sta-Hi Mooney feature again. The novel is an improvement on Software in terms of style, the execution of ideas and world building. The first part is set on the moon, where humanity has taken back control of the surface city, known as Disky, and the still rebellious robots live underground in a vast network called The Nest. Once again the boppers really steal the show from the human characters. Their culture has become even more sophisticated and they come in all shapes and sizes, some have snake and crab like bodies, or simple box-like structures and some also have a tendency to favour their own versions of male or female personas, even though boppers are basically genderless. Some of the boppers converse in vernacular inspired by human writers from the past, like Bernice, a shiny chrome bopper who is shaped like a beautiful woman in order to manipulate hapless Luna humans. Bernice talks like a character from a Edgar Allen Poe novel, affected and slightly melodramatic. Male oriented boppers like Emul and Oozer take their speech patterns from the writings of Jack Kerouac, which naturally follows Rucker’s own style - a homage perhaps?

Plot wise Wetware is far more complex than Software, but I will not elaborate too much in order to avoid spoilers. The plot does, however, involve a really weird drug called Merge that when taken allows people to literally merge together, interlocking on a molecular level before becoming whole again as the drug wears off. Of course Sta-Hi, who now lives on the moon within Disky, becomes far too involved. Merge* acts as a great narrative device that allows Bernice and her ‘sisters’ to fulfill their plans to interfere with life on Earth, which is their chief fascination. Once again Rucker’s superb narrative pacing carries the plot along at breakneck speed and coupled with some funny and inventive dialogue from both the human and bopper characters it makes for a particularly unique reading experience. I absolutely loved Wetware for its sheer invention and narrative verve and subsequently I rank it as one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.




Rudy Rucker is a fascinating character in his own right; he is actually related to philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and has a PHD in mathematics, which are fine credentials for any science fiction author. He’s also a particularly prolific writer, with some twenty one novels to his name, some of which come under the sub-genre of his own devising called transrealim. Transrealism is not easily summed up in a few lines, so if you are interested then check out his essay ‘Transrealist Manifesto’ here. The Ware novels don’t exactly fall under his transrealism writings, rather they came earlier and are more like his own vision of cyberpunk. Rucker has a lot of interesting things to say about cyberpunk on his blog here. Personally I’ve come to the conclusion that with Rucker’s writing it is kind of like if one of the Beat writers had turned their hand at science fiction (for the record I wouldn’t call William Burroughs work science fiction). Hopefully I’ll have time to read Freeware (1997) and Realware (2000) pretty soon, although, once again, I’m always saying that.

* Really Merge should then have been included in Jeff Noon’s list of the top ten fictional drugs from novels.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Homegoing - Yaa Gyasi (2016)








A debut novel can be a fascinating thing, sometimes a brilliant start that a novelist may find difficult to live up to, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), or a false start that the novelist tries move on from, like Jack Kerouac’s The Town and the City (1950). Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, falls somewhere in-between these two extremes. Gyasi was born in Ghana but was raised in America, predominately in Alabama, and decided on becoming a writer after being inspired by the Toni Morrison novel Song of Solomon (1977). Homegoing itself was inspired by Gyasi’s visit to Ghana in 2009 and took her six years of work before the novel was accepted for publication by Knopf. The novel is quite ambitious, featuring a multitude of characters, spanning two centuries and does not contain a principal protagonist; rather it is divided into discrete chapters that come with a host of new characters (too many to adequately discuss here; one book club member counted over forty characters). Gaysi is mostly equal to her ambition and the novel can be considered a successful attempt at presenting slavery in a new light.

Homegoing is written in a refreshingly simple, direct style, but is complex in terms of the generational flow of characters. It begins with a fire lit by a woman of the Asante tribe, Maame, who is enslaved by the rival Fante tribe. She escapes but leaves behind her daughter Effia. Maame then returns to her people and has another daughter called Esi. Via alternating chapters Gyasi tells the stories of the descendants of each daughter. Effia’s descendants remain in Africa in the Gold Coast area that eventually became Ghana, and Esi’s descendants become slaves in America. Each chapter begins with fresh protagonists, which can be challenging for some readers, but fortunately Gyasi has created a host of sympathetic characters with enough colour and nuance to draw the reader in and win them over. The early part of the novel contains fascinating portrayals of African tribal life, beliefs and customs. I was shocked to learn that the peoples of the Gold Coast region were already engaged in slavery before European powers began trading slaves themselves. Slaves would be taken from opposing tribes and some were then sold to slave traders from North Africa and the Middle East. It made me wonder just why this was completely unknown to me after all the history associated with slavery I’ve been exposed to throughout my life.

One of the strengths of the novel is that many of the characters display a moral complexity that transcends their position as either victim or oppressor. When Effia is given as an African bride to her English master, James Collins, we discover that Collins is not merely an evil white slaver, but can be kind and has enough moral awareness to suffer some degree of guilt and horror regarding the slave trade. The African side of Homegoing is the most engaging throughout much of the novel, with its range of well-rounded characters and unfamiliar historical context. The American side takes in the oppression of black Americans after the abolition of slavery, through imprisonment and forced labour and the poverty and drug addiction of city life throughout the early part of the twentieth century. Despite such tragic themes the narrative becomes marginally more prosaic, causing the latter third of the novel to fall away slightly. It picks up again when Gyasi takes us into the modern era that features a character called Marjorie, who is perhaps based on her own life experiences. Within this modern cultural context the disparate narrative strands of the novel come together and offer a satisfying conclusion that could have easily descended into cliche at the hands of a lesser writer.

Homegoing addresses some important themes, such as slavery, family bonds, and the shaping forces of history on individuals. Although the novel encompasses a significant historical period, perhaps its greatest strength is that Gyasi makes only fleeting references to significant historical events, even the American Civil War only gets a few sentences. Instead the novel conveys its history via the characters personal stories, their struggles, triumphs and the weight of familial burdens that take generations to resolve. This gives the novel some emotional gravitas, which underlines the profound effects of the forces of history on the individual. Although Homegoing is not a literary masterpiece, it can be considered to be an important book. Slavery, much like the Holocaust, is a subject that is not going to go away and therefore it is important that we find new ways of addressing its legacy, particularly at this point in history in which right-wing hatred is on the rise once more. Coincidentally when I finished this novel I watched the movie Get Out (2017), which provided a fresh perspective on slavery within the unlikely context of a postmodern horror narrative. Humanity needs more stories like these to help us make sense of both our past and our present, which is why the novelistic form is so important culturally, rather than just being a means to entertain ourselves, something that we should not lose sight of in our hyper-distracted world.