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Sunday, 21 March 2021

Extraterrestrial - Avi Loeb (2021)


Rating: Excellent

Being interesting in all things astronomical, I distinctly remember in 2017 the reports of a strange object, eventually dubbed Oumuamua (Hawaiian for 'scout'), visiting our inner solar system at a trajectory that could only mean that it came from deep space. Although no direct images were taken of the object it was observed as closely as we could at short notice and astronomers ascertained that it was a cigar-shaped object, possibly an asteroid or a comet. I also remember later reports of a scientist (which turned out to be Loeb) who proclaimed that Oumuamua was in fact a piece of alien technology, possibly a 'star-sail'. I remember scoffing at the idea and thinking that the astronomer had been reading too much science fiction. Now comes Avi Loeb's book and I have to say that he presents a convincing case, outlining logical arguments that both counter the idea that Oumuamua is a natural phenomenon and supporting his theory that it is in fact alien technology. 

I will not go into great details about Loeb's theories (read the book), but one of the two observations that won me over is that Oumuamua "...deviated from an orbit shaped by the sun's gravity without showing any discernible cometary tail..." For those that don't know, when these kinds of objects near the sun they outgas vapours which then usually alter their speed and/or trajectory - there was no evidence of outgassing, despite our best observations, and yet, to paraphrase Loeb paraphrasing Galileo, it moved. The other observation is that Oumuamua was travelling at a speed that placed it 'at rest' relative to the speeds of the stars in our neighbourhood (known is the Local Standard of Rest - LSR), meaning that relative to our solar-system it was pretty much standing still and we ran into it. Loeb likens Oumuamua to a buoy, perhaps placed in that position for a particular purpose, which really gets the imagination going.

Oumuamua's trajectory

Getting the imagination going is certainly one of the results of reading Extraterrestrial, however the more I read Loeb's book the more I got the impression that he was holding back from extrapolating too much about the startling implications of alien technology visiting our solar-system (lest his arguments be weakened and left open to attack?). Loeb takes a great deal of care to explain just how statistically improbable it would be that such a weird object, if natural, would be observed entering our solar-system by us within the very short time we have had those kinds of capabilities (< than a century) - such an object would have to be leaving other solar systems at a continual and prodigious rate, such is the vastness of our cosmos; but he doesn't then state that this notion means that it is definitely a piece of alien technology, rather it is another piece of supporting evidence. Loeb does, however, spend a great deal of the book lamenting the conservative state of scientific academia and the fact that well established theoretical paradigms such as string theory and supersymmetry, which have no supporting evidence, are routinely explored and yet the notion of extraterrestrial life gets short shrift by many scientists. Loeb evokes the example of Gallilao's discoveries being silenced by the Catholic Church in his arguments, which would no doubt piss off many up-tight scientists working in Loeb's field (that's another thing, Loeb isn't a fringe scientist, he's based at Harvard and has a multitude of important papers on subjects such as black holes behind him, he's very credible). Not coincidently other scientists have just put forward an updated version of what they think Oumuamua might be, perhaps as a refutation of Loeb's successful book. Having read it I'm still more convinced by Loeb's arguments.

Those (few) who read this blog regularly may recall that recently I reviewed Whitley Strieber's book, Communion (1987), and being dubious about Strieber's supposed 'encounters' with aliens here on Earth. Arthur C. Clarke once suggested that if aliens turned up their technology would be so advanced it would seem like magic to us. Perhaps this would be the case, certainly in some regards, however there's pretty hard evidence that to travel great distances quickly through space in a safe way is an extremely difficult thing to do, therefore aliens such as those in Communion would be unlikely (unless they arrived via generation ships - see below...). The best way around it is not to try and send out flesh and blood into the cosmos, but rather machines. Oumuamua could be one such machine, and why not?, humanity is doing such things right now. I've always thought, and in this book Loeb also talks along the same lines, that if you think about what humanity is capable of right now, or is theoretically capable of if time and money were not issues, it would be reasonable to assume that any intelligent aliens would also be capable of similar, and as Clarke noted, quite possibly a whole lot more. What if alien cultures were out there in near-by star systems and they sent out probes to examine local star systems looking for interesting planetary systems to contact or perhaps to visit (via extremely slow generation ships that travel for millennia - the only way to do it safely really). If so, maybe Oumuamua is reporting back and one day our solar-system will be visited. What would they find? Unfortunately, the way humanity is going, only remnants of a species with great potential that couldn't get through the 'Great Filter' of technology that both provides great promise and at the same time the very means of our destruction.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

Trio - William Boyd (2020)


Rating: Admirable

I do believe that William Boyd has written Trio as an antidote to our pandemic blighted times, after all, who needs more darkness and intensity from their literature when it's already happening in society. Trio is a perfect 'light read', with some potentially heavy themes rendered with a, shall we say, light touch. The novel, set in 1968, involves three characters who are all involved with the making of a film set in Brighton - Elfrida Wing, Talbot Kidd and Anna Viklund. Anna is acting in the film that Talbot is producing and Elfrida is a lapsed novelist married to the director, a man called Reggie who, comically, insists on being called Rodrigo. Although the main three protagonists are given quite a bit of page time it is Talbot who tends to dominate; an old school closet case who fought in WWII and stands as a man out of time, surrounded by bright new things such as the gorgeous Anna and her young co-star Troy Blaze. Talbot juggles a multitude of problems that keep getting worse, whilst Anna finds that her extremely dodgy terrorist ex-husband keeps turning up and the police are involved. Elfrida is perhaps the least sympathetic, to me at least, as she irritated me somewhat, with her alcoholism and attempts at writing a novel about the last day of Virgina Wolf, although this actually led to some quite funny moments as she keeps trying to rewrite the opening paragraph (finally resorting to imagining Wolf farting as she wakes up).

Boyd juggles the three characters well and the minor characters are all quite well rendered. The dominant theme is that of identity - the dichotomy between one's inner world and the self that fronts the world at large. The darker themes, such as alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, the danger of being an outed gay man (even after the laws against it had changed) and organised crime do not overly dominate the novel. Often when it looks like one of these themes will lead a character into darker territory Boyd shows restraint and the novel goes back to being an interesting and entertaining narrative about the complexities of making a film. Only Anna slips into the darkness, but even that is handled in a manner in which the reader is shielded from the worst. Trio comes across as literary fiction having a holiday (in Brighton?) by masquerading as popular fiction, which ultimately is absolutely fine. Boyd also chooses not to involve the novel too much in the tumultuous world events of the times, like the Vietnam war, the assassination of Martin Luther King and another Kennedy assassination (Robert). The Paris riots and revolutionary fervour features indirectly as a means for Talbot to begin a running joke that he had been punched in the face by a French philosopher, you'll understand if you read the novel. You could do much worse than Trio, which would be a fine summer read or a good book club read - my book clubs mostly enjoyed it and the discussions were entertaining enough, and sometimes that's enough.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Zero K - Don DeLillo (2016)


Rating: Sublime

Having read Mao II (1991) recently I knew I needed some more DeLillo in my life, my favourite author. Zero K has been in my possession for quite a while and it was worth the wait. By the end of the novel I came to the conclusion that it is among his greatest, a late period DeLillo classic. The first section, entitled - In the Time of Chelyabinsk, is one of DeLillo’s finest moments, in which protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart meets his billionaire father at a secret and remote high-tech labyrinthine compound. Within the underground compound Jeffrey is confronted by a programme that aims to preserve human bodies until a time in which medical science can begin life anew. Here death can be induced purposely and this process is presented as a highly desirable endgame, as evidenced by the symbolic and ritualistic positioning of preserved human ‘heralds’, leading the way for others who may falter in their commitment to joining the modern day underworld. DeLillo's usual pared back, yet poised prose, is a perfect medium in which to explore the profound existential themes at play. The compound reveals its secrets in a manner which only highlights its mysteries. It’s brilliantly done, even by DeLillo's high standards.

As Zero K progressed it had the usual effect on my everyday perceptions. DeLillo, once again, made me view the world differently. How many authors have that power? Not that many. DeLillo's usual obsessions are featured throughout the novel, the profound contrasted by the banal, the swarming homeless, the lost contrasted with the purposeful; the power of art, particularly visual art, and the use of observational narrative that takes in the world around the characters, as if their external world is thinking for them. The major theme that emerges, to my mind in any case, is the question of whether human life is worthy of potential quasi-immortality, followed by the notion that bowing to the inevitability of death gives life, (Jeffrey’s OCD effected and aimless life in particular), meaning. The fact that Jeffrey’s life is the polar opposite of his overachieving father’s life presents the reader with this concept to absorb and ponder in their own way. DeLillo no longer plays with post-modern themes, at the end of his life he is rightly exploring the very meaning of what it is to exist and for this I'm grateful. I’m the first to acknowledge that DeLillo's work is not for everyone. People reading Zero K, or any of his novels, may come away confused and perhaps underwhelmed, however ultimately I have to enthusiastically concur with those who regard DeLillo as America’s greatest living novelist.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Lyonesse: Book One: Suldrun's Garden - Jack Vance (1983)


Rating: Excellent

I could count on one hand the amount of fantasy novel's I have read in my life so far, so taking a punt on Lyonesse, which I found at a great op-shop just down the road from the library, was a necessary step out of my comfort zone. Growing up I tried to read fantasy, but soon found that I much preferred science fiction. Fortunately Lyonesse is just fantastic, a well written and thoroughly enjoyable fantasy epic that is merely the first part of a trilogy. I found all three at the op-shop, so I will be reading those in the near future. Meanwhile, just why is the novel so good? Firstly Vance is a classy writer, his prose is efficient, nuanced and sophisticated. Often I would re-read passages simply because they were both beautiful and eventful. Vance displays a great ability to propel the story forward, even when characters were stuck in an impasse or during a bridging section of the narrative. Often the novel focusses on one character, like the princess Suldrun, for long periods, however this is absorbing rather than limiting and the overall effect is deeper immersion into Vance's world building, which is one of the reasons why this novel is so satisfying.

The novel includes a map, of course.

The place known as Lyonesse is itself part of a group of islands off the southern tip of England called the Elder Isles, islands that are actually part of English mythology and where King Arthur was supposedly taken (to Avallon) before, at some point, the entire group of islands were engulfed by the ocean. Vance populates the islands with various kingdoms where humans indulge in deeds of both good and evil. Among the humans are also a multitude of magical creatures, from faeries, trolls, ogres, mermaids, imps, to witches and warlocks. Vance cleverly gives the reader a tour of the Elder Isles via the journeys and adventures of Aillas, heir to the throne on the southern island of Troicinet. Allias firstly circumnavigates the islands by sail-boat and then, due to treachery, is thrown overboard, only to wash up on the shore of Suldrun's garden, where she has been banished by her father, King Casmer, for not marrying the rather ornately named Faude Carfilhiot. Allias' involvement with Suldrun and his flight from Lyonnese to travel through the lands of the Elder Isles propels the narrative forward in adventurous and dramatic ways. Allias' travels through Tantrevalles forest are particularly satisfying, where he encounters all manner of magical creatures and suffers both tribulation and success. I came to suspect that Vance is highly regarded by fantasy fans, something that was confirmed when I mentioned him to my partner's brother, who is a Dungeons and Dragons aficionado (in fact I played my first ever game recently), and he indicated that in his opinion Vance was one of the best. Vance also wrote science fiction, so I'll be checking some of those novels out as well, as fortunately there were quite a few at the above mentioned op-shop, someone's collection no doubt, and now part of mine! Now that's what I call a happy ending.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

The Returns - Philip Salom (2019)


Rating: Admirable

The Returns is one of those books that is about everything, and yet nothing (yes, like Seinfeld), and so therefore is a true piece of literary fiction. There's a slight plot, about two middle aged people finding each other, but mostly the novel is heavily thematic. Salom covers a lot of bases, such as art and its inherent value as therapy through creativity for the artist and a provider of that spark of existential recognition for the consumer of that art. There's childhood trauma, and how readily it shapes the life of the adult. Elizabeth, a waif-like neurotic (although in a charming way), who is a work from home editor of novels (of course), has an aged former Rajneeshee mother to deal with, whilst Trevor, an overweight book-shop owning divorcee who is struggling to rediscover his artistic spark has to deal with his narcissistic Polish father returning from being declared dead. At the heart of the novel is the value of friendship and the importance of new beginnings, two things that most middle-agers (not new-agers) would recognise as being vitally important ingredients in finding some meaning in life just when you need it.

The Returns is also the kind of book in which you suddenly realise that the author is channelling his thoughts about art through the dialogue and inner thoughts of the characters, which is mostly okay, until it becomes very obvious. This occurs when Trevor attends his ex partner's birthday party held in his former home and crashes in on a millennial conversation about poetry (Salom himself is actually predominately a poet) and proceeds the wax lyrical about poetry and novels being hallucinatory, that narratives are drugs that work for some people and not for others, which coincidently is an apt description of my bookclubs' reaction to this novel. I will not hold it against Salom, as it is exactly the kind of thing I'd do if I could actually write a decent novel, which is what The Returns is actually. By the time you get to the end you've really got to know Elizabeth and Trevor and also the host of quite well rounded minor characters. The ending also contains a really tasteful rendering of a relationship changing gear, without any of the cliches and heavy-handedness you may find elsewhere. So, if you like literary fiction in which the kind of 'shit happens' that is typical for middle-aged protagonists to endure, combined with some meaty themes, then this novel is for you. If not then look elsewhere, perhaps in the very shop that Trevor owns, where he will ponder his interaction with you and relate it to either his own life or broader and more nebulous philosophical considerations.                                      

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

2020 - Reading Through the Calamity: The Best and Worst (of Times)


My latest read - some fantasy!

As we all know, 2020 was a doozy, however I still managed to get a bit of reading done. I'll get right to it: reviewing the year I realise that I awarded no sublime ratings, it obviously just wasn't a year for the very best, however there were quite a few excellent ratings, the best of which was Vernor Vinge's novel A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), which simply burst with ideas and was written to a high standard. Damascus (2019) by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas was superb as well, uncompromising and compelling, it was also the best book club book I read all year, particularly as many book club choices were admirable at best. Querelle of Brest (1947) by Jean Genet was perhaps the most psychologically intense novel I read all year, and also one of the most unusual. It was also a good year for reading non-fiction, with six entering my brain via my book-shaped eyes, the best of which was Slavoj Zizek's The Courage of Hopelessness (2017), although he certainly is an intense man.

In some ways it was an odd year of reading, in which I reached for some books that I might have normally overlooked, such as Communion (1987) by Whitley Strieber, mostly to satisfy a curious reading itch I'd had since I was a teenager; the book was dubious, but I'm pleased that I finally read it. One of the worst books of the year was Space Ark (1981) by Thomas Huschman, which I read because I needed something light, which is was, but it was also far from the best science fiction you could read, unlike Revelation Space (2000) by Alastair Reynolds, which was superb. Two of the worst books were Before the Coffee Gets Cold (2019) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, which was very stilted, and The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) by Deborah Levy, which was kind of pointless. Both were book club books and both came during a time when Perth was shut down during the beginning of the pandemic - they made for disappointing reads unfortunately. By far the worst book was Simon Goddard's Ziggyology (2013), which garnered a rare rating of reprehensible. I haven't changed my mind about that rating, so sorry to the person who commented, implying that it was all a bit harsh, I still feel just as harsh in fact. 

In any case, onwards toward another year of reading. I will not promise to read more books, as between working full time, a relationship and all the life admin things that have to be done it seems that I can never read more than about twenty four books in a year. Still, I might read more next year because I'll be spending less time reading about the reprehensibility of Trump in the media. I'd like to personally thank all 81 million + Americans who voted him out, you were on the right side of history.

Friday, 25 December 2020

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson (1959)


Rating: Excellent

I've long known about Shirley Jackson, but had never considered reading her until I found out about the movie Shirley (2020), with Elizabeth Moss portraying Jackson. I bought The Haunting of Hill House in preparation for watching the film and it turned out to be an interesting experience. Jackson's style is quite unlike any other authors I've read, although it is difficult to say exactly why. The best I can do is that it is slightly awkward, in that sometimes it seems to be brilliant prose and other times it seems to be, well, a bit contrived. Perhaps this is because one of the principle protagonists, Eleanor Vance, is certainly neurotic, disturbed even, and Jackson takes great pains to alert the reader to this fact. Eleanor is invited to Hill House, along with two others (Theodora and Luke) by the scientifically minded Dr Montague, who wishes to spend some time in the house to experience first hand its supposed supernatural activity. Jackson does set the scene well, with evocative descriptions of the house and the emotional effect it has on the protagonists, in particular Eleanor, who is both drawn and repulsed by its somber gothic architecture.

Elizabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson's version of a haunted house tale has been so influential, it is difficult to imagine what kind of an impact it had when it was originally published. The novel subverts the typical ghost narrative by strongly implying that the true horror lies within the characters psyches, in particular Eleanor, and any actual supernatural occurrences are either happening within Eleanor's head or she is indeed causing the manifestations with telekinetic abilities. I'm not giving anything away here, as such an approach is so common now. Jackson even has some fun satirising the whole idea of paranormal research when Dr Montague's wife and her ultra pragmatic assistant, Arthur, turn up to take charge of proceedings. Mrs Montague's approach is a source of satirical humour in a narrative that is otherwise uptight with neurotic tension. Although by the time I was half way through the novel I still couldn't make up my mind whether it was quality literature of above average pulp, I kept on being drawn back, as if I was Eleanor, both repulsed yet ever more attracted to Hill House's grim endgame. The Haunting of Hill House is a curious novel, at times it seems totally over the top, yet much of the action is implied and the reader has to do some work to make sense of what is actually happening. The novel left me wanting to read more of Shirley Jackson's work, particularly after viewing Shirley, which has now become one of my all time favourite films. Jackson herself was also a fascinating character and I advise reading up about her before you read any of her work or watch the above mentioned film.

Shirley Jackson as Shirley Jackson