Monday, 31 May 2021

The Planets - Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox (2019)


Rating: Admirable

I bought this book thinking that it would give me a quick update on everything that has been discovered about the solar system in recent times. It turns out that I've actually been keeping up with most recent discoveries, however for those that haven't been keeping up, or know very little about our family of planets trapped in the gravity-well of old Sol, then this book would a good place to start. The Planets gives a fairly straight forward summation about each planet by, in most cases, grouping them together and discussing them related to each other, the exceptions being Jupiter and Saturn. Most of the various significant moons and the astroid belt get a look in as well. The basic facts and the more astounding aspects of each planet are presented in easily digestible chapters. Also featured are informative tables and quotes from scientists meant to either underline the main points or to engender a feeling of profundity, although this didn't always work for me, but perhaps I'm a bit jaded in this regard, or perhaps the font was just too small for my middle-aged eyes.

The surface of Titan

One of the best features of The Planets is the focus on the the history of planetary exploration via highlighting the incredible stories of the probes humanity has sent out into the solar system, such as Pioneer 10, Mariner 4 and the two Voyagers. Such achievements are truly significant and without these probes our knowledge of the planets would be quite paltry. Of particular interest is the story of the Messenger probe, which undertook a remarkable journey to investigate the planet Mercury, which is a much more fascinating planet than most people would expect. There's also the Cassini probe, which explored Saturn, at the same time launching the much smaller Huygens probe onto the surface of my favourite moon - Titan. I remember that era of exploration clearly and it was great to read a fairly detailed account of their discoveries. However, detail, or lack of it in some cases, is also a flaw of the book. Obviously The Planets is a fairly generalised account of our solar system, but considering just how little was known about Pluto before the arrival of the New Horizons probe in 2015 there is scant detail about this amazing 'dwarf planet'. There was also little information about the trans Plutonian objects, such as Eris and Makemake. Although this is more understandable considering we have not visited them, some extrapolation would have added something extra to what was a rather truncated end to an otherwise useful and at times inspiring account of what is essentially our home turf in this galaxy of ours.

Pluto: more information please

Sunday, 23 May 2021

The Queen's Gambit - Walter Tevis (1983)


Rating: Excellent

Like millions of others I watched Netflix's adaptation of The Queen's Gambit (2020) and enjoyed it immensely, unlike many others, however, I did not take up playing chess as I'm simply too obsessed with Scrabble to undertake improving on my pathetic abilities untested since my twenties. I had no idea at the time that the series was based on a novel, a novel by the amazing Walter Tevis no less. Firstly, the novel and the series are remarkably similar, which is unsurprising considering the novel is almost perfect. Despite knowing what was going to happen and re-experiencing scenes and dialogue that was repeated in the series, The Queen's Gambit was a superb read. Beth Harmon, orphaned at an early age and exposed to the game of chess by the orphanage's resident janitor, Mr Shaibel, grows up both struggling with addiction and flexing her prodigious talent for chess. Chess? Who would have thought that the game could be so compelling? Tevis manages to totally enthral despite reguarly describing the technical machinations of the game as Harmon climbs the chess compitition rankings. My advice is to not worry about trying to understand the game, rather let yourself get caught up in the tension and drama of the competition and simply enjoy what Tevis called his "tribute to brainy women."

Benny and Beth: style and substance

Harmon is an intriguing character, intelligent and, on the surface at least, emotionally cold; she is also a fragile and sympathetic protagonist who easily evokes within the reader a sense of protection and the wish for her to succeed. Although the plot sees Harmon struggle with her demons, she does not suffer too greatly and the narrative rewards the reader with some feel-good scenes without overdoing it. Tevis was an accomplished and economical writer, nothing is wasted and the narrative is never bloated with excess description or character over-development. Support characters, such as fellow chess genius Benny Watts, are rendered vibrant and fascinating within a few paragraphs. In the case of Watts, it is no wonder the series recreates him precisely, as he is absolutely perfect in the novel. As I touched on earlier, although I basically knew how the novel was going to pan-out, I still felt caught up in the tension, which is testament to Tevis' story-telling genius. The Queen's Gambit also has one of the most satisfying and well written end-games ( I couldn't help myself...) that is tense, succinct and satisfying. Despite having read The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) and the short story collection, one of the best I've ever read, Far From Home (1981), I had no idea that Tevis wrote The Hustler (1959) and The Color of Money (1984). I'm not particularly interested in pool sharks, but, like with this novel, I might read them for the brilliant storytelling abilities of Tevis alone.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Red Mars - Kim Stanley Robinson (1992)


Rating: Sublime

I put off reading Red Mars for a long time, thinking that it would be a pretty dry narrative, with Robinson being the reigning king of realistic hard science fiction. How wrong I was! I could not believe just how compelling Red Mars is and how well Robinson captures both the practical difficulties of colonising Mars and the drama of the endeavour, not to mention the personal stories of the ensemble of characters, all of whom are brilliantly well rounded. It didn't take me long to realise just how special this novel is, the opening section, 'Festival Night' is set well after colonisation, and acts to pique interest, with a number of conflicts between the 'First Hundred' on display. The next section, 'The Voyage Out', is a stunning depiction of what a voyage to Mars might be like. It's completely fascinating and kept humming along by Robinson's efficient, yet engaging narrative style. Robinson is a superb writer, getting the balance between depicting characters interior lives and the practicalities of voyaging through space absolutely right. Robinson juggles the multitude of characters perfectly throughout the novel, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, flawed, like any humans would be, even though they are the chosen elite, dubbed the 'First Hundred'. Robinson deals with the problem of balancing so many characters by concentrating on around a dozen, establishing them as the principle protagonists; my favourites being the Russians, Nadia Chernyshevski, Maya Toitovna and the redoubtable Arkady Bogdanov, who has very different ideas about what should happen on Mars. The Americans are interesting in their own way, the good-guy hero John Boone, the sociopathic Frank Chalmers and the Asperger-like scientist Saxifrage Russell. Often long sections of the narrative are extrapolated via the perspective of one of these characters and you really get to know them and their personal and professional struggles whist you are exploring the surface of Mars.

The planet in question

As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly absorbing, with superb descriptions of the Martian landscape. Robinson perfectly evokes the alien beauty of the planet, particularly when several of the characters journey to the North Pole in order to set up an automated supply chain of blocks of ice to provide the fledgling colony with fresh water. Throughout the novel the hard science of building habitats, beginning terraforming and dealing with the politics of the situation, both within the 'First Hundred' and the authorities on Earth, is depicted so well that I just can't imagine any other writer doing a better job. Red Mars is totally epic in scale and things get really interesting once more and more people start arriving and infrastructure, such as a space elevator, is built. To reveal more would risk the intrigue of the novel for new readers; all I will say is that the novel has more drama and mystery than would you'd expect. Robinson also explores the philosophical aspects of humanity being on Mars and altering it forever, through individual musings and a rift between those in the "First Hundred' who are for terraforming and those who are against humanity, yet again, altering an environment for their own ends. At one point there is an amazing debate about this issue, which left me amazed at Robinson's insight and erudition. The novel's long endgame is exciting and unpredictable. Once it resolved I was bereft at losing access to Robinson's incredible world-building. Fortunately being the first in a trilogy, with Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996) to come, I'll be able indulge myself again in the near future. If you are a fan of hard science fiction, you should indulge yourself too....

Friday, 16 April 2021

Rodham - Curtis Sittenfeld (2020)


Rating: Excellent

First of all, Rodham is a very clever novel. Ostensibly it is an alternate history of Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton's lives and relationship, but thematically its main thrust is the patriarchal nature of American society and how it leans towards rewarding men, whilst keeping women in check. Rodham is an enthralling read, although many will be put off by its detailed descriptions of politicking related via the first person voice of Hillary. Sittenfeld totally nails how you'd imagine Hillary to think, conveying a tone that is both intellectual and charmingly vulnerable at the same time, an approach that works to humanise one of the most vilified and misunderstood women in American public life. So, what would have happened to Hillary Rodham if she had not married Bill Clinton? Anything is perhaps possible, but Sittenfeld weaves a very credible alternative history of Hillary's life and times living in one of the most contradictory and complex societies on earth. Sittenfeld astutely casts Bill Clinton as a fatally flawed man, who is somehow both reprehensible and sympathetic at the same time, creating a credible (although still fictional in this context) impression that Hillary really did have a tough choice to make way back in the early 70s. Ultimately, however, the novel does the real Bill Clinton no favours; I wonder what the real Bill Clinton thinks about this novel, and Hillary for that matter? As far as I know neither have commented so far.

The young Hillary Rodham

The novel really comes alive when both Hillary and Bill share the page, particularly in the opening section when they first meet and embark on a passionate relationship, so much that when the narrative fast-forwards to Rodham in middle age, leading her life without Bill, the novel falls a bit flat. What really happens, however, is that the novel becomes a different beast and draws you deep inside Hillary's life and psyche, with all her frustrations and aspirations laid bear. Once she decides to run for the senate the novel becomes a particualry absorbing read and twists the alternate timeline in fascinating and credible ways. The way Sittenfeld positions Bill Clinton and Donald Trump as different sides of the same coin is a canny move, helped with a serving of irony in relation to Trump and Rodham's interactions. Sittenfeld totally nails Trump's character as well. Not everyone will love this novel, but I certainly did. Sittenfeld is a classy writer with great control over both style and narrative form. Rodham also has a satisfying denouement, one in which Hillary finally reaches fulfilment, yet with enough depth to withstand criticisms of being unrealistic or merely a fantasy wish-fulfilment for the millions of American women who support the real Hillary Clinton.

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.