Thursday 30 December 2021

A Literary High - 2021 Round-Up


Here we are again, another year of reading against the dark background of the pandemic, failing democracies and world leaders fiddling while the world burns, oh, and an engagement (my own). Reading is a fine way of grounding oneself while such events come and go, perhaps the best way. It's been a year of either starting or finishing off trilogies. I completed the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, finally reading Cixin Liu's Death's End (2010), which proved to be not only the best book of the year, but also one of the greatest science fiction novels I have ever read. I read two novels of Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy - Suldrun's Garden (1983) and The Green Pearl (1986), both were excellent and also made me want to read more fantasy. I began Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy with Red Mars (1992), which I also rated as Sublime, joining Colm Toibin's The Magician (2021) and Don DeLillos' Zero K (2016) as among the best books I've read this year. 

In hindsight it was quite a good year for reading, with other notable books being Walter Tevis' brilliant novel The Queen's Gambit (1983) and Curtis Sittenfeld's alternate history novel, Rodham (2020). It was also great to read two Iain M. Banks books, with the short story collection The State of the Art (1991) compelling me to read The Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata (2012), which was both excellent and a lot of fun. There's always a book that doesn't measure up, and although regular readers will know that I am not a harsh critic, the Alfred Bester novel, Tiger Tiger (1956) was absurd and bloated science fiction, and a very disappointing read. As for the year ahead? I look forward to completing the trilogies I began and my aim will be to read more classics. Reading The Magician about Thomas Mann has reminded me that there's a whole range of classics I've never read, Mann himself and also the Russian greats. I just need to prepare myself for all of the extremely long names and intense existential themes, which shouldn't be a problem, as it will be light reading compared to the daily news...

Tuesday 28 December 2021

The Magician - Colm Toibin (2021)


Rating: Sublime

For a multitude of reasons The Magician truly is a sublime novel, however I will qualify that statement by saying that it isn't for everyone, particularly for those that enjoy fast paced novels. The novel unfolds like a long evening in the study of a well-spoken individual who is greatly interested in what lies beneath every-day things, while discussing it over many whiskies and cigars. Essentially The Magician is biographical fiction about the life of the German writer Thomas Mann, who was one of the great modernist authors. This is serious literary fiction about a cautious, yet talented man who was caught up both in the tumult of German history and within the careful repression of his own homosexual desires. I finished the novel feeling like I really got to know Mann, almost like I was his confidant. Within the novel lies profound human psychological depths, not just regarding Mann, but also his wife Katia, their six children and the German nation and its peoples. Toibin really is a remarkable writer, his prose is focussed, poised and capable of providing great insight. There's also some sly wit and at times the novel is filled with humour and warmth, but also it does not shy away from exploring the darkness of living during interesting times.

Toibin explores twentieth century history through the prism of the Mann family. Rather than going over familiar historical ground, the culture, history and society of the times are revealed via the lives of the Mann family, in particular through the eldest children, Erika and Klaus, who in the nineteen thirties live the kind of lives that was unimaginable to Thomas Mann himself; they were free to socialise widely and explore their sexuality openly. It's as much their story as it is Thomas Mann's. The same can be said for Katia, and some of the other children, such as the resolute Golo, who after Thomas Mann's death became a historian. The character studies are superb and we are also treated to many cameos of famous authors and prominent historical figures, such as Einstein and the writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who are both treated to some of Mann's withering German wit. The novel also provides great insight into what it is like to live in exile and to be alienated from your own homeland. The Mann's personal pain regarding what happened in Germany is rendered palpable. Once again, The Magician is not for everyone, but it stands as a brilliant achievement by Toibin that makes you want to explore the writings of Mann, which is actually something I'm yet to do.

Monday 6 December 2021

The Hydrogen Sonata - Iain M. Banks (2012)


Rating: Excellent

Well, that certainly was fun. I'd read that the last two Culture novels were not as good as the earlier ones, however The Hydrogen Sonata, the last, unfortunately, due to the author's death in 2013, is no slouch when it comes to Culture driven thrills. The novel is flawed, in that, as usual, Banks can really take a long time to get to the point, both when putting a plot together and during certain scenes in which dialogue or extrapolation is lengthy, however to many this is part of the attraction, including myself. Other than Banks' usual stylistic predilections, The Hydrogen Sonata is quality science fiction. The principal theme of the novel is the concept of subliming, when an advanced species has been around long enough and has achieved enough that it can move on to a higher reality. In the novel this is helpfully described as a limitless lucid dream state existence. The humanoid Gzilt, who once could have joined in on setting up the Culture, are set to sublime, however some have their doubts and there is a possibility that their holy book, The Gzilt Book of Truth, which ultimately directed them to this point, is all a pack of lies.

The Culture becomes very interested in whether the Gzilt are about to sublime under false pretences, as are two opposing factions of the Gzilt. Enter Vyr Cossont, an eccentric Gzilt women who sports an extra pair of arms so she can play T. C. Vilabier's 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented - 'The Hydrogen Sonata', on an instrument called an eleven string. Cossont is asked to look for Ngaroe QiRia, an extremely long-lived man who should have memories of when the Book of Truth was introduced to the Gzilt. This is a typical Banks premise, as is the clever humour and the legion of Culture ship Minds who band together to try and solve the mystery. I enjoyed the Minds in this Culture novel much more than in other some of the other books in the series, I'm not sure exactly why, but their personalities and motives seem much more tangible. The novel is ultimately nicely paced, once you get used to Banks' style of course, but where he really excels, as usual, is in the many set pieces that show off what was an exceptionally creative imagination. One of the best being the scenes on a Gzilt party ship, travelling through an immense tunnel within a circular habitat, partying hard for five years until the subliming, most notably when Cossont meets the chief partier, a body artist called Ximenyer, who features forty eight penises all over his body. Enough said, perhaps, except to say that The Hydrogen Sonata did not disappoint and Banks was at the height of his considerable powers nearing his premature death. It's such a pity he is no longer with us, as I'm sure he had many more Culture novels left to write.

Sunday 28 November 2021

Freedom, Rhythm & Sound: Revolutionary Jazz - Original Cover Art 1965-83: Compiled by Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker (2009)

Rating: Excellent

When you really fall for jazz, as I did some twenty five years ago, you soon realise that it contains endless multitudes of musicians who made a massive amount of incredible music. The only way to attempt to take it all in is to become a dedicated Jazzbo for whom loving jazz is a way of life. Recently a fellow Jazzbo leant me this superb coffee-table book. It does exactly what it says on the cover, and more. The book includes quality text detailing some of the prime movers during this incredible period in culture, from musicians to those who started up now obscure record labels. The American civil rights era inspired a great deal of wild and important jazz music. Reading through this fascinating book it occurred to me that jazz got there first in terms of the creation of indie do it yourself record labels well before the indie label explosion that began in the late nineteen seventies during the punk and post-punk era. A little while after I happened to read the back blurb and it said exactly that! If you love jazz then this book is essential in that it alerts you to an even deeper layer of jazz, most of which I've never seen nor heard of. There's some of the acts you'd expect, like Sun Ra and Don Cherry, but then there's the likes of Idris Ackamoor, Roy Meriwether and The La Mont Zeno Theatre, among many obscure jazz acts.

The book's main thrust is the album art and the reproductions of album cover art is just superb. Here's some examples below:

Many of these I've never seen second hand or as new re-releases. As yet I haven't searched for any of them online, god knows how much original pressings would cost. I'm thinking I'm going to stick to the book for now and hope that during this re-release era many will emerge over the years.

Monday 15 November 2021

The State of the Art - Iain M. Banks (1991)


Rating: Excellent

I knew I had to reach for an Iain M. Banks book after reading about M. John Harrison's friendship with the great writer, it had been a while after all. The State of the Art is a rarity in Banks' cannon, a collection of short stories. It's a curious bunch of stories. The first two seem like fragments, or experiments in preparation for bigger works. Road of Skulls (1988) is a gothic curio, which I'm still thinking about even though it seems inconsequential; two misfits travel along a road of skulls, literally, and only one person seems to know what it's all about, and it's not them. The second, A Gift from the Culture (1987) really does seem like a fragment, with a former citizen of the Culture being blackmailed to do the bidding of terrorists and is the most inconsequential story in the collection. Odd Attachment (1989) is darkly hilarious, which is exactly the kind of humour you find in his work, and is very entertaining. Descendant (1987) is very clever, making you go back to check how it all plays out. Cleaning Up (1987) is perhaps the best non-Culture story in this collection, and is, once again, very clever and darkly humorous, with a touch of misanthropy thrown in for good measure. Piece (1989) could be described in exactly the same way. So far so good.

The real highlight of this collection is the near novella set in the Culture universe, you guessed it, The State of the Art (1989). The story is brilliant and fully formed. The Culture visits Earth in 1977 and acts very much the anthropologist, with Culture humanoids visiting the surface to sample different countries and all the Earth has to offer. Some are cynics, some are entranced and want to save humans from themselves with contact (by, erm, Contact) and one individual wants a whole lot more. As with all Culture stories, there's a massive space-craft with an AI 'Mind' who is very much in control, pondering over the moral implications of interference. Banks' cynical approach to humanity is perhaps a bit overdone, however this was the Cold War era, so fair enough. It's fantastic writing and as usual Banks explores all kinds of existential issues throughout the narrative, coupled with the Culture's amazing technology. It's stirring stuff and made me immediately want to read the remaining Culture novels I haven't read yet. I'd forgotten just how much I love his writing. The collection ends with Scratch (1987) which is both slight and one of the most obtuse existential jokes ever. It made me think that Banks had been reading J G Ballard's more experimental short stories from the late seventies, which he probably had been I'd say. Despite a couple of minor curios, this collection is well worth the effort.

Monday 1 November 2021

Light Perpetual - Francis Spufford (2020)


Rating: Excellent

Another book club read, this time an excellent one. Knowing nothing about the author my hopes were not high, thinking it may be a bland recreation of post-war history via the lives of those that survived. Instead Light Perpetual takes its premise, that the children and adults that had died in a V2 strike in London (based on actual events as noted on a plaque outside a building the author walked past nearly every day) in fact survive, and runs with it splendidly. Spufford is a sophisticated writer with a nimble, yet beautifully descriptive style. The novel was a total pleasure to read, his prose is beautifully balanced, with nothing overdone or out of place. Apparently Spufford was a specialist non-fiction author until the age of fifty two when his first novel was published, Golden Hill (2016). Perhaps that is why Perpetual Light is the reverse of what seems to pass for middle-brow literary fiction these days, with average at best novels that come across as popular fiction aspiring to be literary fiction.

Spufford follows the lives of five of the children that live via specific time periods - 1949, 1964, 1979, 1994 and 2009. Spufford explores the culture and history of each period and how that effects the characters lives. Perhaps the most effecting is Ben, who suffers from mental illness (schizophrenia it seems). Ben's section in 1979 is perhaps the novel's highlight, although for many it would be an excruciating read. Ben battles his paranoid delusions whist working as a bus conductor on a day that eventually leads him to a confrontation with a group of skinheads. It's almost too much to bear, however you can't help but admire Spufford's incredible insight and skill in revealing what it might be like to suffer from a debilitating mental illness. This is what literature is all about, allowing insight into others lives that hopefully results in understanding and compassion. The other characters stories are full of everything from bathos, pathos, redemption and servings of some just desserts for one particular character, but once again, nothing is overdone and everything is perfectly in its place. I'm impressed, and it takes a lot for current novels to impress me these days.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Light - M. John Harrison (2002)


Rating: Excellent

After reading Light I can't believe that I've gone all my adult life without having read an M. John Harrison novel. Harrison has been writing since the late 1960's and is the author of the proto-cyberpunk novel The Centauri Device (1975) and the Viriconium sequence (1971 - 1985), among many other delights from what I've read online. Light encompasses three seemingly disparate storylines that dove-tail towards the end. The first, set at the turn of the twentieth century, involves a physicist called Michael Kearney who is co-researching some weird theoretical physics, but also spends a great deal of time being a homicidally dysfunctional human and being freaked out by an entity he calls The Shrander. There's Seria Man Genlicher, who lives four-hundred years in the future and is fused with a K-Ship that's gone rouge and is both dysfunctional and homicidal. Finally there's Ed Chianese, at 'twink', who is, you guessed it, dysfunctional as all hell and lives in the same time-frame as the K-Ship. Although two thirds of the narrative focusses on humanity among the stars, they are still as fucked up, greedy and perverse as ever, which I think is part of the point. Would anyone expect humanity to 'grow up' morally and physiologically to keep pace with technological advancements? No...

Light is a wild ride, surreal and complex, but also with more sex and violence than any other science-fiction novel I can remember reading. There's also plenty of dark humour to keep you going. Many of the minor characters are overtly strange and are perhaps stereotypes of a sort, if you can indeed stereotype future humans utilising freaky technology pillaged from alien artefacts raided from a region of space-time called the Kefahuchi Tract. This region in space features a singularity without an event horizon and a wormhole created by a vanished alien civilisation. The Kefahuchi Tract screws with the laws of physics considerably. It's entertaining stuff, which apparently is the point. I've read that Harrison was friends with the great Iain M. Banks and one night whilst they were drinking whiskey Banks told him that his trouble was that he didn't have enough fun. Harrison thought "I'll show you I can have fun..." and went home and started writing what became Light with no advanced plan for the narrative worked out. Well, Light certainly was a lot of fun, and excellent writing too, so I'll be tracking down the sequels, Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012). Harrison has also just recently published a new novel I'll investigate called The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020).

Sunday 10 October 2021

9 -11 - Noam Chomsky ( 2001)


Rating: Admirable

I found this very short, 124 page book in an op-shop I frequent very close to the library earlier in the year and I immediately realised that I had to buy it because this September would be/was the twentieth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on America. Like many people I watched the first tower on fire on TV and then the second tower be hit by the second plane. It was amazing, visceral history unfolding before our eyes. The aftermath was confusing, intense and scary in terms of just were it all might lead. We know just where now, but when this book was published we only had an inkling. 9-11 is a collection of interviews with Chomsky with journalists from around the planet, conducted mostly via email. As you would imagine Chomsky gives well considered answers and it makes for sobering reading. Most of the questions are geared toward who attacked America and why (at the time bin Laden was only suspected) and then what will happen in the near future because of the attacks. It is not particularly compelling stuff, rather it's more depressing and sobering reading, particularly in light of what went on to happen and the situation we find ourselves in now, where in America the situation has darkened and decayed significantly with Trump's threat to democracy and the potential repercussions of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan.  

During many of the questions Chomsky talks about America's poor record around the world, in particular in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Nicaragua. Chomsky refers to America as a 'leading terrorist state', mainly due to their actions in Nicaragua (now decades ago), and when you read what he has to say you have to admit that he has/had a point. There's also a great deal of talk about Osama bin Laden, whether he was responsible and we all know how that panned out. Overall it was fascinating to read responses from an intellectual of Chomsky's renown so soon after the attacks (the book was published in November 2001) and with added historical hindsight. I also watched the documentary 9-11: Inside the President's War Room (2021) on Apple TV, which was just incredible. For all of his flaws President Bush actually comes out of it looking better than he had at the time. 9-11 is obviously still causing repercussions now and this book acts as a primary source when thinking about how we have arrived at this point in history. It was updated in 2011 with the added subtitle: Was There an Alternative?, with an extra essay by Chomsky. Important but depressing reading.

Monday 4 October 2021

The Lamplighters - Emma Stonex (2021)


Rating: Admirable

The Lamplighters is exactly what I'm beginning to think is typical fare for a book club read, a so-so novel that is basically popular fiction with some pretence or ambition to be literary fiction. The Lamplighters has some of the typical tropes of modern literary fiction, fragmented both through time, jumping back and forth between 1972 and 1992 and into sections dedicated to three different women, who were all in relationships with the three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously go missing in 1972, never to be solved (well, until you read the ending that is...). The central mystery of exactly what happened to the men tugs you along through the novel, however there are some slow points, in particular some of the sections in which the women are interviewed by a writer doing research for a book about the disappearances. The women are naturally evasive, all having something to hide, but in a way that means they tend to produce a great deal of prattling dialogue. I started to speed-read these sections, which is never a good sign. The novel has a bit of padding and perhaps could have been tightened up a bit, particularly with the revelations coming a bit too late to feel like you are being rewarded for your perseverance. 

There are things to admire about the novel, such as Stonex's fine eye for detail and fairly impressive descriptive powers. Stonex powerfully evokes the men's lives within the lighthouse and the sea with all of its beauty and menace. Stonex also has created a fine array of characters, all of whom are well rounded and believable, in particular Arthur, the Principle Keeper (PK), who is hardened by all his years on the lighthouse. Unfortunately Stonex brings into the mix some supernatural elements, which, in the end, undermine the psychological depictions of the characters, which is a strength of the novel. This spoilt the ending for me, souring the pleasure of finally finding out exactly what happened. This left me with a dissatisfied feeling and the notion that the novel was trying to be too many things at once and would have worked better if it was more focussed, playing to its strengths of setting and psychology. Still, anyone who enjoys a good lighthouse mystery tale and feels like a light holiday read should garner enough enjoyment. 

Monday 27 September 2021

David Bowie by Sukita - Masayoshi Sukita (2021)


Rating: Excellent

This superb book was bought for me by my fiancé for my birthday earlier in the month. Having been a massive Bowie fan since my teens it was an obvious choice. Sukita, from the early nineteen-seventies, took some of the most significant and famous photographs of Bowie. This book contains many photographs that I'd seen in the past, but that I was not aware Sukita had been involved with, so as I went through this beautiful book I was taken by surprise numerous times, which added to the pleasure. There's also some rare photographs included that I'd never seen before. The most famous photograph Sukita took was the one that ended up being used for the 'Heroes' (1977) album, however I had always loved the other photos from this session - in black and white, with Bowie in a leather jacket looking angsty and intense, revelling in his mid 1970's pomp. Fortunately many of the photographs from this session, which actually took place in Japan, despite the album being so associated with Berlin, are included here.

My favourite photo from the book. By Sukita

Sukita's most famous photograph of Bowie

I could write a significant amount of words regarding this book, however, in the end, I'd be merely gushing. One definite thing I will say is that all Bowie fans should have this book in their collection. The photographic reproductions are of a high quality. Sukita provides the text, which is obviously translated and displays a certain charming sensibility of a non-English speaker, who is also very respectful of both Bowie and the work they did together. This becomes very poignant toward the end of the book when, in 2009, Sukita took his last shots of Bowie when he was visiting New York, only one of which is reproduced here. Perhaps this is the only criticism of this book, that it could have been much bigger, with many more photographs, particularly as Sukita worked with Bowie at many different points during his career. However, like Bowie himself, Sukita comes across as someone concerned with quality control, which is totally fair enough. Reading this coffee-table, hard-back book has inspired me to look much more closely at many of these types of publications I have in my collection. In the past I've merely leafed through them, but now I'm going to read them from front to back, so expect more to appear on this blog in the future, including some more about Bowie and other of my musical obsessions.

Not quite that famous photo. By Sukita

Bowie by Sukita

Saturday 18 September 2021

The Process - Brion Gysin (1969)


Rating: Not Rated

The Process is the first book in about fifteen years that I've abandoned. I have a fairly formal arrangement with my reading self to not abandon books I'm not enjoying, which in part probably stems from the discipline of reading for a book club, particularly as I facilitate the sessions. I lasted one hundred pages before I couldn't stand it any more. The problem? Mostly because I've read too many novels like this one, with narratives that are plotless, predominately picaresque in nature and full of flaneur type characters. I love the Beat writers, in particular the great Jack Kerouac, but Gysin, here at least, does not match Kerouac's flair, technical prowess and wide-eyed wonder at the world. Instead, the main protagonist, Ulys O. Hanson, sets out from Morocco to travel across the Sahara Desert, with no luggage save for a hefty bag of 'Keff' that he smokes continually in a pipe. Apparently Hanson meets with the famous Master Musicians of Jajouka and L. Ron Hubbard along the way, but I didn't get that far, worn down by Hanson's stoned wanderings and descriptions of the desert people, the landscape and the mystical trances those he allows to puff on his pipe go through. It's mildly engaging, but I couldn't get rid of an impatient itch inside me that grew until I couldn't stand it any more. I used the excuse of having to begin the next book club novel to bail.

Gysin and Burroughs with the Dreamachine

Brion Gysin (1916 - 1986) himself was quite an interesting character however, a friend of William S. Burroughs and inventor of the 'cut-up technique' of constructing narrative, of which Burroughs embraced wholeheartedly for a series of startling novels from the 1950's until his death in 1997. Gysin was predominately an artist, poet and performance artist and also inventor of the Dreamachine, a stroboscopic device that induced patterns of colour when viewed with eyes closed. Far out man. The Process is Gysin's main novel, with other publications mostly featuring poetry and short fiction, including The Third Mind (1978), co-authored with William Burroughs. Alas, such a pedigree of creative spirit and connections was not enough to propel me forward through to the end of The Process, so in fairness I'm not going to rate this book, only the second in the ten year history of this blog not to be rated. 

Monday 6 September 2021

Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl - Jack Vance (1986)


Rating: Excellent

Jack Vance was such a superb writer, his prose is just so vivid and classy that even though The Green Pearl is not quite up to the quality of the first book in the Lyonesse trilogy, Suldrun's Garden (1983), it is still an immensely satisfying read. The Green Pearl follows the adventures of many of the characters from the first book, particularly Aillas, who is now the king of the southern island of the Elder Isles, Troicinet. Although the novel begins with the sinister movements of the evil green pearl, which appeared at the end of the first novel, a great deal of the narrative follows Aillas' political and military adventures. Whilst the magical forest of Tantrevalles featured strongly as a setting in the first book, here it is the barren and mountainous region of Ulfland that dominates. Aillas battles the Viking-like Ska, who have declared themselves at war with the rest of the world and occupy much of Ulfland. Aillas' wizard ally, Shimrod, appears again and gets caught up in attempting to satisfy his carnal desires with the mysterious Melancthe, who comes across, somewhat humorously, as a parody of a goth (as in goths from the late 70's music scene...).This is just some of the colourful adventure and political intrigue featured as the novel steadily builds its narrative arc.

Cover art from another edition

Once again Vance sends his protagonists on long adventures during which they face dangers both of the practical and the magical kind. It's entertaining stuff and I would imagine that this narrative form was aimed at players of Dungeons and Dragons, who would have been strongly drawn to many of the tropes featured  throughout the novel. My favourite part of The Green Pearl comes towards the end, when the beautiful princess, Glyneth, is kidnapped by the obnoxious Visbhume, a somewhat mediocre wizard, and is taken to the parallel world of Tanjecterly, where humans can live, but are threatened by all kinds of monstrous creatures. This section is wildly imaginative and exciting, with Glyneth going against type as a helpless princess, taking things into her own hands. The Green Pearl has much to recommend, including characters with depth and dialogue that sparkles with verve and complexity. The world-building is sophisticated and features an array of characters with brilliant names and unusual characteristics. As far as trilogies go, The Green Pearl is typical in that although it features a multitude of narrative pleasures, it does come across as a bridging novel, and therefore suffers slightly as a consequence. However, from what I've heard from those in the know the third novel, Madouc (1989), is a fine end to the trilogy, so I'm looking forward to reading that in the near future.

Monday 23 August 2021

Klara and the Sun - Kazuo Ishiguro (2021)


Rating: Admirable

I'm in two minds about Klara and the Sun. Ishiguro has produced a fine novel, his first since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, and the breadth of his ambition is to be admired, with some intriguing themes dealt with in a subtle and intelligent manner, however I did not actually enjoy the novel particularly. Klara and the Sun is another stab at 'literary science fiction', in a similar vein to Never Let Me Go (2005), as has been noted by some critics, which is a reasonable summation, although to be fair to Ishiguro there are some fairly significant differences. The eponymous protagonist is an AF (artificial friend), an AI humanoid android, who is purchased by the mother of fourteen year old Josie to keep her from being lonely while she spends her days isolated, learning online and being afflicted by a mysterious illness. The illness, once you come to understand its nature, is not so mysterious and is one of the more morally ambiguous themes explored in the novel. Klara is a very capable AF, both intelligent and benign, but also surprisingly naive. Although as the novel progresses you learn just how society has been negatively transformed by humanoid AI androids, Klara herself is shown to be nothing but kind to those around her, in fact she is much more caring than the stressed out and fickle humans. The human characters are mostly average people living in what appears to be a radically altered culture, although the reader is never privy to the mechanisms behind these changes, they are only hinted at. The majority of the human characters are merely the end users of these radical technologies, trying to cope with the moral and practical challenges they present. 

Although Klara is a fascinating protagonist, the fact that the story is related from her point of view means that the novel has an almost flat one dimensional tone that does not easily allow narrative tension to build. Klara's narrative voice is predominately observational in nature, so that often the novel is weighed down by excessive descriptions of what the characters are doing, how they are relating to each other and why they are doing the things they are doing. A trip in the car becomes a tedious affair due to the fact that Klara relates every single thing about it. I often found myself speed reading or skipping ahead to more significant portions of the narrative, which is always an unfortunate outcome for the reader. The novel is also imbued with a melancholic tone and a feeling of quiet desperation on the part of the human characters. Sometimes there is an ominous, bordering on disturbing aspect to some of the more curious parts of the novel, however it occurred to me that Klara and the Sun is like a 'light' version of a J G Ballard novel, relatively unsettling, but ultimately not unsettling enough, which is a shame really, as there are important themes at play that could have made a greater impact if the narrative had been more dynamic.

As a postscript yesterday I facilitated the last of three library book club session to discuss this novel and the groups were roughly split into thirds, with one third loving the novel, another third opining that it is a failure and the final third being somewhere in-between, which is where I stood. It's certainly a divisive novel, which, as is often the case, led to in depth discussions and quite a few people coming away with a greater appreciation of the novel's finer points. I came away from these discussions thinking that, despite its flaws, Klara and the Sun is a subtle and thematically sophisticated novel. It makes me wonder how the novel will be regarded in, say, ten years time. As an important novel? Or as an underrated cult classic? Given Ishiguro's status it will probably not fade away and perhaps it will glow more brightly in its afterlife. Part of me kind of hopes so...

Sunday 8 August 2021

Death's End - Cixin Liu (2010) Translated by Ken Liu (2016)


Rating: Sublime

Death's End, the third book of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, is a remarkable science fiction novel, perhaps the greatest one I've ever read, and certainly the best closing novel of a trilogy I've ever read. I've never encountered a science fiction novel quite like Death's End. The manner in which Liu spins his tale is just beguiling, endlessly fascinating and compelling. The narrative is logical and precise, despite being six hundred pages long. Nothing is wasted, everything is connected and the narrative thrills are astounding. What is truly remarkable is that Liu takes his time, never giving in to any notion of satisfying the reader's narrative greed; back stories are given space to breath and when the narrative is jolted forward by a revelation or plot development it comes across as a totally natural development of what came before, even though you didn't see it coming. Death's End encompasses an enormous time frame, beginning during the twentieth century 'Common Era' of the first novel, The Three Body Problem (2008), and through the 'Crisis and Deterrence Eras' of the second novel, The Dark Forest (2008); and then through the 'Post-Deterrence Era' and five other eras before ending some eighteen billion years later! What occurs in-between is just a stunning and unique exploration of humanity's struggle to survive in a dark universe (and I mean bleakly dark). 

Cixin Liu - science fiction genius

One of Cixin Liu's most impressive achievements is the application of the laws of physics and cosmology taken to their most extreme and logical end points. The highlights of this approach are numerous and unfortunately hard to talk about lest I reveal too much. However it's probably safe to mention the sections that involve humans encountering and exploring four dimensional space. The manner in which Liu uses four dimensional space as both a brilliant plot device and as a way to just blow your mind is incredible. This is just one example of the many times I actually exclaimed out loud "Wow!". It does help to know something about physics, such as theoretical eleven dimensional space, quantum mechanics, black holes and relativity, so if you can brush-up before reading it will greatly enhance your enjoyment. To contrast this (although it is connected with physics), Liu also includes three fairy-tales that are brilliant in their own right, in particular in the clever way they are connected with the main narrative. As for the writing, although not exceptional, Liu's style is more than adequate, and compared to the first two books is quite often poetic and beautiful. The characters, which sometimes came across as merely vessels to help tell the story in the first two books, are more well rounded here. Unusually for me I've indulged in some hyperbole in this brief review ( I could easily write an essay), but I have to say there's no other way to get across just how good this novel is. If you are fan of science fiction you have to read it, but you'll have to read the first two books first! Fortunately both are excellent in their own right, but Death's End is the amazing reward that closes out an incredible imaginative exploration of what the universe could well be like (but let's hope not!).

Sunday 25 July 2021

The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records - Ashley Kahn (2006)


Rating: Excellent

A week ago I was remarking to my friend, Owen, who lent me this book, that jazz is the greatest music genre because it is endlessly complex, filled to the brim with amazing practitioners and has something for everyone, from soft, slow cool jazz to freaky skronky spiritual jazz. He didn't disagree. Impulse Records was, and, once again, is, one of the most important and influential jazz labels. The House That Trane Built is a fine book detailing the history of this important label from 1960-61 to 2004, when Alice Coltrane released her last studio album, the incredible Translinear Light. Oddly, however, the discography near the back of the book ends in 1977, when the label was sold and then mainly became a source of reissues. This is a minor issue, as the writing is engaging, the history fascinating and the major players, such as producer Bob Thiele, who worked extensively with John Coltrane, are all correct and present. Coltrane, is, of course, one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. There's plenty within these pages for Coltrane fans, in particular regarding Coltrane operating in the studio and some insights into his home life. Although Coltrane does dominate, Impulse signed some of the key innovative jazz acts of the sixties and seventies outside of Miles Davis, making this book a history of jazz itself during that period as it took on the rising force of rock in the late sixties and early seventies.

John Coltrane - the greatest...

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The House That Trane Built is the regular two page features on specific albums, many of them unknown to me, or ones that I'd forgotten that I had lurking away among my records and CDs. As expected Coltrane himself is included a number of times, with his first for the label, Africa/Brass (1961), featuring early on, which I hadn't listened to for years. There's also obscurities like Ask Me Now! by Pee Wee Russel (1961), which somehow I had in my collection, un-listened to, which turned out to be beautifully poised and gently ebullient. There's also some great photos, such as Albert Ayler playing the bag-pipes and some very sexist print ads for the era, one of which features a naked women being spoon fed. At least the jazz can't be cancelled. The book was put together in a timely fashion, with many of the major players still alive to contribute, like Alice Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and many of the producers used throughout the first life of the label. Their first-hand contributions really make this book shine, and also unfortunately highlight the sad fact that John Coltrane died at the age of forty in 1967. The book does become less interesting after this point, but this is not really the fault of Kahn. Although Kahn is no great stylist, his straight-forward accounts still manage to convey his obvious passion for jazz. If you've never really understood jazz, I wouldn't necessarily recommend the music covered in The House That Trane Built as a place to start. Depending, of course, on your general musical experience and predilections, I'd begin with 50's hard bop before moving on to the likes of Impulse. If you get that far then this book is a perfect initial guide. However if you are ready to dive into the deep end of jazz, then Impulse has just released a beautiful sixtieth anniversary box set that I can personally vouch for as well worth your investment.

Monday 5 July 2021

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI - edited by John Brockman (2019)


Rating: Admirable

It is fitting that Brockman dedicates this collection of essays about AI to "...Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein and Frankenstein." Brockman explains why in his introduction, which I will not go into, however that last name - Frankenstein, is very fitting, as that's how I see humanity's obsession with creating artificial intelligence, an obsession that says a lot about human hubris. What people refer to as AI at the moment is really nothing of the sort, merely powerful computers using algorithms to crunch data that then suggests varies outcomes or possibilities. I read Possible Minds hoping that it would give me greater insight as to where we are right now and where we are possibly heading in terms of 'true AI', however ultimately I came away relatively disappointed. 

An overarching aim of the collection is to comment on and expand upon a foundational text called The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) by Norbert Wiener, who apparently was the father of cybernetics. I'd never heard of Wiener, so that in itself was interesting, however throughout the essays the necessity of referencing Wiener sometimes seemed to be holding the essayists back, or perhaps I just became sick of hearing about him. The essayists themselves produce work that falls into three broad camps, those that are wary (although not too wary, on the whole) of the risks posed by AI; those that are not really worried at all, as long as humanity imposes 'control' on AI (they point out that, after all, as the creators, we can readily impose adequate controls) and those that produced essays that either focussed tightly on their field of study or expertise, or were flights of fancy that came across as slightly indulgent. I did learn quite a bit by reading these essays, however some were just downright boring! Curiously no essayists mentioned the potential of quantum computing as a means to producing true AI capability. I'm no scientist, but I remember that when I read about the recent breakthroughs in developing quantum computing that was the first thing I thought of; surely it has a significant role to play in potentially developing AI?

Westworld's conception of AI

A curious consequence of reading Possible Minds is that I've come away thinking that true AI will never happen. Of course I may well be wrong, but nothing I read here convinced me otherwise. Also, as I mentioned above - the sheer arrogance! The brains of living creatures on Earth have been honed over millions of years and we think that we could create AI within a century? Also brains, particularly human brains, are considered to be the most complex objects in the known universe, in terms of the complexity of neural pathways. Also we really do not have much of an idea how the brain and in particular, consciousness and sentience, works. Some theorists have speculated that there is perhaps a quantum element to consciousness - it could indeed be that deeply complex. Personally I think that it is more likely that the future of humanity lies in the convergence of biology and technology - we'll become cyborgs eventually (well, more cyborg in nature as technically even someone using glasses is a cyborg). Perhaps I've been influenced too much by the likes of Altered Carbon (TV series: 2018-20). Perhaps in the near, or far future, we'll be uploading our consciousness into quantum computing generated cyberspace, or perhaps fragments of it. What is certain is that computers will become far more powerful, but true AI? Let's wait and see...

Sunday 27 June 2021

The Inheritors - Hannelore Cayre (2020)


Rating: Admirable

The Inheritors is a curious novel by a French author who made waves with The Godmother, a crime novel published in 2019. The Inheritors is a kind of crime novel, with most of a family being knocked off by the main protagonist, Blanche de Rigny, but these murders are more like blows against capitalism, avarice and generational wealth. The novel features two timelines, one set in 1870, featuring Auguste de Rigny, a foppish member of a filthy rich family who rails against inequality, yet can't completely let go of the benefits that wealth brings; one benefit being able to buy a man to fill his place in the army at the onset of the Franco-Prussian war. The other timeline, featuring Blanche, is set in contemporary times in Paris, and Blanch, being disabled and disaffected, also rails against inequality. When Blanche discovers her familial connections with the still very wealthy de Rigny family the plotting begins. 

The Inheritors is a short, reasonably well written novel, however is doesn't quite catch fire. For a short novel it quite often gets bogged down in detail, like Blanche's detailed explanations of her family and the 'mission' she undertakes (to strike at the heart of greed and do something useful and moral with all that money). The above detail about the novel does not count as a spoiler, due to the fact that it is all spelt out on the back-cover burb. That's part of the problem, you know what's going to happen, the interest lies in how it happens, but unfortunately I was quite often bored and the main thrust of the narrative didn't get going until about half way through. More engaging were the nineteenth century chapters, with fine depictions of life in Paris at that time and the entertainment of Auguste's rather pathetic life. Even so, neither Auguste or Blanche, or any of the minor characters for that matter, engage you enough to make you care about their struggles or motivations. Essentially this novel is an economic revenge fantasy, which is interesting when you consider that the French have actually been good at making such a thing a reality over the centuries. 

Sunday 20 June 2021

Tiger Tiger (AKA The Stars My Destination) - Alfred Bester (1956)


Rating: Mediocre

I picked up a copy of this novel, a 1967 edition, from a second hand bookstore in an old house situated on the main drag of a small country town in Tasmania a few years ago. Then a while later I coincidently read online that it contained one of the best 'escape from an impossible situation' scenes in literature. Now that I've read Tiger Tiger I have to say that I don't necessarily agree, it wasn't that spectacular. I chose the novel as a potentially great holiday read, and at first it lived up to that need. Tiger Tiger is certainly a rollicking read, with some impressive pacing and the main protagonist, Gully Foyle, is a wild character bent on revenge. The novel is set in the twenty fourth century, a time when, inexplicably, the ability to teleport (they call it jaunting), has transformed human society. Basically humans can travel by thought (an influence on The Church song of the same name?), which certainly opens up some fascinating narrative possibilities.

What ultimately let's Tiger Tiger down is that the novel's over the top nature becomes wearying around two thirds of the way through. It's like listening to two Queen albums at once. The prose is too florid, the twists and turns too frequent and the whole idea of humans being able to teleport by the power of thought alone becomes increasingly ridiculous. I don't necessarily need literary fiction to be particularly realistic, let alone science fiction, but it really started to grate after a while. Tiger Tiger does have quite a spectacular ending, which really sticks it to 'the man', but by that stage I think I had eye strain from rolling my eyes too much. Ultimately Tiger Tiger doesn't come across as a parody of the 1920s - 1940s era of pulp science fiction, or even as a homage, but as an attempt to emulate its style, perhaps in order to appeal to the teenagers of the 1950's, who after all would have still been science fiction's main market. The sometimes unfortunate depictions of female characters bear this out. I'll mark this one down as an entertaining enough holiday read that stands as a period piece for the curious.

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.