Saturday 30 December 2023

Best and worst of the Year - 2023


This will be quick, due to laziness and the fact that I've already posted five times in December, probably a record for this blog.

Best book of 2023: The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (2013)

Genius level modern realism.

Worst book of 2023: The Siren's Sing - Kristel Thornell (2022)

Narrative structure did not work, but had some redeeming features.

The year of non-fiction: a good year! Six read overall, the best being Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli (2020)

The year was notable due to the fact that the overall quality of books was high - there were no mediocre ratings given. Also the library based book clubs I facilitate went on hiatus in September due to me going on long service leave and the external renovation of the library, which will not be complete till perhaps April 2024. It's freed up more time to read my own books, but I do miss the book club members and reading for a specific purpose.

All that's left to say is: Happy New Year!

Friday 29 December 2023

Falling Man - Don DeLillo (2017)


Rating: Admirable

The attack by terrorists on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 was a momentous event in the history of the clash between civilisations. Like most people I was shaken to the core by the scenes of the attacks. I was called by a friend and was told to turn on the TV, just in time to witness the plane hit the second tower and then both towers eventually collapsing. It was incredible, disturbing and historically momentous. Then later I remember reading about the photo of the falling man, an image initially used in the media, but then suppressed due to various moral concerns. Seeing the image is certainly powerful and it makes sense that America's pre-eminent novelist would both write about 9/11 and use that image as an inspiration for its title (although apparently he refutes that notion). Being DeLillo nothing is that simple, of course, with the image being used as a metaphor for the life trajectory of Keith Neudecker, both before and after the event. Another very typical DeLillo trope is the performance artist who falls from buildings dressed in a suit, with just a simple harness for support. This falling man appears at various times during the novel, including a scene in which Keith's wife, Lianne, observes him setting up and waiting to 'perform' for an oncoming train of passengers, a scene imbued with gnostic symbolism open to interpretation. Falling Man is mostly set in the aftermath of 9/11, and the performing falling man acts as a ghostly reverberation of that day, a day that completely changed everything for New Yorkers. Keith goes back to his estranged wife, having survived the attack in the south tower, their son spends the days with other children looking for more planes with binoculars, talking in hushed tones about Bill Lawton, the misheard name they give Bin Laden. Typically for DeLillo this comes across as both a dark, ironic joke, but also imbued with nebulous meaning.

The infamous falling man photo

Falling Man has been criticised for not being as monumental as the 9/11 event itself, however DeLillo had already produced 'monumental' work about America and its citizens, such as Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997) and White Noise (1985), which reads like a guide to postmodernism filtered though the American sensibility. Falling Man's focus is more about the human psychological response to the terrorist attacks, both overt and subtle, in particular during the aftermath. Like the slowly fading circular waves in water after a stone is dropped, DeLillo shows how the characters go on living after the shocking event, eventually being reabsorbed into themselves and their quite ordinary and unimportant lives that were revealed, for a while, in stark relief. There are also sections focussing on one of the terrorists, his drift towards jihad; and then at the very end, a depiction of the attack itself, which is as visceral as the novel gets. As usual DeLillo's prose is minimal and exacting, with dialogue that makes the characters seem like they are revealing insights into the very nature of humanity, our very essence; or, conversely, about nothing at all, merely the minutia of human obsessions in the twenty-first century. Although, as DeLillo novels go, Falling Man is fairly satisfying, there's some extra level of DeLillo frisson that is absent. It's certainly not up there with his best novels, but it is, after all, a DeLillo novel, and therefore worth reading for that reason alone.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Perihelion Summer - Greg Egan (2019)


Rating: Admirable

Greg Egan is Australia's preeminent science-fiction writer and is a mysterious character, never having attended science-fiction conventions, nor ever having a picture of him on the internet or anywhere else. Perihelion Summer is not listed with his novels on his own website, or on Wikipedia, instead it's listed under 'other short fiction', which makes it a novella. Perihelion Summer certainly reads like a novella, with  minimal, yet just enough character development to keep the reader engaged and a plot and exposition that is straight to the point. Set in Western Australia (Egan actually lives in Perth) in what appearers to be the present or near future, humanity is preparing for the arrival in the solar-system of a micro black hole called Taraxippus, that may cause calamitous floods as it passes through. Matt and some friends have created a floating habitat that creates its own power and food, including a large metal net with thousands of fish. They intend to wait out the effects of Taraxippus (a Greek word pertaining to mythology around dangerous presences) out to sea and try to convince their various loved ones to go with them, or to at least head inland, well away from any potential tsunamis. Of course, most choose to stay where they are, in Perth, which is right on the coast, thinking that living some kilometres away from the sea will keep them safe, mimicking the kind of wishful or naive thinking that most have regarding climate change (which is what this book is really about), that it will not really effect them personally.

Perihelion Summer is quite different to other works I've read by Egan, it is not mind-bendingly weird and contains a minor amount of speculative science, although it is quite well written. Essentially the novella is a very clever approach to exploring climate change without actually addressing human caused climate change, instead Taraxippus actually doesn't behave as predicted and causes irreversible climate extremes. Egan uses this parallel to examine human responses and behaviour toward climate change, both positive and negative. Matt and his friends aboard their ship, the Mandjet, respond as best they can, helping as many people as they can, despite the odds against them. It made for very fascinating, compelling and sober reading, in particular because the novella is set partly in my home city of Perth. Reading about familiar landmarks and environs depicted as being freezing, with ice and snow in winter (it never snows in Perth) and then during summer as being so hot that it is basically uninhabitable was alarming. Perihelion Summer has been criticised online for being underdeveloped and anticlimactic, but what critics have missed are the insightful ways in which Egan reveals the generational divide and woolly thinking around climate change. The pivotal scene in this sense is when Matt's sister informs him that their mother blames him for the calamity Taraxippus brings, because he would never "shut up about it." Climate change deniers just keep shooting the messengers, wishing they'd just go away and take any evidence of human induced climate change with them, but it is increasingly possible Earth will be something like it is depicted in Perihelion Summer and no doubt any deniers still around will be laying the blame elsewhere, just like they always have done.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence - James Lovelock and Brian Appleyard (2019)


Rating: Excellent

James Lovelock was an important scientist who, among many achievements, saved humanity with his discovery (using one of his inventions) that CFCs were building up in the atmosphere and damaging the ozone layer. Lovelock also posited the Gaia Theory, that Earth is a self-regulating, synergistic system in which life maintains a habitable environment for itself, co-evolving with the inorganic environment in order to keep the planet cool, despite Sol's efforts to the contrary. The ideas behind Novacene go beyond organic life on Gaia toward the claim that the ultimate evolutionary endpoint for Earth will be cybernetic life based on information, which does seem to be the universe's universal currency. Lovelock refers to this soon to arrive era as the Novacene, despite the proposed current era of the Anthropocene not having been fully accepted as yet. Despite the small page count, Lovelock takes his time to explain his background reasoning, moving through his thoughts regarding life in the universe (he feels Earth contains the only existing life - I disagree), the meaning of our existence (we are are universe knowing itself - an idea I've always have been attracted to) and Earth's battle to contain the heat threat via its Gaian systems, something humanity is fast despoiling, which could be the end point of the Anthropocene I feel, although Lovelock begs to differ. According to Lovelock cybernetic life will, rather than destroying us, want to work with us in order to keep Gaia from overheating, an outcome he reasons would be just as bad for them as it would be for us.

Lovelock's thought processes and theories are fascinating and logically extrapolated. Lovelock genuinely believes that humanity will be the creators and midwives of cybernetic life which will exist on such a superior plane to us that we will be regarded in the same way that we regard house-plants. Such notions have been well explored by others, that AI's processes will take place at such accelerated levels that we will be more than redundant, however Lovelock's assertion that cybernetic AIs will want to keep us around goes against many accepted (pessimistic) theories on the subject, but his reasoning on this subject appears fairly sound and persuasive, although I don't agree with everything. Since Novacene was published we've seen the emergence of ChatGP and other such (for the moment) primitive AI systems. They are crunching information at frightening rates and interacting with humans in a sophisticated manner, however they are still not real AI, not conscious, self aware entities (that Lovelock pictures as spheres). Within this current context Novacene is a fascinating book and should be read by anyone interested in AI or the future of humanity. Along the way we also learn that Lovelock inadvertently held Stephen Hawking in his arms as a baby, was an advocate for nuclear power, but also that he was an extremely moral human, whose contribution to humanity was profoundly significant. Lovelock lived to be 103, but not long enough to see his Gaian Theory become accepted, nor to see humanity come to grips with human-caused climate change, but I hope he is correct about AI needing us around. Perhaps among the intractable problems that AI could help solve is the best and fastest way to terraform Mars, a planet Lovelock describes are totally inhospitable to life and a pipe dream for humanity. Then we would have the insurance of two homes. Although I hold no optimistic hope for humanity, you never know, maybe our future spherical AI overlords will really help us out.

This review is dedicated to my friend Eileen Bogart, who enthusiastically attended my library based book clubs and engaged with me with genuine warmth. Novacene was one of the many books she gifted to me before she passed a few months ago. I'll always remember you fondly Eileen, you were both interesting and interested, a quality not always found that readily among humans.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Other People: A Mystery Story - Martin Amis (1981)


Rating: Excellent

Other People is the fourth novel published by Martin Amis and was the first after he had quit journalism to become a full time writer. It certainly shows, as the novel is a significant step up from the prior three, as good as they were. This is serious literary fiction, featuring particuarly dark themes, a unique narrative structure and surreal perspective that tests the readers' abilities. J.G.Ballard described the novel as a metaphysical thriller, which is an apt description. The narrative's main protagonist is Mary Lamb, an amnesiac whose memory is so far gone that she doesn't even know what people, clouds, cars and other such ordinary phenomena are. We are given the impression that she's received some sort of medical treatment and has been released back into the community without much thought of the consequences. Mary's subsequent adventures involve becoming mixed up some with dubious individuals, such as alcoholics and criminals. The quality of character building is such that you feel genuinely concerned about what might happen to Mary, a concern that becomes wrapped up in the mystery of what has happened to her and why. There is also a second narrator who seems to know the answers to these questions, but is not letting on. This narrator interjects every so often to comment on what's happening to Mary, who as the novel progresses manages to attract misogynistic trouble wherever she goes, including being sexually harassed and obsessed over by various men. Mary is very attractive, and she slowly realises the power of this fact as she finds out more about who she really is, encouraged by the mysterious character of a policeman named Prince, who turns out to be an important character with nebulous motivations.

I say, old chap, what the fuck is Other People about?

Other People reads like a David Lynch narrative, with a disturbing dark mystery at its heart and a plot that seems to twist in on itself with little regard for the reader. I had to think long and hard about just what was going on and ended up looking online for answers; if you really want to know, here's a great cogent synopsis. The writing is absolutely superb, featuring a narrative voice that could only be that of Amis. His turn of phrase is uniquely suffused with irony and dark amusement. Within a plot that is like a möbius strip, Mary's amnesia becomes a great device for Amis to render the world as bizarre and alien. Via this device the world is revealed be a darkly surreal realm inhabited by deeply flawed, dysfunctional and, on the whole, dangerous humans. Mary, like Little Red Riding Hood, ventures forth into danger with apparent innocence, until she discovers the power of who she really is. The ending is mysterious, intense and ultimately satisfying, even though it is difficult to fully understand. A deep think about what has gone on in the novel and the nature of Mary's predicament is called for, but even then, like David Lynch's best films, it is a slippery thing to contend with. Other People is a strange little beast of a novel, it's both realism in terms of its social satire, but also surreal in its metaphysical themes and overall structure. It's an easy novel to admire and as various critics have duly noted over the years, it is undoubtably where Amis really hit his straps. Now, onto Money (1984), eventually, that is... 

Friday 1 December 2023

God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - Christopher Hitchens (2007)


Rating: Admirable

For a long time I avoided reading any of the works published by well known atheists (personally I'm in a position beyond atheism, but more on that later), such as Richard Dawkins, but having never read any of Hitchen's work, and knowing that he copped a great deal of heat for his atheistic views over the years, I thought I would find out just how against the notion of god he was. Turns out he was quite extreme in his atheistic views and God is not Great is an all out attack on organised monotheistic religion (eastern religions also come in for some flack as well). Some of the chapter headings certainly make his position clear, such as 'Religion Kills', 'The Metaphysical Claims of Religion are False' and 'Is Religion Child Abuse?' His argument style is forceful, compelling, but not always to the point. Hitchens frequently labours his arguments, but on the whole he hits home with quite devastating critiques of core religious notions, such as that humans need religion in order to lead moral lives. His takedown of the ten commandments is something to behold, arguing that some of the commandments actually existed to encourage bloodletting and racist behaviour (in particular within the context of the historical tribal origin of said commandments). Hitchens explores many of the inherent contradictions and problems found within religious belief - bigotry, homophobia, hostility toward scientific progress, misogyny, coercion, in particular toward children, and its righteousness and intolerance toward other modes of thought and ways of living. At one point he argues at length that monotheistic religion has a close affinity with totalitarianism, making some salient points to support his controversial thesis. If I were religious I'd find the book to be a direct attack on my very being, fortunately I'm not, so I quite enjoyed it.

Proof that god does not exist.

God is not Great is not without its flaws however. Although Hitchens does, at times, show some levity toward the more reasonable aspects of religion, he does, on the whole, focus on its extremes; righteous evangelism, war in the name of god, targeting of homosexuals and so on. Although I'm a long time atheist I can see that religion has done some good for humanity (the bad far outweighs the good however). Hitchens also comes across as a true essayist, rather than an academic, blending opinion and facts (some of which are potentially incorrect - although many of the critics pointing this out wrote for religious journals it seems); he very much writes with his own voice, for better or worse. This sometimes involves coming across as arrogant or pompous, in particular when he uses overly emotive insults when describing certain people, referring to them as 'ludicrous mammals', 'pathetic' or 'absurd'. Hitchens is unrestrained in his distain, which is understandable, but it can come across as unnecessarily strident at times. Still, these are minor quibbles, and God is not Great stands as a decisive lancing of the purulent boil of monotheism, done in the most painful way imaginable. As for me? Well, about four years ago I went from being an atheist to embracing existential nihilism and have been much happier ever since. Essentially not only do I believe that humanity has no viable future, but also that humans have no inherent worth, if we became totally extinct it just wouldn't matter at all, the universe would not care. It's very freeing and I advise it for any free-thinking individual. It doesn't mean that you don't care about people, life, or being fulfilled, it just means that if it all ends, then what of it? I'm sure Hitchens would have approved had he lived, however both he and his close friend, Martin Amis, have died, two of the greatest godless literary buddies in history. RIP, but not in heaven or hell...

Proof that god does exist?