Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book tower depleted by one!

After an opening volume spent entirely within the otherworldly Area X, Jeff Vandermeer's successor novel, Authority, steps back to the Southern Reach facility at its border.

There, a new director - referred to by his new staff as Control - picks over the pieces of the mission described in Annihilation. Its leader, the Psychologist, was the previous director, who seemed to know more about Area X than reports record. And its only survivor, the Biologist, is standoffish, and doesn't quite appear to be what she seems. Control's investigation gradually uncovers the truth on both, a creeping derangement driven by Area X, as well as secrets from his own history and that of his family. All of which takes place as Area X seems poised.

While less of the horror of Area X seeps into this volume, it has some unnerving moments as its protagonist unravels some of Area X's mysteries. And while some unravelling takes place, the author does a grand job whetting interest while keeping Area X shrouded. A great read, though it does set a high bar for its concluding volume. Of which, more anon.

#book #sciencefiction

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Book tower depleted by one!

Though I had minor reservations about the film #Arrival, there was good enough about it to make me track down this volume of short stories by its author, Ted Chiang. As well as the source of Arrival - which is pleasingly similar and different to its adaptation - the tales take in the construction of the Tower of Babylon to reach Heaven, a steampunk tale grounded in performationist biology, and a faux-documentary on a technology that masks the ability to perceive human beauty so that users don't judge people by their appearance. Quite a spread, and all rather unique and enjoyable - I'll definitely be digging deeper into Chiang's back-catalogue.

#book #sciencefiction #shortstory

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Book tower depleted by one!

An early title from Chris Beckett. It posts an alternative present in which immigration officers actually police the transit of people from alternative universes. Fuelled by an inexplicable drug called "slip", people pass through the novel's present day to either seek a better life, escape their crimes or to promulgate violent religions from their own universes. Starts well, has lots of interesting ideas, but its narrative doesn't really work on the end, and it kind-of fizzles out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's an expanded version of a short story that did work, but I just don't think Beckett knew where he was going with it when he started. Still, not a terrible read at all.

#book #sciencefiction

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Book tower depleted by one!

More novella than novel, this is the first Greg Egan I've read in a while. His Orthogonal series was just too tedious to stick with. However, this is him back on form with a kind of "whodunnit" set in his memory uploading future. Except that the detective is the uploaded personality, and he's trying to find out what, and why, his recently-deceased original left out of his memories. Very enjoyable, if over all too quickly.

#book #sciencefiction #gregegan #kindle

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Reading pile depleted ... It's been a very long time since my last Anne Tyler ...

It's been a very long time since my last Anne Tyler. This one is part of a series of books by contemporary authors that retell Shakespeare plays - specifically The Taming Of The Shrew here. I rather liked this, though it does that trick whereby at some critical point it flashforwards to its conclusion, thus kind-of avoiding some narrative thorniness / gymnastics. I'm not au fait with the original, so this might be the same there, but it detracts a little from what's an otherwise amusing, if slightly implausible, yarn.

#book #fiction #annetyler

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Success and "failure" of Arrival

We finally caught the increasingly non-recent science fiction "thinker" (and 2017 Oscar nominee) Arrival. While I'd whole-heartedly recommend it for fans of the genre, nit-picker that I am, I have a few reservations as well. So this is less a review, more a niggle. Needless to say, spoilers ahead for those who've not made the journey so far.

First, what it gets right. Build-up is great, with only fleeting glimpses of the alien spaceships until the big reveal in a beautiful, cloud-wreathed valley in Montana. Their unworldliness begins with their design, as largely featureless geometric shapes, and is nicely underscored by the short distance they effortlessly "hover" above the Earth's surface. The aliens themselves are also handled well, if a little too much like squid, both in general appearance and in their use of extruded "ink". Making their audio extraneous for communication (an early misstep by their interrogators), and their language written yet initially indecipherable as communication works really well. And I liked what ultimately came to be their "gift" and why they made it, although it's mentioned so fleetingly that many may miss it.

What mostly-works but slightly-doesn't is that the film is one of those that makes more sense when you reflect on it afterwards. That's a good thing in my book, but I can well imagine that most people will leave this film utterly perplexed by what they've just seen. It's all there to make sense of it, but it's presented rather subtly at times, and often in an order that requires reflection to make sense of. For instance, a central conceit of the film (and a very clever one) is that Sapir-Whorf is true at a deep and fundamental level, but it's quite gently introduced to the viewer at a point where its relevance is opaque. And the consequence of this is illustrated by out-of-order glimpses of a child in what appear at first to be past memories, but which turn out latterly to be something else. However, the viewer is slightly misled by the presentation of some of this material upfront, seemingly as backstory, when it would arguably make more sense to introduce it latterly (narratively, perhaps, but maybe not emotionally).

My only "proper" reservation is, as ever, time travel - technically, I guess it's not exactly time travel, but, well, ... It's nowhere near as blunt as Interstellar (a film I forgave on a second viewing), but messing with the space-time continuum is a sure-fire way of getting my hackles raised. Especially here, where the film has its cake and eats it by allowing agency and then kind-of suggesting fatalism. However, it is still one of the cleverest uses of time-bending in film, so despite my hackles, I'm much more forgiving here.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, it really is one of the smartest science fiction films in recent years (or decades, even), presenting the sort of deep ideas that, while not uncommon in literary science fiction, rarely make it off the page. It does all of this gently and subtly without any of the distracting pace and action routinely misused in conventional "science fiction" films. And it does it while blending a human story of love and loss in with the central MacGuffin. Two thumbs up for sure.

P.S. I should just add that, with their relationship with time, the aliens reminded me of my favourite aliens, the Invaders of John Varley's novels. Although the Invaders still win because of their disinterest / disdain in humanity.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Dear Jeremy

[Sent in response to a rallying "united we stand ..." missive from JC]

Dear Jeremy,

Thank you for your message. I agree strongly with the sentiment – we do need to be united. However, being united needs to apply more broadly than the Labour Party’s base. And appealing to the wider British public requires a recognition and engagement with the issues that they – rightly or wrongly – consider serious. In the recent referendum that you mention, your leadership of the Labour Party ignored this engagement. It preferred instead to focus on a message that clearly had no traction with the wider public and with, in particular, the Party’s historic base. With such a narrow loss of the referendum (a less than 5% swing of Leavers would have done it), it is difficult not to conclude that your leadership – or the lack thereof – is, at least in part, a contributing factor. For an issue as central to the progressive cause as EU membership this is completely unacceptable. Your leadership at this time has helped undercut the very livelihood and future of our young – among whom are the core constituents of the Momentum organisation that supports you. While you may very well be successful at rallying these very people, you should reflect on how your actions have helped to disenfranchise them. Being united means reaching out beyond the base, and you are doing nothing to achieve this. Again, please reflect on your actions.


A new toy

[A posted review of my new toy]

This is my third Windows Phone (Lumia 800 to Lumia 925 to Lumia 950), and each iteration has - in my experience - been better than the last.

I delayed upgrading from my Lumia 925 because there appeared to be some downsides with Windows 10 Mobile (namely that it seemed to be a work-in-progress), but in the end I needn't have worried. While it's not perfect, it's a solid step upwards with only a few deficiencies relative to Windows Phone 8.1. The only noticeable glitches I've seen so far are occasional - and temporary - freezes, where it feels like the phone may be waking up (a legacy of W10M's origin with W10 on desktop PCs?), and the app-killing interface being slow - though this has the feel of being designed-in (= a future fix?) rather than an actual glitch. In any case, as W10M shares the kernal of W10, I would expect that Microsoft will be giving W10M much better and more consistent support than it did WP8.1 (which was still a pretty great OS).

As for the phone itself, the only downside is that its body - wholly plastic rather than part metal - is a little less premium, though I was well aware of this aspect before purchasing. The rest of the hardware is great, with a great screen (including Glance and fantastically dark blacks), an excellent camera (though this has been the case with Lumias since the start), a replacable battery (no equivalent in Lumia 925), an expansion slot (no equivalent in Lumia 925) and a much zippier GPS sensor (judging from the performance of the sat-nav app). As the camera has also been slightly repositioned, it's also nice to finally be able to use some little lenses that I've got with it (and, finally, a selfie stick).

One brand new feature worth a mention is so-called Continuum. This lets you plug the phone into a small dock and then connect it to a monitor or TV (e.g. via HDMI), and then use it as if it was a PC. While not all of the apps work in this framework, a lot do, and it has potential if you don't want to lump around a laptop or tablet computer. One of the most convincing things I've done with this is access and interact my desktop computer via the TeamViewer app - this works just brilliantly. If you're a business user, it's worth seeking out a demonstration of this feature, as it's really quite unique. (I should quickly add that the dock isn't free - unless, that is, you're able to take advantage of the same Microsoft deal that I was!)

While the app gap remains (if this bothers you; it probably doesn't by now if you're with Windows), it feels slightly narrower with W10M, and I've noticed upgrades with certain apps that never made it to my Lumia 925 (e.g. Instagram, sat-nav). Most of the apps that I used on WP8.1 on my Lumia 925 seem to have transitioned well to W10M, and I've found a few nice new ones to fill some minor gaps. The only omission I've felt so far is that the post-Nokia sat-nav app - while great, and much faster than before - doesn't appear to have the traffic function of its Nokia precursor.

Anyway, overall, I'd really rate this phone. It's not perfect, but no phone I've used is. And the unique interface that attracted me to Windows in the first place still stands out (and is pretty much better than ever). But be aware that the body isn't quite so premium as earlier models, and that the app gap hasn't much changed. But if you can overlook these relatively minor downsides, it's a definite step up from previous models.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Is it just me, or are there a lot of dead celebrities at the moment?

If nothing else, 2016 is shaping up as a bumper year for dead celebrities. At the moment, it feels like you can't listen to the radio or turn on the television without hearing of the death of some luminary. It probably started with Bowie. Unexpected both because of his relatively slight age (69) as well as his then-recent album release. But since then a litany of famous figures have popped their clogs. Earlier this week, we had a double whammy, with Ronnie Corbett and Zaha Hadid joining the choir invisible on the same day.

So, is this a real thing? Or is it just my perception and bad memory that make it feel like there are a lot more famous dead people right about now? And leaving aside this first order question by assuming the affirmative, what could explain the seeming upswing in reported mortality of musicians, artists, comedians, architects, and so on?

There is obviously a sensible, analytical route to the answer based on careful study of media reporting of expired stars in previous years. But I'm too lazy for that, so am going to stick to baseless speculation and armchair argument. To wit, I'm assuming that I'm right about the numbers - and why wouldn't I do that? - and focusing instead on what's behind it all. Or what could be behind it all if I'm honest.

The simplest explanation is that, as time passes, we should expect to hear of more celebrity deaths simply because the human population of Earth - and, presumably, that of human celebrities (we don't know any alien ones yet) - is still very much on the up.

A more conspiratorial explanation is that the contrasting costs of proper journalism and lazy, echo chamber journalism, mean that when filling a news schedule, the temptation is focus on easily-assembled items on dead famous people. Go to the clips archive, ring a few of their upset friends, job done. However, I'm going to discount this one since - being a BBC fanboy - I'm pretty sure that this can't cover all the bases (although I'm still suspicious of how the media picks topics to cover).

A further explanation - and my favourite - is that the dominant factor is that we now have many more celebrities per head of population than we did in the past, and that we should expect this to occur. Essentially, with the advents of mass publishing, radio, cinema, television and now the internet, there are now far more routes by which everyday people can be elevated to the realms of celebrity. That is, to have some sort of following beyond that of the people they know and interact with (let's not get sniffy about "celebrity"). And then, ipso facto, the population of people in the public consciousness - and that of their obituaries - will inevitably rise.

In essence, this is a corollary of Andy Warhol's famous / infamous statement concerning "15 minutes of fame".

Of course, all of this is wholly based on idle speculation on my part, and I certainly won't be following it up to work out how wrong I am - and why would I do that? But I am still interesting in knowing if this really is "a thing", or if it really is "just me".

Friday, 21 August 2015

The BBC respondeth ...

Further to an earlier rant, I actually got a response from the BBC. And one where they actually half-agreed with me - which is more than I got when I complained about the excreable ''The Great Global Warming Swindle''. As they say, it's true that the BBC does "stick to the script" on climate change almost all of the time, but they overlook how damaging it is to go "off piste". Both to general public understanding of the non-debate that is climate science (actually, there's no shortage of debate - just not of the baseless "sceptic" sort), and to their reputation as factual broadcasters. Yes, there's a superficial sense in which it's "balanced" to present climate sceptic views, but only when the nature of that balance is plain. One doesn't see many science programmes that counter geologists with creationists, or medical scientists with HIV-deniers, or even historians with holocaust-deniers, but somehow climate change is fair game for this sort of treatment - despite both its science base and its potentially disastrous implications the world over. Anyhow, this is what they had to say ...

Dear Andrew

Reference CAS-3433921-5SPGSZ

Thanks for contacting us about What’s the Point of...The Met Office? broadcast on 5 August.

In What's the Point of ...?, Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts questions the continued relevance of British traditions and institutions, with an irreverent approach offering alternatives to well-established views. There is a long tradition on Radio 4 of columnists having licence to explore controversial subjects from a personal viewpoint and the light hearted tone of this series allows Quentin Letts to question even the most admired of organisations. Nevertheless we accept that in this episode about the Met Office, while there are legitimate questions to be raised about the accuracy of long-term predictions over the past 10-15 years and funding, the programme should have been more clear about where the balance of the argument currently lies on climate change and, in particular, would have benefitted from clarifying that the Met Office’s underlying views are in line with the scientific consensus.

The omission on these points is regrettable. Climate change is a recurrent theme on Radio 4 programmes and more mainstream views have been, and will continue to be, properly reflected in our output - for example, the following day’s BBC Inside Science included an interview referring to how the release of carbon dioxide may have had a significant effect on the atmosphere and this week’s Fry’s English Delight on weather also reflects the scientific consensus.

We do appreciate this feedback and your concerns have been sent to the programme team, and senior BBC management via our daily report, which means they have been seen by the right people.

Thank you for taking the time to bring this matter to our attention and giving us the opportunity to review it.

Kind regards

Ciaran Hanna

BBC Complaints

Monday, 10 August 2015

Yours, Seething in Southampton ...

While I've come to expect misrepresentation of science from the likes of Channel 4, the BBC is typically the sanest of media commentators. So it was something of a surprise when one of their long-running (but, hitherto, unlistened to by me) programmes took unwarranted pot shots at that bastion of UK climate science, the Met Office. The programme, "What is the point of ...?", ostensibly takes to task long-standing and seemingly venerable institutions, with the aim of cutting to the core of whether they're out of touch or even a nuisance. While there are many reasons to ponder how the Met Office fits into the modern world, what the programme served up did nothing to address this. Cue a "Seething from Southampton" shot across the BBC's bows ...

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to complain about the Radio 4 broadcast “What is the Point of the Met Office?” (5th August 2015).

As a long-standing part of the British establishment, one whose work features in both our daily lives (the weather) and the longer-term fate of the Earth (climate change), the Met Office is ripe for an evaluation of both its role and its performance in this role, and I tuned in to the programme hoping for such an appraisal. However, rather than investigating how well the Met Office actually performs in its role (e.g. how accurate it is, whether this accuracy has improved with time, is this level of accuracy cost-effective), the programme makers instead chose the lazy journalism route of setting “climate sceptic” cranks onto meek and mild Met Office spokespeople.

We first had an amateur meteorologist who, while noting the complexity of climate science, seemed inexplicably interested in replacing computers with humans in matters of weather prediction. Next up was Piers Corbyn, brother of the currently newsworthy Jeremy, a fellow of the not-showing-my-working school of weather prediction, and a long-term opponent of non-sunspot-related climate change. This was all topped off by the Rt. Hon. Peter Lilley, spouting as fact the ridiculous claim that climate change stopped in 2004 – something that would come as a surprise to all of the jobbing scientists far outside the Met Office who make it their job to measure and analyse the Earth’s climate.

There are plenty of reasons to wonder whether a large, centralised and bureaucratic “weather service” still has a place in the modern world, but these simply weren’t touched on in this programme. When privatisation was raised, it was less in the context of whether it could actually work, and more in the service of a threat to rein in the Met Office’s climate projection work. But rather than investigate whether said projections were outlandish as claimed, the programme boiled down to the usual climate sceptic bluster which any fact-checker could easily have punctured. Did it not, for instance, even occur to the programme makers to check whether the Met Office’s climate projections lie outside the range of those of their international peer organisations? (They don’t – as recent IPCC reports show.)

By way of summary, “What is the Point of ‘What is the Point of …?’” was my final thought about this programme. This edition was my first time with this programme, and will doubtless be my last. A listener hitherto unaware of what the Met Office did, or how well it did it, would most likely exit the programme with the view that it (a) blows money on seemingly expensive computers, and (b) produces extreme “doomsday” predictions to justify its continued existence. As such, it left me thinking that, if one can’t trust the programme on institutions which deal with scientific matters that can easily be fact-checked, how can one possibly trust it on those where the arguments for and against are more qualitative and open to interpretation.

Yours faithfully ...

Please note: For full disclosure, while I do not work at or for the Met Office, my work as a professional oceanographer does involve periodic collaboration with fellow researchers there, including with climate projection.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Referendum 2014, #indyref

Or: A southern Northerner looks north

In just a week's time, my home for the first half of my life will be voting on whether it should secede from my home for the second half of my life. Before the result is known, I thought that it might be a useful exercise for me to record my views on such a momentous subject. In no small part so that I can't rewrite my personal history in the future to suit the outcome of the referendum vote. But also because it's a subject that's probably exercised most Scots across most of their lives to some degree. As such, opinionated I most certainly am.

So, where to start? I suppose the obvious place is "which way would I vote?". Which is perhaps not-so-obvious since, as a long-time resident of England, I don't actually have a vote [*1]. But glossing over this mere technical detail, what's my overall take on the question at the heart of the rapidly-approaching referendum: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" I'd like to be able to say that I'm somewhat ambiguous on the subject, that I can see and appreciate that it's not a simple question, but, quibbles asides, I'm firmly in the "No, thanks" camp.

A big part of this for me is that my gut reaction to expressions of nationalism of any stripe is to suspect (and usually find) bigoted small-mindedness. Or, worse, malevolent insularity and racism. This is exactly how I feel about English nationalism - that has always struck me as a veil shielding underlying National Front-esque racism. I don't see Scottish nationalism in anywhere near the same way [*2], but I do still find that this is often cloaked (credit where credit's due: it's not hidden) in transparently ridiculous anti-English sentiments. Either way, nationalism for me is always to be treated suspiciously.

A larger part can simply be bracketed under the heading "Identity". When I was young, Scotland's relative insularity and resulting homogeneity meant that it was actually difficult for me to identify what being Scottish actually meant - I was simply constantly awash in it. By the time I was old enough to see further afield, all I could see of Scottish identity was an anti-English, chip-on-its-shoulder attitude that was pretty far from progressive (though some of this was understandable under the evil Iron Lady). Going first to university in Scotland, and then to England itself (by way of a formative stint in Los Angeles), exposed me to much more diversity and gave me more perspective, as well as the realisation (rightly or wrongly) that my values were more broad British than provincial Scots [*3]. And down the years this has stuck - quite possibly in no small measure because I've been south of Hadrian's Wall for so long.

By "identity" here, I'm thinking of the whole gamut, rather than the minutiae. So cultural touchstones like literature, cinema and art, in which I discern variability but certain common threads across the United Kingdom. The BBC, as a specific example, looms large on this front (melodramatically, I might even say I'd die for this National Treasure were it not for the likes of Strictly). But I'd also include the gloomy, sarcastic, ironic sense of humour of the UK - again, it varies, but it also unifies (even if the Scottish variety can be a bit more sweary). There's simply something reassuring to me that two people from opposite ends of Britain can agreeably moan on about the Tories, the trains or how the former is running the latter (not to mention the NHS) into the ground [*4].

A deeper part of this - again, for me, your mileage may vary - is what we think of when we think of "history". More or less everything that I think of under this is the modern history of the UK as a whole. And I'm not just thinking of the "admirable" bits like WW2 - to me, Britain's malign history as an imperial power is at least as an important part of things too [*5]. All of it binds the whole of the United Kingdom together, and it's not possible (for me, at least) to credibly think of separate pasts for England and Scotland. True, there's what I call "Braveheart history", over-emphasised in high school [*6], but it relates to a past that's simply too remote and too alien relative to the present-day to have any real meaning for it. In short, when I think of national history, I think of British history, for better and for worse.

A more minor part of my "Better Together" [*7] sentiments stems from the fact that I simply abhor secessionism. In a world blithely walking into a climatically-compromised Anthropocene age, few organisational things strike me as more stupid than having to put more chairs around the table when things are getting sorted out. As such, the proposed secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom seems unlikely to facilitate any efforts in global governance. Not, of course, fatally (splitting the UK isn't like splitting the US would be), but a complication that the world would arguably be better off without [*8]. This is, of course, allied to my unfashionable One World State views, so can be discounted as such.

A related reductio ad absurdum I'd make is why not continue seceding all the way down to the region, town, family, individual? Take Thatcher at her word, decry "Society", and continue devolving further. Of which, I can't help but raise an eyebrow at the stifling - by no less than the Scottish Parliament itself - of an attempt (admittedly by some cranks) for a further referendum aimed at separating (oil-rich) Orkney and Shetland from the Scottish mainland. What's good enough for the goose ...

Leaving aside these mere feelings about the place of Scotland within the United Kingdom, I'm sure most of us with a dog in this race have also considered practicalities. As reports on the news (the BBC, naturally) have been constantly been reporting, it is, however, difficult to work out how these stack up. There are simply too many if ... then ... else loops in the wider economy for anyone to be sure. Chances are, Scotland can almost certainly make a good fist of it - plenty of other similarly-sized countries do. But, equally, it's difficult not to see dark clouds such as demography, currency confusion [*9], stranded assets and nervous investors as being at least on the horizon. And just because there are already successful countries of the same size, it doesn't follow that Scotland can immediately transition into one of them. What if it takes decades? Anyway, where people fall on the hope-fear axis is liable to steer their decisions on this score. And I do think it would be wrong to focus too much on the fear side - always leaning this way would stop one getting out of bed in the morning.

Anyway, this is rambling on far too long (no change there then ...). I've other, lesser grumbles, not to mention some bitterness at the thought of my fellow Scots cutting and running and leaving us stuck with harder-to-dislodge Tories (on which particular point, I think Irvine Welsh's excellent essay puts me in my place), but it's hardly helpful discussion or constructive criticism. In a week the truth will out. If "no", then I'll be a little bit relieved, and will be hoping that the nationalists take defeat gracefully and wait a generation before revisiting secession again. If "yes", well, things will be interesting. But it's not for nothing that the saying "May you live in interesting times" is viewed as a curse.

[*1]: Which I'm totally OK about - I haven't lived in Scotland for more than 20 years now (though have probably racked up more than 6 months there in that time). But there's a little bit of me niggled at the possibility of having my nationality changed underneath me.

[*2]: In part, I suspect that the key difference here is that Scottish nationalism is not a minority pursuit. As such, its racists (and there are some) are completely diluted out. Meanwhile, English nationalism has been associated with racists for so long (decades?) that it's at the point that racism is basically assumed (English Defence League anyone?), and it thankfully languishes as a niche pursuit.

[*3]: Which is not to say that England doesn't have its own provincialism to deal with, or that Britain is necessarily always broad in its outlook. There are plenty of recent and not-so-recent examples to the contrary.

[*4]: The NHS itself is highly symbolic of unity across Britain. For most people, much more so than the BBC. And the attitude that accompanies the NHS, namely that only nations of savages would do without such a shining beacon (that, to be fair, occasionally requires polishing), is also - for me - a hallmark of national unity.

[*5]: Skeletons in our national closet, while embarrassing to say the least, are useful reminders of the limits and follies of national pride. There's something dislikeable about cultures that gloss over their shortcomings, that prize a muscular patriotism over the harbouring of occasional self-doubts. Scotland, if it does become independent, needs to be wary of this. The campaign has, at times, brought out a lot of alpha-male posturing on the assumed magnificence and exceptionalism of Scotland.

[*6]: Of Braveheart itself, well, I can't let this pass by unremarked. Less so, because of its ghastly (and intermittently inaccurate) hagiography of the life and times of William Wallace, but more because the film has become a grubby touchstone for a particularly unthinking form of nationalism. Without wishing to be rude about Scotland's heroes, I'm pretty sure that they wouldn't recognise the modern nations of Scotland or England, or empathise with the disgruntlement of contemporary nationalists. They'd probably mostly be wondering about where their servants were. Much as England is about the Magna Carta, there's a lot of weight put on history that has only a tangential bearing on our world today.

[*7]: Who came up with this? Admittedly, selling the status quo is difficult at the best of times (hope beats fear), but this just sounds crass.

[*8]: I will, of course, draw a veil over Scotland's role in future climate change measures when its balance book appears to be relying on oil money to keep on an even tiller, and when its nationalist demagogues decry nuclear power.

[*9]: This seems a tricky one to me. Sure, Scotland can keep the pound, but what's the point of being independent if your economy is at the mercy of decisions made elsewhere? Admittedly, this is arguably not dissimilar to the situation Scotland's in now anyway, but there'd be little incentive in the future for said decisions-made-elsewhere to factor it in at all after independence. Plus, how wise is it to use the same currency as your much larger neighbour that you've possibly just pissed off?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Worst. #Coupland. Ever.

Down the years, I've fitfully bemoaned the fall, then further fall, of one of my favourite authors, Douglas Coupland. Like the worst sort of earnest fanboy, I greet the arrival of each of his new novels with credulous excitement, only be cut down by grim disappointment at best and head-shaking disbelief at worst. But he's really done it this time.

With Worst. Person. Ever. he's reached a new nadir in which his remaining talent for spotting zeitgeisty themes (of which, yes, he's still got it) is utterly squandered in (yet) another random tale helmed by a deliberately offensive - and eponymous - narrator. Raymond Gunt (I kid not) is Coupland's worst folly to date - a character whose irredeemability seems initially a clever conceit, then an annoying one, then ultimately a catastrophic self-inflicted gunshot wound to whatever Coupland set out to achieve here. It can be a good thing for a novel to puncture precious taboos, but the reader needs to be brought along for the ride, not abandoned - as here - by a writer riding the one-trick shock-pony. It also helps to aim one's barbs precisely, but Coupland instead favours a blunderbuss approach that leaves one wondering what, exactly, he was hoping to wing. An ending, too, might have been a good idea, but this seems one of the novel's lesser crimes.

The best I can come up with this time is that, hopefully, this is rock-bottom.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Cloud Atlas

It's common for successful novels to be deemed "unfilmable". Typically, this covers those novels where the "action" largely takes place within the mind of a character, or where a novel's strength is drawn from the voice of a colourful narrator. But the novel Cloud Atlas by the British novelist David Mitchell (no, not that one) presents a different class of problem.

Organised as a disparate sequence of six stories, the novel runs from the 19th century Pacific through to a distant, post-apocalyptic Hawaii. This baroque structure is then further complicated by the ingenious splitting of each story, bar the final one, into two parts hinged on a cliffhanger. And then it's rounded off by having each story take a completely different setting and form, including a austere diary, a pulp thriller, a retirement home-set farce, and a future corporate dystopia. Strangest of all, it somehow hangs together, in spite of the only formal connections being inconsequential cross-references and the possession by certain characters of a comet-shaped birthmark. What it all means is very much left to the reader, but it certainly left me with a pleasing, if passing, sense of the connections between people.

Given the preceding, not the most obvious novel to film, and I was certainly surprised to hear that it was even being considered for translation to the screen. Even more so when I heard that no less than the Wachowskis were helming it. Known best for their rather bombastic Matrix trilogy (one genuinely excellent film, two self-absorbed travesties), they certainly didn't strike me as even on the radar for adapting such a work.

All of which goes to show how one (well, this one) can so easily prejudge, and misjudge, things. The resulting film, while still far from unqualified recommendation, actually hangs together very well, and is probably about as good a version of the book as it is possible to make. One early concern that I had was that the innovative structure of the book was ditched in favour of a narrative that jumped back and forth between the component tales pretty willy-nilly. But since the stories contain connections in content, themes and pacing this actually works pretty well. For instance, the novel's cliffhangers that divide each story into two halves, are interlocked in the film in a way that seems surprisingly natural.

It's not all plain sailing, however. Some of the texture of the novel, in particular the different forms of the original stories (diary vs. letters vs. pulp), gets lost along the way, though that's more a limitation of film in general than this film in particular. The story that arguably loses out most here is the final, post-apocalyptic one, where the voice - and perspective - of the protagonist, Zachry, is pretty pivotal to the arc of the story, but this largely has to be covered by Tom Hanks' adopting an intermittently incoherent dialect for the film. And the film makers have definitely made a few changes that make the conclusions of the stories veer a little more into heart-warming territory. Nothing too serious, mind, but it did serve to make the resolution of the film a little more pat.

Notwithstanding my earlier praise, however, I'm not sure what someone unfamiliar with the original book might make of it all. It is still a pretty confusing film, one that may be extremely difficult to follow except by multiple viewings. So though I left as a qualified fan, the film's reputation as a fiasco is easy to understand. On the one hand, a film should stand or fall based on whether it's accessible, but on the other hand, surely there's a place for films that require a little more dedication from viewers? Of course, if that dedication requires the pre-consumption of the source novel, perhaps not. So, overall, though teetering on the brink of disaster more-or-less throughout its running time, I'd still label it a "secret success". But one might need to read that novel first ...

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Before Midnight

Sequel to 2004's sequel to 1995's original [*], Before Midnight runs - at least on paper - the risk of all threequels, of wasting the hard-won goodwill and critical spoils of its illustrious predecessors. Thankfully, it doesn't, and it caps off the trilogy (... so far - I won't be surprised if another appears in 2022) extremely satisfyingly. Not, however, for those uncharmed by said ancestors - this will be the same old chatty bore-fest that you suffered through twice already. So give it a skip if you found Céline and Jesse intolerable the last few times around the block.

That said, Before Midnight is much more of a risk than Before Sunset. That film had "only" to re-establish a romance that the audience probably all wanted to see return. Here, we're another 9 years down the line and, unlike the preceding 9 year gap, Jesse and Céline have spent the entire time together. So making their extended romantic interlude interesting for the audience isn't a given. Simply making the film another enjoyably rambling conversation between two people that slowly edges them towards hooking up at the end wouldn't work, and the film's writers - who include its two stars - don't take this path.

To be fair, there is plenty of enjoyably rambling conversation [**], but it's used more sparingly, and positioned between scenes in which the conversation between Céline and Jesse is much more edgy than before. And the conversation doesn't stop at edgy, tipping over into anguish as the fractures in their relationship are first exposed and then explored. As such, it's not an easy watch like its predecessors, but in allowing the stresses and strains of long-term relationships (the demands of children, fading attraction) to be painted in realistically, it's much more grown-up. Satisfyingly so, ultimately.

As such, and much like that towering giant of successful threequels before it, Toy Story 3, Before Midnight shows other films how to do it. Not just a simple, crowd-pleasing retread of its predecessors, but one which retains their charms but finishes them off with a recognition of deeper waters beyond easy film screen romance. Whew - I'm totally glad they pulled it off.

[*] Not forgetting the brief appearance of Jesse and Céline in the also-excellent Waking Life.

[**] "Enjoyable", that is, if you've already bought into the modus operandi of the films of extended, playful and semi-philosophical banter between the leads.

In passing, I can't resist mentioning Jesse's outline of his planned new novel to his holiday friends. In just a few minutes, the film sketches out what could be a great little book (or, arguably, film), based around characters who're all intriguingly cognitively impaired. I'd read it already.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Blue Remembered Earth

It's been a while, but I'm finally back to Alastair Reynolds. And, once again, he's pulled a new universe out of ... well, out of wherever it is that he pulls his imagined futures from. Unusually, this one, Blue Remembered Earth, is explicitly labelled as the start of a new sequence of novels. Bar the first outings of his Revelation Space series, Reynolds has gotten into the (good) habit of standalone novels - even when they are still set within his favoured future - so this is a bit of a change. But a change for good or ill?

It's the 2160s. Climate change is largely resolved (Kilimanjaro has snow once again), the developing nations of the early 21st century are now its new technological titans, humans are both augmented and peppered throughout the solar system, and Africa still - miraculously - has elephants. Opening with the studies of the latter by its chief protagonist, Geoffrey, the novel quickly establishes his "black sheep" status, a shirker-scientist within a powerful family. But the mysterious death of his reclusive explorer grandmother, Eunice, on her private space station changes everything, ultimately sending him on a journey across the solar system. Along the way he engages the help of his sister, Sunday, who also lives in semi-exile from their family in a libertarian, anti-surveillance commune on the Moon. Between them, they slowly piece together their grandmother's renegade life from clues she appears to have deliberately left for them to find. Clues which point to a radically different biography for Eunice, new physics that will transform life in the solar system, and distant secrets around other stars.

Another curate's egg this one. On the positive side, Reynolds does a good job (again) of building an interesting new universe, and populating it with striking concepts, not all of which rely on outer space thrills. So we have, among other gems, augmented elephants, their miniaturised lunar cousins, an AI Eunice as a self-aware art project, and artificially evolved Martian robots. But Reynolds sacrifices most of these to the expediencies of a fast-moving plot, particularly deleteriously in the case of the augmented elephants, where an emotionally interesting subplot concerning interspecies murder gets pretty rudimentary treatment. More disappointing, however, is this fast-moving plot itself, which gradually reveals itself as a succession of MacGuffins that simply serve to move Geoffrey and Sunday from point A to point B to point C. That they have all been carefully put in place by a secretive Eunice gives them a veneer of intrigue, but ultimately they boil down to a chain of cryptic breadcrumbs that the grandchildren can follow without thinking too hard along the way. As such, the novel's ostensible twists and turns feel far too canalised, and, as a reader, I was less thinking about what was to come, and more just wading through to the next breadcrumb.

So, overall, not a particularly satisfying read. Lots to like, but strung together in something less than the sum of its parts. That it's a planned series of novels seems unfortunate - like that of another favourite author read recently. But Reynolds has form in working imaginatively within a series, so I won't write the series off yet. We'll see.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Gods Without Men

The formation and dissolution of a UFO cult; a British rockstar slowly losing it; war games for an displaced Iraqi teenager; and the disappearance, then the reappearance, of a young autistic child. All taking place in the Californian desert near a strange rock formation known as the Pinnacles.

And that's about as close as I got to understanding things. I really enjoyed reading this extremely well-written novel, but I haven't really the faintest idea what it all meant. Though the stories are all connected by a location, and by occasional random intersections, if there was a deep explanation for their co-occurrence within the same pages, I completely missed it. But, strangely enough, even in the end I wasn't too bothered. I enjoyed the individual tales enough without being able to discern what Hari Kunzru was doing here in Gods Without Men. The tale involving Jaz, Lisa and the wayward Raj, in particular, really gripped me, even when its resolution teetered on the supernatural (or space alien).

Anyway, if anyone ever finds out what it's really all about, do let me know!

The Honey Guide

Next up, The Honey Guide by former BBC journalist turned novelist, Richard Crompton.

Set during the run up to, and the bloody aftermath of, the 2007 elections in Kenya, this novel takes what seems a common path these days of placing a social or political commentary within the reader-friendly confines of a crime novel. Centre to the action is a Maasai detective, Mollel, a widower following the 1998 bombing of Nairobi's US Embassy, with a young son that he struggles to engage with. Though he is only passing through Nairobi, the discovery of the body of a young Maasai woman, initially lazily presumed a prostitute, leads to Mollel's assignment to the case, accompanied by a cocky local detective, Kiunga. Against the backdrop of the preparations for the election, and for the trouble expected in its wake, Mollel and Kiunga gradually trace the origin of the dead woman and uncover the circumstances leading up to her death. But their investigation takes them into the path of powerful interests, both political and religious, threatening both their jobs and their lives.

A bit of a curate's egg this one. Taken as a whole, it's a fairly good read, and very interesting for someone like me who knows only vaguely of Kenya's political problems. Crompton does a creditable job introducing the reader to the country and its people, and it feels thorough without coming across as a dry history lesson. As ever, using the police procedural format allows the novel to go to places that are exotic, but within a reassuringly familiar framework. So though one isn't quite sure which facet of Kenyan society will next present itself as a hurdle for the policemen, their goals and methods are comfortably recognisable. And the twists and turns of Crompton's tale do weave in genuinely interesting details of Kenya's struggle with corruption and, at times, tribal politics.

Given all this, it seems rude to be critical, but Crompton also misses a few tricks along the way. One somewhat confusing aspect is that, though billed as a "Mollel mystery", Kiunga steadily competes for the reader's time - and affections; he's a lot more chipper than Mollel - as the novel progresses. For readers like me, raised on novels with a central detective that's named on their covers, this is a little distracting. Worse is the rapid unspooling of both plot and character details late in the book, which rather undoes some quite careful set up. For instance, after stalling the investigation, several pivotal characters are suddenly altogether too quick to resolve things as the novel's pages start to run out. And the hinted backstory of Mollel - but also that of Kiunga - is rushed out in a rather contrived scene that finds both spilling their guts during an extended ascent up the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where the election results are being collated and corrupted. These aspects sap the novel's credibility somewhat, making it feel a little like Crompton was rushing to meet a publisher's deadline.

But for a first novel - and one that's already labelled up as being the start of a series - it's a good start by Crompton. And it's not as if that other famous detective, John Rebus, had a solid first outing!

Saturday, 26 October 2013


It's time again to clear out the pile of finished books from the side of the bed. Let's see if I can do this quickly-and-concisely rather than ponderously-and-never ...

First up, Eater by one of my favourite science fiction writers from the 1990s, Gregory Benford. By way of summary: astronomers are surprised to detect what turns out to be a small black hole entering the solar system, but even more surprised when it communicates a desire for conversation with the Earth. But dreams of a scientific bonanza from this ancient galactic traveller quickly turn sour as its requests for information turn into demands for much more.

What to say? Well, a great premise ruined by clumsy execution and an excruciatingly bad ménage à trois. Though borrowing liberally from Fred Hoyle's classic novel The Black Cloud (a previous read), it heads off in its own interesting directions before becoming bogged down in some painfully bad "relationship" nonsense between the central astronomer characters. As the novel progresses it also relegates the Eater, which was shaping up to be the most interesting character by a country mile, into a cartoon villain whose hinted subtleties get completely lost in a ridiculous plot where humanity, well on its way to getting humbled by the cosmos, inexplicably and implausibly turns the tables. The only interesting bits are those where the Eater philosophises away, but this is but a faint echo of Benford's alien intelligences from his Galactic Center Saga. There, he did a creditable job of making believable the thoughts of beings on a scale epically removed from humans. Here, his efforts to do the same are simply wasted when interspersed by the thoughts of beings that seem cribbed from a bad "young adult" novel.

Disappointing from someone such as Benford.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Earth Abides

What would it be like to be the last person alive on Earth? This theme is one that's drawn so many writers and film directors that it's now very - possibly overly - familiar to readers and viewers of science fiction. But how does one of the classic novels that explores it, 1949's Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, fare against the oversupply of post-apocalyptic genre fare?

It's the middle of the 20th century. Isherwood Williams - Ish - is a graduate student doing ecology field work in Black Creek in backwoods California. Bitten by a rattlesnake, and many miles from any help, he holes up in his spartan cabin until he is well enough to return to civilisation. However, driving out of the sticks, he finds - at first gradually, but later transparently - that it has apparently vanished from the face of the Earth. In his absence, a measles-like disease has struck the world, leaving humanity's works with no hand at the tiller.

As his initial shock wears off, Ish decides to travel America to investigate whether anything, or anyone, has survived the plague. Travelling east, he gradually finds pockets of humanity, some making ends in this new world, some descending into sedate insanity. But it becomes clear that civilisation is at an end, and Ish returns west to his hometown where, dispassionately, he studies how the natural world responds to the absence of its previously most-fêted offspring. Inbetween his efforts to make a comfortable life for himself, he watches the cyclical rise and fall of populations of animals freed of human control, as well as the gradual fall into disrepair and dysfunction of the human-built world. Unexpectedly, he discovers Em, a woman living nearby, similarly scraping a post-civilisation living. In short order they become a couple, and then a nucleus for a small group of survivors - and their children - to condense around.

As the years pass, Ish begins to grow concerned that all of humanity's learning and knowledge will be lost, and he vainly attempts to spark an interest in the next generation. Instead, Generation Post-Apocalypse gradually adopts less sophisticated, but more sustainable, ways of making a hunter-gather living, while simultaneously receding into superstition and mythology. In time, through triumphs and tragedies, this new way of life prevails as Ish's generation gradually fades away, and Ish himself becomes "the Last American", his memory and awareness dimmed by great age. At the end of his life, Ish comes to accept the passing of the old world he knew and sees the new world as just as transitory. In a moment of clarity, he observes that "Men go and come, but earth abides".

The short answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph is that Earth Abides stacks up extremely well against other novels and films (and videogames!) that tackle the end of civilisation. The above outline doesn't really do justice to the detail that Stewart has invested in his vision for the world. Particularly the effort that he puts into imagining the changes - biological and infrastructural - that follow from the loss of humans. In sending Ish across the country, and in playing out across the full length of his life, Stewart covers the full range of changes, from those that would happen immediately, through to those that would only happen gradually over years.

But leaving aside the breadth and depth of Stewart's playing out of the future, what was more impressive to me was the journey that he sends Ish on. Many end-of-the-world tales conjure up a convincingly human-free future, but few transition to mulling-over the limitations of our lives quite so well. While the narrative at first steers the conventional way that would ordinarily lead to the protagonist rebuilding civilisation, Stewart instead gradually makes the utter enormity of the task facing Ish and Em clear. And unlike similarly-themed novels such as The Road or Oryx and Crake, where hope of civilisation's restoration is wholly (or largely) absent from the narrative, here it's first dangled in front of the reader, before being steadily revealed as an impossible mirage. The future faced by the characters in Earth Abides is a sheer cliff of impersonal difficulty that simply cannot be scaled by them.

Beneath the novel's surface interests in civilisation and ecology, there's clearly more going on. It's difficult to miss the prevalent use of biblical themes and names (the novel's title, for instance), but Stewart also threads the novels with a series of philosophical strands. Some of which I picked up on, some of which only dawned on me when I read the novel's Wikipedia entry! As a more personal aside, I came to interpret Ish's struggle with the future of humanity, and then his acceptance of his passing role in steering it, as being a thinly veiled parable of the struggle that we all face in our own lives. At first, when young, the world seems malleable to us, but as time passes we gradually perceive that its course is far more circumscribed by history, inertia and the opposing wishes of others. Stewart, who was in his 50s when he wrote Earth Abides, was perhaps weaving us more than a simple story to divert us from our daily lives.

The novel does, however, have its, well, quirks. Chief among these are a series of anachronistic slip-ups down somewhat politically-incorrect avenues. For instance, early in the novel, Ish runs into an African-American family eking out a modest existence on a farm. His brief report of their quietly dignified stand against the calamity was possibly quite enlightened for its time in pre-civil rights USA, but it certainly raised my 21st century eyebrows. More troubling is the novel's treatment of the character of Evie, a young woman with either congenital or post-calamity mental health issues. Here the characters come across as the worst sort of eugenicists, at first contemplating euthanasia before finally settling on a pact to categorically prevent her from having children. While one can see the logic in the characters' concerns, they contemplate a semi-Nazi "final solution" for altogether too long to my mind. Such issues often arise in novels from the early- or middle-20th century, and, in context of their times, were probably actually liberal positions, but they certainly give the modern reader pause. Of course, in another 50 years, perhaps some of our forward-thinking attitudes will seem similarly neanderthal (to use what is almost certainly an example of this).

Notwithstanding the preceding, it's difficult not to recommend the novel. It does such a good job of the "empty Earth" trope, that it's a must-read for science fiction fans. And its depths reward readers prepared to wade into them. Though, as I've now spoiled for new readers above, the existential irrelevance of humanity and human lives perhaps makes Earth Abides not for the faint-hearted.