Saturday, 1 December 2007


A short post (actually - exactly the sort of thing I should be doing, my posts take too long to compose, and I'm too careful in doing it!). Paul Morley made an interesting point last night on Late Review. Reviewing an item about a manifesto by Vivienne Westwood, he noted that everyone should have one. Though he disagreed with aspects of her's, notably it seemed to be Torygraph in content, he admired the statement of ideas. Perhaps I should do the same? I certainly caught myself articulating my views on environmentalism (re: Lovelock's pipes and climate change) to RSL yesterday. I didn't really realise that I'd thought them through that well before. Perhaps I'm just impressed with the sound of my own voice? Anyway, a manifesto seems like a good idea ...


Two interesting seminars this week. The first was by John Houghton, ex- of the IPCC, and was a public lecture on climate change for a UK organisation known as Christians in Science. It was part of a series that this organisation has been running in Southampton, and the third that I've attended.

Anyway, strictly speaking, it wasn't interesting for the scientific content. That was tailored for a general audience, so only really covered material that I'm very familiar with. That said, he was able to reinforce points on the consequences of increasing aridity, and on the net transfer of wealth from the developing to the developed world despite aid and trade.

The interesting content of the talk lay in its discussion of climate change through the prism of religion. Bar a disparaging remark directed at unnamed scientists (i.e. Dawkins) who suggest an incompatibility between science and religion, the thrust of Houghton's religious message lay in stewardship of the Earth. While none of what he said was new to me, it was interesting to see an authoritative defense of the Earth from this angle. Were I religious, I would think the arguments he presented would be very persuasive. To the extent that one wonders what certain ostensibly religious leaders of the Free World would say in response. Dissembling is my first thought.

The second seminar was NOCS's Friday seminar. Unexpectedly, the speaker, Richard Watson, was one that I requested a long time ago. I can't entirely remember why I requested him, but I suspect that his work was being misused by ID evil doers. Anyway, he's a computer scientist working in a group that applies lessons from Nature to computer science problems, though his work also travels the other way, suggesting how Nature may work in return.

The focus of his work is the development of algorithms for solving optimisation problems (e.g. locating function maxima in multi-dimensional space). His thesis is that conventional evolutionary algorithms for doing this are both ineffectual and inefficient. Gradual evolution based on sampling the immediate "environment" is good only for finding local maxima, with the global maximum often impossible to reach.

His innovation mirrors symbiogenesis from biology, where separate organisms combine in symbiotic evolutionary relationships. By allowing computational elements to combine their "traits", rather than simply recombine or mutate them, Watson finds that the resulting algorithm is considerably more effectual and efficient. Watson went on to present results from earlier in the week where he further tweaked his algorithm so that computational elements, rather than combining randomly, chose combinations with other elements that they "encountered" (not quite sure how this was defined) most frequently. This seemed to be a quantum leap, with the already efficient algorithm increasing massively in efficiency (= time to solution).

Watson draws parallels between his algorithm and the evolutionary leaps involved in events like the evolution of cells, prokaryotes, eukaryotes, multicellular eukaryotes, sexual reproduction: events that are not easily explained by gradual evolution. Since several of these events involve symbiogenesis, the parallel was convincing to me. He argues that the natural analogue of his algorithm provides an alternative to standard Darwinism, particularly where "irreducible complexity" may seem a hurdle. This may be why he attracted the attention of IDers (and me). His argument is not that this mechanism replaces Darwinism, but it does offer a distinct alternative mode for evolutionary innovation. As it involves the coming together of evolutionary lineages, it is not something that is perceived as common (though horizontal gene transfer is now a much more widely accepted process in prokaryotes), and this may reflect it being an infrequent process in the wider world.

That said, after the seminar DIR made the observation that it may have some relationship with punctuated equilibrium - certainly his simulation results were very suggestive of this. I was more interested in whether, in an "evolution of evolvability" sense, there would be features of extant organisms that would be suggestive of this. I was thinking of, for example, adaptations to encourage HGT, but it's not something I know much of, and it's not something that Watson has thought much about either (after all, he's a computer scientist, not a biologist).

Anyway, for a rather specialised evolutionary topic, Watson gave a very good seminar. Perhaps over heavy on background, but that's ideal for students. And he's certainly given me something to think about regarding evolution. Something that, particularly pleasingly, won't come as much comfort to evil IDers.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Many Worlds

Caught an interesting science programme on BBC4 the other night. It dealt with the infamous Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but from the perspective of the musician Mark Everett (or E), son of the scientist who developed it, Hugh Everett. While I knew of both of these people separately, I was completely unaware that they were related, let alone father and son.

The programme followed Mark as he travelled the US meeting up with Everett's colleagues and with scientists currently working with Many Worlds. The programme devoted some time to the theory itself, but focused more on Everett's life and academic career, and with Mark's relationship with his father. While it probably overstated the importance of Many Worlds, and may give some viewers the idea that this interpretation is the most commonly accepted one among physicists, it was really quite charming.

Mark, who hitherto understood very little about his father's work, gradually came to some understanding of it, and was able to make sense of father's life and certain key events in it. He also came to realise the importance of his father's work, and the modern relevance of the Many Worlds interpretation. A particularly choice moment was when he dug out some old audio tapes from his father's stuff (Everett died in 1982). These recorded conversations with friends and scientific colleagues about his ideas. However, in the course of playing through them, Mark found a recording of their pet cat purring, a boastful recording of himself and, best of all, a conversation his father was having that, in the background, had Mark learning to play the drums.

My own view on Many Worlds is that, while I don't subscribe to it, I find its solution of the "measurement problem" strongly preferable to that of the "standard" Copenhagen interpretation. I simply refuse to buy the idea that measurement is an important factor in the lives of subatomic particles. At first glance, this seems a reasonable deduction given that quantum objects appear to switch from waves to particles when measurements are made of them. The large number of possibilities inherent in waves is instantly decreased to a single actuality by the act of measurement. But it's unclear (to me anyway) what "looking at" a quantum object does to it to make this happen. Many Worlds resolves this by stating that all of these possibilities actually occur, but do so in their own separate universes, such that we only see one outcome (i.e. we, too, are split across multiple universes). While this does elegantly sidestep the measurement problem, it does so at the great expense of an ever-expanding number of universes. I'm not prepared to make that leap. My own view is more along the lines of the neo-realist Bohm interpretation. In my understanding of it, this posits that quantum objects have hidden variables associated with them, such that they are composed of both wave and particle components. These hidden variables explain the dual behaviour of the objects but measurement is not a special process. Of course, this interpretation fails Occam's Razor by profligately introducing unobserved (possibly unobservable) hidden variables. Still, it allows me to continue believing in an external world that carries on regardless of our actions.

The "I" in CIA

A non-fiction review this time: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tom Weiner. First up, a confession: I bought this book as a birthday present for a friend, but read its opening chapter and found myself drawn in. Needless to say, I won't be mentioning this to my friend.

This is a long and generally detailed look at the history of the CIA from its inception immediately after the Second World War up until the present day (earlier this year in fact). Mostly because of the defining nature of the CIA's relationships with different presidents, the book is primarily structured by succeeding presidential terms, with it further divided to delineate CIA activities in different geographical arenas.

However, despite changes in presidents, enemies and arenas, two surprising themes run through and unify the history presented. The first is that, even after sixty years of evolution, the CIA has never truly come close to satisfying the role of centralising intelligence that it was set up for. The second is that, contrary to general public perceptions, the CIA has almost never been a successful organisation, and has consistently misread signals leading its paymasters into either complacency or shadow-boxing.

That the CIA has never gotten to grips with its main task stems in part from its founding members' interests in covert operations. Rather than serve as a clearing house for the collation and analysis of information drawn from military, diplomatic and other sources, from the beginning the CIA has expended considerable effort engaged in exactly the sort of "dirty tricks" that its name is synonymous with. Many of these have served legitimate or semi-legitimate purposes, but, contrary to the stated rationale for its existence, they have dominated its focus and have been the source of many of the historical troubles it has experienced.

The degree of incompetence of the CIA certainly came as a surprise to me. Mission after mission after mission have been executed with either poor planning, operational support or follow-up assessment. That the CIA is covert has given its management carte blanch to tag its many failed missions as "top secret", and to avoid what would be necessary oversight in just about any other organisation. The infrequent successes that it has experienced have been shamelessly, and successfully, flouted by its directors, to the degree that public perception is of an amoral but effective organisation. The book has certainly set me straight on the robustness of this perception.

As a book, this is engagingly written and never boring. Occasionally it is complicated by jumps backwards and forwards in time to follow particular avenues, but these aren't too confusing. One aspect that is somewhat confusing is the long list of players that enter, exit then frequently re-enter the stage. Short of viewing the CIA purely from a organisational vantage point (i.e. "the director did this", "covert operations did that"), it's not obvious how to get around this and, to be honest, the evolution of the CIA has been too strongly influenced by a succession of key individuals to avoid mentioning them by name. The text is supplemented by a large number of often detailed footnotes, so particular points can be checked for clarification.

An obvious concern with a book on such a topic is the nature of any bias introduced by the author. Especially with an ethically-challenged organisation like the CIA (to reveal my own bias). From what I can judge, the book appears to avoid allegations of bias by sticking closely to sources, and by simply being so thorough. Dozens of missions and operations are described, running the full gamut from well-known successes/failures to events in backwater countries that have long since receded into history. I think that all of my own knowledge of the CIA was more or less covered in the book, suggesting that it presents a representative sample of their work, and does not skew things towards their unsuccessful activities. I'm sure, however, that certain political viewpoints will not share this assessment.

Concerning politics, it's interesting to read about the approaches different presidents have taken to the CIA. First of all, without exception, all have taken a strong interest in it. Some, such as Nixon, seem to have taken a very negative view of it, and have actively shunned it at times. Others, such as JFK, have made considerable use of it. Interestingly, almost no presidency comes out well in its dealings with the CIA. The exception is Jimmy Carter who, contrary to what one might expect, took strongly to the organisation, but viewed it as a tool to accomplish human rights goals (as well as its conventional anti-Soviet role). One of the interesting uses he put it towards was undermining the then-Apartheid South African government, in direct opposition to previous CIA operations that aimed to support it as a bulwark against Communism. Ultimately, even Carter came unstuck using it, but his is the only presidency not to be tarnished by it (at least as far as this book presents things).

The book's final analysis is not a positive one for the CIA. As noted already, the organisation has singularly failed at becoming what it was originally intended to be. Furthermore, the (unpredicted) end of the Soviet Union robbed it of a sense of purpose that has not been replaced well by Islamic extremism. The book closes damningly with the fiasco surrounding Iraq and its "weapons of mass destruction". The certainty professed by the CIA on these, which practically anyone could see was bogus, has comprehensively dented the respect and trust placed in the CIA (however misplaced that already was). Although only briefly dealt with, the ebbing of experienced CIA staff to private security companies seems a longer-term problem for the organisation. This creeping privatisation of "security" generally seems a rather worrying trend.

Overall, an impressive tome. I'm sure that its central messages could be distilled into a much shorter volume, but that would trim the supporting material and lose the authority of this edition.

A final note: for all of the dubious efforts of various presidents and CIA operatives, the actions of William Casey (from 1981 to 1987) stand out as plumbing new moral depths. While I was already aware of the outlines of the Iran-Contra Affair, the depths to which Casey dragged the CIA in conducting this operation were very revealing to read about. More generally, his handling of the organisation is remarkable for how spotlessly clean it makes the rest of the CIA's operations appear by way of contrast. It seems incredible to me that there are people out there who defend people such as this. Regardless of politics, purely pragmatic or utilitarian analyses of the reign of such people should stop anyone capable of rational thought in their tracks. The anointing of the likes of Oliver North as near-saints would suggest otherwise.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Unconvincing games

Another book for the Charity Shop run. This time a "science fiction classic": Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card.

Published originally in 1985, derived from an earlier short story, this is a book I've heard a fair bit about over a long period of time. I originally heard about it during my first working trip to the US in 1992 (from AMG), but it took C purchasing it for my birthday for me to finally get round to it. The book has attracted a large fan-base, several sequels, and even some rather odd endorsements from military organisations.

It tells the story of a young child, Ender, bullied at school but identified by the authorities as possessing certain strategic talents. These talents are desperately sought because humanity is on the losing side of a war with an alien race, the insectoid buggers (yes, indeed - what was Card thinking?). Along with other children, Ender is taken away from his family to enter a training programme that builds on and enhances the strategic skills that have been identified in them. This programme, which takes place in space, primarily consists of exercises in which Ender and his fellow students "play" strategic wargames, with themselves taking roles as playing pieces. At the same time, Ender confronts bullying from his fellow students, gradually triumphing both in this and the wargames played. As time passes, these wargames involve to take on more aspects of the fights with the aliens (no, I can't say "buggers") that they aim to train the students in. This success leads to Ender taking increasingly senior roles in the wargames, ultimately becoming the commander-in-chief of his fellow students. After a particularly long-winded and brilliantly-resolved fight it is revealed to Ender that this game was not what it appeared. It was not a game at all, and Ender was, in fact, fighting the aliens by proxy. His success in the game reflects a defeat for the aliens. As it happens, a terminal defeat, since his gameplay involved a devastating attack on their homeworld. The novel finishes with celebrations across human civilisation, but with Ender on the alien homeworld where he begins to atone for his unwittingly genocidal actions, by raising young buggers from pupae.

As I noted already, I knew a bit about this novel before I started. What I knew appealed to me, the theme of atonement by a powerful character, in particular, I'm a sucker for. However, reading the novel was quite a different experience. Firstly, right from the start, it got me shaking my head and disbelieving it. Bizarrely, Ender is only 6 years old when the novel starts, but has an interior life of someone much older. Suspension of disbelief on this scale, this early on, is unnecessary in a novel. Although Ender is supposed to be special, this sort of set-up in simply not credible. Making him a young teenager, and therefore more justifiably aware of himself, would have made far, far more sense. Anyway, there are other problems. He has a brother and sister who are also special, and who play key roles in propaganda events back on Earth, again while still very young. Another unconvincing turn of events.

More practically, the novel is medium-long in length, but stretches its central story too thinly. Despite being a gameplayer myself, I couldn't get excited about the games described during the novel, they just got in the way between plot advancements. I presume the author was aiming for character development here, but that's hard to pull off when the novel's characters are hobbled from the get-go by appearing unrealistically wise and self-aware for their ages.

Most importantly, I just didn't like Ender at all. Primarily because he's just very annoying, which makes it hard to get behind or care about his evolution through the book. The nature of the events at the end of the novel make these sections with him more interesting, but you have to wade through a lot of "character development" that just doesn't seem realistic to get there.

My suspicion is that the short story would work far more successfully. By focusing on the key themes, a lot of the peripheral aspects that annoy me in the novel would drop away. Perhaps I'll read that at some stage. Anyway, in summary, this is a "classic" with feet of clay. I can see why it might appeal, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. I suspect its focus on childhood appeals to some readers, while its novel approach to military activity appeals to others. It was probably more unusual and exotic when first released, so I'm doubtless being too harsh, but it's important to be honest about how novels hold up against time.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Charity shop run

Time again to purge the library and create space. First up are two more novels by Neal Asher:
These novels form a pair (from the so-called "Spatterjay sequence") that coexist alongside his other Polity novels (see my earlier post). Like much of the Polity novels, they take place outside the Polity, this time entirely on a planet known as Spatterjay.

A major background component of both novels is Spatterjay's ecology which, while implausible, is at least quite imaginative and merits some discussion. The whole ecosystem is infected with a virus that, as part of its own survival strategy, conveys impressive resistance to injury and imbues remarkable regenerative powers to infected organisms. Short of being completely consumed, animals on Spatterjay can survive, and recover from, extreme damage. Of course, complete consumption is part and parcel of the ecology, but these regenerative powers allow, for instance, Spatterjay fishermen to catch aquatic animals, strip them of much of their flesh, then return the "carcass" to the ocean for it to regenerate (the mechanism behind the regeneration of the carcass but not the flesh is not fully, well, fleshed out).

Humans arriving on Spatterjay (in the past, relative to the novels' timelines) were also infected by the virus, which conveyed the same strengths to them. Known as hoopers, they now live indefinitely, with age conveying greater and greater strength and resilience. Physical risks are now far less important to hoopers than the danger that ennui brings in their long lives. Many of them (almost all of the characters in the novels) live as fishermen on the planet-wide ocean where, among other resources, they harvest a chemical known as sprine. This is an anti-viral agent used by animals known as leeches to kill their virally-infected prey, but it also serves the desire for suicide that many hoopers are driven to by their massively extended lives.

Against this backdrop, The Skinner sees the arrival of an unusual police officer to Spatterjay, Sable Keech. He is intent on tracking down the remains of a gang of hoopers who, in an past conflict between the Polity and an alien empire known as the Prador, sold humans into mind-controlled slavery with the Prador. The leader of this gang, Jay Hoop, is known as the Skinner because of his penchant for skinning fellow hoopers.

However, Keech hasn't arrived alone. As befitting a Neal Asher novel, there are a number of other plot strands, most of which arrive at Spatterjay alongside Keech. These include: one of the members of Hoop's gang, come to clean up any remaining evidence of their crimes; an emissary of Earth's second sentient lifeform - hornets; and one of Hoop's Prador contacts, also come to "take care" of outstanding business. And, this being a Polity novel, the explosive meetings of these various individuals take place beneath the watchful eyes of a Polity AI, and a ragtag group of free AIs that work for it. Throw in some sentient indigenous flying aliens who act sails for the hoopers' vessels, and the stage is set for all kinds of revelations, double-crossings and Mexican stand-offs.

Although The Skinner is fairly pulpy science fiction (much like the rest of Asher's novels that I've read), it creates a world that's never uninteresting, and one that carries the reader along. Among its many imaginative, if gruesome, details is that Keech is actually a corpse, a so-called reification - his personality is stored in some AI form while his body is a mummified shell. On top of this, during his stay at Spatterjay, he undergoes a form of reanimation to restore his body to life. Another Asher-esque aspect is his focus on a bloody ecology. The violent goings-on between his characters are paralleled by inter-species blood-letting in the natural ecosystem.

Also similar to Asher's other works is the treatment of his characters. His "good guys" may suffer, but they generally triumph; his "bad guys" usually come unstuck in assorted unpleasant fashions or, if they're just amoral, are sometimes lucky to escape with a severe beating. Having read several of his novels now, it does somewhat deflate the action when you know that, chances are, your favourite characters will make it to the final page. Still, as this is science fiction, we're already quite far from the plausible.

The Skinner's sequel, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, in keeping with the general rule of Asher's work, is enjoyable but definitely a case of diminishing returns. The novel's central strand this time is the endeavor by a reification to set up a sort of tourist pilgrimage for other reifications that aims to follow the story of Sable Keech - the first reification to successfully be restored to life. This strand is complemented by the further working out of several others from the first novel. These include another strand involving Asher's ever-entertaining AIs, and a further one following a surviving Prador from the first novel who turns out to be not so bad.

I suspect this sequence of novels has a shorter life than Asher's other Polity novels, but I certainly give him full marks for imagination. Execution? Well, probably not - this is pulp. But enjoyable pulp.

Hurled into the abyss

Bar a few minor hurdles (e.g. is subsistence £20 or £25 per day? which value was used in the signed-off budget???) and some "last-minute" heavy editing of the bonus sections (objectives, beneficiaries) with TRA, the proposal was completed and fired into the abyss a whole 23 hours early. I just have to sit back now with my fingers crossed.

Well, I say "sit back", but I'm already involved in finishing off a further proposal. No rest for the wicked, apparently. This one I'm a contract mercenary on, though I've played a much larger role in its formation than I have on previous standard proposals. There are issues though: it only part funds me, so that should make for some interesting financial contortions if it's funded; our observational colleagues have trimmed back our original ambitions to what they think is actually do-able (well, do-able on 30% funding!). This trimming makes it a whole lot less interesting in a way, but since I wouldn't be doing the donkey work in the lab, I can hardly complain. Instead, I now have to focus more on modelling a coastal time-series station - should be fun given that I've only ever been open-ocean up till now (and have avoided coastal locales like the plague they are).

Anyway, that's the proposal update for now. More will doubtless follow after their assessments ...

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Bearing down on the deadline

The past few weeks I've been stuck creating a NERC fellowship proposal at work. There have been ups and downs galore, but now, as the deadline closes in (1st November 2007, Thursday, 4pm) things are gradually coming together. Not necessarily in the sense that the proposal is being refined and perfected, but more that its obvious dents and imperfections are being hidden under make-up, and the collaboration cast-list is being whittled down.

The proposed research itself, in particular, has gone from seeming like a good idea, to (in some respects) a well-honed Achilles. It sounds good, but a poke and a prod in the right place may unearth its weaker spots. I don't think it's absolutely fundamentally flawed, but it has big ambitions, and gambles a bit on the outcome of portions of the work. Still, the truth will out in the end.

Assembling my cast list has certainly been an interesting experience. While my immediate colleagues have graciously offered their staunch support, I've been tip-toeing around some of my more remote colleagues to get their support. It's a side of science I've not had to deal with much before, but it can be quite an effort. As it's proposed research the benefits are all in the future and are partially illusory. So to get someone onboard, one has to convince them that there's something in it for them too. I do feel that, on this occasion, I have more to gain from the support of some colleagues than they are liable to gain from the association! Still, collaboration is partly the long game, and I might find myself on the other end one day.

Anyway, I didn't want this to go unrecorded (the rest of this blog makes it look like I do nothing else but sit around reading science fiction and watching films). I'm sure that as soon as the proposal's been fired off I'll gradually start forgetting the effort it took to create it. I might remember again should I be recalled to defend it in front of a panel, but the odds aren't good, and a skilled panel may yet fell my Achilles.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Once Upon A Time At The Cinema

I forgot to add that we saw a rather brilliant film yesterday at the HL, Once. It sounded like an earnest, rather worthy piece that I'd ordinarily hate: a drama with a whole lot of music spliced in; heavily hyped by reviewers left, right and centre; lo-fi and cheap with lots of "soul"; et cetera. But I was completely blind-sided by it.

Nutshell synopsis: A depressed, 30-something musician is scraping a living repairing vacuum cleaners with his father, and busking on the streets of Dublin. During the day he plays crowd pleasing numbers that bring in the Euros, during the evening he plays songs he's written himself. One evening he meets a Czech woman who compliments him one of his self-penned songs. He finds out that she too is a musician, leading to them duetting in a music shop. He introduces her to more of his work, and she agrees to put lyrics to some of his music. Buoyed up by this success, they arrange a recording session in a local studio, and recruit some fellow street musicians. In the background, the two are gradually drawn to one another, but romantic history intervenes: he is still in love with an ex-girlfriend, she is married, though estranged, and has a child. Ultimately, they decide together to give their past loves second chances, and the man departs for London, both to find his lost love and to try to sell his music.

The above probably sounds awful, but this is an extremely romantic film, certainly up there with similar films like Before Sunrise / Sunset. The budding relationship between the two central characters is extremely well played and convincing. However, more importantly, the film's use of music is quite spectacular. It's not a classical musical where reality pauses while a song is sung. Here things are naturalistic (a "diegesis" according to the Wikipedia) and the songs flow from the narrative. This isn't forced at any point, and the writers have squeezed songs into the action extremely cleverly. And the songs are extremely good. Perhaps a bit ballady for my tastes, but I'm more forgiving when songs are used in service of a film. The high point is the song they record at the studio, "When Your Mind's Made Up", but the others don't disappoint either. Even the comedy songs that the man plays on the back of a bus to describe his failed relationship.

Anyway, I'm not usually one for romantic films, but every now and then one comes along, and this is certainly one of my favorites. It'll sound pretentious, but it's one of those films that refreshes my faith in cinema as a form. Capable of moving one without recourse to cheap sentimentality, et cetera ...

Man Booker

2007's Man Booker Prize was announced this week. Much to C's surprise, it was the finalist that she liked least (Enright's The Gathering). Too much the classic depressing Irish novel. With that domestic assessment, I've neither read it, nor will. I have, however, recently read two of the other finalists.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid takes the form of an extended conversation between two strangers over a traditional dinner in Lahore, Pakistan. Actually, it's really only one side of the conversation, that of a young Pakistani man regaling his dining companion with the story of his previous life in the United States, and how, post-September the 11th, this life unraveled and he returned to Pakistan.

The title of the novel would appear to relate to how the man went from being someone almost proud to be an adopted American, to someone who may harbour less than friendly intentions toward it. On this latter point, the novel is somewhat ambiguous on how far the central character has gone. His dining companion is an American man, who may even be a government operative, but much of the description here is sketchy.

Structurally, the novel generally works really well, with the conversational tone succeeding in portraying the central character quite warmly. That he's always extremely polite certainly helps make him engaging. The life history that he describes is also told in quite a compelling fashion, with two strands, the professional and the personal, woven well together. The first strand documents his rise from a scholarship at Princeton to a job with a prestigious management consultancy, while the second describes his parallel infatuation then budding, if doomed, relationship with a female friend.

My only complaint with the novel is that its ending seems rushed, and is might be seen as a little too ambiguous as a result. The narrator's journey from wannabe-American to possible anti-American fundamentalist happens over a rather short period of the novel, and only describes his present life in Pakistan in a somewhat sketchy fashion. And, after spending almost the whole novel having dinner, things pick up rather too quickly in the final few pages. The ending could be read in a number of ways, at least partially because there's very little time to develop or describe what happens.

Still, I really enjoyed this one. Though its shortness will doubtless have helped there!

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, while otherwise completely different, again takes the form of a story narrated by a single character. The novel describes near-present day events on a small Pacific island torn apart by what appears to be a local conflict. The narrator is a 13 year old girl, part of a community consisting mostly of women and children, since the men are all off fighting. To give the children some semblance of an education, and to keep them occupied, the village arranges for classes to be given by a strange white man who lives among them. This man, Mr. Watts, uses Great Expectations as a framework for his lessons, first reading it to the students then, later, having them reconstruct it from their memories.

Again, one of the strengths of this novel is the central narrator. Her 13 year old world is quite brought to life, and her gradual absorption into Great Expectations is handled very convincingly. The conflict the girl encounters between the reality of Mister Pip from the novel and the reality of the God that her mother unflinchingly teaches about is a particularly believable and interesting idea (which, given my predilections, is obviously likely to appeal to me). It sets up a dynamic that makes later events all the more poignant.

All that said, there are a small number of elements that don't entirely stack up for me. Firstly, the horrific denouement of the island conflict occurs extremely quickly which, while not unrealistic, isn't emotionally satisfying to my mind. The extreme violence is offset by its brevity which seems to take something away from it. Bad things happen but, almost before you know it, the novel has moved on.

Secondly, the novel goes into fast-forward towards the end. The narrator escapes the island and, in a matter of pages, is reunited with her father, grows up and apart from him, leaves for university where she later completes a thesis on Charles Dickens, and then visits key locations from Great Expectations on a trip to England. Then, finally, she tracks down the first wife of Mr. Watts, but the novel provides surprisingly little context for this and flits away all too quickly. What seems like a meeting designed to illuminate earlier events neither establishes very much nor pointedly fails to establish much either (i.e. the narrator doesn't make a big play about the opacity of the lives of others, et cetera).

Despite these shortcomings, Mister Pip was still well worth reading for the quality of the writing. I'm almost certainly being too harsh, expecting a tidy or trite ending which, were the author to have written it, I'd have complained about.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

A.N. Other Nature "publication"

A second post today to note the publication of a letter (in the conventional sense) in the science weekly, Nature. The letter (well, "correspondence") deals with James Lovelock's recent suggestion that "ocean pipes" should be used to funnel nutrients from deep water up to the surface where phytoplankton (finally - plankton make it into the blog!) can consume them and, in doing so, draw anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere. It sounds great, until one remembers that it's not just nutrients that come up the pipe.

Anyway, by a rather modest amount of text editing and discussion, I managed to wangle myself onto the author list (JGS, DIR and me), making this my second appearance in Nature this year (bizarrely, my previous appearance spawned two further mini-appearances including an [electronically] published photograph). I might even appear a proper scientist to the untrained eye. Though "correspondence" really doesn't count for much.

Aside from this letter, I'm doing some more work in the background with OCCAM to explore Lovelock's scheme, but it looks a total no-hoper (though slightly less of a no-hoper since I found an error in the underlying assumptions of earlier simulations that I'd done). This work may yet turn into something publishable that'll hopefully put paid to this sort of misguided scheme. Of course, none of this has stopped someone in the US from trying to crank money out of these ocean pipes. Still, their hearts are probably in the right place (with their wallets not far behind).

Photography 101

We attended our first "Photography For Beginners" lesson last night at Wyvern Technology College. Being the proud owners of a Sony digital SLR that has all manner of manual and automatic control settings, we thought it was about time we learnt how to use them. Or even what they were.

Anyway, the class size was about 14, with the majority having SLRs or SLR-style cameras ("bridge" cameras according to the tutor; i.e. bridging between compacts and SLRs). For an ostensibly "beginners guide", the course did accelerate off hard - by the end of the evening we'd already covered practically all of the functionality of manual cameras. Detail was a little thin on the ground at times, but we did shutter speed, f-numbers, white balance, slow sync, manual / automatic focus and film speed (ISO).

I can't say that I understood everything that was said, but I now have a much better feel for these functions than I ever have before (I'd possibly have been able to half-define some of them before). The proof of the pudding will be using the camera to explore the effects of these function. Roll on the weekend.

Anyway, while the tutor was rather brisk in his treatment of the above, and seemed to assume rather a lot about our existing knowledge, he was certainly up for taking questions from the floor, and expanding when people didn't follow him. He's a professional photographer in RL, and teaches BTEC courses as well, so I'm confident that the course will work out.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Coupland complete

Finished The Gum Thief. Hmmm. Definitely one of Coupland's minor novels, but not bad. By way of summary ...

The novel takes the form of "journal entries" written by about five different characters, together with chapters from a (short) novel one of the aforementioned characters is writing. There are two central characters, Roger and Bethany, co-workers at a Staples outlet (cue classic Couplandian discourses on printer paper and shop floor etiquette), but as the novel progresses a few more barge in to offer their perspectives. Roger is a 40-something divorcee, who has lost a child and is spiraling downwards with alcohol and a dead-end job. Bethany is a early 20s goth, somewhat lost in the world, with a mother she hates and a no-good boyfriend. The novel begins with Roger recording his thoughts in a journal (just like here!), but drifting into imagining Bethany's life. However, Bethany accidentally finds his journal and, after initial displeasure at being parodied, joins in by interleaving her thoughts with Roger's. Roger then begins to augment his entries with a domestic drama of a novel about novelists, while Bethany joins in with short stories about what it's like to be a piece of toast (again, classic Coupland). Eventually, the wheels come off of Roger's life, and Bethany is stood up by her boyfriend on a trip to Europe. However, the bond they've formed, and the other people they've brought into their lives, offer a lifeline that brings both of them back to a happier equilibrium.

As noted already, there's a fair bit of classic Coupland in this novel. Product placement, diatribes about the emptiness of modern living, clever existentialist conversations, ..., they're all here. However, as is the generally unsatisfactory plot. To be fair, he doesn't throw it away with a deus ex machina this time. There are two minor strands during Bethany's Eurotrip where she meets, improbably, Johnny Depp plus a regular customer from her store back home. They're a bit more low key than similar stunts Coupland's pulled before, and don't derail things. But the novel would clearly have been better without them [*]. Still, overall it's probably still one that fans of Coupland will get something out of.

How does it fit into the wider scheme of things? Well, I skipped Coupland's later novels (post-Microserfs) in my earlier post. But I suppose I could rank them now (at least how I see them now).

I'd definitely put Hey Nostradamus! top of the pile. Although, as a theme, it's becoming over-done, it does the whole high school shooting thing in a very convincing way, even if it does have one character narrating from beyond the grave.

Miss Wyoming is probably up next. Its improbable event is a main character being the sole survivor of a plane crash, although that's where it starts from rather than being something the that the novel pulls out of thin air halfway through. Another main character is a dead ringer for the drug-fatality Hollywood producer Don Simpson, although the novel rather tenderly rehabilitates him. It seems silly now, but I rather liked how Coupland took this celebrity car-crash from near his lowest point (i.e. he doesn't die in the novel) and spun meaning and redemption into his life. But, then, I'm always a sucker for redemption stories.

Although flawed, I reckon JPod is probably next. Here's what I said about this (to AMG) when I'd read it ...
Well, first of all, it's really not, as the blurb would have it, "'Microserfs' for the Google generation". In terms of its use of geek language and computer programmer-speak, it does resemble 'MS' very strongly. It also has much of the same sort of humour, possibly more in fact. What it doesn't have is the characterisation that brought Dan, Karla and the gang to life in 'MS'. I think it's got something to do with the way that Coupland uses extreme plot developments to move things along. He isn't happy to let characters develop on their own, so instead sets up a series of hoops for them to jump through. Some of the hoops are plausible, some less so. The net effect is that I didn't like the characters in the same way as those of 'MS'. I didn't feel I'd grown close to them, or cared so much about what happened to them. While the dilemmas that face the casts of both novels are somewhat similar, 'jPod' resolves them fairly soullessly. This isn't all bad, since it allows Coupland to be treat his characters (which include a version of himself - not as bad an idea as I thought it was at first) more humourously. He also gets some more politics in with some commentary on corporates. But at the end of it, it just felt like 'MS' with the heart sucked out of it. It's actually still a very good read, easily one of his better novels in the last decade ('Hey Nostradamus!', I think, is the best post-'MS'), but 'MS' it ain't.
Next up Eleanor Rigby, another novel which, while having some great Coupland-esque moments, doesn't quite stack up in the plot stakes. Utterly bizarrely, its deus ex machina involves an inexplicably radioactive meteorite, but the plot also crumbles under a rather unconvincing lapse of memory. I don't doubt that these things can happen to people, but I didn't buy it here.

Then we have All Familes Are Psychotic, a bizarre tale involving all sorts of improbable plot connections. It does, however, have one of my favourite Couplandisms in it:
One person in six million will be struck by lightning. Fifteen people in a hundred will experience clinical depression. One woman in sixteen will experience breast cancer. One child in 30,000 will experience a serious limb deformity. One American in five will be a victim of violent crime. A day in which nothing happens is a miracle, a day in which all of the things that could have gone wrong didn't. The dull day is a triumph of the human spirit, and boredom is a luxury unprecedented in the history of our species.
This captures something that's often forgotten about modern life. That for all the problems it appears to assault us with, it's really a remarkably safe and stable time to exist. Certainly, to my mind, compared to the sort of life that our ancestors, even recently, enjoyed. Or, rather, didn't enjoy. Anyway, aside from this, the book's just too mixed-up to my mind.

And that takes us back to Girlfriend In A Coma, which I've already ranted about ...

[*] For reference, this whole thing Coupland has about introducing improbable or semi-religious events is something I'd steeled myself to ask him about when I saw him at a book-reading in London. I was all set to do it, but before I had a chance, the person in the queue behind me hijacked him, and steered him onto a conversation about Chuck Palahnuik, another novelists she'd name-droppingly recently met. Curses. Still, I at least shook his hand. Anyway, maybe I should drop him an e-mail?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Waterstone's crime spree

Not quite as interesting as that title. Out tonight to use up a friend's tickets to an evening of crime writers at one of our local Waterstone's shops (Above Bar). Unusual (in my limited experience) in that it had four authors on the billing: Mark Billingham, Graham Hurley, Meg Gardiner and June Hampson. Of them, we'd only heard of Hurley, since he's a local writer whose crime novels take place in Portsmouth. Now having visited my beloved Wikipedia, I realise that Billingham is by far the most famous of the four (i.e. the only one with an article about them!).

Format for the evening was an introduction from each of the writers in turn, followed by a passage or two from their most recently published works. After all four had finished, it was turned over to questions from the floor.

First up was Billingham. As noted already, we didn't know him from Adam, but found his introduction very amusing (an anecdote about meeting Mickey Rooney at the Beeb). As it turns out, in a previous life he was a stand-up comedian, and seems to have been involved in a number of famous TV and radio comedies. So, retrospectively, his performance was unsurprising. Anyway, he read two sections from his novel, both of which were quite good. Certainly drew you into the novel somewhat, although they were a bit clichéd in a way.

Next up was Hampson. Another local writer, this time from Gosport. Most interesting was her route into writing. After a couple of abusive marriages and a career running a market stall in Southampton, she slipped first into writing stories (presumably short stories) and then, more recently, novels. I wasn't terribly convinced by the two passages she read out though. The first (her main character is about to power-drill the head of a naked man she's tied to a bed) sounded like a terrible cliché topped off with an abrupt character transformation (after she comes close to using the drill, she's bought off by an unconvincing promise). The second, which took place at the opposite end of the novel, was overshadowed by the complete reversal of the situation in the first - the main character is now (unconvincingly) in love with said naked man. Admittedly, we did skip over the whole central section of the novel, but still ...

Then we had Gardiner, an American writer now living in the UK. She gave quite an engaging introduction, but the novel fragment she chose was terrible. For starters, it wasn't really crime fiction. It was clearly a thriller. But it was more like a screenplay for a run-of-the-mill Hollywood potboiler than for a novel. You could almost visualise how the scene she was describing would be shot. She may just have chosen poorly (i.e. an action scene), but I wasn't buoyed up much by her description of the rest of the novel.

Finally, we had Hurley. Much, much better all round. His introduction gave a lot more insight into how he goes about researching his books, and was told very humourously. Interestingly, he again had a TV background originally, but he had also been a "conventional" novelist before his publisher suggested that he try writing crime fiction. What was particularly interesting was that, as he tells it, he wasn't convinced by this idea at all, and it took some doing to get him on his way. Anyway, his introduction dealt with all of the background research involving the transport police that he did just for the opening chapter of his latest novel. This chapter itself was altogether much better written than anything the other authors had read out (it dealt with the start of the day for a train driver who finds, and hits, a body on the tracks). I doubt I'll ever read it, but his was certainly the first work I'd turn to from the evening.

Questions and answers after the readings were very interesting, and most amusing. We got stuck first on the topic of why female crime writers seem more violent that male writers (it pertained to some firefight that Ian Rankin recently found himself embroiled in). I'm not sure that we reached any sort of conclusion on that, beyond that female writers "seem to prefer" writing about dark motivations, or something. Most of the other questions covered similar ground to what these Q&A sessions usually seem to. We even had a painful session with a struggling writer. Still, it wound up being both interesting and informative. And overall the evening passed much more enjoyably than we'd imagined for an evening of genre fun.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

New Coupland

I've just started Douglas Coupland's latest novel, The Gum Thief. Which, as an aside, isn't even supposed to be out yet according to my beloved Wikipedia! (Obviously I've placed a comment on the article's talk page to correct this uncharacteristic error of Wikipedia ...) Nothing much to report on it so far, but it provides an excuse for my to jot down my thoughts on his earlier works.

The Gum Thief is Coupland's 11th novel (excluding one only published in Japan), and he's one of the few authors of which I've read all of their fiction (bar said Japanese novel). Rightly or wrongly, he's still associated in the public eye with his first novel, Generation X, a novel sufficiently famous that some people mistake it as being the origin of the expression "Generation X". While I don't think it's his best work, it completely omits the flaws that dog some of his later works, and it does feel (to get all postmodern about it) like it captures something very specific about the listlessness of "my generation" (= me). In terms of plot, there's really not a lot there, or, at least, one that I much remember. It's the characters and the situations they find themselves in that make it stand out. Well, these and the frequent dictionary definitions of eminently 1990s concepts such as McJobs, brazilification, the cult of aloneness, knee-jerk irony, etc. These definitions are accompanied by cartoons that ironically comment on the existential problems that feature prominently in the emotional landscape of "generation X" (e.g. "Dad, it says here [newspaper] that you can choose to have a life or a house - I'm choosing a life!").

Coupland followed this up with Shampoo Planet, a tale about a consumer products-obsessed teenager (hence the shampoo of the title) gradually growing up. I don't remember a whole lot about this one, but I enjoyed it, although the shallowness of the protagonist did take a bit of getting used to at first. His unselfconscious materialism does make him rather difficult to get interested in.

The next book, Life After God, is a very different affair. Rather than being a novel, it's essentially a set of short stories that overlap in tone and theme. They overlap to the extent that I first mistook it for a novel with a jumpy narrative, and the stories appeared to me to be organised such that they led to the climatic story ("1,000 Years (Life After God)"). Despite the title, the stories deal with God only tangentially, more as an absence rather than a presence. Which, I suppose, is probably what Coupland is trying to communicate. Perhaps surprisingly, given my predilections, I really took to these stories. Obviously, a connection with religion is beyond the pale for me, but part of me does recognise something missing in modern life. Not something that was present in the past (heaven forfend!), but a sort of awareness that much (almost all) of modern life takes place in a complete absence of awareness about our place in the universe. Not that one need worry too much about this really - obsessing about one's fundamentally inconsequential place in the grand scheme of things isn't terribly useful. But I do find comfort, of a sort, considering the vastness of things, and there's something of a similar feeling (to me anyway) in this book. Anyway, despite the foregoing, I don't think that Coupland (at this point in his life) has a huge amount of stock in God, but he's certainly beginning to lean this way. Nonetheless, I wasn't put off in the least by this aspect of the book, and overall Life After God is one of my favourites of his books.

His next book, Microserfs, is easily my favourite of all his works. I could go on at some length about why (I probably will in some later post), but a few of its qualities are illustrative. Firstly, its characters are great. This might just be because both they and I are pretty geeky, and that I identify with the self same issues that they do. That is almost certainly true, but to me they have similar vulnerabilities and a cute, low-key romantic view of the world that I'm always a sucker for. There's far more to say about the characters, but I'll stop for now. Secondly, the setting. At a surface level, a small IT startup doesn't sound like the sort of backdrop that would make for a good novel. However, it is, or was I suppose, extremely zeitgeisty back when it was published. More importantly, at least as far as I'm concerned, the scale of the setting made for very compelling in-group dynamics that rang true for me. That I was in such a group (albeit an academic one) around the time that I read Microserfs probably has some bearing on this. Anyway, I'll stop before this turns into a love-in for Microserfs. Suffice to say, in terms of its narrative, its themes and its characterisation, Microserfs wins hands down for me.

Something strange seems to have happened to Coupland as a novelist after Microserfs. Rather than writing realistic, zeitgeisty novels full of neologisms, product placement and contemporary themes, all of his subsequent novels introduce events that, at times, stretch credulity or place the novels at the borders of modern realist fiction. As it happens, the most extreme of these (and the one I've liked least) is, probably, the book he's most famous for after Generation X, Girlfriend in a Coma. While starting from a realistic, if unusual, premise - a comatose girl awakes after a decade or so - the novel ultimately runs riot introducing a compelling (at first) apocalyptic "end" to the world (aside from the central characters, people all over the world begin lying down, as if to sleep, and then dying), and finishing off with an explicitly religious message. While later novels have mostly not taken up religious themes (slightly non-conventional ones I might add), what they do share with Girlfriend in a Coma is its drift from the real world. All of them involve some sort of narrative break or discontinuity with everyday reality. In most cases it's simply some sort of improbable event, a deus ex machina, but to my mind it always detracts from the novels to some degree.

Anyway, I'd better just post this up. I'll return to Coupland when I finish his latest. So far it hasn't jumped off at the deep end, but there's plenty of time for that yet!

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Rotters' Club

The Rotters' Club, Jonathan Coe, fiction

Not one for the charity shop this time. This one has been sitting on our "good book" shelf for quite some time, but I finally read it in response to a plug by MJF.

It's quite an overarching read, taking in teenage angst (primarily), industrial relations in the 1970s, IRA bombings and even a whiff of the Yorkshire Ripper (I presume). It uses multiple character perspectives, incorporates several very amusing articles from a school magazine, and (almost) ends on a 35 page stream-of-consciousness narrative with no punctuation save commas. It's also framed somewhat ambiguously with "present-day" bookends that hint at events that otherwise undescribed in the novel (my edition concludes with a reference to a sequel).

Overall, it's very enjoyable. There are many highly amusing schoolroom incidents, and the novel generally handles life at school very skillfully. Despite many differences with my own experiences at highschool, there are plenty of familiar situations and characters. The pranks of one particular character, Harding, reminded me at times of a not dissimilar joker in my school year (though his were considerably more tame). The obsessions of teenage life are also very familiar, although I certainly wasn't anywhere near as successful with girls as most of the characters in the novel are.

The other portions of the novel that deal with industrial unrest are somewhat less satisfying, not so much in their execution, more in how they communicate (or fail to) the bigger picture. However, that's possibly more to do with my reading of another novel, Tim Lott's Rumours of a Hurricane, which focuses much more closely on the political events of this time (well, more the 1980s). Here, I sort-of lost the thread of the author's story, spliced as it is into the rest of the novel. I suspect that the author originally wanted to write a novel about growing up in the 1970s, and only latterly decided to put some wider context into it. The novel might well have been more successful without the extra political baggage, as it could then have been more realistically myopic about the teenage lives of its main characters. For instance, although I was aware of politics while I was growing up, my own life and friends were far, far more important to me.

Still, an excellent read. Although, given my recent intake of pulp science fiction, I'm perhaps a little too grateful to get back to more wholesome reading.

Incidentally, for the historical record, I finally swallowed my pride and bought myself an iPod to replace my ailing XClef player. The latter served me well over five years, but finally seems to have given up the ghost. Anyway, I'm now the proud (ish) owner of an "iPod classic", 160 Gb of music-storing, photo-showing, video-playing techno-toy. I'm sure I'll witter on more about it some other time.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Something harder

While Neal Asher's science fiction owes something to the medium-hard (or medium-soft depending on one's personal science fiction "Mohs scale") work of Iain Banks, another recent discovery, Alastair Reynolds, is far more in the mold of harder writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford. Anyway, the books to be consigned to the charity shop are ...

Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds, 2005, science fiction
Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds, 2000, science fiction
Redemption Ark, Alastair Reynolds, 2002, science fiction
Absolution Gap, Alastair Reynolds, 2003, science fiction

While Pushing Ice is a standalone novel, the other three novels are part of Reynolds Revelation Space series, and requires something more by way of description.

This series is (again) set several centuries into the future, and in neighbouring solar systems to that of Sol. The setting is a universe with plenty of evidence for alien civilizations, but a distinct absence of aliens (bar some odd phenomena that hint at hiding aliens). In Revelation Space, humanity has expanded from the Earth and, on a planet called Resurgam, is living alongside the ruins of an apparently "recently" extinguished species (only 1 million years dead). The novel follows the exploits of an archaeologist set on uncovering the truth behind this extinction regardless of the cost. Many other characters and subplots are brought it, but the crux of the novel is the gradual revealing of the fate of the previous inhabitants of Resurgam. The latter two novels explore the consequences of the revelations of the first. In essence, machinery put in place by early civilizations in deep time (early galactic history) acts to extinguish emerging civilizations to spare yet-to-come civilizations from a predicted future calamity. Humanity has been fortunate to arrive on the scene during a calm period, but its actions have triggered the emergence of the civilization-curtailing machines (one of whom even features as a character at one point).

As with many fictional series, the first novel is by far the best. The set up and gradual revealing of a carefully thought-through universe is always fun. Diminishing returns, however, set in relatively quickly here. Mostly, I think, because Reynolds forces his characters through some very odd contortions (I'm thinking of the enmity between Clavian and Skade here). These don't ring true, and distract from the wider events.

In keeping with many science fiction writers from the latter few decades of the 20th century, Reynolds tries to grant his characters plausible emotions and personal evolution (as set against earlier novelists who focused solely on plot or ideas). To my mind, however, he's not terribly successful on these points. Some characters work and their changes fit the events surrounding them; others seem unhinged or respond unconvincingly to events. Not enough to markedly damage the novels, but enough to somewhat strain credulity (always dangerous in science fiction, where credulity is routinely strained). Part of this stems from using more or less the same cast in the novels. I thought he might try the trick of completely switching cast each novel such that one gets to see the consequences of familiar events through new eyes (which allows gradual revelation as a plot device again), but unfortunately not.

Still, despite these negative remarks, the underlying science fiction is very exciting, and rather plausibly drawn (no faster-than-light travel, etc. here). As with Asher, I'll doubtless keep checking up on Reynolds, but Revelation Space isn't as captivating as The Culture, the Galactic Centre saga or the Eight Worlds.

Having said all of the above, I should add that Pushing Ice is a much, much better novel than any of the Revelation Space titles. It follows the fate of a single spacecraft and its crew after they are sent to check up on the strange behaviour of one of Saturn's moons. The "moon" turns out not to be a moon at all, and winds up taking the crew on an extraordinary journey. While somewhat similar to Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, the novel is populated with interesting and engaging characters that, this time, do seem plausible and behave that way. Interpersonal conflicts are set up, and they evolve in a believable way. And it's all set alongside a cracking plot that gradually reveals a very interesting universe, and some very engaging aliens. Like the original Rendezvous, the reader is left at the end with both a widened sense of perspective and a ton of questions still dangling (while a sequel would be gobbled up, it might not be for the best; c.f. Revelation Space).

Saturday, 22 September 2007

An oversupply of Neal Asher

Iain Banks just doesn't write his science fiction titles often enough. Inbetween his books, I'm forced to scout around for other authors to take up the slack. John Varley, Greg Egan and Neal Stephenson have filling in for him in recent years (though regular fiction more so), but I've also discovered a guilty pleasure in Neal Asher's novels ...

Gridlinked, Neal Asher, 2001, science fiction
The Line of Polity, Neal Asher, 2003, science fiction
Brass Man, Neal Asher, 2005, science fiction
Polity Agent, Neal Asher, 2006, science fiction
These are a series of four (thusfar) novels typically centering around the exploits of a single character (the unfuturistically named Ian Cormac). Set several centuries in the future, Cormac's universe is dominated by the Polity, a government operating out of the Earth. Like Banks' Culture, which it borrows heavily from, the Polity is both semi-utopian and organised, and run by, artificial intelligences.

The novels' plots deal with a range of themes: separatists trying to overthrow the Polity; aberrant theocracies at the edge ("The Line") of the Polity; alien intelligences with hidden agendas; biotech or nanotech out of control; the relationship between humans and their superior artificial offspring. Narratively, the novels are all structured with a number of viewpoints, but this really only serves to advance their plots. Nothing clever or literary is going on here. The plots themselves generally take the form of action set-pieces separated by brief periods of build-up.

One notable feature of Asher's writing are the regularly brutal fates of his characters. More interestingly, he populates his universe with a plethora of worlds filled to the brim with similarly brutal ecologies. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed. I think he goes over the top a bit here at times, but it's refreshing to read a novelist who tackles the hostility that characterises ecology.

Anyway, they're all very enjoyable romps, but (typically for science fiction) are weak on characterisation. Characters here serve mostly to move plot along. Despite the brutality that he metes out to characters, Asher does have a soft spot for his "heroes". Bad, sometimes very bad, things happen to them, but somehow they pull through in the end. Usually. Sometimes even his anti-heroes do too. This does tend to remove tension after the first book, but usually he's inventive enough with the plot for it not to matter.

In summary, perfectly enjoyable, but very much tending towards the pulpy end of science fiction. I'll continue reading him, but I won't be clamouring for each new title to hit the bookstores. As with many fictional universes, diminishing returns apply - the set-up novels are the most enjoyable.

Books for the recycler

It's time again for a purge of books to create space in the house for yet more books. Before the current condemned are sent off to the hereafter (= the charity shop), I thought I'd record some impressions of them lest I forget I've ever read them. Of course, being condemned, they're not among my favorites to say the least. Still, it seems somewhat wasteful to spend hours reading them, only to consign them to the less than tender mercies of my rubbish memory. Anyway, taking from the top of the pile ...

Ringworld, Larry Niven, 1970, science fiction
In a word, disappointing. Ostensibly this is a classic (indeed, my edition is part of some "SF Masterworks" series), and its central concept, the Ringworld, is a staple of subsequent SF (c.f. Iain Banks' orbitals; the videogame Halo). It has its moments, particularly during the setup and exploration of the eponymous Ringworld, but it has dated badly. A particularly grating example lies with the sexual politics which are straight out of the Ark - although, its date is no excuse for this really, there were plenty of contemporary novels, even science fiction ones, less dubiously status quo. From a science fiction standpoint it also makes a number of gaffes. Firstly, it invents and develops a bizarre system of luck for its characters. As well as trouncing the novel's claim to be hard science fiction, it's just stupid and does the novel no favors. Secondly, it has some truly awful aliens as major cast members: one a seemingly cowardly member of a long-lived race who is obsessed with securing a chance to breed; the other a semi-feline alien who seems like a Klingon knock-off. Admittedly, I'm judging this from a position 30+ years down the line, but there are plenty other 30+ year old novels that deal with aliens more sensibly. Finally, for all its careful setup of an extraordinary artificial structure, the Ringworld, and the mystery of its apparent emptiness, the novel resolves this all rather quickly and clumsily. Overall, it feels like the author came up with this great central idea, the Ringworld, but hadn't thought much further ahead than this when he wrote the novel. Still, I'm conscious that I'm judging from hindsight, and I've certainly read a lot worse. I'd prefer though if it were viewed more realistically these days when it's touted as a science fiction great. Although it's driven by pure action, the plot of the videogame Halo is, sadly, far more convincing and interesting.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Strange News From The Plankton

I wonder what people write on their very first blog posts? The obvious: "Hello world"; "Testing, Testing, 1-2-3"; "This is the diary of Adrian Mole aged ..."? Or do people just get right into it and start as they mean to continue: "Had meeting with Ron at 12 noon ..."; "Excellent dinner at Claridges ..."? Getting over the initial bump of self-consciousness seems to be the most important thing from here. Because it's a blog, I suppose there's a risk that someone other than me might one day read it, but it'd be missing the point to write for an audience. This is simply a way to backup my memories in the face of my appalling memory, and the likely event of inherited Alzheimer's. On that note, I'm just going to self-consciously publish this and then and get on with the rest of my life. What's the worst that could happen?