Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Does it Matter?

Iain Banks' latest novel, Matter, returns to his fictional utopia, the Culture. Similarly to earlier Culture works, it is a standalone novel, taking in events, places and characters that are new to the wider Culture universe.

Particularly new is the majority setting of the novel, Sursamen, an ancient and bizarre shellworld. These worlds consist of a series of concentric spheres, Russian doll style, over which different civilizations have dominion. The shellworlds are the remains of a galaxy-wide system of unknown purpose, whose builders have almost completely left the galactic stage. On Sursamen, the humanoid Sarl live a pre-industrial and feudal existence, dimly aware of the more powerful civilizations around them. However, as the story unfolds, these civilizations have goals in which the Sarl are merely pawns.

The novel centres on the royal family of Sarl, two brothers and a sister. In a move befitting her lowly female status, the sister, Djan, has been bartered away to an advanced civilization by the king, and has left the shellworld. As the novel opens, the two remaining brothers find their society victorious in a war over another humanoid faction. However, at the moment of victory, their father is murdered by his trusted second-in-command, tyl Loesp, an event accidentally witnessed by the older brother, Ferbin. Forced to flee, he and his manservant gradually ascend the levels of the shellworld in search of Djan, who he knows will have the technology to help him. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Oramen, oblivious to tyl Loesp's treachery, awaits his coming of age and his ascendence of the throne. Against this backdrop, the Oct, a more advanced civilization who assisted the Sarl in their victory, use them to excavate a drowned city on the level captured by the Sarl. They are single-mindedly seeking evidence of their bloodline with the builders of the shellworld, but are blind to those others who have different plans. Far off in her work with the Culture, Djan hears of the events in the shellworld, and begins her own return to Sursamen.

The novel follows the paths of the three siblings as they gradually come together, and as they become embroiled in the larger-scale events that the actions of the Oct have triggered.

In respect of its pre-industrial setting, the novel is a more satisfying version of Banks' earlier novel Inversions. That suffered from focusing far too heavily on the primitive civilization, to the extent that the direct connection with the Culture boiled down to a few sentences and a subtext. Here, Banks places the events with the Sarl in the wider context, allowing him to bring in the usual Culture "treats" (drones, Minds and aliens) and to further expand the universe of the Culture.

That said, while enjoyable, it's difficult to discern any meaning to the events in the novel. While the Oct's intervention with the Sarl could be viewed through the prism of the West's interference in the developing world, the malign turn of events that the Oct precipitate is more clearly "a bad thing", and has no strong parallel. This is unlike the previous Culture novel, Look to Windward, where, alongside the "treats", Banks wove a much more interesting moral tale that explicitly dealt with the negative, and the positive, sides of the Culture's own interventions. This novel is much more of a rollercoaster ride.

Nonetheless, Banks again reveals himself as a master storyteller. The backdrop of the shellworlds is handled brilliantly, with their scale and history gradually drawn out as the novel progresses. Banks also succeeds in populating his universe even more fully than normally with a succession of competing and political civilizations. He also invests in his characters, with the spoilt brothers gradually evolving responsibility and facing up to their challenges. Djan, who has long since had her eyes opened by her adoption in the Culture, is at once a more sympathetic character, though her worldliness means that character growth is less pronounced.

Anyway, as noted here before, Banks is really the author to beat in Space Opera. Asher et al. don't really come close (no matter how much they adopt his material). If only Banks wrote more frequently.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The Engineer

Time for some more Neal Asher. This time short fiction rather than novels. Not too much of a change for him here though.

For starters, many of the stories borrow characters or settings from novels (it could, of course, be the other way around; these are not new stories). But they also more or less continue his interest in fairly grotesque alien biologies. That's no bad thing, but it does mean that his short stories are rather similar to read to his novels.

Still, there are some very enjoyable stories in this collection. The eponymous, The Engineer, is probably the best. While it takes an element of his Polity novels, the extinct aliens known as the Jain, it fashions this into a nice, self-contained novella. Unusually for Asher, it generates a rather sympathetic strand with the resurrection of (apparently) a solitary Jain.

Other stories take in his Spatterjay series, and there's a number of stories that centre around barbarian worlds under the control of a human entity known as the Owner. These were nice because their setting is new to me, although they might become tiresome in a novel.

One aspect of Asher's writing that I both like and dislike is his goading of religious societies. Obviously, I come from the same place on this point, but I find his treatment revels a bit much in being nasty to these ignorant civilisations. While Dawkins is never this rude, I find Asher's works on this subject similar to Dawkins' less tolerant remarks. And, similarly, I suspect that this tone is liable to repel believers rather than engage with them. Hardly what we want.

Anyway, overall an enjoyable collection that sees Asher somewhat stretch his range a bit. Not up with the best of short science fiction, which tends to focus more on ideas than situations, but still good fun.

God bothering

Attended another of the Christians in Science series of seminars last night. This one was by someone I'd not heard of before, a mathematician from Oxford University called John Lennox. Obviously, this immediately added a dose of confirmation to the theory that mathematicians are more religious than physicists, who are more religious than chemists, who are more religious then biologists. Although the evil Alister McGrath does disrupt this somewhat by, once upon a time, being a biochemist.

Anyway, much like one of the previous speakers, John Polkinghorne, Lennox was a rather affable and capable speaker [*], and similarly he covered much of the same ground, ending up on familiar topics such as the fine-tuned universe and information theory. An important thrust of his seminar was that theism is the most rational standpoint to take on ultimate questions.

This latter point was quite deftly pulled off in the seminar given that it's total bunk. But Lennox was very good on a form of agreeable sophistry. A few rhetorical flourishes and he had the audience laughing and nodding along with him while accepting quite debatable points. While naturalism happily admits that it (currently) stops short of ultimate origins, Lennox (and fellow travellers) are happy to postulate an omnipotent creator god out of nowhere (and in the absence of any evidence), and then go on to describe this as some sort of null hypothesis with the minimum of assumptions. It's a pretty neat trick to be able to pull this sort of stunt off, although his audience was more or less willing him on.

As more-or-less normal for this sort of seminar, the debate was framed as atheism versus theism, with the specifics of Lennox's religion quietly ignored. Given that Polkinghorne practically went from sensible to crazy-talk within a single sentence when he introduced Jesus, this was probably a smart move from Lennox. It also means that he avoided any chance of offending members of other faiths in attendance. They could draw similar comfort from the seminar as their Christian neighbours. That said, it feels to me like it would be churlish to bring this up as a post-seminar question. It shouldn't, since it's a perfectly valid point, but it strikes me as seemingly giving up ground by attacking on another front. Also, having seen the evil McGrath questioned this way, I've seen how easily a sufficiently fork-tongued speaker can obfuscate and dodge this sort of question.

One point I'm always less clear on is whenever information theory is dragged into these sorts of discussion. It's not because I'm not well-versed in it (though I'm not), but more because my instinctive reaction is to view the statements of information theorists (who may or may not be being misquoted) as clever-sounding nonsense. Similarly to the concept of entropy in ecology, statements on information theory always sound superficially convincing (usually a speaker will venerate Gödel in there somewhere) but are too vacuous or intangible to follow easily. Lennox spoke at length about the complexity of DNA and the seeming impossibility of "creating information", but it sounded bogus from start to finish. Partly, I think, because it seems pretty obvious to me that, given enough time and a large enough planet, trillions of chance events between trillions of molecules can lead to the assembly of some form of minimally complex replicator. Evolutionary processes (duplication, mutation, natural selection) can then operate upon these replicators to generate the sort of complexity that Lennox et al. think is so difficult to explain. Or perhaps I'm just completely missing the point?

Anyway, in summary, having seen yet another of these Christians in Science seminars, I'm beginning to discern a pattern:

1. frame the debate as atheism against theism (act as if agnosticism doesn't exist)

2. use lots of quotations from famous thinkers (the argument from authority works in these seminars), and from both sides as well to give some impression of balance

3. avoid taking the seminar into a discussion of a particular faith (avoiding the Polkinghorne crazy-talk trap)

4. introduce the fine-tuned universe and the physical constants involved (the charge on a proton sounds a concrete thing)

5. information theory, fledgling though it may well be, is your friend (it's complicated enough to sound convincing, but too complicated to follow)

6. steer carefully around the mysterious, but confidently talk as though theism is the only rational response to the world

Stick to these points and, with a lay audience, you're onto a winner!

[*] Since I hadn't started this blog when I saw him, I should add that McGrath, by contrast, was a rather disreputable and disingenuous speaker who carefully misrepresented the arguments of others. That said, he did it very well, and quite convincingly, I'm sure, to some people. Definitely something of the corrupt defence lawyer about him. I spent much of his seminar rolling my eyes at his audaciousness.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Cameron George Scott ...

... has arrived. And weighs in at an impressive 10 pounds and 6 ounces (ouch!). So, Iona has a brother. I'm not sure about the name though, what with it being a little too close to the surname of a potential Tory (= evil) PM. Still, Monsieur Cameron is liable to be history by the time CGS gives a hoot about politics. Anyway, doubtless photographs will follow in abundance ...

P.S. In passing, and despite the Imperial units that Graham gave the weight in, I note that Cameron's initials are CGS, the abbreviation we use in work for centimetres, grams, seconds.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

End of the line

Had an interview for my NERC Fellowship this week. The end of the line for this procedure. I've been here once before, which was highly unsuccessful. This time was a lot better, though the smart money is on the same result.

The presentation and most of the technical questions went well, but the latter, general questions were much more difficult and I don't think I did a good job on several of them. As usual, one thinks of much better answers out of the interview room, but these questions may have been too critical to garble in the room.

The result should be known from mid-May. More on this topic then I suppose.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Who's watching you?

The latest novel by Jonathan Raban takes its title and narrative from a very contemporary theme: Surveillance.

The novel follows the entwining stories of several characters living in and around Seattle in the "post-9/11" world. The central character, Lucy Bengstrom, is a journalist specialising in interviewing famous subjects. Her latest is August Vanags, a former university professor now feted for an autobiography of his childhood in Second World War Europe. Lucy lives with her daughter, Alida, a high school student coming to grips with the world. Their neighbour, Tad Zachary, is one of Lucy's best friends and acts as a surrogate father to Alida, but he harbours a deep resentment of the post-9/11 changes to the political landscape, venting this in online conspiracy theory forums. Finally, Lucy and Tad find the fabric of their world upset by the arrival of a new owner for the building they share, a Chinese immigrant with plans.

As the novel progresses, Lucy and Alida gain entry into the home life of Vanags, while through her investigations Lucy gradually comes to suspect that his biography is actually a work of plagiarism or fiction. Meanwhile, as Chick plans the expansion of his property empire, and the removal of his current tenants, he decides that marriage to Lucy (completely undiscussed with Lucy) is a necessary next step. Tad, suspicious of Chick's plans for their building, uses his internet skills to investigate Chick's origins and legal status.

As with his earlier novel, Waxwings, the novel is extremely well written, and successfully embraces the different narrative viewpoints. In fact, it's going great guns until, suddenly, it finishes. The novel moves from "full speed ahead" to "dead stop" in about 15 rather unconvincing pages. All of the novel's threads are suddenly wrapped up, disregarded or (almost literally) swamped by a deus ex machina. While there's a sense in which this event is perhaps fitting (i.e. an overwhelming natural event overshadows the lives of the protagonists), it mostly feels like the author had reached a final publishing deadline.

I've consulted with C and with JA, who've also read the novel, and they too found its sudden conclusion both surprising and unsatisfying. Especially given that the novel was proceeding very promisingly just 20 or so pages earlier. So, for all its quality, a rather inconclusive and faintly negative review from me. I'd love to know what Raban was thinking.

As an aside, although not billed as such (at least on our copy), the novel is apparently part of a loose trilogy, started by Raban's previous novel, Waxwings. This shares a location and the present day setting with ''Surveillance'', but also the character of the Chinese immigrant, Chick. In ''Surveillance'' Chick has risen up the commercial foodchain, graduating from odd jobs to property management. Where next?

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

More ducks

We now have two pairs of ducks in the quadrangle. Last week a male joined the solitary female, and then yesterday a second male arrived (much, apparently, to the annoyance of the already ensconced male). Today we appear to have another female, bringing our total to four ducks, and possibly settling down any competitions for mates.

Reading the Wikipedia, however, we've found out a number of disturbing sociopathic tendencies in ducks. Firstly, males tend only to hang around until their current mate lays her eggs. Buggering off is then the favoured strategy. Presumably they're off to find a further mate, but it hardly seems fair to their current one (in terms of loyalty and resources, this seems a tad selfish). Secondly, while raising their broods, female ducks will seek out and kill the ducklings of neighbouring females. We think this might even have happened last year, although we've no hard evidence of this beyond the disappearance (they could have fledged) of one of our two females and her brood. Given that female ducks have to raise 3 or 4 ducklings on their own, and will ordinarily encounter adverse resource conditions, this perhaps isn't surprising, but it's not quite what one expects from seemingly placid and docile birds.

Anyway, we'll continue to keep an eye out for appearance of ducklings. Philanderers and child murderers the ducks may well be, but they provide a measure of entertainment to this office at any rate.