Friday, 14 December 2012

When not to pardon

In the news today there's an item about a group of worthies (and they are genuinely worthy) trying to get the government to posthumously pardon the computing pioneer Alan Turing. Infamously, and in spite of his sterling war record, he was prosecuted for "gross indecency" in 1952 (basically, he was gay), and that this - possibly via the "medical" treatment he received for his "condition" - led to his suicide a few years later, when he was only 41. Anyway, this isn't the first time that a call has been made to have his conviction quashed, but it got me thinking about it again.

While his conviction is both outrageous and bizarre to me, and while I can understand the motivation to have this ridiculous mark against his name removed, I can also see that it - arguably - serves a purpose. Namely, by needlessly slurring the name of one of our brightest and best, it provides us with a helpful reminder of our nation's less than civilised past (and recent past at that). Our history, particularly that in close proximity to WW2, is frequently lauded as some sort of Golden Age, usually to service particular political ends. Details, such as this conviction, that reveal it to be little of the sort are a helpful corrective that lets us (and future generations) gauge history more accurately and less self-aggrandisingly.

Admittedly, there's a sense in which none of this actually matters. Turing is long dead, and no sensible person would view his conviction as anything other than homophobic folly. And revoking it would not likely expunge from the history books the fact that, regardless of his brilliance, he was persecuted to suicide by a bigoted state apparatus. But I'd still argue that, for us to correctly perceive history and our antecedents - both for good and for ill - we should be careful about retrospectively imposing the values of our age, however well-intentioned.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Sublime Culture

While I was complaining last time about the infrequency of Iain M. Banks' visits to the Culture, I seem to have polished off his most recent outing, The Hydrogen Sonata a mere 15 months later. And having raced my way through this scarce resource in only a fortnight, I think I need to be introducing rationing and not complaining in the future.

The backdrop to this Culture novel is the imminent "end" of the Gzilt, one of the civilisations involved in the creation of the Culture, but which pulled out of membership at the last moment. Now, ten thousand years later, the Gzilt are preparing to "sublime", a technological process that transfers the minds of its citizens (biological and artificial) to the elevated plane of existence accessed via the universe's additional dimensions. But as the final countdown ticks down, some long-buried and unwelcome history is floating to the surface, leading to dissent in Gzilt ranks and jeopardising the sublimation. Alerted to this, a loose affiliation of Culture Minds begins to investigate the source of these last minute troubles, only to uncover a link that points back to the origins of the Culture, and to the reason that the Gzilt turned down membership.

As usual, Banks has done a great job with this book. Ten novels into the Culture series and he's still able to draw new stories and angles from his creation. This time tackling both the formation of the Culture and the mysterious phenomenon of subliming, topics only alluded to in the background before. While he demystifies the latter to a pleasing degree, easily satiating this reader's hunger, he's careful not to squeeze every last drop out of it, potentially saving it for further visits in the future (the end of the Culture itself?). And, as usual, he weaves in journeys to remote and exotic corners of our galaxy, creating imaginative settings such as the wind-swept mountains of Cethyd, sculpted by a long-vanished civilisation to produce bellowing, trance-inducing sounds. And no sojourn with the Culture would be complete without the knowing, ironic commentary of the Minds, here keen to get to the bottom of the Gzilt conundrum, but unsure whether it's their place or what to do with what they find out.

All that said - and it does seem rude to complain - The Hydrogen Sonata does still suffer from the same flaws that I identified in Surface Detail. Namely the over-familiar and bloke-y Minds, the feeling that very little is really at stake, and the lack of any resonant underpinning theme. The hyper-threading that stretched my patience last time is also still here, but to a more tolerable and comprehensible degree on this occasion. Another aspect which is beginning to bore is the novel's immersion in the life and times of Involved civilisations. Sure, Banks has a lot of fun with how these have evolved in byzantine ways, but somehow such an "overpopulated" galaxy of near-equals isn't as interesting as what happens at the fringes of the Culture's reach, far from the madding crowd of fully-formed societies. Banks' earlier novels spent more productive time in the backwaters, most notably with The Player of Games. Admittedly, his weakest Culture novel, Inversions, went way too far in this direction, but generally I'd say he needs to head back to the boondocks.

So, overall yet another enjoyable romp with Banks and his Culture. He's still miles away from being dull, or from taking any serious missteps with his signature creation. But I'd appreciate him delving back into the more benighted corners of his universe, back to where deeper and more weighty themes seem more likely to be found.

P.S. One very specific criticism that I forgot to make above is that the central mystery that the plot is predicated on uncovering is (... without getting into spoiler territory ...) pretty unsatisfactorily resolved. Both in terms of the clunky way that it's parachuted in at the end of the novel, and in its actual nature. I think that Banks showed too much of his hand early on, when he'd have been better playing things much closer to his chest.

A welcome advent

WP_000821 by Dr Yool
This past Saturday, 1st December, I got a bit of surprise - pictured above - when I went downstairs to make the tea. While I'm pretty sure that it's age-inappropriate, it's a very welcome gift from C.

And one that's eminently turn-able into a Flickr project.  To wit, the link below should gradually be populated by offspring from the shameless corporate mating of Star Wars with Lego.

Advent Calendar 2012

Unfortunately, with my December plans reverting to their default setting (i.e. Christmas week in Carnoustie), I won't be seeing the contents of windows 23 and 24 until the 30th (unless, I suppose, I can persuade C to use her phone's camera).

Friday, 30 November 2012

Information, Schminformation

We (well, I - C was mostly wishing it over) watched the concluding part of Jim Al-Khalili's latest BBC series last night. Part of a two-episode series on "disorder and order", it focused on the concept of information, and how this has gone from marks on Bronze Age clay tablets through to precisely-coded beams of light in present-day computers. It also - though fleetingly - tried to convey the notion that information (properly understood) is a physical reality. Al-Khalili was more than a little hazy on this aspect of "information", but with only an hour to play with on BBC4, I can understand that, and he was disarmingly honest with the audience about taking a "leap of faith" on this point.

However, what I still struggle to understand - or, frankly, believe - is this idea that information (properly understood) is a genuine part of the "fabric of reality". Much as with its sibling concept, entropy, I can't shake the feeling that, while useful concepts that effectively book-keep and help quantify systems, neither information nor entropy have a deep physical basis. Instead, they both seem to me to be diagnosed "features" of systems that can be used as either metrics of these systems, or as a means of understanding how they change. From the perspective of deeper reality (were it to have one; perhaps it does?), neither is fundamental.

To be fair to Al-Khalili, he did get down to the quantity of energy that would be required for Maxwell's Demon to do its job, and how this consideration both resolved the entropy-violating aspect of the thought experiment, and tied energy to information (specifically the deletion of this information). But he did so in a rather skimpy, flighty way that was far from convincing. His get-out was, as mentioned above, the confines of a television programme (... this margin is too narrow to contain ...), but I wasn't convinced that he'd ever quite get around to it even if gifted with Brian Cox levels of air-time.

All that said, if I'm being honest, it's probably (= almost certainly?) just a glaring gap in my education that prevents me from seeing what all of these brilliant information theorists take for granted. Although, I'd certainly appreciate them making somewhat more of an effort to help me clear the hurdle of my incomprehension. My overwhelming feeling whenever I bump up against information on this subject (which, basically, is just in magazines and on TV) is that it's the Emperor's New Clothes all over again. While I should know better, I can't help suspecting that it's simply a fashion in physics driven by its unquestionably vast utility. But reality (at least in my head) it is not.

Laying out my view of the world (informed by analogy with own questionably-real work), I think of matter and energy as state variables in some common currency. Swapping between them is fine. Giving them a position in space and time (or even spacetime) is also fine. And certain configurations of them - e.g. a ball dropped from height; a precision-built machine - can certainly be said to represent more or less entropy or information. But there's nowhere in this cartoon-ish scheme for these latter concepts to actually live and breathe. Instead, they're helpful diagnostics that can be used to say something profound about arrangements of matter or energy, but they simply don't belong at the same level as more concrete facets of reality.

But, as I say, I'm deeply ignorant on these topics, so perhaps I'm simply not seeing the wood for the trees.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Still a materialist ...

Whew! That's a relief.

You Scored as Materialist

Materialism stresses the essence of fundamental particles. Everything that exists is purely physical matter and there is no special force that holds life together. You believe that anything can be explained by breaking it up into its pieces. i.e. the big picture can be understood by its smaller elements.

Cultural Creative

The "test" can be found at the end of this link.

Monday, 29 October 2012

A child's-eye view of apocalypse

It's safe to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is a pretty unique film - at the very least in terms of what usually appears in cinemas our way. It's part family drama, part climate change fable and part meditation on community. But its principle strength is viewing all these various facets from the imaginatively-skewed perspective of a child living through them. The child, Hushpuppy, has an amphibious and anarchic childhood in the "Bathtub", an inundated area of swampland at the very edge of (a generally unseen) civilisation. Already largely underwater - hence its name - periodic storms threaten to finish the job, and Hushpuppy's tumultuous, knockabout life with her father is further imperilled by him gradually succumbing to illness. But in Hushpuppy's mind, her world is also threatened by the mysterious, ice-age aurochs that she's heard about at school, and infused with the mystery of her long-departed mother.

The film reviewer's shorthand for a film like this is probably something like "lyrical", but "magical" seems a popular one-word summary judging from the reviews (and posters; see above!) that I've come across. And they're right. It's a thoroughly enjoyable and affecting tale made wholly memorable by the performances of both central actors, particularly the child playing Hushpuppy. She's simply fantastic. And it does a brilliant job of playing the adult world's trouble and strife as the backdrop to the child's world of exploration and imagination. One touch I particularly liked was that the aurochs, though actually wild cattle in reality (now sadly extinct), are imagined by Hushpuppy (and visualised in the film) as something more akin to giant-sized boars because of her family's "pet" boar.

And, of course, any film that attempts to dramatise climate change - especially in a non-preachy way that's doesn't frighten the horses - gets the big thumbs up from me. Yes, it's too soft on the Bathtub's benign anarchy, and a little hard on the heavy-handed efforts of the authorities to help its residents, but it's a pretty honest and fresh presentation of a not unlikely future. A future that, as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the Eastern Seaboard, doesn't seem quite as far off anymore.

Grade: A- (high +2 on the Leeper Scale)

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Loss of loss

As was implied by yesterday's rather short review, and doubtless confirmed by this similarly short one, my pile of books that have been read but not cogitated has grown again. Olympics, holidays, but mostly laziness can be drafted in to serve as excuses, but the bedside table needs to have space for my glasses, so here I am again. Today's hasty summary is for Kate Atkinson's 2006 crime novel One Good Turn, a sequel to her earlier career-direction-change novel, Case Histories (which I was a big fan of).

As with its predecessor, this novel is centred around the character of ex-army sergeant, ex-police officer Jackson Brodie, now also adding ex-private detective to his growing c.v. Finding himself in Edinburgh during the Fringe on account of his girlfriend's sporadic acting career, it isn't long before trouble - of the criminal variety - finds Jackson. When he intervenes in a seeming road rage incident (one good turn ...), it's not long before he's drawn into a chain reaction of murkily-connected events. His fellow passengers include Martin Canning, a successful but troubled crime writer; Gloria Hatter, the millionaire wife of a crooked property developer; and Louise Monroe, a local detective sergeant who finds herself bumping into Brodie suspiciously frequently. Plus an entourage that includes a violent fixer, a pair of seeming Russian twins, and a mild-mannered man who has a military-issue gun for some reason.

The funny thing about this novel is that is has almost everything that made its precursor such a memorable book. Funnier (not "ha ha") is that though it's missing what I think elevated Case Histories above its genre trappings, namely its deep consideration of the human cost of loss, it still works perfectly well, and is still a very enjoyable and satisfying read. This omission certainly makes it a far less complete novel, indeed it makes it difficult to separate this novel from the crowded background of other crime tomes, but I was still almost wholly pleased with my time spent with the wry Mr. Brodie. Atkinson has made one thematic addition that somewhat raises One Good Turn from much of the genre, namely some very clever self-awareness about the crime genre, worked in via the successful but hollow writer, Martin. However, I'd still rather have had deeper themes to ponder (though I am a sucker for such post-modernism).

Still, notwithstanding the foregoing, I will definitely be returning to Ms. Atkinson in the near future. Even shorn of her literary sensibilities, she's still eminently worth reading.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Rocket to unreadability

Greg Egan is a pretty singular writer. Not content with imagining the outlines of his baroque science fiction worlds, he often delves deep into the details of the physics that underlie them. Sometimes this works out, but usually it winds up for me with a novel that I skip sections of. Surprisingly, even those novels where I've skipped the odd bit sometimes work out pretty well - Schild's Ladder and Quarantine, for instance, are both excellent in spite of skim-reading. They succeed, largely, because Egan balances his interest in micromanaging physics with ideas, plots and characters that are up the job of supporting this. Unfortunately, The Clockwork Rocket is not one of these novels.

To be fair, Egan does imbue this novel with some pretty interesting physics - a universe in which it's possible to move in space while staying stationary in time - and he does an impressive job of following through on the implications of this. But he bolts all of this onto a plot that's simply far too flimsy to make up for his patience-stretching digressions into alternative physics. On paper, if you'll pardon the expression, it should work, since he follows his physics through to the implications it has for the biology of his aliens. But his aliens, despite their physical differences and outlandishly tragic lifecycle, are disappointingly human in almost every other respect. And boring humans at that too. Sure, they're enmeshed in both a cultural revolution and a scientific one, but somehow this fails to translate to anything engaging. And, most disappointingly, this appears to be just the first book in a planned trilogy - sequels are not part of Egan's main sequence, so building on a failed novel seems particularly ill-judged.

What's also infuriating is that Egan's last novel, Zendegi, was such a triumph. Set in a near-future Iran with both a strong human story and great science fiction ideas, I thought it might see him beginning to attract a - long-overdue - wider audience. But The Clockwork Rocket is liable to set back his cause - subtitled ORTHOGONAL Book 1, it seems likely to, at best, set his popularity on a path orthogonal to that following Zendegi.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

An observation

When I was in high school, there was a fellow pupil with pretty singularly bright red hair. Doing biology, I wondered about the rareness of this trait. I saw it as a the beginning of the journey of something new and dominant, rather than an inevitable consequence of recessiveness and time.

As a child, you have no idea just how far out to equilibrium the world is. You assume that it is poised for change, when it actually requires incredible effort to shift it from its path.

I write this as an adult - and not a young one - still only dimly aware of this fact.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympics 2012

What a great start to the games. Apart from the unfortunately prolonged but totally traditional parade by the athletes (next time: perhaps enforce a sprinters-only policy?), and a misjudged end from the Queen Mother of Pop (why, why, why?), it was a surprising triumph. I say "surprising" because I'd already played out doomed scenarios in my head that focused on stodgy "favourites" such as our regal history, Shakespeare, Victoriana, WW2 or cheesy glam-rock. However, while all of these made brief appearances in Boyle's ceremony, it wasn't in thrall to any one of them, or, indeed, any of the other themes that it touched on.

Interestingly, while it started off with a chocolate box version of pre-industrial rural life in Britain, it quickly supplanted this with a rather subversive segment about the industrial revolution. This was both an ambivalent endorsement / critique but also an excellent spectacle, finishing brilliantly with the forging of an Olympic ring. Another unexpected highlight was the prominent positioning of our socialised healthcare system, the NHS, in the ceremony - not at all what I was expecting, and a bit of a provocative inclusion in what are otherwise quite privatised Games. I wonder how that'll play in the US, more mouth-foaming outrage from the New Right hopefully.

And while a medley of British pop hits is usually pretty crass, it seemed to work here. It might have been that it combined it with an entertaining modern tale (such as it was) of life and love in multicultural Britain, but it might also have been that we do, as a nation, have an impressive back catalogue to draw on (good to hear FGTH get a few seconds - and a T-shirt - there). Either way, it wasn't even in the same universe as what I'd jadedly imagined such a medley would turn out like.

But there was more to come, of which the torch ceremony was definitely the highlight. We've been trying to guess who'd be lighting the torch all week, and we were kept guessing right to the end, what with appearances from Beckham and Redgrave. So it was particularly pleasing that the organisers played a blinder by making it the responsibility of a suite of young up-and-coming athletes, each picked by the same former stars of the athletics firmament that we thought might have been doing the lighting. And then, just when that seemed a brilliant touch, the torch itself turned into the star of the show. It's a fantastic piece, and its gradual lighting, then evolution into the Olympic Standard, was pretty breathtaking.

Obviously we then had an unwelcome performance from Paul McCartney - of whom, less really would be more - but it wasn't nearly enough to take the shine off of an excellent opening to the games. Of which, Boyle is now a total shoe-in for a Knighthood, and it's wholly deserved. Now all we (the Nation, that is) have to do is win some medals (48+ apparently), and the whole thing will have been a triumph. Go GB, etc.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Oligarchic Overlords in town

For some unexplained reason our dock is currently hosting an enormous yacht. It is graduation today, and UoS does have something of a (unwarranted?) reputation for hosting some of the UK's wealthier students, but the boat's on such a scale that it being "daddy's" for one of our students seems unlikely. Whatever the reason for its appearance, its shockingly large size certainly provokes dark thoughts about the 1%.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Case Histories

Following on from yet another enjoyable jaunt with Inspector Rebus, I thought I'd dip into crime fiction again, but with a bit of a difference this time. Kate Atkinson was (is?) a writer of literary fiction with a couple of well-received novels under her belt when she appeared to take something of a sharp turn down the dark(-ish) alley leading to crime fiction. Four novels later, she hasn't reversed course just yet, and the private detective she invented, Jackson Brodie, has now washed up in a successful (as far as I can tell) TV series. Anyway, what's her first novel, Case Histories, like then?

Ex-army and ex-police, Jackson Brodie now resides in the low-rent end of Cambridge, plying a living as a private detective investigating - mostly - missing cats and potentially misbehaving wives at the high-rent end. On the subject of which, he also has an ex-wife who's now shacked up with an academic and is threatening to take their daughter on an extended trip to New Zealand. Into this professional ennui and personal strife, Jackson lands three new cases: a sister missing for 30 years; the unsolved murder of a daughter; and a misplaced niece, the daughter of a murderess. While Jackson gradually collates what little new information he can on these old, cold cases, his meetings with their clients proves at least as eventful. And the ante gets upped further when, for some unknown reason, it appears that someone wants to kill Jackson.

What a brilliant read. The first thing about it that struck me, and which surprised me, is that it's frequently a seriously funny book. While it does contain a handful of comedy set-pieces (Jackon's first encounter with his nemesis and an old tom cat being one of them), the humour largely stems from Atkinson's characters, particularly Jackson, who she has made endless sources of wry observations on life. Though life has treated him harshly - a fact that the reader is slowly and skilfully edged towards - Jackson is very amusingly insightful of both his own life and that of the others his line of work bumps him into.
[Julia] had one of those husky voices that sounded as if she was permanently coming down with a cold. Men seemed to find that sexy in a woman, which Jackson thought was odd because it made women sound less like women and more like men. Maybe it was a gay thing.
What I found more impressive was that Atkinson pulls this off in a book built on the rock solid foundation of loss. After a (brilliant) introduction to the three case histories that teeters towards loss, the text hovers above this for most of the time, but every so often dips down to remind the reader (if I can get all florid about it) of the yawning chasms in peoples' hearts when loved ones either die or disappear. Atkinson's creation of Theo Wyre, and his murdered daughter, Laura, is, in particular, unbearably sad. But this underlying loss gives the book a balanced texture and an unexpected (to me) veracity.

I was a little less convinced by the structuring of the book. Atkinson jumps around in time a lot, using this as a means to bump the reader's journey onwards. That seemed a little lazy to me, and rather confusing at times, as when significant between-chapters events that are obscured by small jumps forward in time are only gradually revealed to the reader. At one point I actually began to wonder if the copy I was reading had lost a few pages. And the end of the novel seemed a little like a rush to (opaquely, at times) tie up all of the loose ends. The deus ex machina of an unexpected inheritance doesn't help with this misgiving.

It's churlish to complain, what with the novel offering far (far) more than conventional crime fiction (yes, I'm looking at you Rebus), but the "detective" part of the tale is also a little bit unsatisfying. Jackson solves two of the three crimes relatively straightforwardly, basically by chasing up leads that were missed - only partially understandably - during the original investigations. I can't now remember if he actually solves the third case, but the reader gets to do this themselves via a seemingly completely decoupled plot strand and the book's occasional, and telling, mentioning of dates and ages.

These niggles aside, I really enjoyed this book. It made me both laugh out loud and deeply sad, but in the good way. I'll without doubt be getting to Atkinson's sequel novels in the near-future - not least to partake of Jackson's eminently agreeable company. Finally, much as shown when literary fiction writers "invade" science fiction (Atwood, McCarthy), it's yet another sign that the genres are ripe territory for writers who dare.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

SeaCity Museum


SeaCity Museum, a set on Flickr.

As part of a long-running renovation of the Civic Centre complex, Southampton now has a museum dedicated (largely) to its maritime heritage. More enticingly, the council has - arguably generously - given all residents of the city a set of free tickets ...

Perhaps unsurprisingly, about half of it is devoted to the city's most famous shipping connection, but the other half is pretty good too, taking in the development of Southampton as a city and spending quite a bit of time on its connections with migration.

Somewhat to our surprise (at least as indicated by the amount of time we put on our parking ticket) we wound up taking almost 4 hours to go through it all. They've done a good job with the content - it'll be interesting to see if / how often they update it.

There are also a few really nice uses of the old building too. Using an old court room for the Titanic inquest diorama works brilliantly, and C did like the transformation of the subterranean police cells into toilets!

Another day, another Rebus

Another enjoyable Rebus to report, this time number 8: Black and Blue. On this occasion, Rebus is pitted against a copycat serial killer, gangs in Glasgow and the fledgling drug trade in Aberdeen's booming oil industry. As usual, the book's an eminently readable tale, that both piggy-backs on the earlier novels while solidly building on the foundation they provide. And also as usual - irritatingly, repetitively so - Rankin again manages to turn out a better book than its already great predecessors, by turns clever, alarming and wry. I actually found this one even more of a step up in quality than I've gotten used to. One of the distinguishing features this time around, and one that Rankin handles very well, is the tying of the tale to a real case, that of the late-1960s serial killer Bible John. Rankin does a great job fleshing out one of the theories about this killer's disappearance, and nicely weaves this - and him - into the story, ultimately pitting Rebus and Bible John in a race to track down the copycat, Johnny Bible. I also really quite liked the flitting around between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, as well as the jaunt to the Shetlands and the Broch of Mousa. Anyway, roll on the next novel - will Rankin ever stumble?

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Pallant House

WP_000449 by Dr Yool
WP_000449, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

Out today to a Peter Blake show over at Pallant House in Chichester. A nice little show, though while interesting in terms of pop cultural history, not quite the best we've seen at PH. Well worth it though, not least just to see the gallery's permanent collection again - including this work, Gladrags, by Susie MacMurray.

Reconsidering religion

The AV Club has an interesting article in it today entitled "Reconsidering religion" in which its writers discuss pieces of art (literature, music, cinema, television) that gave them second thoughts about the religion in which they'd been raised. The list contains items that I might have expected, such as Kurt Vonnegut, but also some more unexpected or even off-the-wall suggestions including Heinlein (perhaps not so off-the-wall really), the Housemartins, and even the Bible itself (actually, scratch that - that's probably obvious).

The article also got me thinking, as I'm sure was intended, about whether I could pin down something that did the same in my own life. For me, this would have been somewhere in the window between summer 1988 and summer 1989 - I can't tie it down any better than that, but I know that these two periods bookend my own switch. Memory aside, that this block of time is a little hazy also stems from there being no "Eureka!" moment. Rather, a process that began in summer 1988 gradually accumulated enough scepticism (or whatever the quantum of doubt is) to tip me into open atheism by summer 1989. Good scientist that I pretend to be, I formally describe myself today as agnostic, but the only theological possibilities that I consider plausible (however infinitesimally) are so far removed from mainstream religions that, to all intents and purposes, I've gone the whole way.

Anyway, when I've reflected on this subject in the past, the piece of art that most floats to the top is Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Strange, because it's both a long way short of their best film, The Life of Brian, and it doesn't share that film's very obvious ecclesiastical sensibilities and musings. However, it is loaded throughout with snubs to established religions, and it does present a rather prosaic - if unarguable - "meaning of life" at the end (and it doesn't hurt, additionally, to have the Galaxy Song). So though it didn't exactly "convert" me, I know that it made me think that there might just be more to existence than sitting in a Carnoustie church. I guess I must have been a bit more impressionable in those days.

I don't think that it really did more than accelerate the rot that took hold when I read The Blind Watchmaker during my summer holidays in 1988 (of which, reading this was also a symptom rather than a cause), but I know it was one of the drivers that got me thinking, and I know where that all ended up by 1989. So, thanks Monty Python. Thanks a bunch. ;-)

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Olympic tickets!

WP_000440 by Dr Yool
WP_000440, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
I think that the title of this post, plus this picture, about covers it.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Player One

Having already complained about its deviation from reality, it's about time that I got around to writing up Douglas Coupland's latest novel Player One (and, yes, this title is strangely familiar).

Set largely in the cocktail lounge of a airport, the novel revolves around the fate of five disparate characters trapped there during the onset of a global crisis. Single mother Karen has flown hundreds of miles there to meet an online date; Luke is a pastor on the run having just ripped off his congregation; Rachel, the proprietor of a mouse-breeding business, is on the spectrum and struggles to understand other human beings; and Rick is the lounge's barkeep, about to fall prey to another get-rich-quick guru. Finally, Player One watches over the scene, commenting on the struggles of the trapped characters and predicting their next actions and fates. As the outside calamity engulfs the airport, they are joined by a psychopathic gunman, Bertis, who interprets the events as the coming of the End Times, a view that obviously puts him in conflict with the others in the lounge more keen to survive the conflagration outside.

Another frustrating read from Mr. Coupland, once upon a time easily my favourite writer. It's nowhere near as underwhelming as his last novel, Generation A, but it is still disappointingly miles from the highs of his early career. And again for similar reasons: Coupland seems simply incapable of writing novels these days that occupy the same reality that we do. Infuriatingly, he begins very much in our world, and has his characters muse very convincingly about modern life, but before long he goes off at the deep end. While the calamity isn't completely outlandish here (cf. Girlfriend in a Coma), its cause makes its rapidity entirely unconvincing, and in spite of its crippling severity it practically evaporates at an unseemly pace at the novel's close. I kept thinking throughout that, surely, he could think of something - anything - more plausible than the scenario he paints.

It's (again!) particularly annoying because Coupland clearly has interesting things to say. At one point he does rip off one of his best lines, but it's still a great one, and the novel is (again!) full of other brilliant observations. To wit ...
Identifying the unique threads of the human condition is not something that Rachel approaches lightly, and she is not deceived into thinking that high technology is an activity that makes humans different: complex human activities such as enriching uranium, for example, are, by extension, elaborate means of generating heat and of fighting - and there's nothing special to humans about that.
Time and time again he conjures up clever and insightful lines about our daily lives and our place in the wider universe. But time and time again he undoes all of his good work by placing his eminently credible characters (autistic Rachel is particularly well-drawn) into eminently incredible situations that stretch the suspension of disbelief far beyond breaking point. And I can think of no good reason why he couldn't accomplish something far more insightful, or even profound, by just sticking to the real. How hard can it be for someone who's written Generation X, Life After God and Microserfs?

In passing, while I have moaned on excessively here, Player One did have a few redeeming moments which meant that, while I was left foaming at the mouth in consternation at the plot, I still enjoyed it enough to finish it quickly and to find it thought-provoking in places. For instance, Coupland's omniscient observer, the eponymous Player One, affords an interesting perspective on the transitory, largely meaningless and frequently facile nature of human life. It's a practically god-like narrator, but one coming from an unusually deist-like perspective. That was interesting. As were Coupland's characters' reflections on their lives which, given the situation they find themselves in, were at times touching and humane. All of which served to just annoy me more when Coupland decided to inject an insane jolt of surrealist plotting.

Doug: why, why, why, why, why?

Monday, 4 June 2012

Prometheus: the Greek god of pants?

33 years ago, Ridley Scott released Alien. The following two decades saw three sequels - one superlative, two not so much - all independent of Scott. But the film series still managed to carve itself a place in cinema history, and is the touchstone for science fiction / horror crossover. Now Scott has returned to the wellspring, bringing with him understandably high expectations from the fans who've followed the series over four decades (that'll be me then). Can the "Master" bring his winning touch back to the franchise and rejuvenate it for past and present generations of cinema-goers?

The one word answer is: no. The slightly longer answer is: abso-fucking-lutely not - what the hell was he thinking with this gibberish? The film, Prometheus, was always going to be something of a high-wire act - a long-established film series with a legion of fans and a mountain of expectation - but it's still pretty staggering just how misplaced Scott's return is. In constructing this folly, he's certainly brought his full director-as-god weight down on branding the franchise as his - for good or ill - and I think that he's possibly even managed to poison it for good.

Spoilers ahead - not that anything I say could possibly spoil this!

To be fair, the film does have a smattering of good points. Much to its credit, it at least tries to something different. The film series has steadily become swamped in its own history and in particular themes and tropes, and while Prometheus apes some of these, it certainly charts some new (if wholly misconstrued) directions. Given that we live in an era of weapons of mass destruction (most likely phantom ones), I did actually quite like its presentation of the Alien as a biotechnological WMD. For just a moment there it felt like something interesting was being said. Just a moment though. The film even manages to steer surprisingly wide of the actual Alien part of the franchise. Of course, it can't resist a closing nod to the fanboys, but it doesn't rely on the familiar figure of the Alien for almost its whole length. And, finally, the film almost does something interesting and novel with its (requisite) android character. David is quite different from the corporate traitor Ash, the ambiguous-but-good Bishop and the conflicted Call. His kill-your-maker sentiments are much more interesting than the film gives them credit for, and it ultimately leaves exploration of them at skin deep level - Scott showing his hand as a hack who simply can't spot good subplots.

Documenting the bad points of Prometheus is hampered from the get-go: where to start? There are just so many missteps, unfinished thoughts and broken promises. Leaving aside the plot stupidities and holes - which I will touch on shortly - top of the heap is that the film makes the exact same mistake concerning its characters that the franchise's lesser sequels - Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection - make. Namely, a suite of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs given about two lines apiece to establish themselves before characterisation is firmly transferred to the back-burner. And where character in the film is actually suggested by more than a thin stereotype - basically David and (Ripley stand-in) Elizabeth Shaw - Scott still manages to sabotage things. David's hinted plot arc is largely aborted, while Shaw is an unbelievable and unsympathetic scientist that Scott tries to bludgeon into human shape by giving her a dead dad and an inability to have children (until ... well, until the film needs an unconvincing jolt of body-horror). Given that Scott's original film managed to convey (as much as a science fiction film can) a suite of intellectually and emotionally different characters, one is left with the feeling that this must have all been in the script then, since there's nothing on show here to suggest that he understood what he was doing back in 1979.

Regarding specific stupid points, the most ridiculous - and telling - for me was how the film dispatches Vickers. A large narrow object is collapsing towards you - do you run along the direction of collapse, or turn 90 degrees and run away from it? Is this seriously the best that the writers could do? Actually, that's pretty rhetorical - it seems an entirely fitting response from the writers of this film. Another awful misstep was an Alien birth (by caesarian!) that's a shameless gorefest (and from which the character recovers remarkably quickly). It makes even less sense, both dramatically and scientifically, than that in Alien Resurrection - at least that served the theme of motherhood pretty well, and nicely brought the franchise around full circle. And while making things superficially interesting, Prometheus' alterations to the Alien lifecycle (a "crime" for which Alien 3 was attacked at the time) arguably make it completely incoherent. Gone are the classic anthropomorphic horrors, now replaced by more plastic - but much less iconic - rejects from The Thing. At times, it's almost as if Scott wants to reinvent the whole series again from scratch, dashing even his own contribution from 33 years ago as he goes.

There are also gaping credibility issues like the space jockeys having a "perfect match" with human DNA but looking more like marble gods (Titans, perhaps?) than humans - plus the convenient failure by the writers to remember that humans have a whole slew of inconveniently closely related animal cousins back on Earth. The film also offers only the scantiest of scant hints about what the space jockeys were up to, including what turns out to be a pretty inexplicable opening sequence that seems portentous but winds up pointless. Given that we have a living, breathing space jockey at one point, and given that the film isn't in the least reluctant to spoon-feed the audience exposition from the lips of its characters, this could have been easily rectified. The film makers might well claim that leaving viewers confused preserves some mystery, but I suspect that it instead preserves the illusion that the writers had the first clue what they were doing - this is all straight Chariots of the Gods stuff.

Finally, I can't let pass Prometheus' shameless teeing up of a sequel at the end. Its precursor films always ended fairly definitively, usually accompanied by a sigh of relief from the surviving characters. Sequels weren't precluded (except by Alien 3 - and look how that worked out), but a roadmap to them wasn't sketched out before the credits roll. Here, the film ends with characters heading off with a definite purpose (albeit a misguided one), patently angling for a future cash-injection. Scott has come a long way since the cold and bleak ending of Alien.

Overall, Prometheus further cements my long-standing opinion of Scott as a hack who got lucky. Good scripts occasionally drift over his desk, and he has done a good job in the past of turning some of these into perfectly creditable films (although, as I've noted before, sometimes only with the first cut). This film also cements my annoyance with the equating of the success of a film as a piece of art (high-brow or otherwise) with the director rather than with the writer. To wit, Prometheus - it's got Ridley Scott at the helm, who cares about the writer - what could possibly go wrong? Again and again, all credit for a successful film is delivered with great fanfare at the door of its director, with nary a scrap left for the creator that first breathed life into it. Yes, it's still the case that a good director is needed to turn a great script into a great film, but character and plot are gifts from the writer that a director gives form and shape to. Given this film, as well as some of his earlier efforts, Scott would appear not to know a good script if it jumped out of someone's chest and bit him.

I might be being too harsh here. I might soften in my views as time passes and focus on the places where the film slightly lives up to expectations. But I hope not. It's a wretched film really - largely because of its conception rather than execution. Unfortunately, it will make money, most likely a lot of money, so I fear for another return - but it will be difficult to clear up the mess left by this film regardless of how good the script is. Much as the space jockeys were hoping to do in the film's mythology, perhaps Scott has finally "salted the Earth" on the franchise?

A few curious points also occurred to me about the film.
  • The aged Weyland bears more than a passing resemblance, physically and ethically, to Rupert Murdoch. Coincidence?
  • While Ripley knows to do the right thing in Alien (don't let Kane back onboard the Nostromo) and survives, Vickers does the same but dies.
  • In Alien the space jockey ship carried a warning about its contents, but here it's strongly implied (though we don't know for sure because they never get to tell us) that the space jockeys were up to no good. Which is it Ridley?
  • Much as with other science fiction prequels, the technology on display in this film seems much more advanced (touchscreens, 3D holograms) than that in the earlier films (CRTs, big buttons) that purport to be occurring later. Haven't the continuity supervisors spotted this yet?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Sisters Brothers

Another slight change of direction this time, something of a latter-day western no less, The Sisters Brothers by the Canadian writer Patrick deWitt.

Set in 1851 during the Californian Gold Rush, The Sisters Brothers follows the eponymous Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, as they journey from Oregon City to San Francisco. Sent by the Commodore to track down Hermann Warm, a prospector caught up in gold fever, the brothers' journey south crosses the paths of a diverse range of of characters and agendas. Some want help from the brothers, some want merely to share their story with the brothers, while some wish the brothers ill, an unwise course of action given the brothers' talents. As their journey southwards continues, Eli, who narrates the novel, begins to question their mission, who exactly they are doing it for, and their wider vocation in life. Is working as henchmen for a shadowy "big man" either defensible or worthy of the Sisters brothers?

This one came recommended by C after her book group read it a few months back. While it got something of a mixed reception there, she was one of its fans and figured that I might wind up being one too. And, what do you know, she was right.

But it's still far from a straightforward book to like. It's a bit of an episodic and rambling shaggy dog tale that reads a little like I'd imagine a Quentin Tarantino western might look like. Which is to say that it features a pair of philosophical gangsters and a not immodest body count. Well, I guess that it only really features a single philosophical gangster - Charlie is far more enamoured of his career path, and its benefits, than is his more thoughtful sibling, Eli. But their chosen career as well as their observations on the events that befall them as well as life in general, which are quite endearing at times (for instance, Eli's discovery of the toothbrush), reminded me more than just a little of Jules and Vincent.

The novel's episodic nature takes a bit of getting used to as well. It introduces and dispatches characters at quite a rate, such that, by the end, it feels like there really are only two characters, Eli and Charlie. But the interludes - which include a "witch", an inexplicably crying man, a boy who's the only survivor of a raid on a wagon train, and a terminally ill bookkeeper - are so diverse as to always be enjoyably interesting. And they also serve to paint quite a vivid picture of the social landscape - such as it is - of the time. On this point, The Sisters Brothers is yet another counter to the rather romantic view that we often have of the "wild west". deWitt paints it as a pretty arbitrary and violent arena where gold fever ensures that might is usually "right", and where women pretty much only occupy the "service sector". The description of the San Francisco that the brothers visit is particularly notable on this point, being simultaneously a fascinating and appalling place.

The main strength of the novel for me was the way in which it's told by Eli. deWitt gives him a nicely understated tone and way of describing things - even quite outlandish things, such as when he calms down a dying man that he's just shot. He is also, for a hired gun, something of a naive and likeable softie. He has a strangely touching relationship with his doomed horse, Tub, and he's (usually) polite and honourable with women he meets. Unfortunately for Eli, the women that he likes either appear to have drifted into opportunistic prostitution, a fact that Charlie won't let him forget, or are even more doomed than his horse. But he makes for a perennially interesting narrator and deWitt gives him a great and distinctive voice.

There are a couple of things that are a little less satisfying, however. Principally, what it's all about? While there's a journey, and some character growth along the way, I'm not sure that I drew out what I was supposed to as I travelled with the brothers along the way. Perhaps it is just about the journey, and the time that the novel is set in, but Eli's grappling with his conscience seems to suggest otherwise - although I'd certainly concede that Eli's thoughts seem fairly obvious ones rather than deep truths. Also, for a novel that seems to be trying to paint a credible portrait of the time and place, it throws a bit of a spanner in the works with something of an implausible MacGuffin in the shape of Warm's formula. While it's not completely "out there", and it does help give the novel something of a shapely resolution, I never entirely bought it as a concept, and it served to undermine a lot of deWitt's earlier good work in creating a credible mid-19th century setting.

Overall, I'd have given it a 7 / 10 at Annie's book group. It's easily the most distinctive of the books I've read of late, even if I still haven't quite worked out what deWitt is saying with it - if anything, that is!

Monday, 28 May 2012

No feet of clay

Finally caught up with another of my long-term musical heroes last night. Previously I've seen R.E.M. and David Byrne (ex- of Talking Heads), and this time it was the turn of Suzanne Vega.


I've been following her since I first got a taste back in 1992 while I was working out at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She released her album 99.9F° in early autumn that year, but in the run-up to this a couple of tracks made it onto the rotation of KROQ, our lab's favoured radio station that summer. Now, an alarming 20 years later - but only 3 more albums later - I finally got a chance to hear what she's like live.

On which point, I have to say that, going in, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. She's a bit of an odd artist in that she comes out of a somewhat folky place, but has also at times embraced - after being embraced by - an almost industrial aesthetic. I arrived on the scene when she first took the plunge with a more production-heavy style, so have always quite liked it. But I'm also aware that she still tends to folky, and has even begun a project in the last couple of years to re-record many of her songs in more pared-back arrangements. As such, I did wonder how songs that I've loved for years might turn out.


Fortunately, I needn't have worried in the least. Though she performed with only a single accompanying musician, and occasionally did numbers solo, she still managed to pull a pretty impressive range from her songs. In the main, the arrangements were unsurprisingly pared down, but they didn't suffer for it in the least. Even my (probably) favourite song, the infectiously upbeat if surprisingly short When Heroes Go Down, came off brilliantly. Only one or two songs suffered from being (to my mind) pared back a bit too much, and even then it was still enjoyable to hear new interpretations. And with one song, Blood Makes Noise, the arrangement was actually amped-up (via a pedal-based sequencer?) to something almost more industrial than the original.

On this point about arrangements, one particularly interesting choice was how Vega chose to handle one of her most famous songs, Tom's Diner. This was originally an a cappella song when it was recorded back in the early 1980s, but it's probably more famous now for a 1990s remix that reworked it almost into a dance track. I've even got a cover version of the song by R.E.M. that covers this remix rather than the original. Anyway, last night Vega herself travelled this same route, and performed the song in its remix flavour rather than in its more stripped-back original flavour. I guess that she now prefers this version too, or must at least prefer performing it this way - certainly it went down well with the audience.

Leaving aside her old familiars, Vega introduced a number of new (to me) songs. Most were actually from a play that she co-wrote recently on the life of the US writer Carson McCullers. When she introduced these, my first reaction was to get rather apprehensive because of this stage source, but, again, I needn't have gotten concerned. They were a little too, well, factual compared to her usual, more everyman-ish work, but they were still really good. And quite funny too. Curiously, she mentioned an imminent and wholly new album in passing, but I don't think we got anything from it. That'll have to wait.

Anyway, overall another personal icon survives intact. I should be getting used to this by now, but I can't seem to get over an instinctive "shields-up" response to ward off potential - but unfulfilled - disappointment. What was also pleasing was Vega's manner and her chatting with the crowd. She was easy, amusing and even apologised mid-song when she got a lyric wrong at one point (we'd never have noticed - it was Blood Makes Noise!). So it was nice to have my 20 year crush validated. ;-)

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Richard Parker

Thanks to a tip from a former colleague, we caught a great little play last night just over the road at Peartree Church Hall. The play was titled "Richard Parker" and drew on the story of (surprise, surprise) Richard Parker, a cabin boy who was cannibalised by fellow crew after a shipwreck off the coast of South Africa. More specifically, as this unfortunate sailor shared both the name and fate of a character in a novel by Edgar Allan Poe published several decades earlier, the play dealt with the phenomenon of coincidences, and spun this out in a two actor, two act play.

We weren't quite sure what to expect given the rather curious premise of the play and its extremely local venue, but it turned out to be a real treat. As well as touching on the coincidental fate of both Richard Parkers, fictitious character and real cabin boy, the play drew on quite a few other compelling stories of famous (and less famous) coincidences, including the purported parallels between the lives and deaths of US Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. And it did so really well, extracting a lot of dark comedy from these usually fatal coincidences, and ultimately spun all of this into a nice twist directly affecting the play's two characters (and Richard Parkers).

The play certainly seemed to go down well with the Peartree audience, and its humour was particularly appreciated - especially when it veered into an extended diatribe against "shitting seagulls". The only qualification I'd make - and it's one that applies to everything I've ever seen on stage - is that is was a little, well, stage-y. For all the visceral fun of seeing something live, I never get absorbed into it in quite the way I find with cinema, and never entirely forget the obvious fact that I'm watching actors on a stage. Anyway, hopefully the evening will have raised a good bit of cash to help the play's writer and cast travel to the Hollywood Fringe festival. The play has already done the rounds at UK festivals, but they're hoping that it gets some wider attention stateside. So good luck to them.

Warwick reunion (with added cricket)

After a heavy funding meeting in a small, subterranean dungeon at the Royal Society, I had the good fortune of a Friday night out with some of the EAMG crowd. Our get-together was triggered by a rare(-ish) visit from St. Ben of Cooper to viva a thesis in Brother John's group (though not one of his students, fortunately).

Because the evening began with the same group engaged in a cricketing deathmatch against hated institutional enemies (social scientists of all things), we arranged to meet in the "sports section" of Regents Park, and I planned to finish reading my book while they knocked chunks out of each other. Unexpectedly, however, John's team was down a player, so I wound up taking to the field for my first proper game of cricket ever. They even had shin pads and gloves! Anyway, while I was only able to contribute a handful of runs (4, I think), I did manage to bowl out one of the rival batters. Embarrassingly, it was his first game too, and I put him out immediately - not very sporting of me. However, it was a necessary breech in the "have a go" spirit, and led - in a small way - to the defeat of John's hated rivals. Hurrah.

Anyway, we finished the evening off in a good nearby pub, broaching traditional topics of conversation such as "yes, you could see them from behind" and "what, you voted for Boris?". Happy days.

About to take the stump

Glowering, but not blinking

Wishing Chris were here

Fresh from a triumphant viva

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Departure ... from form

Back to Asher-land. This time with the first entry in a wholly new series of novels based around a character who appears in several of his short stories, The Owner. No sign of the Polity this time round ...

On an increasingly overcrowded and resource-strapped Earth, the ruling world government, the Committee, is planning a "final solution" to stabilise the planet. In orbit, a massive satellite network has been built that will allow its tyrannical controllers to exterminate the viciously oppressed majority judged surplus to requirements by the Committee. Meanwhile, an ignored Martian colony is informed by the Committee that it is to be mothballed until events on Earth have stabilised and that it, too, is at the limit of its resources, and that only a managed depopulation will save it.

In the build-up to the planned events on Earth, Alan Saul, a rogue scientist, awakes in Calais on a conveyor belt feeding him into the town's incineration plant. Escaping from his immediate predicament with help from Janus, an internet-bound artificial intelligence that mirrors his own mind, Saul quickly and deliberately becomes a fly in the ointment for the Committee. After tracking down an old colleague and girlfriend, Hannah, Saul seeks out the black market and the technology that will allow him to fuse his organic mind with that of Janus to massively enhance his powers. Suitably "powered up", he travels to Minsk to hijack a spaceplane to, in turn, commandeer Argus Station, the hub of the Committee's satellite network. The latter proves a substantial challenge, and Saul's ruthless determination to succeed whatever the cost, as well as his ambiguous fusion with Janus, lead Hannah to question what he has become.

While I've never been entirely won over by Asher's charms, I've always found his novels and stories to be at least enjoyably trashy reads (even for science fiction!). Every so often he's surprised me with something more substantial, but even when he hasn't, I've always left satisfied with a baroque slice of sub-Banks adventure.

Here, not so much. Which is doubly unfortunate since he's actually tried something new here. Leaving his Culture-esque Polity universe, he's struck out on a completely new course, albeit one that's previously been touched upon in some brief short stories. We don't actually reach the point in time that these stories dealt with, by the climax of The Departure firmly establishes Saul as The Owner.

So what went wrong? Better to start with what didn't go wrong - since it's the smaller list. What's still good here - if a little overdone - is Asher's robustly violent science fiction action. Particularly so when Saul co-opts Argus Station's legion of repair robots as an impromptu army capable of some inventive, non-repair-related mischief. While he does revel in it too much for my liking, he does write his action scenes well.

Where Asher first goes wrong for me is in his presentation of the Committee. While it sits not uncomfortably within the well-worn trope of oppressive authoritarian regimes that populate dystopias, Asher can't help but use it as a stand-in for the EU, like some demented UKIP demagogue. For all is many flaws, the EU is nothing like the Committee in terms of action or outlook, but whenever he can, Asher squeaks in some sort of parallel. Admittedly, UKIP-ophobe that I am, perhaps I'm a little over-sensitive, but it's difficult not to get annoyed by Asher's stream of miscued political asides.

I was also a little miffed at how he handled his Martian subplot. At first it seemed like this would assume equal prominence to the events playing out on Earth and in low Earth orbit. But Asher only devotes a small fraction of the novel to this, and it's a pretty dull fraction at that - largely just a much smaller and much less significant insurrection on a limply imagined Mars. Worse, Asher commits something of a science fiction cardinal sin for me by having the uprising on Mars led by Saul's sister. Did he learn nothing from Star Wars pivoting galactic-scale events around a single dysfunctional family?

More seriously, he also makes something of a mistake with his central character, Alan Saul. Asher's narrators, even the white hats, are often rather gruff characters who're not entirely sympathetic (and he even has a habit of rehabilitating his ostensible black hats). But here he goes off at the deep end with a "hero" who's entirely unsympathetic. While arguably the closest thing to a "good guy" here, Saul is pretty much an Objectivist tyrant, concerned far more with his own ambiguous need for self-determination than anything else. Asher was probably aiming for a conflicted grey hat, and - to be fair - he does imbue Saul with occasional self-consciousness and second thoughts, but to me the novel played out as a battle between a faceless collective despotism and an ugly individualist despot.

All that said, this is seemingly the first novel in a planned trilogy. It may well be that Asher's treatment of Saul here is simply setting the stage for subsequent developments in character. But that's awfully hopeful of Asher given that characterisation has never been his strong suit. Still, I will almost certainly be continuing to read the saga of The Owner when these latter titles appear. I may leave this somewhat disappointed, but The Departure is still a lot less of a disappointment than my last science fiction read.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Fear Index

A new novelist and new sub-genre this time: an airport novel. Actually, that's probably more than a little bit rude, but I'm pretty sure that The Fear Index, by the British author Robert Harris, has probably sold a lot of copies at Heathrow. Hang onto your hats, we're in techno-thriller territory now ...

Set over 24 hours in Geneva in the cross-over world between high energy physics and high risk finance, the centre of the novel is Dr. Alex Hoffman. An ex-physicist now running a hedge fund, his company's success is driven by VIXAL, an "algorithm" that Alex designed to profit from fear in the market. The novel opens with a night time break-in at the luxury home that Alex shares with his wife, and incipient artist, Gabby. Defying seemingly impregnable security, the intruder appears set to murder the couple before he is disturbed by Alex, escaping into the night after knocking Alex out. This opening event is just the first in a succession of unexpected setbacks that begin to assail the life and career of this Master of the Universe. The next day sees the intersection of a new infusion of cash to his hedge fund from unscrupulous magnates, Gabby's first exhibition of work, and an incipient market crash. But Alex is unable to focus on any of these pivotal events as an unseen and unknown assailant continues to needle him from afar. Worse, a nervous breakdown from his past at CERN is brought to the attention of his friends and the police, fostering doubts that the conspiracy that he claims is enveloping him exists outside his own mind. But as financial meltdown threatens the world's markets, while VIXAL coldly plots a perilous series of trades, Alex begins to discern an underlying cause for his life's sudden reversal.

The Fear Index is not going to win any prizes from the literary establishment, but this is a proper page-turner, very efficiently written and pushing a number of zeitgeisty buttons. Harris sets off at a great pace and never really lets up as Alex is drawn into the bottomless rabbit-hole of a seeming conspiracy that amplifies his paranoia and threatens his sanity.

It's difficult to really care about the central character, Alex, as he is clearly "on the spectrum", and very much at the belligerent, self-entitled end. While VIXAL began as an academic project in artificial intelligence, it's clear that Alex's already narrow interests have narrowed further to see only its skill as a golden goose. Actually, his focus and lack of consideration for others is unlikeable to the extent that one questions the realism of the relationship with his wife.

But such matters of characterisation are quickly swept out of consideration by the blisteringly-paced plot that unfurls in more or less a single day. Of which, Harris does a great job rolling out more and more mysterious hurdles for Alex to clear. Along the way, Harris does a serviceable job at introducing the reader to some concepts from hedge funds, and while he never makes the banker characters worse than amoral, it's difficult to come away with a positive impression of the "trade". He also briefly touches on CERN, does a good job with Gabby's art, and even spends some time on the distorting impact of banking on Geneva's housing market.

There are a few plot strands that aren't entirely resolved [*], but there's enough going on that one doesn't mind to much - or actually notice too much until the final page is reached. It's one of those stories where mysterious events ramp-up the reader's apprehension extremely efficiently, but which don't actually quite stack-up once the curtains are pulled back. But Harris tells his story so well that it's only now that I'm reading a new book that some of the "holes" are obvious to me.

While some aspects of the novel's close were a little unexpected, I did particularly like the closing accommodation that Alex's business partner comes to with VIXAL. He clearly arrives at an appreciation for what it actually is, and accepts its violations and intrusions because of its power and its skill at making obscene amounts of money, regardless of the human cost. It's difficult not to read this as a wider statement about how bankers view the systems and schemes that make them money. But - nicely - Harris trusts the reader enough not to bludgeon them with any explicit socio-economic sniping.

Overall, a lightweight but very enjoyable yarn. It's not wholly without substance, but its observations about the questionable value of banking are clearly second in line to entertainment for Harris. Which is absolutely fine. And while it doesn't need them, it gets bonus points from me for some long-distance flirting with a favoured science fiction theme, but this shouldn't put anyone averse to that genre off this book. Definitely worth a look up if you're in the mood for a palate-cleanser between more weighty literary dishes.

[*] SPOILER! For example, as the novel opens with Alex harbouring not the slightest of slight suspicions, it's not obvious why VIXAL targets him. If Alex was already wondering about its behaviour, perhaps discussing this via e-mails that it then reads, this could have been a jumping off point. Instead, VIXAL pretty much kicks-off a series of events that ultimately lead to harm (albeit quite limited harm) to itself. For something whose main strength lies in predicting, this seems a little daft. But, as I mention above, Harris' novel is sufficiently skilful that this only really occurred to me long after it actually mattered.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Dear Douglas and Whit ...

At the moment, my reading material is Player One by lapsed-favourite Douglas Coupland. Today, I saw the film Damsels in Distress by the inveterately infrequent director Whit Stillman. I've loved the work of both in the past, particularly Coupland's Microserfs and Stillman's Barcelona. And while both of these two recent titles by Coupland and Stillman still have plenty to like about them, both also seems to suffer in comparison to earlier work in quite a similar way. Basically, they seem to have forgotten all about plot.

Not plot in terms of a densely but carefully constructed narrative, nor plot in terms of an enjoyable pot-boiler, but plot in terms of something that does more than intersect with reality at a tangent. In previous works, both Coupland and Stillman coupled their (respectively) philosophical and whimsical sides to narratives that bore more than a fantasy relationship with reality. But here, while both have pleasingly held true to the styles and tropes that first got me hooked, both have abandoned any pretence that the worlds they build and populate have more than a passing correlation with our own.

True, that's laying it on a bit thick, but what was wrong with sticking to situations and characters that touched base with the real at least once in a while?