Monday, 30 January 2017

Book Review: Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This novel starts in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and advances to the present day - or, more probably, to the very near future, although this isn’t completely clear. Along with this interesting and - for me - unfamiliar setting, it is a novel of big ideas, science, culture and society (all the things science fiction does best), so I should have loved it.

And it isn’t that is is badly written. There are, indeed, moments of sheer beauty, and I would call the novel a success, but it does fall short. In some ways the book feels like a patchwork from different eras of SF; there are parts reminiscent of ‘Doc’ Smith, Asimov, Silverberg, Stephenson. I particularly thought of this last a few times with Liu’s tendency to elaborate on a scientific idea (such as the titular Three Body Problem) or a technology, and also to expostulate at length.

Much of the novel centres around one of the characters investigating a virtual reality game called Three Body, wherein the players are attempting to define a scientific model for a reality where the days and seasons seem utterly chaotic (although it might seem that the name of the game is a rather obvious clue, given the scientific background of so many of the players). It transpires that this game is actually a recruiting tool by a group of people who are preparing to welcome to Earth an alien civilisation from just such a world. And this is where the book really falls apart; the aliens just aren’t believable. While many of the other shortcomings of the book can be excused - there is a lack of good characterisation, the scientific ideas may break the flow of the story on occasion but are interesting in themselves, the idea that intelligent life could evolve on such a chaotic world are far fetched but no more so than, say, Dragon’s Egg, The aliens themselves entirely lack personality. Worse, their communications are often nothing but the worst sort of exposition and full of metaphors that are so human and 20th century it is entirely jarring.

This is a great shame, as there is so much about the book to admire and enjoy. The details of the Cultural Revolution, and the inviting of the potentially destructive outside force to solve the problems of a humanity that may be considered to be beyond redemption as a mirror for that terrible era. I am very much undecided whether to pick up the next volume.

Nice evening 15k to round off January

 The weather has turned suddenly milder after the recent cold snap, so it made getting out this evening all the easier.

I'd bottled out of running into work after a poor night's sleep so was pleased to find that, after a slow build up through the park, I settled into a comfortable loping rhythm. Out to Clay Wheels Lane then soon beyond the reach of the streetlights into Beeley Woods, the beam of my chest light bobbing ahead of me.

At Oughtibridge I decided to try the climb of Church Road for he first time in a while - not just up to Worrall, but arcing to the right up to Kirk Edge, the road a black line between the Stygian fields.

It's impossible to see the whole of Sheffield from any one point, nestled as it is in the fold of creases of its seven hills and their many valleys, but there are many high vantage points that give the illusion if you don't know better. About half way up the 230 odd metre climb there's a sudden view down this portion of the Don Valley revealed a stunning glimpse of the lights of the city centre and the climb toward Norfolk Park and Sheffield Manor beyond. But at the high point of Kirk Edge Road as I turn south to drop sharply back toward Hillsborough is one of those spots where it is easy to believe that the lights glittering like an armful of gems scattered over rucked black velvet is the whole 370 square kilometres of the city, and all of its 560, 000 citizens, but knowing that there are parts entirely hidden by the cunning folds of the land is part of the city's beauty.

I let gravity take me down the hill, trusting in my chest light and that any traffic coming the other way will be visible a long way off by its own light. I consider taking one of the turns that will drop me down into Loxley Valley higher up by the reservoir but feel the long straight of Loxley Road may be dispiriting if I lose my wind, so compromise by pushing for all I'm worth along the childs'-rollercoaster undulations of Myers Lane and am rewarded with a comfortable PR

More traffic on the drop down Long Lane than on the rest of the night-time roads combined, then onto pavement for the final hop over Wiesewood and home.

A gorgeous bit of night running. I'm sure I wouldn't appreciate it nearly so much in the early hours.

Listening: The Guilty Feminist, & The Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts

Monday, 31 October 2016

Book Review - In the Shadow of the Sword - Yes It's F*cking Political, Everything's Political

Tom Holland has made quite the name for himself with his narrative histories. His first, Rubicon, is about the rise of Julius Caesar and the transformation of Rome from the Republic it had been to the Empire usually envisioned by those of us raised on Hollywood sword and sandal epics and the UK history syllabus.

Here, Holland covers a far more complex and controversial era of history, the world of late antiquity centred on what we now refer to as the Middle East. This fits in nicely with my current undertaking of patching the massive holes left in my knowledge of world history by the aforementioned UK school syllabus. It particularly snuggles like a jigsaw piece against Judith Herrin’s superlative history of Byzantium which, naturally, focused on that great city itself and the world beyond only inasmuch as it bore directly upon it.

The setting here is the Eastern edge of the late Roman Empire where it abuts the most Westerly of the great Asian empires - initially the Parthians, then succeeded by the Sassanians. Each, much to the surprise of most people with a Western Classical education, was easily a match for mighty Rome and inflicted at least as many defeats and humiliations upon it as it upon them (the most striking of which is the fate of Emperor Valerian who, after being captured by the Parthians, spent the rest of his life being used by King Shapur I as a stool to mount his house and, on his death, having his skin flayed and gilded as a throneroom trophy).

Holland throws in vignettes like this to wonderful effect - such as the introductory account of the bloodthirsty religions zeal of Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, before ending with the startling line “So perished… the last Jewish king to rule in Arabia.”

The author spends most of the book with background of how the two great empires grew and changed through the first 600 years or so of the Common Era - more detail on the Sassanids as Rome is more familiar to his audience, although he sketches in such things as the Gothic conquest of Italy and Spain and refers to a few things with which we are more likely to be familiar to ground the narrative. He takes us through the difficulties that Parthia has with the ‘barbarians’ on its Northern and Eastern frontiers that it massively underestimates and leads to its collapse (if I’ve learnt one thing from reading history, it is NEVER pursue bands of mobile mounted archers however much the taunt you), along with an overview of their culture and religion.

Along with this, as part of the timeline of Constantinople, we are shown the rise of Christianity in Palestine - the response of Rome to the various Hebrew insurrections, leading ultimately to expulsion from Jerusalem, the foundation of the Holy Land as a place of pilgrimage from Europe following Constantine’s conversion, the ascetic monks such as Simeon on his pillar. We also get a potted history of the schisms of Christianity, Nicea and Chalcedon, the Arians and the Copts.

Then, in the third part of the book, we are introduced again to that fragment of the region under the control of neither superpower. To the south of the fractious border is Arabia, a land considered barbarous by both Romans and Sassanians, although they are both also quite happy to pay the tribes as mercenaries. This disregard despite the fact that this area has housed the kingdom of Sheba, made wealthy beyond imagining by being the major supplier of Frankincense but fallen on hard times by the rise of Christianity and their dislike of such pagan practices as the burning of incense. From this area comes a third force, one which gives some editions of this book its alternative (and rather inflammatory) subtitle, “The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire”.

And this is where the controversy comes in. Holland shows how Islam rose not only as a political force as much as a religious one, but that it was a melange of the Hebraic history of the Arabian peninsula (as foreshadowed by that introduction with King Yusuf), the Manichaeism of late Iranshahr (Sassania), along with influences from others in the area such as the Biblically maligned Samaritans, the philosophy generated by the Christian schisms and the close textual analysis and argumentation of the Jewish yeshivas. Most controversial of all, the author points out the signal lack of contemporary accounts of the Qu’ran, Mecca and Mohammed’s direct influence. He shows Islam (or the Mohammedan faith, which came to be called Islam almost a century later) as a political construct, as riven with dissent and infighting as any other human political process. Perhaps most shockingly of all, he suggests that the hadiths, the sayings of Mohammed used as an adjunct to and expansion of the Qu’ran, are made up out of whole cloth the best part of a century after his death to justify interpretations of the extremely vague Qu’ran - or, indeed, to entirely re-write it, such as to upgrade the punishment for adultery from lashes to the traditional Jewish death by stoning. Mixed in with the jockeying for position as the power behind this new and vast empire, this shows that Islam and its holy texts are no more trustworthy and god-given than those of Christianity or Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Hinduism. They are products of human societies, of political power struggles that have a background and a frame, that both use belief and are a vector for it.

While Tom Holland’s fourth history book (he also write fiction - I really should investigate that!) is not without flaws, it is remarkably well written, well argued, as well as well researched and referenced. I have yet to read a narrative history as good as his debut, Rubicon (although that is on a par with saying that I have yet to hear a symphony on par with Beethoven’s ninth or Mahler’s fifth. Okay, anything by Mahler) but I think that is because the relatively narrow focus of the internecine power plays of Roma perhaps lend themselves more easily to the narrative history style without oversimplification. Holland obviously must simplify somewhat, but he really does seem to try to include as much relevant information as is humanly possible. As with his book Persian Fire about the Greco-Persian wars (Thermopylae and all that) this can lead to a temporary overload of information, that I dealt with by putting aside the book for a few days on occasion to allow my brain to process it. I do also feel that he sometimes gives myths of Christianity an easier ride that those of other religions, putting them down with argumentative foot- or endnotes. While this may be purely as he expects the audience to be already more familiar with these, it does mean these appear to be accepted more uncritically.

In all, an utterly superb addition to my knowledge of the history that has formed our world, told in an utterly compelling, absorbing and informative manner.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Book Review: Yellow King Tales volume 1: solid pallor and a tattered robe

After finding the recent Pulver edited anthology A Season in Carcosa a very mixed bag, I thought Id try this collection by the man himself. It starts very, very strongly; the first five stories are gloriously creepy and scary, modern-set noir-tinged Yellow King tales fraught with menace and madness, utilising many of the tropes of Chambers' original stories to stunning effect. Publication dates aren't listed for individual stories, but I can well imagine these were an influence on the original True Detective TV show.

Unfortunately, nothing else in the book hits that level of quality. There are many good stories but, for me, nothing great and frankly too much filler. Part of the problem was, perhaps, reading it as a block rather than dipping in, as Pulver's reliance on Cassilda and other fragments from the Yellow King play becomes somewhat repetitive.

In many of the stories the author also writes in a style that is neither prose nor poetry (or possibly both), going from normal block paragraphs to

setting out
the words




white                                                  space

and make use

experimental ways.

I didn't find this very effective - although, full disclosure, I have never been a fan of shape poems and find stream-of-consciousness writing generally insufferable, so perhaps I'm the wrong audience. The longer of these pieces I found myself scanning through as there didn't really seem to be a great deal of content within the form. There are also a couple of stories that are fine, but then have sudden Yellow King references shoehorned in at the end for no apparent reason, and much to the detriment of the tale.

I will definitely return to Pulver, perhaps trying some of his longer work or something not so narrowly focused as he can undoubtedly be a great writer.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

In many ways, this is a straight-forward, old-fashioned space adventure. A deep space vessel - in this case, a tunneling ship, used to cut stable wormholes for interstellar travel - takes a job that turns out to be less straightforward than anticipated, and we see how the crew deal with that, and how it affects their relationships. (And I'm not trying to belittle the story or the genre; I know any story, when broken down into its basic elements, seems simplistic).

The difference here from the vast majority of these sorts of stories is the focus. While they usually put the adventure itself in the spotlight and character tension rises from that, Becky Chambers concentrate on the characters and their relationships from the start. We begin by being introduced with a new crew member - Rosemary, who seems very much a surrogate for both the reader and Chambers herself - although the third-person viewpoint quickly diversifies among the multi-species crew so we see events from different perspectives. There is a great deal of introduction to this universe, the GC (Galactic Community? Galactic Council? Something like that) to which humanity is a a fairly recent entrant after leaving a polluted Earth to repair itself and splitting into two factions - those settled on Mars and the Exodans, who live almost entirely in their ships and space stations.

The relationship-focus and the grimy, real-feeling level of the tech - along with a sharpness of wit and dialogue in the writing - are certainly why this book has attracted so many comparisons to Joss Whedon's Firefly although, if anything, here the story takes even more of a back seat to the personalities. The events are largely low-key (about which I am not complaining as I am thoroughly sick of save-the-universe stories) and the 'small, angry planet' of the title, and the main mission, does not even figure until the last fifth of the book - although, I guess, it is a long way there. It is, however, these relationships and the characters that carry the story and set it apart. The characters are fairly well realised and it is these relationships - both with each other, and outside of the family of the crew - that give us the bulk of the interest and peril. And they are very much a family, something to which focus is brought by the mention of the family structure of the reptilian Aandrisk, of whom Sissix, the ship's pilot, is a member. They are born into and raised by a hatch family (of probably unrelated individuals to their parents), choose a feather family - or, rather, a succession of feather families - of like-minded individuals throughout their adult lives, before settling into a more (but not entirely) stable house family to raise young given into their care when they are older. As well as an intriguing social structure that holds echoes of many ancient human tribes, it is a clear metaphor for the friendship groups we build and which are - often and for many people - more important than the families into which we are born.

Along with the very 'liberal' political (both small 'L' and small 'P') - there is no distinction made between binary or same-sex relationships, indeed interspecies relationships are touched upon, and gender issues are foregrounded - I imagine this is the sort of SF that makes the Sad Puppies rabid. So, kudos to chambers for that.

However, this is 'just' about gender politics (in fact, i'd say it isn't about gender politics at all, but I guess, unfortunately, taking the position that who you love is no big thing is a political stand). The theme of the book is about identity - those relationship identities, yes, but also about what it is to be a person. As well as the personhood of each of the alien races, the status of AIs is one of the big questions that this society has yet to address.

Even if you are perfectly happy with the type of SF that this - which I absolutely am - there are problems with the book itself, on its own terms. The crew of the Wayfarer are a bit too nice to each other - with the exception of Corbin, the stand-offish, persnickety algae tech (one of the power sources for the ship) who nobody else really likes, they all get on far too well with none of the annoyances that you would expect of people living in close confines for long stretches of time. I would have liked to see more interpersonal tension, if only in small ways.

However, Chambers does generally write the characters and relationships well, but this can't be said for some of the physical threats. There is a big action scene near the end that you can almost miss if you're not paying attention - yes, partly there is confusion as it is from the view of the crew who aren't expecting it, but even so the whole thing needed rewriting. But, hey, it's her first novel.

There is a far more important flaw, though. In showing us that all the five species who make up the crew are people, with the possible exception of the wonderful Dr Chef, we lose any sense of their alien-ness, except when it's explicitly stated as with the Aandrisk family structure. Okay, the fact of their personhood, that "we're all the same under the skin", is kind of the point but, for all the diversity in the liberal outlook, this has a homogenising effect that slightly undermines the message. The only species that did seem at all alien were those that were threatening - the Toremi, the civilisation to whom the Wayfarer is travelling, and the militaristic Quelin, who seem to have it humans generally (and who I pictured as the being like the Vogon guard tasked with throwing Arthur and Ford out of the airlock in the TV version of Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy...) This does seem to leave us with the lazy idea that explicable and similar means friendly whilst different and confusing means an enemy, which I doubt very much is what Chambers intended and, I'm sure, something she'll address in the further volumes. And, again, it's a very hard thing to write, but here it is very, very important.

Oh, and just one more thing. This isn't a complaint about the book at all, but about many of the reviews. Stop calling it space opera, it isn't. Space opera is the grand guignol of the spaceways - it is big storylines, overblown, huge events painted on a massive canvas in broad strokes. Often with fat ladies singing. It is Peter Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds and the sorely missed Iain M. Banks.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Book Review: Lexicon by Max Barry - the Power of the Word

Words have power. We all know this, especially as readers we are aware of the magic of words. And if we have seen any applied neurolinguistics - the magician Derren Brown, for instance, using his training and the force of his personality to either guide people’s choices or, more disturbingly, seemingly bend them to his will, both with the careful hidden placement of trigger words - we see the shared route of the two meanings of the word ‘spell’.

Max Barry posits that something even more powerful and immediate can be achieved than that which we see in the edited Derren Brown TV shows, that there are words and phrases that can control us all, different ones depending on our ‘personality segment’, and that an organisation exists of people who train in and wield this power.

Emily Ruff, a vagrant getting by on small con-jobs and sleight-of-hand tricks is recruited for training and becomes embroiled in a something even darker, their idea that there are ‘barewords’, ur-words in some primal proto-language that bypass the cortex and can control anybody, instantly and completely.

Barry presents what is both a superb, engaging, white-knuckle thriller and also an exploration of language and control. Through fragments from media stories and message board discussions between chapters he draws parallels between the blunt-force over-riding control of these ‘magic’ words and the more subtle and pervasive and more real - and hence more frightening - power of media manipulation. The book also touches on the philosophical idea of how much language creates reality by affecting our perception of it, as well as motifs of trust and loyalty and power.

This is a dark book - I haven’t given it the horror tag for nothing - but, as always with Max Barry, it is also deeply humanistic and is threaded through with real humour. Read it and, if you haven’t already, read Jennifer government too, for good measure.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Death Spiral UK

If the Labour implosion has achieved anything, it is that it has raised me from despair to fury. I’ve seen interviews with a succession of Labour MPs, grandees and apologists (some of whom are Tory party members, fercrissakes!) saying that Corbyn should step down, but it is the reasoning that is really making my blood boil.

I have heard people opine that he has been a leader with no direction, and no policies, and done nothing to show opposition to the government - and then watched a clip of today in Parliament where, as usual, Cameron did nothing but hurl personal insults and Corbyn shrugged them off with dignity, and attacked the PM on policy, pushing his consistent agenda of an alternative to the destructive austerity measures. Just like he has done day after day, week after week, since he became leader.

The other argument sounds more convincing at first hearing; that, while Corbyn may have a massive mandate for leadership from Labour party members, the MPs who are opposing him have a bigger one - but this is utterly false. Yes, MPs WERE elected by the votes of the electorate, but as representatives of the Labour party. This may have been where there was a real race between getting a Labour MP or a Tory or SNP or (possibly) a LibDem or, as in the constituency in which I live, where Labour are going to win and it is a question of how much by. The difference is in that those of us who voted for Corbyn as Leader were trying to shape the focus and direction and future of the Labour party, to turn it once again into a political party that represents the majority, that represents the greater good of society and fights for inclusiveness and justice and pulling everyone up together, rather than the spineless Tory Lite that the party has become. Yes, many of us would vote for the the Greens or the Socialist Workers party if we weren’t stuck with this stupid electoral system, but we are so we need to try to (re)shape the main party closest to our views back into something that represents us.

So instead of taking stock of where we are after the referendum, seeing if anything can be done about the result and deciding on how best to proceed if not, the Blairite wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party took the opportunity to stage a coup, and much of the rest of the PLP followed suit; I don’t know what was going through Tom Watson’s mind, but I am particularly disgusted with him. Corbyn has said he will not step down, and he has shown himself to be a man of his word. However, I for one would not blame him if he caved to what must be intolerable pressure, threw up his hands, and said “FUCK THE LOT OF YOU!” If it comes to another Labour leadership election I shall be voting Jeremy Corbyn. If he doesn't stand, or is ousted, I am frankly cancelling  my membership and, I am sorry to say, I am done with the Labour party for good.