Monthly Archives: June, 2019

Green Earth

Unknown.jpegI remember when the the Science in the Capital books came out; I was unconvinced about whether I could face a near-future story about climate change. So I did nothing about reading them. Then I recently discovered that the books had been released as an omnibus edition, and I figured – why not. And the introduction to this edition reveals that it’s a director’s cut – and not in the way that Raymond E Feist did his version of Magician: in this case Robinson has actually cut extraneous material, for a variety of reasons, and I’m quite impressed by that whole process.

So anyway, now I have read the trilogy-that’s-really-one-long-book. And it must be said that it’s rare for me to finish a book where I kinda loathe the main character.

The book opens in a style that suggests the story will be told through a variety of voices. Each chapter opens with some extended comment on science or politics or global events, and then the chapter proceeds with different characters going about their everyday lives – which frequently interact with each other, and with making science- and climate-related decisions. There’s Anna, a scientist at the National Science Foundation; Frank, a visiting scientist at the NSF; Charlie, Anna’s husband and advisor to a senator, who works from home and is mostly caring for his youngest son; Leo, a scientist in a small biotech startup lab; and a couple of others. As it went on, though, there was somewhat less of this multi-focused approach.

It was intriguing to read a book that paired the domestic, sometimes banal, frequently humdrum lives of its characters – in the office, or the home, or the lab – with important scientific discoveries or crucial policy decisions. Like in real life. The conversations often looked really odd on paper… until I listened to them properly in my head, and then they sounded like just normal conversations. Zagging in odd directions, incomplete sentences, and so on. Robinson has often captured actual life with true verisimilitude, and I mostly enjoyed it.

However, the character that I initially liked the least is the one who ends up having most of the narrative. This is Frank. He has what I regard as a poor attitude to science, and an even worse one towards women. If I had realised that this was going to be largely Frank’s narrative, I may not have kept going. In fact it’s possible that if I had been reading this as three separate books, I would not have picked up the second after the first.

Now, I have little objection to abandoning a book – I mean I hate doing it, but I will, because life is too short to read crap books. So why didn’t I abandon this book? Because I did want to know what would happen to the other characters. And because I was truly interested in where Robinson would go both in destroying the world through climate change, and suggesting possible ways of dealing with it.

Was it worth it? I still didn’t like Frank. In fact I got really impatient with him, and his whole personal storyline seemed pretty weird and actually beside the point for the overall story… and this sense is growing the more I think about it. However, as a way of thinking about how science might help the world deal with the repercussions of climate change, it’s certainly an intriguing novel. And like many of Robinson’s books, ultimately hopeful. (Perhaps too hopeful?) So I don’t regret reading it. For a reader who is interested in both politics and science, I expect this would hit a lot of buttons (unless you’re very over the ‘America saves the world’ narrative, which this leans into pretty heavily, so be warned).

Sadly, Robinson made yet another odd statement about an Australian animal (he implied there’s not that many black swans in Red Moon). This time, a character comes across an animal dead in the snow: it’s a wombat, and then there’s mention of warm-weather critters needing to be looked after.

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From here; I’ve seen wombats in the snow a lot, so… nah. Not so much.

The Biographer’s Tale

Unknown.jpegI have never read anything by AS Byatt. I have heard of her… but I think I always assumed she was a bit too “literary” for my tastes, which in my head means snobby and convoluted kinda-real-life and not that interesting. I saw this book in a second hand book shop and thought – maybe I should give it a go; biography is an interesting topic and the blurb sounded a bit intriguing.

Plus, cool cover.

Up to about the halfway point, I was utterly charmed. Besotted, even. Phineas Nanson (I was a bit disappointed when I discovered the narrator was a man; I’d forgotten that from the blurb) has decided to give up his study in postmodern literary theory, because it doesn’t mean anything to him anymore. But that means he needs something new to study. A supervisor gives him three volumes of biography by Scholes Destry-Scholes; Nanson has an arrogant literary theorist aversion to biography. However, he is hooked by the charm of Destry-Scholes’ writing, and proceeds to attempt a biography of the biographer.

At this point, I thought there were going to be intriguing and possibly convoluted layers upon layers of biography. And there were: Nanson finds excerpts of other, possible, biographies written by Destry-Scholes but unpublished, and there are extended (and I mean a few dozen pages) included in the novel. These excerpts are a bit weird, and their subjects not immediately identified; there are certainly some themes that recur.

Nanson goes on to research the subjects of these incomplete biographies, and of course finds himself in increasing levels of abstraction from his purported subject, the biographer. All of which is quite wonderful to read – including his finding a part-time job at a travel agency who specialise in odd, literary- or art- or otherwise abstrusely-themed holidays for discerning characters.

It was all going so well.

(Spoilers from here, I guess? If you really want to give it a go yourself?)

And then it became a story of a man who ends up having a relationship with two different women at the same time.

I mean, yes, there was discussion about how this attempt at a biography had actually become an autobiography and he has angst about that as a literary form, and then discusses how he surprisingly likes writing for its own sake, and he gives up on Destry-Scholes… but yes, this became a not-yet-middle-aged (I assume) man and his sexual relationships and there was no musing on whether it was right to have two partners simultaneously and did his partners deserve to know about the other or… anything of that sort of moral relationship nature. No. It was just all about him and his experience.

And so I got really quite disappointed. More than I probably would have been if I hadn’t been so delighted by the first half.

Factfulness

shopping.jpegIt’s hard for me to adequately convey how amazing this book is, and the extent to which I think every privileged person in the “Western world” (a fraught term, I know, and one that’s even fraught-er after reading this) ought to read the book.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered a free copy to every US graduate at any level in 2018. So that’s one measure of how important a book it is.

“Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think” is the subtitle and an excellent summary of the entire book. If you think you know the world and don’t need your mindset readjusted, go here: http://forms.gapminder.org/s3/test-2018 . Then come back. I’ll wait.

Did you do really poorly? If you stayed on the site and looked around, you’ll know that so do the vast majority of people who take the test. In fact, humans tend to do worse than random, which is a most ridiculous idea regarding facts about the world.

Some of the most important things I got out of this book:

  • The idea of data being therapy.  Hans would have said he’s not an optimist – he’s not “looking on the bright side”. He looks at data. He’s not making assumptions about the world, he’s looking at what the world is actually like. And things are not as bad as we apparently think they are.
  • Which leads me to “bad and better”. Of course things in the world are not perfect; he’s not suggesting they are, nor is he suggesting that things like war in Syria ought to be ignored. However, on a global scale, things are better today than they were in the past – and better than you think they are. His metaphor for this idea is the premature baby doing well in ICU: after a few days, are things better? Yes. Are things still dicey? Yes. Two things at the same time: bad and better. This, for me, is immensely reassuring as a phrase – I can be concerned about Syria, or Yemen, or whatever else, and still know that for most people around the world, things are better than they used to be.
  • How to think about statistics. It’s all well and good to give me today’s stats… but how do they compare to last year, and last decade? This is a question I don’t ask often enough and ought to do more of.
  • Populations statistics don’t necessarily move in straight lines.
  • A comparison of where “developing” countries (a phrase that Hans loathes, for reasons outlined in the book) are today compared with “developed” countries (same caveat) in the past – how much faster, for instance, the fifty countries of sub-Saharan Africa have reduced their child mortality rates than Sweden ever did (p171; he often uses Sweden as an exemplar).

Of course, I am coming at this as a long-time Hans devotee (although some people in my circle are even bigger fans…). The Magic Washing Machine was a revolutionary way for me to think about wealth and time and work. In Qatar, he discussed the connection between religion and babies… and the fact that there isn’t one: it’s about girls’ education. And then there’s his brilliant 200 countries in 200 years, which makes even my data-dubious heart glow. And then there’s the fact that Hans died in 2017, while the book was nearing completion. I cried while I read the introduction, because in my head it was Hans’ lovely Swedish accent reading it and I knew he was gone and honestly that just felt heartbreaking.

Even if you don’t usually read non-fiction, I think you would do well to read this. If you are in business, or have some sort of connection to policy-making in government or an NGO or banking, you should read this. If you know someone in those areas, this would make a most ideal gift for any reason whatsoever. This book should become ubiquitous on shelves, and it should be ubiquitous when we talk about how to keep improving the world.

Robots vs Fairies

Unknown.jpegI am reminded, perhaps obviously, of Zombies vs Unicorns, the Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black anthology from several years ago. It’s the same sort of idea: which trope is better? Which sort of close-to-but-not-human species can authors have the most fun with, do most with, and so on? But more than zombies and unicorns, the authors in this anthology make powerful statements in their afterwords for why both robots and fairies can and do have such enduring power in our narratives. They are like us, but unlike. Robots are made by us; fairies live in parallel; both can be imagined to have legitimate grievances with humanity; both can potentially blend into humanity… and so on. Max Gladstone suggests robots are the future, and fairies are our roots.

So there’s a lot to explore in an anthology inviting authors to choose one of these archetypal features of our speculative fiction.

What surprised and amused me the most in this set of stories was the number of times authors decided to play with both. Seanan McGuire starts the ball rolling, and Catherynne M Valente finishes it; along the way, there are a couple of variations on Pinocchio that I didn’t always pick up – it’s not a significant story for me – as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and other ruminations on how robots and fairies might be seen to fade into one another, one way or another. I really, really liked this aspect.

In fact, I liked this anthology in general. The stories are generally very well written, and there’s a marvellous balance of fun and heart-wrenching or somewhat horrifying, as well as often having significant points to make about humanity and how we interact with our world. McGuire’s views on theme parks were great fun to read; Ken Liu’s story on automation was chilling and brilliantly written (unsurprisingly). Sarah Gailey also contributed a supremely chilling story that I really wasn’t prepared for, and Madeline Ashby’s was haunting and lovely, and Maria Dahvana Headley got me with a rocknroll and fairies story that was always going to push my buttons.

Themed anthologies can be a fraught business. This one gets it right.

Stephen Baxter’s Space

I loved the Manifold series when I first came across it. It was the first Stephen Baxter work I ever read and it hit all my buttons: space and aliens and science (ish) and outrageous ideas. The characters were fine and the pacing felt great.

I read those books many years ago. I decided to go back and read Space to check if it held up, and because I needed a not-too-taxing book. I was a bit trepidatious because I haven’t loved all the other Baxter books I’ve read – which isn’t all of them, because his really far out ones don’t appeal – but there’s sometimes been a lack of character development that annoys even me (not something I always notice), and just something that has felt… not ideal in terms of narrative.

The first thing to note is that I still loved this book, and I’ll probably go back and read the other ones now, too, although not immediately. I remembered very little aside from Reid and Nemoto existing; events felt familiar but it wasn’t like I knew what was going to happen on every page. I still enjoyed the outrageous science and the gleefully complex way of confronting Fermi’s paradox. The pacing did still feel fine – although the last chapter or so are a bit off, for my tastes.

The characters are, though, not the highlight. I remembered thinking that Reid Malenfant (terrible child!) was terribly arrogant, and that is definitely the case – and the book plays to that, too. To my surprise he does not play quite as enormous a role as I recalled – perhaps he’s more involved in one of the other two books, or maybe I’m utterly misremembering. But the other characters aren’t much developed, and some of them (hello Nemoto) very poorly served. In the latter case I think this is deliberate, because no one gets to know her and that’s part of her deal. With the others, though – Madeleine in particular – it was a bit frustrating, and her narrative ultimately unfulfilling.

For me, though, the characters are not a breaking point. I won’t read characters who make no sense or have zero development, but written as Baxter does in a narrative like this one, I’m happy enough to read along and I definitely enjoyed the ride.

This is an outrageous exploration of humanity’s potential movement out into the solar system, when confronted by an alien presence already here. It’s fun and a little silly in its ultimate ideas and occasionally confronting. Very enjoyable.