Tag Archives: books

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.

Red Moon

Unknown.jpegAs a rule, I am excited about new Kim Stanley Robinson. I mostly enjoyed Aurora, and utterly adored New York 2140 and 2312. I know that not everyone loved those last two as much as I did… and I think a lot of people enjoyed Aurora more than me. Which tells you that Robinson meets different readers in different places, and that’s ok.

For me, Red Moon is closer to being like Aurora. I mostly enjoyed it, and it’s certainly exploring some interesting ideas, but I did not get giddy with joy in reading it. I have no hesitation in recommending it to other people who enjoy near-future SF, and for those who got bored by 2312 etc then this is likely to be more up their alley. Which is great! Cater to a range of preferences!

It’s also a bit hilarious to me that I read this so soon after finishing Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy, given a few similarities but mostly differences.

Red Moon is set three decades into the future. Our moon has a lot of people living on it, mostly Chinese. Which, given the current state of the Chinese space programme and their lunar intentions, is not ridiculous. Other nations are represented there, too, but the bulk of the mining and such are being undertaken at a Chinese installation at the southern pole. The book is largely focused on Chinese characters, too, so it’s important to point out right now that I’m Anglo-Australian, and have no sense of whether Robinson has made any cultural missteps. It doesn’t feel like he has, to me, but it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed some offensive things. There are a couple of points where one of the main characters rails against some Chinese stereotypes, which gives me hope that Robinson is really aware of what he’s doing; but there’s also a point at which he says black swans are more rare than rhinos, and… images.jpeg(from here, of all places)

Yeh, we have a lot of black swans in Australia.

Anyway. Fred goes to the moon to deliver a quantum phone, and the person he is to meet dies when they meet. It’s clear to the reader that Fred isn’t responsible, but not to everyone around him. Fred then basically ends up being shuttled around the place, and sometimes used a political football. He ends up, through odd circumstances, traveling with Chan Qi: a young woman, daughter of a very senior politician in the Chinese Communist Party, vocal in a social change movement, and herself being sought by a variety of groups for their own political purposes. While Fred often seems to have little volition, and is tossed by the vagaries of those around him, and isn’t sure what to do in those circumstances, Qi rails against the structures around her – even when she too is able to do little about the problems that beset her. Qi definitely seems to be be the more active, in all ways, of the two; their companionship is an interesting comparison. Also interesting therefore is that while Fred is frequently a narrator throughout the novel, we rarely get any insight into Qi’s mindset.

Along with the novel being about Fred’s attempts to not get done for a murder he didn’t commit, Robinson is exploring a bunch of other ideas. China seems to be in a place ready for political turmoil, which Qi is contributing to; Robinson explores some of the reasons that might create this situation – most of which exist today – and some possible solutions. So it’s political, and social, and economic commentary; I’d be fascinated to know what Americans think, since it doesn’t paint the US in the best of capitalist lights; China also isn’t a utopia, but it’s also not a nightmarish dystopia.

And then there’s an AI, learning to learn and utilising surveillance systems, and the analyst enabling that; and Ta Shu, celebrity traveller and documentary maker, who gets dragged into the Fred/Qi mess, who is much older than them and has greater historical context and spends a lot of time reflecting on his own and China’s history. Also, an American Secret Service agent (female) on the moon, with a very annoying superior.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and as a way of thinking about how people might live on the moon and struggle with the social changes of the coming decades, and what China might achieve as an increasingly dominant superpower, and how individuals act when constrained – it’s a very good way of exploring issues. As with Aurora, my main issue is actually with the ending. It was unexpected, and while I think I understand the reason for it, I found it unsatisfying. However, your mileage may vary! I still have no hesitation in recommending it.

Invisible Women

Unknown.jpegThis book should be read by anyone making policy, collecting data, or using data, about humans. Politicians, business people, public servants, medical researchers: all of them.

This book made me angry. That’s important to know. It’s also important to know that it was, mostly, good angry: it was appropriate and it makes me want to do something, although I’m not sure what.

I came across this book thanks to two Galactic Suburbia listeners, which is hilarious all by itself – that they both thought this book should be brought to our attention, and acted on that. It is, of course, exactly up our alley, and so I bought it.

The subtitle to the book is “Exposing data bias in a world designed for men,” and together with the title this does tell you exactly what the book is about. It’s about showing both how women are invisible – if data is not sex-disaggregated, if only men are tested or questioned or used – and data bias: men are assumed to be representative of humanity, men’s opinions are assumed to be representative (because they’re not thought of as men’s opinions), and so on.

The results are devastating.

The results in the book itself are devastating, for me – the extent to which women’s experiences are ignored, sex differences are ignored where they do actually matter (eg medication – the typical fat/muscle ratio in men and women is different, which means differences in how medications affect them), and so on. The results in real life are also devastating: only using male crash-test dummies in cars means cars aren’t safety tested for women, and cars aren’t safety designed for women (smaller on average, different bodies, etc); safety vests not fitting over boobs; building relief housing after disasters with no kitchens.

So, yes, I got angry.

I also got angry when Perez pointed out the areas where the data does exist, but it’s been ignored: mandating paid parental leave is good for the economy; how about anatomy diagrams that only show male bodies? And the areas where, because it’s a female-only issue (like PMS, or endometriosis) the research just hasn’t been done.

Perez, I imagine, also got angry when she was doing the exhaustive research needed for this book. There’s a lot of data, and a lot of footnotes. She’s also making firm, reasonable, and clear demands for change, and pointing out some ways that those changes could happen. Many of the changes will be hard: can you imagine what it would take to mandate political parties having genuine female representation? However, her data on what happens in countries that have increased female political representation is, to my mind, compelling; increased expenditure on education, for instance, and – unsurprisingly – issues that specifically affect women more than men: family planning, for instance, and policies around care. And anyone who thinks that these issues don’t need to be political ones, when they affect 50% of the population, needs to have a good hard think about whether they’re a misogynist. Perez also suggests some ways in which more, better, and new data can be collected… but it’s going to be a long hard slog to make the necessary changes, in the vast areas of data collection that exist now, before those changes are fully realised.

This is a brilliant book.

The Missing Ingredient

images.jpegI don’t remember how I came across this book – could have been through Gastropod? – but I thought it sounded like just my thing. Time as an ingredient makes a lot of sense, when you consider it! And overall, Linford does look at some interesting points in connecting food with time; I learned a few things and was encouraged in my love of cooking and food.

However, this book turned out to be not quite what I expected. On reflection, I think I was expecting something more like Michael Pollan’s Cooked, where he meditates on particular ways in which fire or air or whatever have an impact on cooking and food at length. This is not that. Instead, this is a long series of vignettes. Some of them do go over pages – there’s a good few pages on pickles, and on smoking, and the wonders of freezing., among others. But in general each topic within each timeframe (seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years) is relatively short, addressing the connection between the topic and time – the seconds between different stages of caramel, the time it takes to make true traditional Modena balsamic vinegar – and usually not going into the depth that my heart really wanted. (And sometimes the topics chosen in each chapter seem to be tangential to the concept of time as an ingredient, but maybe I missed the point.)

If what you’re interested in is a series of short stories about time and cooking, that you can easily dip into and out of, that are sometimes amusing and sometimes poignant and that remind you that cooking and good food are good things, then you will probably enjoy this book.

Luna: Moon Rising

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now.

This is the third and final book in Ian McDonald’s Luna series, and it really doesn’t stand alone. New Moon and Wolf Moon (which apparently I didn’t review? must have been when I was stressed out) are both outstanding and terrifying and if you are interested in near-future, near-Earth speculation, with intensely human characters and scheming dynasties, you really want to read the whole series, so off you go.

There are spoilers for those first books, kinda be default, in what follows…

One of the awesome (and, ahem, anti-Ian McEwan) things about this series (and it’s not unique to it, of course) is the way that McDonald uses this alien, will-kill-you-in-a-moment place to work through human issues of greed, family, ambition, hope, friendship, pride… all of those things that storytellers have been mining for millennia. You’ve got battles happening with rovers and spacesuits in vacuum, and parkour in 0.6g (ETA: which is actually 1/6th gravity, not 0.6, ARGH thank you Scott), and as wide a range of marital and familial ties as can be imagined… and brutal corporate takeovers and arguments over inheritances and burgeoning romance. It’s so full.

Perhaps the most intriguing speculation of a near-future type is the way that McDonald imagines the Moon being regarded by Earth. The Moon is not a political entity; it’s a technological colony, for want of a better word, dominated by families who happen to come from different nations on Earth but who have little in the way of political or emotional ties to those places. But the Earth needs the resources of the Moon… but the families don’t want Earth interference… So Lucas Corta’s deal, to use Earth mercenaries and involve Earth politicians in the dealings of the Moon… that’s really quite problematic. I LOVE IT.

A few characters I really enjoyed:

Wagner Corta, the wolf, and his sort-of-bipolar playing out differently on the moon from how it might on earth. I like that McDonald refuses to ‘diagnose’ him fully, although I would be very interested to hear what those with a better understanding of mental health descriptions and experiences think of this. I also greatly appreciated the enormous dilemmas and sacrifices he goes through in the series, in terms of conflicting priorities.

Luna Corta: I kept forgetting just how young she was because of how much she had gone through, escaping with Lucasinho and so on, and she continues to be buffeted by issues beyond her control in this book… although she begins to show that she can take some control.

Ariel Corta: continues to be one of the weirder and least predictable of all of the main characters. Ignoring family on the one hand and working hard for them on the other, never an easy person to get on with, driven by astonishing determination and stubbornness… I’m not saying I’d like to be friends with her, because I think she’d terrify me in person because she’d see all my weaknesses. But she’s definitely someone to admire.

That makes it look like I’m all Team Corta, and I’m not really, it’s just that they feel like they dominate the book, and indeed the trilogy, more than I expected from the events of the first book.

If you’ve read the first two books you know the issues that need to be resolved in the book. If you’re anything like me, you won’t anticipate how it will play out. I was surprised by most of what happened. I will admit that the very ending was… really not what I expected. I’ve had to think about it a bit, but I think I see what McDonald was doing. And I’ve decided I like it.

This is a magnificent series and I’m so glad it exists. Now I can’t wait to see what else McDonald does.

Permafrost

40048442.jpgAlastair Reynolds.

Time travel.

It’s just such a winning combination.

And the thing is, this is the author who as far as I can remember refuses to use FTL in his stories. So for him to write a time travel story means that there won’t be any Delorean zipping around. Instead, there’s a short but relatively serious discussion about WHAT, exactly, can be ‘sent back’ through time, and a very clever example of what it might mean to change things in the past – what impact that might have on the future.

The story, naturally enough, dips in and out of the time stream. It starts in the past and goes to the future and moves between them beautifully, gradually building up a picture of what has happened for the future to be as it is, and the choices that people make that have an impact ‘upstream’. The slow unfolding is horrific and brilliant.

I liked the characters, I was horrified by the world, and I was intrigued by the method of time travel. This is a fabulous novella.

Shadow Captain

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me at no cost by the publisher, Hachette. The trade paperback (which is lovely) is out now; smaller paperback in September.

I mean. HELLO. New Alastair Reynolds! I was so happy to get this to review. So hi, if you don’t know me I’m a massive fangirl, keep that in mind as you read I guess?

This is the sequel to Revengerfrom about three years ago. You probably want to read that before reading this because it sets up the sister relationship that’s at the heart of the story, between Adrana and Arafura (now Fura), as well as the horror in which Bosa Sennen is held throughout the… well, world is the wrong word, but you know what I mean. The area in which the book is set. And that’s the other thing that the first book sets up: that these books are set many, many thousands of years in our future, and they live in the Congregation – which is our solar system having been dismantled and the stuff of the planets used to construct an uncounted number of smaller worlds. Also, civilisation has not been continuous throughout that time; humanity has swelled and fallen over that time, inhabiting more or fewer world, having more or less connections between the worlds, and with technology progressing or lapsing. Which is what allows for the many ships who travel between the worlds to visit the now-uninhabited ones and find ‘treasures’ which may or may not work for them, dating back to previous civilisations.

I guess it’s like modern Britons or Libyans trying to make the Roman aqueducts work.

Anyway, if you haven’t read Revenger I highly recommend it – clearly – as a space opera with deep roots in nautical adventures (including in the language, it’s all coves and sails and broadsides), starring a defiant young woman having mad adventures.

Spoilers for Revenger below this…

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Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water

image.pngThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be available from 21 May.

Vylar Kaftan’s novella opens with Bee scrambling through darkness, which is pretty much all she can remember doing.  The official blurb reads:

All Bee has ever known is darkness.

She doesn’t remember the crime she committed that landed her in the cold, twisting caverns of the prison planet Colel-Cab with only fellow prisoner Chela for company. Chela says that they’re telepaths and mass-murderers; that they belong here, too dangerous to ever be free. Bee has no reason to doubt her—until she hears the voice of another telepath, one who has answers, and can open her eyes to an entirely different truth.

You can guess from the blurb that things are not as they seem, but you can’t guess the twists and turns of the plot – well, I couldn’t anyway.

The attitudes towards telepaths are a very interesting part of the story; as someone who grew up reading McCaffrey’s Tower& the Hive series (every. single. one), I’m always fascinated by whether ESP stuff ends up being celebrated, abused, shunned, or whatever. So that was something I enjoyed here.

Overall, though, I did not love this story, and I can’t put my finger on why not – which is a deeply unsatisfying thing to say in this review, I know, and I’m sorry. I think it’s partly around the pacing. For all that I am a big fan of fast-paced stories, I think this was a bit too fast; I didn’t feel like I got to know Bee before things changed, and then they changed again, and I was left feeling a bit cold towards her fate. There was also a lack of world-building that meant I didn’t quite get some of the actions of the characters other than Bee.

For all that, though, Kaftan has written a story with heart that confronts the issue of how humans react to difference. I did like Bee, and felt that her reactions – especially when feeling lost in the world – were beautifully realistic.