Saturday, 29 April 2017

Books Read in April 2017

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

This won the Costa Children's Book Award in 2015, plus the overall Costa Book of the Year. Only one other book has done that, Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. I don't really understand why The Lie Tree was entered into a children's book category. The main character is a fourteen-year-old girl, but that's about it for any links to children. It's a clever, mature, well-written, thought-provoking story, which isn't easily pigeon-holed into any one genre. It's an historical novel, but also part-fantasy and part-science fiction. It doesn't have any explicitly adult content, so I suppose that's why it's a children's book, though it's just as 'grown-up' as most adult fiction.

Faith Sunderby is the main character. She leaves mainland Britain with her pretty, manipulative mother, her austere, distant father, her kind uncle, and her little brother, Howard. They flee to a remote island to escape a scandal involving her father, the Reverend Sunderby, a renowned natural scientist and discoverer of sensational fossils. Faith has no idea what they are running away from. As far as she knows, her father is a paragon of virtue and a giant in his field.

This is one of the many things Faith comes to learn isn't strictly accurate as the story unfolds. She discovers the Lie Tree, a seemingly magical plant that feeds on human lies and produces fruit that reveal the truth when eaten. Without wanting to spoil anything, she finds out that almost everything she thought was true turns out to be false. She gains knowledge of the world, and sees how lies corrupt everything they touch.

The Lie Tree highlights the fact that there are lies in every part of life - family secrets, professional dishonesty, the personas people adopt to hide their real personalities. Faith has to hide her own interest in science because ladies are not supposed to do science, and so she is forced to pretend otherwise.  Virtually everyone is forced into a rigid, narrow box that society has made for them, contrary to their true selves. This even extends down to Faith's brother, Howard. He's three or four, and he's left-handed. This is irregular, according to Victorian society and Howard's parents, so they make him wear The Jacket when he's writing. Its left sleeve is sewn to the jacket's side, so he can't use his left arm.

Denying the truth that women are as capable as men is another lie perpetuated by society in the novel. The lie that God created the world and all its animals and plants is challenged by Darwinian evolution. The scientific theory of animal magnetism is shown to be discredited, while the equally untrue phrenology is enthusiastically practiced by one of the characters. Women's skulls and brains are smaller, proving their intellectual inferiority, and the skulls of criminals are different to those of non-criminals. A load of rubbish, but people really believed it in the 19th century, so this is another interesting wrinkle - intentional versus unintentional lies, or malicious versus benign. Black and white with plenty of grey area here.

But enough hamfisted analysis. It's a good book. Convincing, interesting, a page-turner, insightful. The Lie Tree itself is creepy, the visions it creates are weird, and how it actually reveals the truth is open to doubt. Faith is a great character, a brave, smart girl who stops at nothing to discover the secrets that fill her life. There are so many lies and attempts at distorting the truth, that when Faith says something heartfelt and sincere, it's quite moving.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Books Read in March 2017

March 2017 Books

Here's the book I read in March 2017 and what I thought of it.

The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford

Sometimes you read a book to learn stuff. This is one of those. As the front cover says, this is a novel about IT, DevOps and helping your business win. DevOps is a technique of delivering software with as much automation as possible, to make the building, testing and releasing of software easier and more reliable.

This is a book with virtually no artistic merit. I didn't expect a great work of literature, but come on. It is a technical manual wrapped inside a novel. The main character, Bill, works in the IT department of a large company with dysfunctional working practices. An eccentric individual called Erik guides him through the Three Ways of transforming the IT department into a successful one, thereby making the company as a whole successful. Bit by bit, the Three Ways are revealed and the company gets more and more efficient.

I read this because other people in my own IT department were reading it. I knew it wouldn't be a great read, and I was right. It was very plainly written, with a lot of content about how to think about work and organise IT. It had a villain, of sorts, called Sarah, who had the ear of the boss and led him astray. It referenced lots of films, like The Karate Kid, Apollo 13, Star Trek, Weekend at Bernie's, etc, in an unsubtle attempt to appeal to IT people, I guess.

I skim-read it. If you're going to package up a set of IT principles in a novel, it's probably because you want to make it more accessible and bring it to life. The authors of this needn't have bothered because the story was not very engaging. They may as well have written it as a proper technical manual. Maybe they should have got Michel Faber or Bret Easton Ellis or Kim Stanley Robinson to ghost-write it.

Aside from all this, I have a suspicion of novels that are written just to divulge a particular set of ideas. Two previous novels that I've seen do this are two of the worst piles of garbage I've ever read.

One is The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield and the other is Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, a book with possibly the cheesiest title ever. Both these books were recommended to me by friends. I think they thought they were profound, and that I might too.

I did not think they were profound.

The Celestine Prophecy is about some secret Peruvian manuscript which details nine insights into life. The main character experiences these insights at roughly the same time as he reads about them. The insights are often 'backed up' with sciencey-sounding theories - maybe even proper science - which the author then twists to support his New Age Spirituality bollocks. It's complete tripe. Even if you only have a modicum of scientific knowledge, you can see how the author is trying to manipulate you into believing him.

It turns out at the end of the manuscript that the Mayan civilisation that came up with these insights achieved some kind of 'energy vibration level' which made them cross a barrier into a purely spiritual realm. Now here's a little tip. If you ever see the phrase 'energy vibration level' and it's not in a proper scientific document, the next fucking thing you will read is some absolute witlessness about spirituality or disappearing into a higher plain or some other pseudoscientific astrological homeopathy horseshit.

Way of the Peaceful Warrior also purports to divulge great wisdom about how to live your life. Some guy meets a mysterious wise old man in a petrol station who he calls Socrates. Socrates can do things like jump onto the roof of the petrol station from a standing start. The main character is impressed by this and gets Socrates to teach him. There's stuff about being trapped in your mind by illusions, about eliminating any attachments in your life, being celibate, being teetotal, practicing tai chi, meditation, and akido. These are all concepts that have a grain of truth or usefulness (except for being celibate, because how is denying normal human impulses like sex a healthy thing?). In the end the main character achieves happiness.

The thing is, this is a set of ideas for improving your life, packaged up in a novel. Socrates can do impossible things like jump onto petrol station roofs, and accelerate healing, and disappear when he dies, which is all obvious crap, but you might say, yes, but it's a work of fiction so Socrates can do what he wants, it's all made up. That'd be fine if that's all it was claiming to be. But it also presents itself as a kind of philosophical guidebook - that the advice it presents is true and will really transform your life. So which is it, fiction or truth? In effect, it's saying, here are some things I, as the author, am presenting as truths, and if you believe them and practice what they say, you'll be able to do these other impossible things I mentioned. It's a dirty trick. People who are a bit credulous might come across this, looking for some enlightenment, read the life advice, and be led to believe that the magic stuff actually happened as well, because they can't separate the fact from the fiction, which is deliberately mixed together to usher them to this spurious conclusion. Or they might not believe the nonsense literally, but they might be seduced into believing the spiritual advice more readily.

This kind of book has been called 'magical autobiography'. The author has some spiritual beliefs they want to convey, so they write it into a novel where they relate a journey of discovery and the dividing line between fact and fiction is blurred. Some things are presented as fact, sitting alongside nonsense like Mayans vanishing into a new realm, the sad truth being that some people will believe this as well. As well as this tactic, Millman's Socrates is a tough cookie, a harsh teacher, who sometimes reacts with scorn or outrage towards his pupil, because the pupil is so unenlightened and stupid. This also happens in The Phoenix Project - as if to say, until you are inducted into my enlightened ways, you are an idiot, and when you are eventually 'in the know', you will treat the uninitiated as idiots too.

I'm not saying The Phoenix Project is as bad as those other books - I just noticed the tropes of the mysterious, wise, eccentric teacher, and the worldview of the authors being divulged in a cack-handed, unsubtle way via a novel. Plus, The Three Ways sound like mystical bullshit, though in fact they aren't. They just sound a lot like they are. The views of the Phoenix Project authors are about how to get the best out of IT, and it's all perfectly sensible. The views of Redfield and Millman are drivel.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Books Read in February 2017

February  2017 Books

Here's the book I read in February 2017 and what I thought of it.

Horror: A Literary History edited by Xavier Aldana Reyes

Turns out horror wasn't even a distinct genre until the twentieth century. This collection of seven essays charts the history of stories that provoke a feeling of fear or repulsion, starting in the eighteenth century with the 'horrible romances' of Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, graveyard poetry (hadn't heard of that before), Matthew Lewis's fantastic The Monk, and the Big Daddy, Frankenstein.

It goes on to talk about the origins of American horror, like seventeenth and eighteenth century captivity narratives, where white women were kidnapped, incarcerated and abused by Native Americans. The Salem witch trials of the 1690s and the dark, extreme beliefs of the Puritans also had a profound impact on the American horror to come - dangerous religious zeal and murderous irrationalism cropped up in nineteenth century witch trials stories, and Arthur Miller's 1953 The Crucible, for example. There's a section on Edgar Allan Poe, because he really was the father of American horror, a gigantic influence on everyone who followed.

Next is a look at nineteenth-century Britain, and the fact that there were horrific bits in Eliot, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, etc but still no proper horror genre. There were grisly medical casebook tales, and penny dreadfuls depicting bloody murders. It's not until the 1880s we start getting 'proper horror', or at least a Victorian Gothic revival, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), Arthur Machen's The Three Imposters (1895), and Dracula (1897).

The twentieth century sees H.P. Lovecraft write his cosmic horror, continuing a trend where horror stops having religious dimensions, as in the eighteenth century Gothic stuff, and becomes more about psychology and biology - the degenerate Morlocks in The Time Machine, the monstrous transformation of Dr Jekyll, the madness that afflicts puny humans confronted by the Cthulhu Mythos, the virus-infected zombies of the brilliant I Am Legend, leading right up to Norman Bates in Psycho.

The 1980s horror boom is discussed, with leading writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell, and Peter Straub, who came by way of Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Dennis Wheatley, via the odd 1950s EC horror comic and pulp magazine Weird Tales. Then on to the nihilistic turn-of-the-century books of American Psycho and Fight Club, both bringing out the darkness of modern, humdrum Western life. And ending with horror video games, and the 'new weird' fiction of the twenty-first century, the extra-gloomy Thomas Ligotti, and Laird Barron, both reimagining Lovecraftian terror in new, interesting ways.

It's a good read for weirdos like me who are into this kind of thing. I wasn't really aware of the distinction between 'terror' and 'horror' before reading this, apart from the dictionary definitions being a bit different, but apparently it's of great importance. Some authors try to horrify, some to terrify (which is considered the higher literary ambition), some to do both. As long as we keep getting interesting, creepy, atmospheric tales, I'm satisfied.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Books Read in January 2017

January 2017 Books

Here's the books I read in January 2017 and what I thought of them.

American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis
Aurora - Kim Stanley Robinson
The Thing Itself - Adam Roberts
Red Rising - Pierce Brown

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

I don't expect to write anything original about this, seeing as it's widely considered a modern classic and has been literarily criticised to death, but here's my twopence-worth.

I'd heard this was a deliberately boring book, in order to highlight the banality of the modern materialistic world. So I expected to be bored, which is maybe why I liked it so much, because although a lot of it is boring, it's boring in an entertaining way. Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street hotshot, describes what he and the people he meets are wearing before anything else. He is obsessed with going to the best, hippest restaurants and clubs that Manhattan has to offer. He is completely superficial, and so are his friends, though he moans about them so much you can't really call them that. He is engaged to Evelyn who he seems to have no feelings for, and is having an affair with Courtney, the girlfriend of a co-worker. He becomes very anxious if his social status is in any way tarnished.

He sometimes describes things cinematically, saying things like 'smash cut' or 'pan' or 'scene', which makes you wonder if what he's describing in the story is real or him pretending he's in a film. He details very violent murders, shockingly gory, even to me, who grew up reading Stephen King, James Herbert and Clive Barker. I mean, blimey. Patrick does some stuff that forces you to look up from the book and take a glassy-eyed, exhaling-in-disbelief break from it all.

Characters in the book call Patrick by different names, and other people are misidentified, as if they can't be differentiated - they're all interchangeable, which in fact is what Bateman himself says at one stage. He uses aliases himself (Marcus Halberstram being one), but I wondered if Bateman, with his great physique, his attractiveness to women, his extravagant lifestyle, wasn't just someone called Marcus Halberstram fantasising about being the successful Patrick Bateman. Even the murders that take place are possible fantasies - is Bateman/Halberstram trying to spice up his dull life with dreams of obscene violence? He rents out violent films and porn from the video shop - is the narrator just a loser dreaming up the high life peppered with savage bouts of homicide? Is he a closet homosexual, rather than the hetero stud portrayed? He goes into the toilet cubicle his colleague has entered, to 'strangle' him, but did he really intend to kill him? Is he just bullshitting us with the 'oh I was going to murder him' line? He reacts homophobically when his colleague mistakes the attempted murder as a come-on, and Bateman can't stand to be around him after that - dost he protest too much?

It's not really clear what's going on, in the end, or who is really narrating the story, or what is real or what is fantasy (I expect the Cheerio he watches being interviewed on The Patty Winters Show is the latter). For a book all about superficiality, it feels pretty deep, not that I'm saying I understand it. I'm just saying I liked it. (And talking of superficiality, it mentions Donald Trump quite a lot.)

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

A starship sets off from Saturn in 2545 AD with a crew of 2,000, headed for the star Tau Ceti, 11 light-years away. The book starts in the 28th century, one-hunded-and-sixty years after launch, with all the original crew dead, and their descendants continuing the voyage.

Devi, the de facto head engineer of the ship, deals with problems on a regular basis - there is always something going wrong somewhere, threatening the crew's survival. She works closely with the ship's artificial intelligence, and gets it to write a narrative of their voyage, partly as an exercise for the AI, and partly because she thinks it would be useful to have a condensed story of their journey. So most of the book is the AI's narrative, with a few false starts as the AI tries to work out how best to tell the tale. It decides to focus on the story of Freya, Devi's daughter, and her travels around the starship, with its twenty-four habitats or biomes, each one a giant cylinder containing a different kind of Earth environment - rainforest, savannah, temperate forest, etc.

It's not long before they reach their destination, Aurora, their name for an Earth-like moon circling Tau Ceti's Planet E. That's where things start to get interesting, so obviously I'll stop there with the plot shizzle.

I really liked this book. I've liked Kim Stanley Robinson's stuff ever since I started on Red Mars, the first of his Mars trilogy. He is a hard sci-fi writer, with a lot of technical detail, and it's sometimes a little hard to get through. In the Mars book, he will spend pages describing the new colours the settlers see on Mars, or how they organise their societies, politics and conferences, but it all adds to the believability of the story. His characters are well-rounded, his writing is good, and he is full of interesting ideas.

As well as the Mars trilogy, I liked his alternate history The Years of Rice and Salt, in which European civilisation is decimated by the Black Death so that other cultures become dominant, Shaman, set in the world of prehistoric humans and Neanderthals, and 2312, describing the colonisation of the solar system.

Aurora is equally good. I was fascinated by the problems and dangers the colonists faced, really getting drawn into it, willing them on. The way the AI develops is interesting - not the usual 'AI is bad and tries to kill us' cliche, but something that felt more considered and realistic. The colonisation of Aurora is another non-cliche, going in unexpected directions, and examining the whole idea of what might or might not be possible. It's interesting to compare the AI's attitude against that of the humans who sent the starships off to other stars, and even against that of the humans who agreed to be the first generation aboard these expeditions. What about the first generations' children? They hadn't chosen to live and die on a starship, their parents had, so what responsibility did the parents have for that? The book also offers an answer to the Fermi Paradox - if there are so many seemingly habitable planets in the universe, where are all the aliens? The ideas come thick and fast - how do you tell a story, how do people resolve conflicts, how far can we progress as a species, how would space travel be accomplished within the constraints of the laws of physics?

It all ends on an uplifting note, and makes a good point, though not the sort of point a lot of other sci-fi does. Sorry to be vague. You'll just have to read it.

The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

At the end of 2016 I saw a link on Twitter to an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, here. He talks about how humans perceive the world through their senses, and our brains make up what they think is out there in the world. His computer modelling suggests it's possible that what we see isn't really what's there. That reality might be too complicated for our brains to accurately see, so what we see is a simplified version. He says it's like the desktop of a computer. You see a file icon on the desktop, and you can see it's a Word document because of how the icon looks. But the file itself isn't the icon, it's a string of binary numbers stored electronically in a complex machine which is rendered on-screen using lots of complicated computer code, also stored on the complex machine. There's much more to it than the icon, but the icon hides the complexity because you don't need to know all extra crap, you just need to know there's a file you can click on.

His computer models showed that human perception could have evolved to produce a mere rough approximation of reality, using symbols to hide the actual complexity, and we don't need to go to the extra effort of more accurately working out what's out in the world. In fact, organisms that bother to go the extra mile and accurately perceive the world could be outcompeted by organisms taking shortcuts and approximating.

Then I found this book, by accident, and it was perfect timing. It's about just this subject. What if the real world was nothing like the world we think we know? What if everything we assumed was reality was all in our heads, and we were physically unable to see the real world, because it was too complicated, or not useful for our survival?

Immanuel Kant features heavily in The Thing Itself. In fact, he coined that very term, but in German it's Ding an sich. He brings up this idea of what we can really perceive with our limited senses in Critique of Pure Reason.

In The Thing Itself, SETI researchers in Antarctica listen for little green men, and Charles, the main character, has a highly disturbing experience when it seems the veil between himself and the unfiltered real world is lifted for a moment. It has effects that last the rest of his life. And the Fermi Paradox comes up again, as in Aurora. Only this time, the answer to the paradox is: what if humans translate the world of the Ding an sich completely differently to aliens? We see other people, trees, the galaxies, space itself, and we feel the passage of time, because that's how our minds interpret the world out there. Aliens might see it another way, perceiving it in ways unimaginable to us. And the worlds humans and aliens perceive might not overlap, so we may be mutually unable to perceive each other. It's a total mind-blower.

It's not just the ideas that are great in The Thing Itself. There are seemingly unrelated chapters breaking up the main story, with different characters, settings, times and styles. There's one written like a Victorian travelogue. Another written without punctuation, a breathless whirl about illicit romance and pregnancy. Another written in seventeenth century English: "My lord the Judge squeez'd my Hand, &d smil'd, &d said he is indeed a man of good parts." Like a Guardian review said, 'this is really walking the literary high wire'.

The philosophy gets rather heavy, but only rarely, with most of it clearly explained and accessible. The unrelated chapters come together in a satisfying way, while leaving enough unexplained to keep it interesting. The final chapter is bittersweet and touching and feels like an fitting ending.

A clever, beautifully-written story bursting with ideas and ingenuity. I loved it! Get. Read. Enjoy.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

A friend recommended Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card a few years ago. It's Young Adult sci-fi about a boy, Ender, who attends a futuristic naval academy to learn how to command space ships. Most of the book is a sequence of war games which the ingenious Ender excels at, becoming evermore skillful.

It didn't really do it for me. The war games weren't very interesting. Scene after scene of military tactics isn't what I'm after. There's more to the book than that, but still... Quite predictable and just... all right.

Another friend recommended Red Rising recently. It's set on Mars. Good, I thought, I like Mars. Kim Stanley Robinson did good things with Mars. I can't see it being as good as his stuff, but I'll give it a go.

I didn't like it. I don't think I'm the book's target audience. It's mostly about war games on a terraformed Mars between adolescents from the upper echelons of society, fighting each other to learn about life and hardship in a kind of Martian School of Extremely Hard Knocks.

It's written in a kind of melodramatic, grand, semi-mythical style. Characters fall to their knees when overcome by emotion. The protagonist, Darrow, has a grand opinion of himself. He is handsome. He is dextrous. He is the best. He speaks of strength, vengeance, lions, glory, power, rage, etc. It's peppered with daft made-up swear words like 'bloodydamn' because as YA fiction, it can't use anything too rude. And, for me, it felt like a rehash of Ender's Game, a load of kids battling through war games, with extra brutality. I can see that if you let it, the grand style and no-holds-barred passion of it all would sweep you off and make it exciting and gripping. But it didn't work for me, it was a slog to get through, I didn't care about the characters or what was taking place.

I'm not a YA snob. I don't read much of it, just because there's so much else to read and why bother with YA when I'm not, strictly speaking, a YA. But His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman was one of the best book series I've ever read.

Red Rising didn't have the same impact.

(By the way, it's one of those guts-n-glory, blood and thunder type stories, with lots of violence, cruelty and passion. One of these kinds of books I did like is Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert. It's set in Carthage in the 3rd century BC, and as Wikipedia has it, it is a 'melodramatic, blood-soaked tale' and is 'largely an exercise in sensuous and violent exoticism'. I loved it.)