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.)