Friday, September 21, 2018

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death's End by Liu Cixin

I forget how I heard about these books but I am so glad I stumbled across them. They are hard sf: speculating with astonishing imagination around the laws of physics and letting those speculations drive the narrative. On and on it goes, unfolding fresh insight, unrelenting over three volumes. It's breathtaking. 

The Three Body Problem of the first title is the alpha-centauri system: starting from how life might have evolved there, and what it might do when discovering life around its nearest star, us, is how the plot gets going. Three books later, centuries into the future, the horizon was still expanding, the plot was still unfolding and I found myself stunned and captivated by the ending.

The second fun thing about the books is the Chinese provenance, totally fascinating and an unusual bonus in a sf book. As well as some of the settings, I love the way that the Chinese are the real flesh-and-blood characters and the Westerners are on the fringes; just the opposite to Western-inspired fiction. 

Having said that, you wouldn't read the books particularly for the characters, dialogue or relationships. Another thing to mention is they get  a little slow at times with Chinese/Communist preoccupations like lengthy discussions about controlling the morale of the people: all irrelevant in the West where no-one controls the public discourse.

Nothing about this spoiled these stories for me, which is the best SF I have read for years. I am a reluctant reader of long trilogies but it was easy to make an exception this time.   

I can't think of higher praise than to say Liu Cixin reminded me of Olaf Stapledon, the father of SF by some measures, in his sheer astonishing imaginative breadth. He seemed to think of everything; later writers in the genre merely filled it out. Liu Cixin has a brilliance of the same kind. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore
I came away from this book with three impressions
  1. The sprawling, endless history of this hilltop settlement, its stones and myths endlessly dug up and rebuilt.
  2. The way much of world history --or at least the history of the Abrahamic religions- swirls around this single spot
  3. The beheadings and rapes, generation after generation. My own village has a history going back to the eighth century, but in nearly all that time, sickles were just used for lopping heads of grain, rather than heads of people. Must be something to be said for not being so famous. 
A wonderful book, a work of  an unobtrusive author who sorts through the rubble and presents it to us, scene after boody scene. I learnt a few things. The Jewish people have been given Jerusalem back on odd occasions before the current time. Julian the Apostate, for example, the second after Constantine, returned it to them. 

The crusaders, while an embarrassment to Christians, were no more rapacious and deadly than everyone else. 

King David officially exists, thanks to an insription found in the 1990s and no thanks to the Bible account, despite it being one of the most intimate, many-sided accounts of a famous person in all antiquity. 

It was also fun to find the backstory of the Jewish puppet kings who stroll across the New Testament. All were collaborators with the Romans. Montefiore picks out the day (for example) that Augustus, Herod the Great and Mark Antony strolled out of the Senate together. The photo of that would have been good for a few quid. Or Bernice who not long after hearing Paul in Caeserea -- 'I would you that you were all as I am, but for these chains'--turns up as the lover of Titus as he dismembers Jerusalem in AD70. Josephus was with them that day, and got a few of his Jewish friends taken down from the crosses on which many had been crucified. It goes on.

Some gems of good writing too: Chateaubriand's travelogue 'set the tone of the European attitude to the Orient with its cruel but inept Turks, wailing Jews, and primitive but ferocious Arabs who tended to congregate in pictureseque biblical poses' (p384)


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

"I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end"
and then this:
"then there he would be, fresh from the gallows, shocked at the kindness all around him."
I can't remember the last time I cried while reading a book. I could feel the sobbing welling up inside. It was doubly embarrassing because I was lying next to a pool in the Cote d'Azur on a brilliant blue day, and my wife was reading Bill Bryson.
Perhaps it was post-traumatic stress speaking after my coma and paralysis three years ago. The book I was reading had the weight of an old hymn, suffering graced in music.
Or perhaps it was because God was beautiful and humans, like mathematics, need infinity to make the sums come out right.
Either way, Marilynne Robinson's Lila is extraordinary.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick; or, The WhaleMoby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville My rating: 3 of 5 stars I listened to this title as a Librevox audio book, lovingly and well read. It's exasperating. In here is a totally gripping account of the mad pursuit of a great whale in the 19th century, compelling, detailed, tense, very satisfying. Unfortunately it's wrapped in screeds of Shakespearean asides and philosophical meanderings that I found just plain dull. There's hardly a novelist's rule that Melville doesn't break, which is fine, except it just doesn't help. So joy and dismay crowd together. If this is the first 'modern novel' I hope it will also be my last. And yet, clear away the dross, and there's something absolutely special. View my Amazon reviews

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Alister McGrath: C S Lewis

I wanted to write a detached, cool-headed evaluation of this book and even had thought of some suitably ironic ways of describing it: 'ostrich prose', for example (covering a lot of ground with great enthusiasm but never quite taking off). 

Unfortunately, I can't do it. I shamelessly and unapologetically absolutely loved this book. I have to confess some shared interests. Alister McGrath is a professor at my old college. He's a scientist and atheist who turned to Christ. In some of his other writings, he has discovered the loveable pinata-like qualities of Professor Dawkins. So I was predisposed to like this book and therefore quite determined not to.

I don't know if it's a masterpiece or not but I found it an entirely satisfying retelling and re-evaluation of the man that I will treasure for a long time. They even got A N Wilson, big-beast among Lewis biographers and newly -returned-to-the-faith-Christian, to say something mildly pleasant about McGrath's work. So, perhaps, it must be good. It's not just me. Generally I prefer reading Lewis to reading books about Lewis but this is the business.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mary Doria Russell: Children of God

The sequel to 'The Sparrow' continues the plot with the same luxuriant story-telling qualities. It's engrossing, beautiful, thought-provoking. First (or second) contact, an alien world, cultural disruption, God.

If most SF is made of cotton, this is silk. I got the feeling she used her best characters in the first book, and it's a matter of taste probably whether or not you feel after two books you'd have liked the issues resolved or like in the Sparrow,  left open. (I won't say which happens). A great book, like its predecessor sitting easily near the top of the pile of best SF books I've ever read. A pity (for SF) that a writer of such talent went onto other things...

Monday, September 2, 2013

Deep Jungle by Fred Pearce: beautiful science writing about a big issue of our time

This book manages to be both a beautiful coffee-table book and an insightful, well-written exploration of the rainforest, taking a machete to the simplistic diagnoses we find in the popular press. Fred Pearce, environment correspondent for New Scientist, has done some proper science writing here. 

So the book is full of surprises. 
1. Wind back the clock a thousand years, and jungles were the home of sophisticated civilisations. This is not just true of modern-day tourist honeypots like Ankor Wat or the Mayans. Nigeria's jungles hosted cities and empires; so did the Amazon. Fred Pearce cites linguistic studies, the beginnings of jungle archeology, and the nature of the soil and the  trees planted, to show that people were working this land, despite the Western world not knowing about them. 

2. These civilisations  collapsed, perhaps because of the encounter with Europeans and their diseases. Remnants went off into the forest. So the standard Western model of the jungle -- 'pristine' rainforest and 'stone-age tribes untouched since the dawn of civilisation' -- is wrong. People have gardened, or farmed, or still better, stewarded, the jungle for centuries, and with rather more success than we managed in the 20th century.

3. Much of what is going on today thanks to the chain-saw and the hunt for ever-more-scarce bush-meat is economically rational for the people doing it.

4. Many of the suggested solutions to deforestation haven't worked. Selling traditional remedies to drug corporations is good, even vital for the future of humanity, but has tended not to benefit indigenous people, or stop rainforest destruction. National parks are hard to enforce. Even when jungle products are found that can only be produced on site, they have been victims to sudden boom and bust: everyone starts growing them, the price drops, everyone loses. 

5. Fred Pearce does find some case studies that encourage optimism. He reports on Cameroonian cocoa farmers who plant their trees in the jungle, rather than clearing it. They also plant other fruit trees. In another model, a Central African government, I forget which, supports agriculture on the edges of a national park, to relieve the economic pressures. He even suggests that under some circumstances, drilling for oil in the rainforest can save the rainforest by improving the economy for everyone. 

All these case studies point to a somewhat heretical conclusion, which Pearce doesn't quite enforce in the book. One way of saying it is that you have to consider people as well as chainsaws or bushmeat. Concentrate on a single issue, bushmeat for example, and you're doomed, as many well-meaning charities have discovered.  The other way of saying it is this: rainforests need people to manage them. Remember the old joke of the vicar talking to a gardener: 'What a wonderful thing you and God have created,' says the vicar. The gardener thinks for a moment and then replies, 'Yes, and you should see what a mess it was when God had it to himself.' Humans are destroying the rainforest, bad people and good people together, but in the end we are also its only hope. 

This book is slightly dated, published 2006, and a little too affected by the economic crash in Indonesia in the early 2000s: you wonder what has happened since. It's also repetitious in places; you will be often told there are only 15,000 Orang Utangs in the wild, living in Borneo and Sumatra. But you can pick it up for a penny on Amazon and it will adorn any naked coffee-tables you have about the place and help us all think through this major issue of our times. Super book.