Friday, May 11, 2012

Siddhartha Mukerjee: The Emperor of All Maladies

Best read when neither you nor anyone close to you has cancer, and so you can enjoy the story dispassionately, this is really good read. If only it were fiction. It's a biography of an enemy, its first appearances, its identification, and then the millennia-long human quest to find ways to kill it -- a story of knife-attacks, poisoning, irradiation, prevention, and now the subtle mapping of proteins and pathways in the cell, and the design of exquisitely shaped molecules to block them.

It's also a human story of politics, hubris, self-experimentation, and luck, all lashed into a froth by the deadly urgency of the task.

The author, himself a cancer doctor who clearly rides the rough road alongside his patients, left me with two conclusions.

First, like driving terrorists out of a city, cancer is being pushed back, block by block, though with many casualties. Survival rates increased by one percent per year for many years from the mid-1990s. No magic bullet here, then, just the patient accumulation of fine medicine.

Second, though, cancer does what living things do: multiply, mutate, adapt, innovate, fight on, refuse to die. Its strengths are life's strengths. In cancer, it's as if our own life-force slips its bonds and turns on us. Surveying current medical horizons, this book suggests that we may largely conquer cancer in the sense that perhaps one day few people will die young of it; but it will conquer us in that, in old age, even when everything else can be healed, it will be waiting for us.

My only criticism? One gets the impression that only in the United States has anyone fought cancer at all, with that collectivity of wusses known as 'Europe' just throwing in some not-much-needed logistical help now and again -- rather like the Iraq war.

Pulitzer prizes (unlike, in my view, many other prizes) are a reliable indicator of a good book. This super book puts all the dread things we see when people enter cancer wards--the chemo, the surgery, the remissions --into their proper places within a coherent, constantly interesting and rather gripping account.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Arthur C Clarke: The Fountains of Paradise

All Arthur C Clarke's books have the same underlying theme (though in some books it is underlying more deeply than others). The theme is 'Science, not religion, is the true locus for transcendence and wonder'. This theme is explicit in The Fountains of Paradise when a great mechanical elevator to the stars supplants an ancient religious stronghold and one chapter ends with this memorable summary of the religious point of view: 'the billions of words of pious gibberish with which apparently intelligent men had addled their minds for centuries.'

I think this is Clarke's most personal book. Set in the fictional land of Taprabone, which is about 90% Sri Lanka according to the author, it's rich and vivid with detail about the land that he adopted as his home. It also comes as near as Clarke ever came to describing his personal life, the transcendent joy he felt while diving, weightless, adrift from all his worries; the being carried around the house by his personal staff. (Clarke suffered from polio and was wheelchair-bound for many years.)

Clarke is not at is best when describing politics and world affairs in his envisioned 22nd century. He is at his brilliant best when he is describing people in their battles with the laws of physics, and with envisioning alien life. This book starts in his weaker area but ends in his strongest. I think Rendezvous with Rama was better; but this is one of his best, and certainly his most revealing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

China Mieville: Kraken

Kraken by China Mieville

If science fiction was purring happily forward through the disciplined and physics-rich imaginations of, say, a Stephen Baxter or an Alastair Reynolds, then China Mieville has grabbed the steering wheel and done something with the car that I didn't even know you could. This--the first of his I've read-- is an astonishing, exhilarating book.

Sometimes a writer comes along who does something so drastic to an area of fiction that it is never the same again. I imagine Tolkein did it with fantasy; Terry Pratchett did it again when fantasy was already becoming too autistic and too generic. Douglas Adams blasted a hole into the kind of SF that made human progress the new religion: his machines didn't work, his ultimate dreams descended into farce and technology was an annoyance.

Kraken is best described as urban fantasy, and it takes us into a London-behind-London of warring cults, angels, sentient bits of Unix, Trekkies working magic, fire that devours backwards in time, and distinctly odd branches of the Metropolitan Police. Oh, and the many-legged bottled giant squid of the title. It's hardly science fiction, though Mieville's other books have three times won the prize that honours that arch-materialist Arthur C Clarke, who was himself, of course, a genre-changer by adding robust physics to the space stories from pulp magazines. Mieville's is a world where scepticism has pushed religion out of the front door, only to find the supernatural crawling, flying and oozing back in through every wall and floorboard.

A couple of caveats. The protagonists seem to have the kind of invulnerability more often bestowed on the likes of Indiana Jones or Harry Potter, which takes the edge off the supposedly ancient and all-conquering powers with whom they fight. And while Mieville's sparse, slightly wild writing is a delight, I got weary of the endless streams of f-words with which he populates his characters' dialogue.

Once you recover from the shock of realising what Mieville is doing, you find a compelling plot like a set of Russian dolls, plenty of a suspense and a satisfying ending.

A brilliant book, a literary Tungusta, which I absolutely loved.