Randall Munroe is the much-beloved writer and illustrator of the much-beloved webcomic xkcd. He puts his phyI don’t really need to review this, do I?
Randall Munroe is the much-beloved writer and illustrator of the much-beloved webcomic xkcd. He puts his physics and robotics background to good use creating humorous situations based on science, mathematics, and nerd culture. He has since branched out with What If?, a weekly blog in which Munroe answers over-the-top questions by following the facts to whatever consequences they might lead.
This is the book of the blog.
(That’s like the book of the movie, only it’s a blog, not a movie. Savvy?)
So if you’re curious about what this book is like, just go read the blog. You can do that for free. Many of the chapters in the book are reprints from the blog—though some posts have been revised, expanded, or mutated through exposure to gamma radiation. Some of the chapters are new, and just as hilarious.
That’s the defining characteristic of What If? for me: it’s a wonderful demonstration of how asking—and answering—questions is fun, and that really should be the backbone of any science education effort.
Now, much like Republican politicians, I am not a scientist. I don’t even play one on TV. But I am a mathematician (which is kind of like a scientist, only cooler), and I’m an educator. Math and science share a lot of the bum rap when it comes to which subjects kids enjoy in school, and most of it is bad PR on the part of parents, policy-makers, and teachers. And this makes me angry, because science is wonderful and fascinating and awesome, and I want kids to love it just like I want kids to love math. Even if they don’t particularly want to grow up working in a field that requires a working knowledge of particle physics or a penchant for solving partial differential equations, I want them to dip their toes with joy and abandon into the oceans of inquiry and problem-solving—and not feel pressured or shamed by the fallout from standardized tests that label them with numbers and letters and predictors of success.
Munroe is one of a cadre of Internet peoples who is leading the charge in a glorious vanguard of new science education. He gets it. He has that golden spark of talent that puts him in the sweet spot of both knowing the science behind these issues as well as being able to write about them in a humorous, entertaining way. What If? is like an armchair version of MythBusters and no less amazing for it.
I’m not exaggerating when I’m saying that I enjoyed every single chapter in this book. I laughed out loud frequently. Even the less interesting ones, or the ones I read before on the blog, are nice to revisit. This is a great coffeetable book for geeks: you can dip in and out of it at will.
My favourite chapter has to be “Periodic Wall of Elements,” in which Munroe explains the consequences of trying to construct a periodic table wherein each entry is a sample of the element in question. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well, for you, or your lab, or the city around it.) He just has such a dry style of writing:
Sometimes this kind of panic over scary chemicals is disproportionate; there are trace amounts of natural arsenic in all our food and water, and we handle those fine. This is not one of those times.
And then slightly later, describing the effects of building the sixth row of the periodic table:
The radiation levels would be incredibly high. Given that it takes a few hundred milliseconds to blink, you would literally get a lethal dose of radiation in the blink of an eye.
You would die from what we might call “extremely acute radiation poisoning”—that is, you would be cooked.
The seventh row would be much worse.
This tendency for understatement combines with a keen sense of meta-fictional absurdity that Munroe regularly demonstrates in his webcomic. Indeed, as if his delightful prose is not enough on its own, every answer comes complete with several xkcd-style illustrations that have the same cheeky humour of the comic.
What If? is awesome. Full stop. If you are not convinced of this and want to be convinced, go read the blog and the comic. Then buy the book. Then enjoy the hours of entertainment and education you will receive. Share it with kids, and make them love science. Even if it kills them.*
*Please science responsibly, especially if kids are involved. Do not blow things up unless you are a trained professional and have taken appropriate safety measures. Don’t try anything in this book at home. At worst it is very dangerous and would likely destroy the planet; at best, it is extremely impractical and would cost a fortune in electricity....more
So … I don’t think I’d go as far as The New York Times Book Review does in praising this book. According to the blurb on the back of my edition, “it iSo … I don’t think I’d go as far as The New York Times Book Review does in praising this book. According to the blurb on the back of my edition, “it invites the reader to collaborate in the process of creation, in a way that few novels do”. Umm … yeah. Sure. Someone has been critiquing literature a little too long. But the blurb is right about one thing: Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is both extraordinary and transcendent.
Samuel R. Delany is an interesting author for someone like me to try reading. So much of his writing is grounded in the cultural revolutions of the twentieth century, from the civil liberties movement to the sexual revolution to demarchist and anarchist alternatives to the democratic/communist stalemate of the Cold War. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is only thirty years old, but in some ways it feels like it’s from an era much further away in time. My experience is so different from Delany’s, as a result of where and when I grew up (not to mention the colour of my skin). Sometimes it’s not a matter of books not aging well so much as the semiotics of a book changing as the context in which it’s read changes. (I wonder if this is an aspect of reader-response theory?)
But oh, look at me getting all literary critic now.
Basically, if you have read Delany before, you will recognize him here: very little exposition, and what exposition there is exists entirely within the context of the story. That is to say, the narrator—Marq Dyeth—talks to you as if you are a fellow traveller in this universe and not a human from Old Old Old Earth (or whatever) cast adrift in this strange far future. As with Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (in the review of which I see I also mention reader-response theory, so hey, at least I’m consistent), Delany creates a society so different from our own that it’s nearly unrecognizable. Simple nouns like “hunting”, “dinner”, “room”, and “family” seem to mean the same thing but don’t. Marq inhabits a universe where it is necessary to acknowledge that one cannot possibly know all there is to know about one’s own world, let alone the entire span of human civilizations across the galaxy. It is a staggering, humbling concept.
The way in which Delany uses language to establish difference and a sense of the Other is, as always, paramount. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice rightly raked in the praise and recognition last year. One attribute consistently remarked upon is the way in which Leckie chooses to use feminine pronouns, she and her, to refer to all people regardless of their actual sex/gender. While I’m not trying to belittle Leckie’s approach to presenting gender, it’s important to note that Delany did it thirty years before her. Perhaps the most significant language difference in this book is that all humans (and other sentients, like evelm) are women, even if they are male (or neuter). Masculine pronouns only exist either as archaic references or to be used when referring to an object of sexual desire. Is there a serious point here? Sure. Is Delany doing this to fuck with our heads? Yes, definitely. Every time you read the word “her” you automatically conceptualize the person as being female, except that a few sentences later, Delany might toss in a bit of physical description indicating the person is actually male. Oops. The shift in pronouns is an important part of the larger change Delany demonstrates, a society in which gender still exists but is largely insignificant. People exhibit whatever sexuality makes them comfortable; people reproduce through a variety of ways—“old-fashioned”, cloning, whatever works. Marq spends entire chapters walking around and doing stuff completely nude. There’s a lot of difference here, and the more closely you pay attention and read how Delany actually describes things (like the use of a subscript 1 and 2 to denote different connotations for words like job and work) the more difference you will perceive.
Delany exemplifies science fiction’s powers of possibility. A great deal of science fiction imagines a world much like ours with just a small difference. And that’s fine for the stories that those authors want to tell. But science fiction can be such a powerful tool in the hands of a grandmaster like Delany. Who cares how we could get from our current society to the one he depicts here? That’s not his problem to solve. What he’s concerned with is exploring how that society would function and how it affects Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga. He dares to dream different, and the result is a story that takes place on a vast interstellar canvas.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is primarily a story about attraction and desire. Marq and Korga are supposed to be each other’s “perfect erotic objects”. Delany is careful to differentiate between sexual desire and love here. So most of the story is about establishing how Marq and Korga come from such different places, which then gives us a context for understanding their strange meeting on Marq’s homeworld. This takes up relatively little of the novel compared to what came before, but it’s all about Delany preparing us for the meeting. It has been a while since I’ve read a novel so relentlessly character-driven … Daniel Deronda comes close, but even that, I think, was more linked to a plot than this one.
Still, there is an ongoing story arc that affects the wider universe. The mysterious Xlv appear to be responsible for destroying Korga’s home planet. The Web knows more than it’s saying. And why have the Thants really changed allegiance from the Sygn to the Family? I guess I’ll have to read the sequel to find out.
**spoiler alert** This is the third in a trilogy of historical fiction I’ve been reading. And by “trilogy” I mean “three historical fiction books I bo**spoiler alert** This is the third in a trilogy of historical fiction I’ve been reading. And by “trilogy” I mean “three historical fiction books I borrowed at the same time from the library but otherwise they have no relation to each other, and one is The Serpent of Venice so techically it’s not historical fiction, just madness”. It hasn’t been the most satisfying experience. The slightly ahistorical The Serpent of Venice was definitely the best of the lot. The Miniaturist was disappointing. The Paying Guests is … maybe at another time I would have liked it more, because it isn’t bad, but I couldn’t get into it this time.
Let me start with some praise: I loved the opening of the book, in which Sarah Waters establishes the setting of a post-war London still incredibly uncertain about its shifting mores and class structure. The Paying Guests is contemporaneous with The Great Gatsy and demonstrates the differences in atmosphere between New York of 1922 and London of 1922. The First World War, in addition to its horrific death toll, shattered notions of class boundaries in England. Frances Wray and her mother were “well off”, but the combination of Frances’ father’s death and debts along with their servants leaving for better work during the War means they have to take lodgers to get by.
Waters reminds us that this is not our time. They have an outdoor WC instead of an indoor flush toilet (ewwww). Water, gas, electricity prices are quite high, so these things we view as utilities are more luxuries. Frances is constantly cleaning, scrubbing, and cooking, allowing herself little time. Compare this to how I waste most of my free time watching videos on the Internet … well, things were a lot different back then. I like how Mrs. Wray occasionally criticizes the changing times by harkening back to the good ol’ days of Victorian morals and mores. Waters manages to communicate the contemporary unease and even distaste over the broad and dramatic social shift without becoming too judgemental.
This last is crucial to the characterization of Frances and Lilian Barber and their relationship. This isn’t just a story of a forbidden love affair. The obstacles that Frances and Lilian would have to overcome to be free and together are nearly insurmountable compared to a man leaving his wife for another woman. It’s not just the practicalities of such a separation or the overt disapproval some people profess for homosexuality. There’s an entire cultural apparatus in place in which people (and especially women) are pressured to remain in unhealthy relationships (read: marriages) to preserve social cohesion. That apparatus still exists today, but the march of individualism and civil rights has altered it.
So there’s something to be said that Frances and Lilian were even considering running away together. But then there are complications, of course. I foresaw the affair, but I didn’t anticipate the brutal way in which Waters introduces more conflict by killing off Len. Suddenly The Paying Guests shifts from a heartbreaking romance to a much darker story of guilt and recrimination.
Unfortunately, the more Waters explores the depths of Lilian and Frances’ commitment to each other and the secret of Len’s death, the less convinced I was of their relationship. It’s not the relationship itself I take issue with so much as the interaction between Lilian and Frances. Waters doesn’t manage to make me believe that there is any more to their attraction than the fact that both are unhappy in their current situations. And maybe that is the case—maybe that’s exactly what is happening. But then why do they manage to conspire so successfully to hide the truth behind Len’s death?
My other complaint is that Len’s death overshadows all that comes before. Until that point, there was a certain amount of tension merely in watching Frances and Lilian navigate the uncertainty of their romance. Would Frances’ mother find out? How is this going to affect the Barbers’ status as lodgers? This might not be a fair complaint, but that’s why book reviews are subjective!
I guess my problem with The Paying Guests isn’t that it’s a bad book. It jut didn’t follow the path my brain told me it should. Sometimes that’s a good thing and results in an impressive, original experience. Sometimes, as in this case, it makes the book harder to enjoy. As a story, this works fine. But it’s not the story I hoped to get from this. That’s not Waters’ fault, but it means I can’t necessarily be enthusiastic about this book.
As far as historical fiction goes, this is definitely better than The Miniaturist and certainly more accurate than The Serpent of Venice. It’s not the book of the three I enjoyed the most, but enjoyment does not always correspond directly to appreciation. I respect what Waters has created here, even if it isn’t exactly what I was looking for.
I thought that, having actually visited Amsterdam, I would get more from The Miniaturist. I would enjoy Jessie Burton’s descriptions of Amsterdam scenI thought that, having actually visited Amsterdam, I would get more from The Miniaturist. I would enjoy Jessie Burton’s descriptions of Amsterdam scenery as it would have been in the seventeenth century—and while most of Amsterdam has modernized, this is set within the old part of the city which has retained a lot of its historical elements. But that’s not what happened. I was disappointed by how little description Burton puts into the setting. You would be forgiven for having very little idea of what Amsterdam is like, aside from having canals, having finished this book.
The Miniaturist reminds me of a stage play. It has a small cast of characters and a very limited number of sets. The plot itself works as a series of acts and scenes, even, if it helps to think of it that way. Although Burton has obviously done her research and steeped the book in its historical setting, her sparse details mean that you really only have the characters’ actions and dialogue to go by. So you have to become invested in Nella, Cornelia, Marin, et al to get a lot of enjoyment out of this story.
That didn’t happen so much for me. Burton puts us in the position of empathizing with Nella, as a fish out of water in her new marriage and new household, which is terrorized and ruled by the enigmatic Marin. And I empathized—to a point. But Burton spends a lot of time trying to draw us into a house full of mysteries that don’t seem all that mysterious.
And then there’s the titular miniaturist, who was the biggest disappointment of all. Nella is supposedly obsessed with identifying and meeting this miniaturist so that she can confront her about all the strange, prophetic miniatures that Nella has received. But the miniaturist’s role gradually gets sidelined in favour of drama surrounding Johannes’ sexuality and relationships, and then a twist involving Marin that sets the story off in yet another direction. The mystery of the miniaturist returns as a bookend to the story, with Burton wrapping it up the same way she does everything else … rather unsatisfactorily.
I’m just not sure how to feel about this book. Each element considered individually should work. Nella’s discomfort over her new house and her uneasy relationships with her husband, his sister, and the maid should be genuinely fascinating. The conflict between Johannes and the Meermans should be riveting. And, of course, the mystery of the miniaturist should be captivating. But Burton never quite gets the ratio right.
The Miniaturist is a good attempt that falls somewhat short. Unlike similar historical fiction, I don’t even get the benefit of immersing myself in a richly described period setting either. While there are some positives here, none of them stand out against the messy blandness of the setting and plot.
I heard about this book ages ago, then promptly forgot it existed, and rediscovered it at my library. (Libraries are awesome thatGuys, Pocket is back!
I heard about this book ages ago, then promptly forgot it existed, and rediscovered it at my library. (Libraries are awesome that way.) My first reaction was, “Ooh, a Christopher Moore novel I haven’t read.” My second reaction was, “Bloody hell, it’s a semi-sequel to Fool!” (No English accent though. Two years in England and I still can’t do a decent English accent. *sigh*)
Fool was the first Christopher Moore book I read and in many ways one I consider the funniest. That’s probably because I love metafiction. If you don’t, then neither Fool nor The Serpent of Venice are for you. Moore once more takes a metafictional approach to the stage; this time he combines Othello and The Merchant of Venice with an Edgar Allan Poe story I haven’t read. With a Chorus as the narrator whom everyone seems to overhear, we plunge into fourteenth-century Venice, where Pocket is killed, rescued by the eponymous serpent, and gets to serve up some sweet, sweet revenge.
Of course, as exciting as a sequel to Fool might be, I was also a little worried. What if it wasn’t as good? What if it ruins Pocket? These might be silly worries, but I think most fans of a novel that gets a sequel much later down the line can understand it. It’s akin to the worries fans of the original Star Wars had about the prequels, though in their case, they unfortunately turned out to be right.
To be honest, The Serpent of Venice isn’t quite as bright a spark as Fool. It’s difficult to bottle lightning once, let alone twice. But Moore takes a fair stab at it, and the result is still a very good book. Not every Shakespeare play is a King Lear, and even Shakespeare’s good plays are still, in some ways, great.
My favourite thing about this book is just the richness of the language. And by language, I mean the profanity. Moore uses words such as “bonkilation” and “fuckstockings”—and of course, don’t forget “holy ripened fuckcheese!”—without any hint of shame or irony. Moore doesn’t pass up the chance—ever—to shoehorn in a joke as an aside. When Pocket is posing as a young Jew seeking employment from Shylock, the merchant asks him if what languages he speaks:
“Latin, Greek, and English, plus a smattering of Italian and fucking French.”
“Fucking French, you say? Well …”
“Oui,” said I, in perfect fucking French.
Or, a little later:
Shylock repointed his twitching, accusatory digit at his daughter.
“You do not say such things in my house. You—you—you—you—”
“Run along, love, it appears that Papa’s been stricken with an apoplexy of the second person.”
This is where Moore truly establishes himself as a skilled writer. Anyone, really, can rip off jokes and rip off plots (Moore points out that Shakespeare did this himself all the time). But it takes cleverness to come up with a turn of phrase like “an apoplexy of the second person”—and even if Moore happened to lift that from somewhere else, it takes skill to then embed that phrase in an appropriate context. It wouldn’t work just anywhere. For a book like this, the author needs a sense of comedic timing down to the paragraph.
This is a book that is unrepentantly trying to be funny to the point of absurdity, and I love that. Iago is still a cunning bastard, but he’s also a raging misogynist who accuses everyone of having slept with his wife. (She is, practically, but that’s beside the point.) Pocket, once again, is a frustrating combination of annoying yet perceptive, somehow managing to win over tough customers like Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, who don’t really like him but seem to grow dependent upon him. I love the evolution of Jessica from a love-struck, fairly small-minded woman into a pirate. I mean, that’s just awesome.
And the plot of The Serpent of Venice?
The setting of The Serpent of Venice is fascinating because…
… no, I’m not avoiding talking about the plot.
The plot is probably the weakest part of this book. I think the best way I can describe it is as a “romp”. It’s supposed to be Pocket’s tale of revenge, but Moore has to juggle subplots like spinning plates. Everything culminates in a drawn-out and very unsatisfactory court scene that should have been far funnier than it was. The resolution is nominally satisfactory, but at the end of the day it feels like Pocket didn’t really “win”. I suppose part of the theme to this book, as well as the first one, is that Pocket doesn’t fit the standard protagonist pattern: as his job and his nickname of Fortunato suggest, he survives on luck and trickery and jest. The essence of Pocket’s success as a hero is that he isn’t heroic, and indeed, I suspect that he finds all this heroism he ends up doing by accident quite exhausting and bad for his health.
Unlike Fool, which had the benefit of being able to ride along the rails of King Lear, even if Moore took … liberties, The Serpent of Venice is a mash-up. Consequently, Moore has to figure out how to resolve the book on his own—and although he tries to allude to the endings of the original stories in some ways, the tricky part is really combining them together to make a satisfying ending to this story. I don’t know if he succeeds fully, but I did like how this ends for Pocket and Jessica, if that makes sense.
As with many of Moore’s books, this one made me laugh out loud. It’s a perfect read if you need something hilarious and very irreverent, especially if you’ve just come off a Shakespearean Lit course and your brains are still crammed full of Shakespearean insults and plot points. You will feel right at home with Moore. You definitely don’t have to read Fool first—but you should read Fool, at some point, because it’s awesome. As much as I would like this book to be it, it’s not—but it’s certainly no Phantom Menace, know what I’m saying?
In vN, Madeline Ashby provides a refreshing take on the idea of robots on the run. She tries to bottle lightning a second time in iD—and she succeedsIn vN, Madeline Ashby provides a refreshing take on the idea of robots on the run. She tries to bottle lightning a second time in iD—and she succeeds. The second Machine Dynasty novel raises the stakes and allows Ashby a chance to explore both the backstory and future of this world where Asimovian robots have been reified. It’s not quite a full on apocalypse, but the world appears to be holding its breath.
I’m going to assert that you needn’t have read vN to read iD; and, if you read this one, you could still read vN without that story being too spoiled. I read vN almost exactly two years ago, and consequently I remembered very little when I started in on this book. Ashby, to her credit, spends very little time on a recap or exposition—but this assumed familiarity will be a help rather than a hindrance to a newcomer, because there is actually very little you need to know about this world to get up to speed. Organic robots called vN—short for von Neumann machines, because they can self-replicate—exist as second-class citizens. They are supposed to have a failsafe that prevents them from harming humans (and, in fact, is so striden they can’t even watch simulated human violence, like movies). But the failsafe seems glitchy now; one vN named Portia has gone on a rampage stopped by her own granddaughter, Amy. And now Amy has flounced off to an artificial island refuge for vN, and the United States government is freaking the hell out.
iD actually doesn’t follow Amy so much as it does Javier, her sometime-lover-not-quite-husband. That’s another reason why reading the first book isn’t as necessary: almost all of Amy’s involvement in this book happens behind the scenes, so you don’t need to be too familiar with her character. And after his involvement in the first book, it’s nice to learn more about Javier’s backstory. We come to understand his relationship with his father and how that affected his own iterations. And Ashby uses the nature of vNs, as well as Javier’s own clade’s existence as sex workers, to explore the spectrum of sexuality and sexual behaviour. iD is a very inclusive, very expressive book, and that’s really interesting.
Javier’s relationship with Amy is defined almost entirely by the same unique aspects that have led to her celebrity. Amy is paradoxically both the most and least human-like vN: her lack of a failsafe means that she can hurt, even kill humans; but unlike humans, she doesn’t feel or experience pain. She has formed the kind of wariness and hatred for certain humans that few vN manage (I’d argue Javier is another), yet she also has some very startling and alien qualities. She swallowed her own grandmother’s memories, and now she is in constant communication with some kind of semi-sentient artificial island, mulling over the long-term survival of humans and vN through increasingly elaborate probability projections.
For Javier, though, it’s simpler: he loves Amy, and he thinks she loves him, but she doesn’t seem to invest the same amount of emotional commitment into their relationship. And he wants her to hack him, to rid him of the failsafe too—but she refuses. She hedges as to why, citing consent issues. This allows Ashby to tacitly interrogate the thorny ideas of consent within an otherwise stable relationship. Science fiction has the cool ability to use new technologies to amplify the consequences of what we do already. We are, all of us, trying to “hack” each other—help each other develop better habits, make good impressions when we meet new people, etc.—and we have tricks for doing that. Imagine if you could literally reprogram someone though … and make them a killer.
For a robot apocalypse story set in the probable near future, there is very little sense of “future” in this world. There are no flying cars, jetpacks, or asymptotic Moore’s Law processors. The Internet is largely the same. So aside from vN, it’s hard to understand how else this world has changed. This world lacks the otherness that characterizes similar stories, notably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, but I feel like iD loses some sense of dimension without it. The antagonists certainly feel very flimsy (I count Holberton in this camp).
One particularly interesting and also annoying aspect of iD is the near-constant plot derailment. I feel sorry for Javier: literally every plan he makes goes sideways the moment he starts implementing it. He has this big plan to go seduce Holberton so he can get access to a backup of Amy’s … and that really doesn’t work out. In any way. And every other plan he makes falls apart, forcing him to improvise madly. On one hand, this is realistic and refreshing. It’s boring when a protagonist comes up with a plan, even a really clever one, and then the plan goes off without more than minor hiccups. On the other hand, Ashby’s fondness for these twists means that Javier is almost constantly reacting rather than acting. There is little sense of momentum. And then the ending comes, and we meet up with Amy again, and it all turns out not to have mattered much….
iD is a really fascinating story about robots and humans and love and sex and life. If even one of those things interests you, you will probably like this book. (Imagine if two of those things interest you! Logically you would like it twice as much. Or four times as much if the relationship is not linear but geometric!) Ashby hints at even cooler things to come in subsequent (hopefully) books, at the possible solutions to the nascent human–vN divide. I say “hints at” because she has an almost uncanny knack for saying very little outright but drawing the blanks in such a way that you can fill them in yourself without much difficulty. Keywords like “generation ship” or “Stepford solution” dropped into the conversation are viral thought-bombs, exploding in your brain and generating a virtual panoply of narrative forks that eventually converge in the actual, but unstated, truth behind the story.
That’s enough to convince me that Ashby is a writer of the first class, although iD itself might not fall into such a category. I love the ideas she’s tapping into and the stories that she tells with these characters. Despite dissatisfaction with some of the vagueness of setting and antagonism, I still found myself, as with vN, not wanting iD to stop, and not wanting to put it down.
So, there are monkeys in South America and in Africa. How did they get there? That’s essentially what Alan de Queiroz wants to answer in The Monkey’sSo, there are monkeys in South America and in Africa. How did they get there? That’s essentially what Alan de Queiroz wants to answer in The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life, albeit in a roundabout way.
If you’re a creationist, especially a young-Earth creationist, you don’t have to worry too much about this. The answer is “God did it!” (Or possibly, “God did it, praise Jesus!” if you are feeling particularly devout at the moment.)
Alas, I am not a creationist, so I have to look to science for an answer.
In school, I learned that the continents move. I know, right? But it’s a real phenomenon, called continental drift, and it’s powered by this even cooler phenomenon called plate tectonics. Unlike the way we learned it in school, though, the discoveries of drift and plate tectonics didn’t go smoothly. There were a lot of bumps in the road, as de Queiroz recounts.
But what about those monkeys? Well, the problem is that South America and Africa were last connected millions of years before the New World and Old World monkeys became separate species. What’s up with that? Did they pull a human-migration and come down through a Siberian land bridge? Why aren’t there any monkey fossils in Canada, then?
Because they floated on tree rafts.
I’ve said it before; I will say it again. Science is awesome. Science does not remove wonder from the equation; science amplifies the wonder. If there is anything more wonderous than the ponderous million-year movements of continents, it’s the image of intrepid animals, clinging to an impromptu raft of floating trees and soil as the currents carry them towards another continent or an oceanic island far offshore.
This is essentially the sentiment de Queiroz tries to convey with The Monkey’s Voyage. He certainly shows off his own passion for science and wonder for nature in his personal anecdotes about trips to New Zealand and throughout the United States. His narrative is complicated by the fact that, unlike, say, plate tectonics or global warming, this theory of biogeographic long-range dispersal through things like rafts, birds, etc., is not yet a consensus. There is still a strong contingent of scientists who believe that long-term dispersal plays no role in the distribution of species and support an all-out theory of vicariance—distribution via continental drift and more conventional, shorter-duration dispersal.
But this is a brand of exciting in itself. So many science books present scientific discoveries to readers as a fait accompli: “Look at this wonderful shiny theory! Look at all this evidence we have! All the other competing theories have bitten the dust!” And then there is much champagne-opening and sexy partytimes. (Except there is no sexy partytimes, because scientists do not get invited to those sorts of parties.) Instead, The Monkey’s Voyage involves some very cutting-edge, very much “of the moment” science. De Queiroz is obviously confident enough in disperalism to have written this book, but he diligently presents both disperalist and vicariance views, as well as the many and sundry perspectives within these camps. (I should mention that de Queiroz isn’t saying that dispersal or vicariance exclusively explains the distribution of species. Rather, he chronicles the changing opinion within the scientific community from primarily-vicariance to vicariance-and-dispersal.)
De Queiroz says that he hopes “to explain what this dramatic shift in thought tells us about both the nature of scientific discovery and the history of life on a grand scale”, and in this respect I think he succeeds admirably. I’ve read a lot of history of science books, and they often explain how scientific exploration and discovery has changed over the centuries (usually by using words like rigorous). They seldom paint a good picture of what it was like to do science in the twentieth century, however, by which time philosophies of science and the scientific process were well-entrenched, sometimes dogmatically. With occasional shout-outs to Popper and Kuhn, de Queiroz looks at how people’s attitudes towards scientific discovery have coloured their own approaches to this biogeographic discussion. He challenges the myth that science is a monolithic thing; at the same time, he shows how all scientists are still working within a common, loose framework and towards the same goal of knowledge validated by evidence.
Still, I hesitate to call The Monkey’s Voyage a popular science book. It gets far more technical than I would expect the average lay-person to want to follow. I consider myself a fairly literate person, in terms of science, and I found de Queiroz’s explanations hard to follow at times. It isn’t just the jargon—which he acknowledges as a potential obstacle and tries to minimize—but also a problem of organization. He chunks things like a scientist, anticipates counterarguments and carefully comes up with ways rebuttals, until the result is a little too convoluted. The actual eponymous monkey chapter is buried far towards the end of the book and quite short compared to the rest.
Don’t let this deter you from reading the book if the subject still interests you. Despite the higher barrier to entry, it remains fascinating and well-written. It’s about a subject that is contemporary and still developing within the scientific community, and I think that’s very exciting. De Queiroz encourages us to think about how life has evolved along with the changing face of the planet, and that’s a very intriguing idea. It’s definitely worth a book or two. If all you are after is a light, pop sci read, then The Monkey’s Voyage will not hold your attention. But if you really want some meaty biogeography for your weekend, then Alan de Queiroz has got you covered.
Every ongoing but somewhat formulaic series has its tipping point, that moment where the overall story arc and mythos of the series’ world begins to sEvery ongoing but somewhat formulaic series has its tipping point, that moment where the overall story arc and mythos of the series’ world begins to subsume the individual plots of each book. For The Dresden Files it was Summer Knight, the fourth book, which adds faeries to the Dresdenverse. For the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, that tipping point is here, with Dawn’s Early Light.
On the surface, there is little to make Dawn’s Early Light stand out from the first two books. Once again Eliza Braun and Wellington Books are investigating a curious mystery. This time they are doing it as an officially-sanctioned team of field agents—but they are in disgrace, seconded to the United States to help the American Office of the Supernatural and Metaphysical. Along the way, we find out that the House of Usher has contracted the services of a certain Mr. Edison, who has in turn stolen some very promising plans for a death ray from a certain Mr. Tesla.
Some of you, like me, will be pleased to find out that this book comes down decidedly in the pro-Tesla camp.
Despite the somewhat formulaic framework, though, there are indications that this is different even from the beginning. There is less mystery here: we learn fairly early on about Edison’s involvement. (That’s why I’m not really counting it as a spoiler.) The plot metamorphoses from investigation to a chase across country, and soon Ballantine and Morris send their foursome of agents on a merry little tour of nineteenth-century America. From North Carolina to Michigan to Arizona and then all the way out to San Francisco, Books and Braun get their fair share of travelling in.
Along the way, Ballantine and Morris throw some obstacles between the two. After that passionate kiss from Wellington at the end of The Janus Affair, I assumed that Braun and Books were an item. Clearly I was being naive; Eliza spends most of this book fuming that Wellington hasn’t made any further moves, so she flirts outrageously with her American counterpart, Bill Wheatley. Normally I’m not happy when a series contrives obstacles to two characters’ romantic happiness just ’cause, but in this case I think it works. And, to their credit, Books and Braun eventually have a conversation about it, like two adults. Well, like two adults trying to disarm a bomb. I’m not going to tell you how it works out.
To be honest, the actual chase-Edison-and-the-Pinkertons plot is rather ho-hum. Edison’s motivations are never explored to a satisfactory depth. The House of Usher is at its most transparent here, with its agents walking around with little rings to identify their affiliation. (Clearly they subscribe to the Hydra school of secret, shadowy bad guys—branding is everything!) And neither of the two subplots—much like the Campbell subplot from the previous book—mesh very well with the main story.
The first subplot concerns our favourite Italian assassin, Sophia. This time the Maestro sends her to San Francisco on a mission. She gets to play dress-up to get closer to her target, but nothing really seems to come of it. Similarly, the House of Usher contracts an Episcopal priest named Van to bring Wellington to them alive. She eventually tracks Wellington down, but then people start shooting at both of them. As with Sophia’s subplot, Van’s never seems to amount to much. I wouldn’t have missed its absence, but its presence doesn’t add another interesting dimension to the story.
So if I’m so dissatisfied with the plot, why do I think Dawn’s Early Light deserves to be called a tipping point? Why do I think it’s the best of the books in the series so far?
Simply put: the ending.
I’m not going to spoil it. Suffice it to say that there is no going back. Ballantine and Morris definitively put the series on a very specific track; the next book cannot hew to the “mystery of the month” formula. Shit is going to go down. Chaos is going to happen. We’ve got the House of Usher, the Maestro, and now something happening with the Queen of England. Maybe we’ll even get to find out what Doctor Sound has in that mysterious Restricted Section of the Archives of his. (I’m not holding my breath.)
My point is, for two books now, Ballantine and Morris have been carefully building up certain background elements of this universe. In this third book, they continue in the same vein. But suddenly, in the last chapter, everything comes to a head, and there is no going back.
There is no better way to ensure I read the next book in the series than to leave it at such a tantalizing, promising point. How are Books and Braun going to figure into this? What is Doctor Sound’s game anyway? I can’t wait to find out.
If you read the first book of this series but didn’t bother picking up The Janus Affair … skip it. Read Dawn’s Early Light instead, then read the fourth book when it comes out. This is steampunk the way I like it.
I first heard about this book when Daniel Levitin appeared on a Spark episode to talk about organization. I recommend you follow the link and listen tI first heard about this book when Daniel Levitin appeared on a Spark episode to talk about organization. I recommend you follow the link and listen to the interview; his examples are pretty much straight from the book, so it should give you a good idea of whether or not to read this. I mentioned the book to my friend Rebecca, because it seemed like she would be interested in it. Lo and behold, she goes out and buys the book herself … and then turns around and lends it to me before she reads it, because she has other books to read first. I don’t know this happened, but somehow I managed to acquire excellent friends.
Anyway, The Organized Mind is not a GTD (Getting Things Done) book in that it doesn’t pretend to have one amazing system to turn you into a productivity powerhouse. Rather, Levitin aims to use cutting-edge neuroscience and cognitive psychology to give the reader some insight into how our brains organize information and use that to make decisions. As he points out several times, humans are unique among animals for our ability to plan for the future and visualize alternative scenarios. But another thing that makes us unique is our ability to hack our own brains.
That’s what Levitin is trying to teach us here. He’s showing us how to hack our brains.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the best (or worst, I guess, depending on your perspective) procrastinator: you can still be productive if you can find a system that works for you. And the best way to do that is to be aware of how your brain works, and to work with your brain rather than fighting it.
The first part of the The Organized Mind addresses the way our brain reacts to external information. Levitin identifies two complementary modes of attentional awareness: the default mode, or mind-wandering/daydreaming mode, and the central executive. The former is so named because it appears to be what our brains lapse into given the chance. It’s good for creativity, for chewing over tough problems “subconsciously” (in quotations because Levitin points out that consciousness is a more fluid notion than it used to be). The latter is what takes charge when we need to accomplish a specific task. It says, “Hey, we need to do this now!” If you’re following a recipe or, like me, writing a book review, your central executive is keeping you on task.
I like how Levitin’s careful explication of current neuroscience reinforces how we used to view the brain in such black-and-white, siloed terms. To some extent this remains the baseline in mainstream perceptions of the brain: you are a “left-brain” or “right-brain” individual; you are logical or you are linguistic. Eyeroll. Levitin points out that being detail-oriented and organized is not necessarily antithetical to creativity; some of the most successful creative people succeed because their organizational system gives them more time to be creative. Similarly, specific cognitive functions are not always localized; sometimes they are distributed among neural networks throughout the brain. This is particularly important when forming memories—the same memory might be triggered by a sight, sound, smell, or link to another memory or concept, because of how memories get formed by our networks. Levitin is very skilled at using computer metaphors for describing how the brain stores information without making the common mistake of likening the brain too much to a computer.
Of course, even with a better understanding of how our brain works, there are limits to how far we can push that lump of grey matter. Levitin is a big proponent of cognitive offloading as a way of dealing with information overload. Basically: if you write something down, your brain treats it as stored, and stops mulling it over so much. Want to stop worrying about how much you have to do? Jot down a to-do list. Consequently, in this model of cognition, external organization systems are not just productivity fetishes but potentially useful adaptations. The Organized Mind explores several such systems, from the random-access 3x5 index card system to flat files and computer storage. Levitin makes it clear that he’s not trying to advocate “One System to Rule Them All” but instead encourage the reader to find something that works for them.
I was surprised by how fascinating I found some of the history behind these systems. We take file folders for granted, but there was a time when they were being introduced and everyone was as excited about them as we are about the new iPhone. (Apparently Dewey premiered some of this technology at 1893 World’s Fair, which would be the equivalent of a modern day tech expo like CES.) There are some interesting anecdotes, such as the fact that the majority of people didn’t know the order of the alphabet in the eighteenth century. As a student of English literature I knew about the great variation in spelling, but it just didn’t occur to me that the order of the alphabet would be so unimportant. This just demonstrates how our current cultural values bias our view and assumptions of the past.
At times Levitin’s digressions get the best of him, and he wanders off into tangents that don’t seem as related to organization as I would have liked. His discussions of statistical decision-making reminds me a lot of How Not to Be Wrong, with a few of the examples almost verbatim. And he refers to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky quite a bit, being a student of the latter, so there is some overlap with Thinking, Fast and Slow. For what it’s worth, Levitin’s writing is more enjoyable.
The Organized Mind also has much to say about education, a topic I’m just a little passionate about. Neuroscience seems to support constructivism—the theory of learning that promotes student-led inquiry and construction of knowledge, rather than merely receiving it from an expert. Levitin points out that doing something imprints skills on our brain in a way that merely reading about or hearing about something does not. There are a couple of times in my notes where I’ve just jotted down, “Flipped classroom!” (a term in which students learn by tackling problems set by the instructor, who acts as another resource or guide but doesn’t actually lecture or otherwise instruct). And the conclusion is basically an impassioned plea by Levitin to make sure we are teaching students what they need to know for now rather than what we thought they needed to know a decade or two ago. In the Internet age, students need to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. It’s not about what you know, it’s about what you know about how you can get the knowledge you need.
I can’t not recommend this book. It’s intelligent, insightful, and well-written. The barrier to entry is on the higher side; even after hiding away the four-fold tables primer in an appendix, Levitin leaves an awful lot of science and math vocabulary out on the lawn for the neighbours to see. (Is that … is that a correlation coefficient in your driveway? How gauche!) I say this not to frighten but to be upfront: this is not a beach read type of popular science book but a “frown and think” type. I still recommend it, but know what to expect and what frame of mind you’ll need to get the most out of it.
Oh, one last thing: this might seem like a thick book. However, if you are like me, the first thing you will do is flip to the back and see if there is an index and notes. There are, and they are over a hundred pages combined. This is a well-indexed, well-annotated science book, and that is even better. Sexy, even. Because I have a confession, ladies: I like big brains. I cannot lie. And you other brothers? You cannot deny that when a girl walks in with a big heavy bag and shoves a book full of learning in your face you get pumped … to spend a weekend reading about cognitive neuroscience.
**spoiler alert** Agents Books and Braun are back. Aftering solving their case in Phoenix Rising in their “off hours”, the unlikely duo get involved i**spoiler alert** Agents Books and Braun are back. Aftering solving their case in Phoenix Rising in their “off hours”, the unlikely duo get involved in a new rash of abductions of suffragists from around London. These abductions involve strange, lightning-like teleportations. Braun knows one of the leaders of the suffragist movement—in fact, she used to date the leader’s son, back in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Books continues to struggle with keeping his military past and skills from Braun. Oh, and Lord Sussex and Bruce Campbell continue to plot nefarious plots about the future of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.
Just another day at the office.
Phoenix Rising was pretty much what one would expect from a first novel in a steampunk series. It was grandiose and larger-than-life, with a typical odd couple pair of protagonists in a fascinating alternate London. The Janus Affair is pretty much what one hopes for in a sequel, then: Ballantine and Morris raise the stakes, introduce new enemies, and revisit old ones. Books and Braun’s relationship evolves over the course of their new investigation, and we learn more about this steampunk world.
Ballantine and Morris continue to eschew fantasy but definitely not the fantastical. After all, the main plot device in The Janus Affair is a teleportation device! There are also bicycle-like helicopters (lococycles), which we can’t really even master today, and the automata we see are quite advanced in terms of their behaviour and functionality. I’d be curious to discover how this nineteenth-century England is so much more advanced than our England of the same era—what sort of inventions helped them along?
Meanwhile, we learn more about both Books and Braun’s pasts. I enjoy how Ballantine and Morris integrate these revelations into the plot itself rather than relying on awkward exposition. With Braun in particular, they use the classic convention of an old flame who has relevance to the case of the day. Douglas Sheppard is an awkward chap: an adventurer, son of a suffragist, and nominal supporter of women’s rights … but he’s also a bit of a chauvinistic boor. Once again, Ballantine and Morris demonstrate a deftness for developing even minor characters. Douglas is neither sympathetic nor entirely unlikable. It’s easy to see how Eliza once fell for him, and easy to see why she reacts the way she does when they are reunited.
Books’ past, on the other hand, was a little less shadowy already. We knew he had been in the military and had rejected that lifestyle when he rejected his father’s strict upbringing. But Ballantine and Morris round this story out with a few more details, and Eliza finally learns Wellington’s secret. I like that they chose to have Eliza find out so soon into the series. I love that they had Eliza and Wellington end up together by the end of the book. Some authors would have played a “will they or won’t they” game for books upon books—but no, Books and Braun are a little more than a team as they head off to America.
The Janus Affair offers compelling characters and a great story, even if the plot itself isn’t as good. The mystery here is not very gripping. The Culpeppers are dull villains with generic, religious zealotry that seems to come from nowhere. And I’m disappointed that the Maestro remains—literally—in the shadows. We get it: he’s dangerous and terrifies even normally cool customers like Sophia and Sussex. So what? He’s too much the cipher, and that makes him less interesting than he should be.
It’s a fun series. That quintessential ingredient that would push it from “fun” to “fucking amazing” is still missing. The combination of humour and sobriety isn’t quite balanced yet: I laugh, and I cry, but not quite in the proportions one might want. The Janus Affair is a novel in a series still finding its footing. Fortunately, it is fun enough despite its flaws to make it and any more sequels worth a look.
One of the pleasures of reading often and reading widely is the capacity for books to surprise me. A book I think I’ll enjoy turns out to be rubbish,One of the pleasures of reading often and reading widely is the capacity for books to surprise me. A book I think I’ll enjoy turns out to be rubbish, while other books exceed expectations. This book delighted and invigorated me. I didn’t expect much from When We Wake. It’s not because it’s YA. It’s because it’s set in Australia.
I’m totally kidding. It’s totally because it’s YA. Specifically, dystopian YA. I’ve been burned enough times by it before. There’s something about the allegory of dystopian fiction that YA authors seem to grasp but don’t necessarily execute with the finesse I demand, leaving their worlds hollow and potentially nonsensical. (Pure is a good example.) So when Karen Healey says her book is about a socially-conscious teenager who dies and wakes up after a hundred years of cryonic suspension, forgive me if I’m sceptical.
I just summarized the plot for you above (did you blink and miss it?). Basically, a century from now sees the effects of global warming become more pronounced, and balances of power shift. Australia has isolated and insulated itself from refugees from worse-off places. Resources like water and meat are regulated or culturally frowned upon, respectively, while technology, education, and drugs are free and cheap. It isn’t exactly the end of the world (yet) so much as a dramatic enhancement of the rich—poor gap.
It’s a scarily realistic picture of how we’ll end up if we continue to pursue our agenda to USE ALL THE FUELS.
Socially-conscious SF is great; socially-conscious young adult SF is even better. Ambiguous post-apocalyptic dystopias like The Hunger Games have their place. However, When We Wake has the benefit of originating from our present, our world. Tegan’s admonishment that she expected the people of the future to “be better” is aimed not at them but at us, the readers of her present. We create the future. It is not fixed in place, but it is up to us to work together and change the course before it becomes too late and too difficult to shift.
Healey accomplishes this without being too preachy, however, because of her relatable protagonist. Tegan is great. She is far from perfect, making numerous mistakes like you would expect anyone to after a hundred-year sleep. But she also has remarkable, fierce independence and integrity. She doesn’t let anyone use her. I kept contrasting her to Katniss from Mockingjay, who seemed so defeated and robbed of agency and ready to serve merely as a figurehead for the larger resistance movement. Tegan isn’t having any of it. She doesn’t cooperate with Colonel Dawson; she doesn’t cooperate with Carl Hurfest; she doesn’t cooperate with the Father of the Inheritors of the Earth. She is her own person, and she might be an unwilling celebrity—the Living Dead Girl!—but damned if that means she isn’t going to speak her mind.
When We Wake also delivers a fairly big dose of realism. Activism and change is hard. It leads to arrests. The government doesn’t like to be challenged. And unlike what movies and books often portray, the general public doesn’t rise up in revolt every time a journalist exposes a scandal. Just think about some of the “shocking” revelations we’ve learned in the past few years that people have largely learned to live with. Has anything materially changed now that we have proof the NSA is watching everyone and everything? No. Because most of us are too lazy and too happy with the convenience of our computers and our Internet. I know I am.
Tegan is not some messiah, not some symbol, at least not yet. She is a sixteen-year-old fugitive from the past who has taken on an enemy much bigger and meaner than her. The ending of the book leaves her fate open for the sequel, and I respect that. It would have been too convenient, too easy, if Healey had wrapped everything up in three hundred pages. Life, change, and revolution don’t work that way.
For a book set over a century into the future, however, When We Wake doesn’t do a very good job of worldbuilding. What, flexible computers and designer drugs, but no self-driving cars? It is too easy to dismiss this as a side-effect of Tegan’s limited narrative voice and culture shock. This is, again, something I tend to encounter in YA that assumes a first-person perspective: in the author’s need to establish a conversational or confessional rapport with the audience, description and exposition fall by the wayside. That being said, Healey at least makes an effort here. Tegan describes future supermarkets, for example, and gives us a little of a primer on what is happening with the rest of the world. It isn’t accurate to say that Healey’s vision of the future is vague so much as it is inconsistent. There’s casual mention of nanotechnology and artificial skin, and they can build (prototype) spaceships. But no one has improved on water reclamation, figured out cold fusion, or invented a new form of media in the past century? While I understand that Healey’s purpose is not to speculate or extrapolate but merely establish a setting for her allegory, the SF nerd in me is disappointed by this lopsided vision of tomorrow.
Still, this book is damn good. It’s the kind of YA I want to read and the kind I want to recommend to younger people; I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Tegan is great. There is no contrived or abusive love triangle in sight; there is a love interest, but the romance is comfortably on the backburner considering, you know, they are running for their lives. A girl’s got to have priorities, right?
Perhaps something for older readers of the book might be Tegan’s adoration of the Beatles. Let’s put it this way: she can sing entire albums (in order) from memory. I don’t think I could sing an entire song, by any artist I like, from memory (I can sing along, but that’s a different type of skill altogether). She has put some time into her Beatles love—and keep in mind she was born in 2011. But the way she speaks about the Beatles as a phenomenon has more in common with someone who lived through them. I could go into a long digression about the way Healey uses the Beatles music and culture as a way to advance both Tegan’s characterization and the plot, but I’m not into that. Suffice it to say that she works some serious cultural allusion mojo here. I like the Beatles, but only casually; I don’t actually own any of their songs or listen to them regularly, and I still really enjoyed this dimension to the book. So I can only imagine how actual Beatles fans will react.
I’m trying to read more YA (and preferably more good YA) to stay in touch with what students I might one day be teaching (if I can get a job!) might be interested in reading. When We Wake is an excellent example of good YA. It has a great female protagonist, but its appeal is for a broad audience of any gender. It’s set in a future, but a future recognizably derived from ours rather than a post-apocalyptic what-if land. And it is alternatingly terrifying and reassuring, which is the best thing for a science-fiction story to be.
Why did no one tell me this book existed until now????!!!!111
Seriously, it took a careful browsing of the library’s New Paperbacks section to discoverWhy did no one tell me this book existed until now????!!!!111
Seriously, it took a careful browsing of the library’s New Paperbacks section to discover the second and third books in this series. A quick hop to the nearby computer (which I think is running some kind of locked-down Ubuntu if the font anti-aliasing is anything to go by) to check the library’s catalogue, and sure enough, Phoenix Rising was in the stacks of that branch. Have I mentioned how much I love my library?
A quick glance at the description for these books was enough to convince me that I must read them all and now. That’s not to say I was convinced I would love them, or even that I loved Phoenix Rising all that much. It actually isn’t very impressive. Nevertheless, I could tell on sight that this was the steampunky equivalent of a beach read: light and frothy and satisfying.
Let’s start with the title. I hate titles of the form x Rising. I think they’re stupid. I have no rational argument for this bias; it’s just the way I feel, and you are welcome to disagree with me on it (but I will cut you).
Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are an unlikely pair of agents for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, thrust together by chance and the whims of the ministry’s mysterious director, Doctor Sound. I’ll let you guess which one is the brains and which is the … er … brawn. They end up investigating the Phoenix Society, the rumblings of which are getting louder (hence the title). Oh, and the society is also responsible for driving Eliza’s former partner into the clutches of Bedlam.
Ballantine and Morris rely a great deal on the odd couple pairing of Books and Braun. So your mileage of the book’s humour will rest largely on that. It didn’t do much for me, mostly because they don’t do anything new with the trope. Wellington seems to get the share of character development while we learn comparatively less about Eliza. I will, grudgingly, admit that in the broad strokes the pairing works. Just.
What works a lot better for me is the alternative steampunk London in which Phoenix Rising takes place. Ballantine and Morris do a great job at dropping subtle reminders that this is a different London from the one we’re used to. Wellington has somehow constructed Babbage’s analytical engine for himself (though that seems to be a one-time thing). Complicated gramophones and self-service bars exist. Oh, yeah, and there are obviously airships (TVTropes). (Sidenote: I’d love to see a steampunk alternative history that intentionally and viciously doesn’t invoke the airship trope. Like, just totally slaughters any notion that even in a steampunk world airship travel might be viable.) While not subtle, these technological references are presented as normal, everyday parts of life in this alternative world (with the exception of the Gatling-equipped killer robots, obviously).
The emphasis on technology and its role in the plans of the antagonists highlights how Phoenix Rising straddles the steampunk–urban fantasy divide. Technically it falls into the DMZ of speculative fiction, what I like to call agnostic fantasy. There are plenty of mentions of stories or myths about magical artifacts but no actual magic on page. So it remains to be seen whether magic is real in this world or merely very advanced, steam-powered science. On the other hand, there is a shadowy Big Bad behind the Phoenix Society, the House of Usher. (And, you know, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if it turns out to be a sentient house.)
Books and Braun’s bickering might be formulaic, but it gives Ballantine and Morris a way to spin out an already short book for a few more hundred pages. The story doesn’t really pick up until our intrepid duo go undercover to infiltrate the Phoenix Society. Oh, there’s also some kind of subplot involving a mole in the Ministry. It doesn’t go anywhere, which suggests it’s more of a series arc—and it’s good to know, at least, that Ballantine and Morris have some kind of overall vision for the series.
As I said above, I knew before I read it that Phoenix Rising would be light entertainment. Nothing about the book changed my mind on that score. It’s good steampunk in an alternative world.
“The year is 1871. You are French and you are about to fondle a kitten.” Douglas Coupland has a talent for opening lines that are both funny and conte“The year is 1871. You are French and you are about to fondle a kitten.” Douglas Coupland has a talent for opening lines that are both funny and contextual. Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent opens with a whimsical story about a Frenchman going to work for the engineering company that eventually contributes some “corporate DNA” to one of the largest telecommunications company on Earth. As the technical first sentence of this book (in its introduction) asserts, you probably haven’t heard of Alcatel-Lucent. I hadn’t. Yet they own Bell Labs and are reponsible for servicing and innovating massive swathes of that thing we call the Internet. (If you are reading these words, chances are you are using the Internet to do so, unless you’re a transhuman picking through the wreckage of a library of the post-apocalyptic future devoted to print archives of what was once called the World Wide Web.)
If you want to have a book written about the Internet’s physical presence and how this has changed us as a species, you really can’t do much better than Douglas Coupland. I know him best as a novelist, and one who writes about the current impact of technology on our lives. But he’s also a non-fiction writer. And a visual artist. And a designer. This versatility makes him particularly suited to a book like this, which is part interviews, part description, and part meditation on Alcatel-Lucent and the Internet they helped to build.
Before I talk about Coupland’s writing, let’s talk about the book itself. The Visual Editions version of Kitten Clone is gorgeous. This is one of those books where the physical object is itself a work of art. It’s 25x18.5 cm of high-quality, smooth paper. The photo with “Inside Alcatel-Lucent” written on it that you see in the cover image is a kind of tiny dustjacket (a dust-wrap?) that folds out from either side of the inside cover, so you can use it as a bookmark, or just set it aside entirely when reading.
Olivia Arthur’s photographs are a poignant companion to Coupland’s text. She is the photographer he has been waiting for his entire life: I would buy re-issues of his novels with her photographs accompanying the prose. The photos portray the complexity and detritus that accumulates in an organization as old and reborn as many times as Alcatel-Lucent. Seemingly disorganized forests of wire disappear into connectors on the wall. An unidentified employee crouches over something that looks like a microwave oven on a worktable. Someone standing in the Murray Hill anechoic chamber, which looks pretty sweet. Maybe my favourite photos are a pair, on recto and then the verso page respecitvely, of an older man in front of a chalkboard covered in equations. Essentially, what makes Arthur’s photography so powerful is how it reminds us of the inherent physical complexity of the Internet. We easily get used to the ephemeral and omnipresent nature of our net connection, and the smooth intangible qualities of software and apps; sometimes we forget the hundreds of thousands of kilometres of marine fibre-optic and all the infrastructure on land that actually makes the Internet work. And when we do remember, it’s tempting for us to imagine gleaming towers of ivory, gunmetal grey, and smooth black data centres full of racks of happy servers. Real life is much messier. Even more than Coupland’s prose, Arthur’s photographs attest to this.
As far as the book itself goes, I was actually hoping for a little more. Coupland visits a few different hubs of Alcatel-Lucent activity: Bell Labs in New Jersey; the headquarters in Paris, France; and offices and factories in China. He interviews some of the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and businesspeople who are working to invent new technologies, improve existing ones, and make money off the Internet. Along the way he hammers out a couple of recurring points.
Firstly, and related to what I said above about Alcatel-Lucent, Coupland talks about how the people at “Alca-Loo”, as it is apparently called, have this perception of themselves as plumbers of the Internet. He feels they underestimate their importance or impact. At the very least, he feels we average people should be more aware of what Alca-Loo and companies like it do, and I would agree. Few people are aware of how fragile our global network actually is compared to how much we do with it. There is little doubt that we have come to depend on the Internet in an amazingly short time compared to other major inventions, such as printing, or even the steam engine. If all our Internet connections went down tomorrow, most of us might survive, but it wouldn’t be a pretty apocalypse….
The Internet has changed us as a species. I read Kitten Clone just prior to the start of Desert Bus for Hope 8, a livestreaming charity marathon. If you haven’t experienced Desert Bus, then you won’t understand—but you can check out its website, or maybe watch some archived footage, to see the incredible craziness and fun that these people have while raising money for children. The only analog equivalent would be a television donation drive done by telephone—but, as usual, the Internet has taken such an idea and transformed into a barely recognizable twenty-first century equivalent with cats, and GIFs, and an interactivity television and telephones couldn’t hope to provide.
The Internet has changed us as a species. This is Coupland’s second theme, and it might seem obvious, but it’s an idea that bears unpacking. His interviewees always stress that the demand for data, for bandwidth, for connectedness, came as a huge surprise to the engineers and designers of the Internet. The Web and related infrastructure took off in a way that the people who first built it couldn’t anticipate. That’s an interesting tidbit that isn’t immediately obvious even to people who acknowledge the Internet’s impact. Coupland mentions some of the tantalizing, cutting-edge science being done to advance the infrastructure of the Internet and computing.
So, finally, Coupland touches on the curious equilibrium that exists between pure research and the need to find applications for technology. He mentions how Bell Labs, back when it was owned by AT&T, operated as a government-sanctioned monopoly, because the rollout of a national telephone grid was “too valuable to be left to the free-market research and development system.”
Let me reiterate that for a moment, because I think it’s difficult for people my age, who are watching the net neutrality debates in American media, to understand the significance of the above. The US government, back in the day, protected AT&T from competition and funded pure research into telecommunications.
Nowadays the Republican party—who are, technically speaking, now “the government” are actively working to undermine any attempts to ensure that everyone in the country is connected to high-speed Internet.
What the hell happened, America?
There are many reasons to lament the rise of transnational corporations. Coupland mentions Alca-Loo’s patents often but doesn’t talk about the dark side of technology and software patents. Yet there is a palpable sense of relief in this book about the fact that, as a multinational headquartered in France, Alcatel-Lucent is somewhat cushioned from the craziness happening in American tech regulation right now. Both Coupland and Arthur manage to communicate the spontaneous miracle that is the Internet and how its incredibly rapid evolution is … well, fragile.
Coupland makes a few remarks I have to disagree with. As his introduction to meeting Bell Labs’ Chief Scientist, he says:
Yes, that’s right: Alice… a woman. Does that shock you? A woman in such a position of high authority? Just kidding. The tech world’s not like that. It’s all about brains and is pretty much entirely gender-blind; if you can cut the mustard, you’re in. [Emphasis mine.]
It’s nice to think that Coupland’s anecdotal Lady Scientist can obliterate sexism in tech, but as The Agenda recently discussed, it exists. The tech world is not gender-blind, and it’s wishful ignorance at best or outrightly disingenous at worst to suggest that it is.
Later, Coupland says that according to Shawn Brennan, a “customer support engineer” at the Kanata office:
… whether someone is kept on is based purely on their contribution, reinforcing my perception that the tech universe is as close to a pure capitalist intellectual meritocracy as our species has ever created.
Hahahahaha … I snorted when I read this passage, and I still can’t help but laugh derisively a little. I’m not even sure where to start dissecting the levels of wrongness here. The idea that the tech industry is a meritocracy is just another myth promoted by successful people within the industry who do not want to acknowledge the privilege and success that helped them. As with any other industry, women and people of colour face a larger barrier to success and funding. It’s dangerous to ignore this and promote myths like the meritocracy.
I’m disappointed that in an otherwise beautiful and meditative book Coupland falls back on his male privilege rather than more critically examining this aspect of the tech industry. Then again, Kitten Clone isn’t about the tech industry so much as it is specifically about Alcatel-Lucent, and maybe the expectation was that he would say nice things.
There are plenty of reasons for one to read or buy this book. As I’ve said a few times, it’s just really, really good looking. It is a perfect book for the coffee table, so even if you can’t read (how are you reading this?) you can still look at the photos and show it off to your friends. If, like me, you are interested in the workings of the Internet, this book has shares an inside look at aspects of a company that is heavily involved in the Internet. And it’s laced with Coupland’s characteristic bold yet heavy weirdness.
I enjoyed Kitten Clone, even if it didn’t deliver quite the jolt I was hoping for or the perspective I wanted to see. It’s descriptive rather than interrogative; it’s thoughtful but not necessarily full of fresh new insights. Above all else, it combines the visual and the verbal to help chronicle a point in time in the history of our species where we are changing our society at a global, rapid scale. And who knows where that will lead us?