When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I de...more When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I decided to give it a shot and am very, very glad I did.
Andy Weir’s novel is a rollercoaster ride of an adventure story, the pacing utterly breathtaking from the beginning when the crew of the third manned Mars mission are forced to abandon astronaut Mark Watney during a rushed evacuation, leaving him for dead. The trials Watney faces to survive - initially without any contact from Earth or his crewmates, and assuming they think he is dead - make this utterly gripping but what really carries the book is that, in Mark Watney, Weir has written simply one of the the most engaging characters I have ever read. And he has to be, as 90% of the book is carried by his personal log. Watney is inventive, witty, profane and profoundly human - possibly more upbeat than is realistic for someone abandoned 225 million kilometres from home, but the book is all about striving and surviving against impossible odds, so we can forgive it that.
Weir writes well enough to genuinely make us fear for Watney’s survival as each subsequent mishap occurs, despite that fact we intellectually know he couldn't be cruel enough to write this and have his hero fail (could he?), and the other characters are all drawn excellently within their roles. While (perhaps) I cried out on occasion when some other disaster befell our stranded protagonist, these were certainly not overdone and the solutions by which he progresses always brilliantly inventive yet never stretched credulity by being superhuman, or even by being something on smart, motivated bloke (one of the sort of calibre you’d think would be required to be a Mars explorer) could come up with. I cheered for Mark Watney, and smiled and shook with fear and, regularly, laughed out loud.
All in all, if you haven’t read The Martian yet you really should. (less)
I've been meaning to read this collection for a couple of years, ever since hearing 'Understand' read on BBC Radio 4, and my only regret is that it ha...moreI've been meaning to read this collection for a couple of years, ever since hearing 'Understand' read on BBC Radio 4, and my only regret is that it has taken me so long to get around to it. To follow are reviews of the highlights, although all the stories were excellent.
From the first story, 'Tower of Babylon', I knew I was in for a rare treat. This is simply superb science fiction - told from the point of view of the science and technology of the time. It imagines an impossibly tall tower built of kiln-fired bricks (as sun-dried bricks would, of course, not be strong enough) to reach up to the vault of heaven and thence cut through it to reach Yahweh. Chiang describes the denudation of the land around Babylon as it has been stripped of timber and the chasm around the river from which clay has been mined for bricks, and the wooden platforms high up the spiraling ramp on which vegetables are grown by those who live part way up the tower - necessary as the trek is of several months duration to climb the immense height. He describes passing the orbit of the moon and seeing its pocked face hurtle by, and the immense heat as the orbit of the sun is passed, and the precautions taken against releasing a second deluge by inadvertently broaching one of the great reservoirs that the vault is surmised to contain.
From the view of the science and cosmology of the time, all this is reasonable and logical. Indeed, it treats the technology very much like SF from the early 20th century did (and probably still does) positing the most extremely favourable outcomes beyond the limits of what is actually achievable, in order to tell a good story and reflect back upon the ideas of the society. Just wonderful.
'Understand' is the tale of a man who, following the repair of brain damage by a new drug, realises that his intellect is growing at an exponential rate. Very reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, of course, a very well written classic SF story that deals both with how he deals with the changes but also touches upon the fact that his way is not the only approach.
'Story of Your Life' was probably my favourite. A linguist is called in to help communicate with aliens who have dropped communication devices around the world. Chiang addresses some of the classic SF ideas of alien contact - will we be able to use maths or physics as a common language? will our perceptions simply be too alien to each other to allow meaningful conversation? - and intersperses this with personal memories of the narrator. At first this seems to be purely character building for it's own sake, to give background and context and depth to the character, but about halfway through you realise that the difference in outlooks between the two species, human and extraterrestrial - and therefore how their languages are constructed - which is the thing that is confounding communication, can be bridged, and in doing so this alters the communicators. The story becomes an exploration of how language shapes our perceptions, but also upon humanity and time and loss. It left me in tears.
'72 Letters' is similar to 'Babylon' in that it takes a set of pre-enlightenment 'scientific' ideas and runs with them. In Victorian Britain, progress is based on manipulation of Kaballistic language and the constructs they can be used to animate. Again, a wonderful meshing of ideas with a superb internal consistency, used to propel a gripping tale. I would quite like to see this expanded further.
'Hell Is The Absence of God' posits a world that has proof the Judeo-Christian god exists because his angels regularly make appearances - events which can enact miraculous cures but whose violence usually also results in death and destruction - and because there is evidence of Heaven and Hell - the latter being much like mortal existence except the Hellbound are eternal removed from god, but occasionally visible in their existence. What makes the story brilliant is that it takes a set of rules - god exists, heaven can be reached through unconditional acceptance and love of him, his plan is ineffable - and shows a world that is, in effect, no less confusing and random than the godless world that we inhabit. Chiang intertwines the tales of several people in various levels of acceptance (the word 'belief' hardly seems appropriate) - including a man whose wife is killed during an angelic visitation and a woman who is is born deformed but begins to lose her faith after being healed - that show the human condition does not easily resolve to simplistic answers, no matter how much we may want it to.
The closing story, 'Liking What You See: A Documentary' is as clever as any of the other stories, but explores more deeply, perhaps, than 'Division By Zero' or 'The Evolution of Human Science'. Taking the form of clips and talking heads in a documentary, it explores the impact of a nascent medical technology that, when implemented, blinds the subject to the physical attractiveness of other people. Part of the focus is students at a school where children have had this done from infancy and much of the rest conflict between opposing sides of a culture war, one of which sees this as part of the ongoing movement toward equality and the other as warranted interference, along with non-aligned voices from elsewhere on the spectrum of opinion, and beyond. As well as exploring the "halo effect" (the tendency when you see someone who is attractive to assign to them other favourable characteristics such as intelligence, strength and moral rectitude - and if you don't think you do this, trust me, you do - Chiang also looks at how commercial advertising interests react as well as the more subtle and less concrete ways in which appearance - others and our own - matter to us. What in lesser hands could be an interesting but glib story of a single idea becomes a wonderful thoughtful gem which, like almost all the stories in this collection, will stay with me for a long time to come.(less)
Never judge a book by its cover, right? Does going on the title count?
We all do that, of course, and it was the title that first grabbed me, then the...moreNever judge a book by its cover, right? Does going on the title count?
We all do that, of course, and it was the title that first grabbed me, then the description made it a must read. Morrow is a writer that I was only vaguely aware of, but the reviews appealed to me immediately. So when the Atheist Book Club group were looking for fiction recommendations I just had to put it forward, and am very glad I did – although I was slightly worried that the book was perhaps less atheistic than I had anticipated.
The initial set up just sounds so inventive and funny: The archangels come to the Vatican to tell them that god has died and his two mile long corpse is floating in the mid Atlantic. They have hollowed out an iceberg off Svalbard and want it towing to this tomb before corruption sets in, so the Vatican hires a former super tanker Captain, disgraced since being in charge when his vessel caused the world's most damaging oil slick – along with his former ship – to do the job.
I confess that what I expected was fairly straightforward, irreverent humour and plenty of digs at the absurdities of religion, but I was somewhat wide of the mark. Don't get me wrong, it is a very funny book (although more in way of later Pratchett with the humour leavening more serious episodes than early, slapstick Pratchett) and I'm sure that many people would consider it irreverent simply because of the subject, but Morrow does much, much more than take the easy option. What he gives us is an incredibly smart book about how we define our beliefs as much as they define us, about the roots of morality (of course), about hypocrisy, about how people react when their most cherished beliefs are threatened and the ends that they'll go to to protect those beliefs and, most of all, about personal redemption in the face of an uncaring universe.
The author draws his cast of characters superbly well – all, arguably and to varying degrees, caricatures perhaps, but also with subtlety and humanity. And as often as not, any cartooning of characters or situations is there to wrongfoot us, to show up our own assumptions. For instance, when the crew of the tanker begin to lose all moral perspective I admit that I was initially disappointed that Morrow seemed to be showing the collapse of morality without an omnipresent god but, as at every turn of the novel, he had of course anticipated me and lead me down a path that would bring me to a far more thorough – and entertaining – discussion of the questions than I had given him credit for.
This is one of those rare books that not only kept me gripped and entertained from cover to cover, but kept me thinking more profoundly than I could have before I read it for long after. An instant favourite, and I think I will be spending quite some time in Mr Morrow's company. (less)
I'd been in the mood to read a fast, fun thriller for awhile, and as I had several unread Brookmyre novels on my shelf...moreA carefully spoiler-free review.
I'd been in the mood to read a fast, fun thriller for awhile, and as I had several unread Brookmyre novels on my shelf I was definitely gravitating in that direction. When I found the audiobook of Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks I was sold – even though it's the fifth of the Jack Parlabane adventures and I haven't read all the previous ones yet, I didn't expect it to be a big obstacle as they are, like most crime series', not direct follow ons in anything other than events in the main characters' lives.
I must confess that as the story opened I felt slightly disappointed. The extract from a book by fictional Mail journalist Jillian Noble about an encounter with the supernatural seemed to be somewhat heavy-handed in signposting the direction the novel might take. Noble is smug, snotty, overly credulous and sneeringly dismissive of sceptical rationalism – so strongly antithetical to both Brookmyre and Parlabane that the set up for a fall seemed sadly obvious. Ironically, I should have had more faith in the author, because while it is indeed a set up, it is the reader who is being set up for a sudden, unexpected curve ball coming out of left field that whips any assumptions out from under you like a deftly pulled tablecloth. This is a trick Brookmyre pulls again and again throughout this superbly constructed, extremely well written book. He leads your expectations from one point of view before bringing in another angle to make you realise that you are balancing precariously on a crumbling ledge of unfounded assumption rather than the firm, flat bedrock of facts. There are also dawning moments of realisation that made me laugh out loud, to add to the many trademark chuckles you'd expect from a writer who has been called 'the Scottish Carl Hiaasen'. The twists and changes of perspective kept me guessing right up to the joyous payoff (although I had worked out a couple of the facts I wasn't certain of them, and doubt it was my own Holmsian deductive abilities that allowed me to work them out so much as cunning winks from the author to make me feel better about being duped!)
I realise I've said nothing about the plot – deliberately, as this would be an easy book to give spoilers on. Suffice to say it is a book about belief, deception and assumptions. If you like your thrillers clever, thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny (not to mention quite sweary and not infrequently violent, although in this case less violent than usual), I highly recommend you acquaint yourself with Christopher Brookmyre (less)
In this wonderfully wide-ranging, intelligent and humane book Russell not only introduces the most important philosophers and philosophies from the an...moreIn this wonderfully wide-ranging, intelligent and humane book Russell not only introduces the most important philosophers and philosophies from the ancient Greeks onward (in the Western tradition, that is, he alludes occasionally to oriental traditions where they influence western philosophy, but on the whole they are outside his remit), he gives the historical and social context from which the philosophies rose. I found this to be particularly valuable; my modern mind often has difficulty how some beliefs could have been held, but when Russell explains how it was not only more important for a philosophy to be internally consistent than anything else, but that before the era of modern science so much was unknown about the way the world and the universe worked that it was less clear cut what was feasible and what impossible, I felt I understood a lot more. I will not pretend to have understood all the philosophy herein - I have read very little philosophy, and i think that it is an area that needs a certain frame of mind or a thorough grounding, or possibly both - but putting the various philosophies into both historical context and into a continuum with the ideas on which they were built gave me a far greater understanding than I otherwise would have gained.
Even more important to this is Russell's wonderful style. He describes ideas and events with a clarity and fluidity which is astounding, even if some of the ideas still remain somewhat opaque simply because of their complexity to my way of thinking. He is a joy to read, bringing the historical detail and the lives of the philosophers to three dimensions, and regularly throwing in gems of urbane wit that sometimes had me chuckling out loud. While he describes the ideas, for the most part, with academic disinterest (although never dryly), Russell does not necessarily seek to be unbiased; he is forthright in saying, for example, that he not only disagrees with Nietzsche but dislikes his outlook, his fascination with violence, admiration for conquerors and dismissal of 'trivial' humanity. Russell shows, obliquely, how his own philosophy is driven by a belief in humanity and that, while progress might not be inevitable as the writers of the early industrial age seemed to believe, it can be brought about and sustained by human action. He also, in the closing chapter, points out why philosophy is vital to our understanding while at the same time recognising that it has many shortcomings.
Bertrand Russell had a truly magnificent mind and a privileged education, but even taking this into account, one of the things this book shows is something we seem to have lost in the current world of educating people for a specific vocation; Russell shows, and expects his readers to have, a familiarity not only with the subject on which he is writing, but with history, literature and culture beyond that relatively narrow field. Reading a book like this shows how vitally important that is, that making bridges between isolated subjects can lead to a greater understanding of all of them.
There are flaws, both of which I shall put down to the times in which he was writing;this book was written in the 1940s when Russell was already in his 70s. He lived to be 98. He tends to write that 'men have written' or 'men think' where a more modern writer would say 'people have written' or 'scholars think' (although one of the first modern academics to whom he refer is a woman). The other is in the chapter on the 19th century, when he mentions Darwin. While he does not quite get Darwin's theory right, I think this is largely because he was writing in a time when the theory had become distorted both by social Darwinists and by other bits of superfluous baggage that have been dropped away, and before clinching evidence like DNA was discovered.
A book I will keep close by to listen to again, and get hold of a paper copy so I can pore in more detail over some of the more difficult theories.(less)
I have been hearing about The Book Thief for some time, so knew pretty much what it was about, but nothing prepared me for how completely enthralling...moreI have been hearing about The Book Thief for some time, so knew pretty much what it was about, but nothing prepared me for how completely enthralling and touching this book is.
Set in the middle years of World War 2 in a small German town between Munich and Dachau, the story follows nine year old Liesel, sent to stay with a foster family when her communist parents are interned.
As you might expect given the setting, the novel is utterly heart wrenching, but also filled with pure beauty and, unexpectedly, many genuinely hilarious moments.
Zusak shows us how, even in the darkest of times, small acts of kindness can mean everything, how difficult and vital are small instances of bravery and resistance, how even when it may seem utterly futile any seed sown amongst the devastation may bring forth shoots and, most of all, the power and importance of words to connect people and keep hope alive.
This is a truly wonderful work of fiction, humane and profound, funny and devastatingly sad.(less)
I guess this book can be seen as a companion piece to The Body - published in Different Seasons and filmed as 'Stand by Me'. Both are about a childhoo...moreI guess this book can be seen as a companion piece to The Body - published in Different Seasons and filmed as 'Stand by Me'. Both are about a childhood summer, and a group of friends going through an experience that both bonds them together and, as it marks the point when they begin to leave childhood behind, forever separates them. The two stories share the same themes: the loss of childhood and the gaining of something else, the strength of friendship and promises, how children live in an entirely different world to adults, full of horror and wonder - and, of course, the setting of a small New England town and the dark secrets that lie beneath its surface.
There is a great deal of discussion about whether King is a 'great' author, but I do think that this is a great book. The horror here isn't just to give us the thrill of fear - although it certainly does that - but serves a purpose. IT, the evil that lives under the town of Derry, Maine, is pure evil. It feeds on children and kills wantonly. It encourages violence and even enters people's minds to make them its puppets - but with Stephen King, as with all great horror, these are never simply the evil acts of the devil made me do it, we see how evil is bred by weakness and intolerance, by selfishness and fear rather than being imposed by an external force, but that there are always powers that are ready both encourage and use the small evils in people's hearts.
And while King does not give us an ending of entirely unspoiled happiness, it is perhaps all the sweeter and more hopeful because it is not wholly without darkness.(less)
I was absolutely blown away by this book. A wonderful involved narrative that melds a thriller with some outstanding statements of loss and humanity (...moreI was absolutely blown away by this book. A wonderful involved narrative that melds a thriller with some outstanding statements of loss and humanity (from the writer who brought us the Dr Who episode 'Fathers Day'), then throws a curve which leaves the head spinning. (less)
This is, for me, Roberts first great book. I've enjoyed everything I've read by him – all his previous novels have been clever, well written stories t...moreThis is, for me, Roberts first great book. I've enjoyed everything I've read by him – all his previous novels have been clever, well written stories that at the same time have deep themes and morals woven into their fabric – but The Snow was a real WOW! book.
The basic premise (although absolutely nothing is basic in an Adam Roberts book) is that heavy snow begins to fall and does not stop. The world is soon covered in a blanket many metres – and eventually kilometres – deep, and civilisation quickly collapses. We follow one woman in London, Tira, who survives by scavenging resources inside buildings buried entombed inside newly formed glaciers, until she is rescued by a mining team from the surface, where the few survivors of this strange apocalypse continue to try to impose old structures on this utterly changed world. But this is just the beginning.
The story is told in a series of official documents – mostly statements recorded by Tira, sometimes others, and sometimes annotated letters. Part of this device produces the one problem with the book; in most of Tira's testimony, the names of people she refers to a blanked out for security – partly to demonstrate how governments like to control ad suppress information – but this can make it difficult to follow who she is talking about, although a lovely touch when she has lost a companion in the snow and is calling after them “NAME DELETED! Where are you NAME DELETED!”. For me, this detracts a little more than it adds, but this is a very minor gripe.
Sometimes reviewers (and writers) try to distance great work from genre fiction, but this is one of those books that shows a novel can be genre and literature. This is diamond hard Science Fiction, this is an apocalyptic novel, but it is not just these things. The Snow is multi-layered story filled with so many themes and ideas it would be dizzying if it weren't so well written. You might expect a novel about global calamity to concern itself with the human spirit and resilience, hardship and survival, but this is a book that goes so far beyond that. It is about imperialism and control, about how our perceptions and expectations of the world shape it, about tribalism, religion, race and gender relations, the fallibility of perception and memory. There are echoes of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Margaret Atwood]'s The Handmaid's Tale, and this book can sit proudly on a shelf with both of these. (less)