Mary Doria Russell’s sequel to her astonishing debut, The Sparrow, finds Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz still struggling with the trauma of the events thMary Doria Russell’s sequel to her astonishing debut, The Sparrow, finds Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz still struggling with the trauma of the events that left him the only survivor of the mission to the planet Rakhat. He is beginning to be able to accept love and friendship and meaning in life to replace the hole left by his loss of faith, when the church tries to convince him to return - as the foremost expert on Rakhati languages and the only human being with any experience of the complex social structures of the two sentient species. Sandoz’ resignation from the society of Jesus and the priesthood leaves the leadership with a dilemma; if Emilio’s return to Rakhat is vital to God’s plan, does this end justify the means?
This is another terrific book, with superbly drawn main characters and startlingly beautiful prose, that explores some deep philosophical questions - although mostly the personal, universal ones of belief, doubt and purpose. What drives us and how we come to terms with tragedy and failure and loss and injury. It is about forgiveness, of others and of ourselves.
There is one Big Issue touched upon; should contact with a pristine culture respect their social structures and allow harm to some of its members to continue, or try not to intervene at the risk (perhaps certainty) of destroying it? Leaving aside the fact that change from contact may be inevitable, this book makes no easy answers; (view spoiler)[Rakhati society is turned upside down - quite literally, with the ‘oppressed’ becoming the new rulers and the previously dominant species possibly facing total extinction and, in any case, a decades-long war with millions of casualties (hide spoiler)].
The book is not without fault. The space travel took me out of suspension of disbelief somewhat; while the idea of relativity is well used, there is only the merest attempt to make the travel realistic (gravity approximated by the acceleration of the ship), while the ‘crew’ (who seem more like passengers) cook meals on a stove and drink wine from glasses.
There also seems to be an odd gap, perhaps an omission due to editing. The storyline featuring Sofia Mendez, thought killed with the the rest of the mission in the first book is riveting as she teaches Runa a different way of life than subservience and her son Isaac - a severely autistic savant - explores the music of Rakhat and of Earth. They disappear from the story for several decades (if not many pages, due to the way the book is structured) and this feels like a loss. More could be made of Sofia’s transformation into the stateswoman she becomes and, in Isaac’s final brief appearance, he seems reduced from the fascinatingly focussed person we knew to some sort of holy fool happy to impart his message.
More importantly, some of the conclusions are, perhaps, a little pat. While in The Sparrow the question of whether the events were simply a combination of chance and human agency or part of God’s plan is left satisfyingly unclear and open to interpretation, here there is a rather blatant authorial shove in the direction of the divine.
Despite these flaws, The Sparrow and Children of God (which are very much as a single work) are wonderful reads and explorations of belief and morality. I am someone to whom the concept of a higher power is quite alien, but the struggles and motivations of those characters with such a thing at their core was made real to me. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A very nice story from Mr G, in which he manages to inject humour into a Cthulhu tale without making it too twee. Very light hearted, but with just aA very nice story from Mr G, in which he manages to inject humour into a Cthulhu tale without making it too twee. Very light hearted, but with just a soupcon of overwhelming existential dread, helped on both counts by the many Mythos references, both overt and more subtle....more
Neil Gaiman really is a magician. The worlds he constructs within his tales are so vivid and magical, and also relatable; he will slip in a sentence tNeil Gaiman really is a magician. The worlds he constructs within his tales are so vivid and magical, and also relatable; he will slip in a sentence that adds a whole new layer to the reader's understanding of the events without taking them out of the story. He, somehow, manages to combine the mythic and the personal.
This brief story showcases those skills admirably, as a young (unpublished) writer talks with his young charge about the type of bedtime story the latter would like to be told - a scary story, scary enough to be interesting but not to keep him awake - that turns into the boy telling him about a monster that he has, of course, made up......more
I've been kind of familiar with the Oatmeal webcomic for some years, had always enjoyed it but not really followed it. I also started running about thI've been kind of familiar with the Oatmeal webcomic for some years, had always enjoyed it but not really followed it. I also started running about three and a half years ago, and The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances really talks to me. In his rather surreal, disjointed, text-light style, Matt Inman writes about why he runs - not through vanity or a desire for athleticism or health (although all these are, undoubtedly, drivers that are there in the complex motivations that power us all) but so he can stuff his face with crap, and as a displacement activity, so he can feel he has achieved something, and to keep ahead of the noise and busyness of the world and the constant temptation to simply stop and lie on the sofa and eat nachos.
This book is funny and touching and strangely profound for such a brief tome. Inman beautifully captures the struggle against laziness and the addiction of running, the runner's high and the way it feels to leave the world behind when he runs.
I read this grinning and nodding along. If you're a runner you should read it, if you're not you should read it to get some understanding of us weirdos who are....more
Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy is remarkable. From the start it is a uniquely creepy experience or existential horror, written in a way thatJeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy is remarkable. From the start it is a uniquely creepy experience or existential horror, written in a way that unsettles - and occasionally terrifies - the reader, drawing us in to this exploration of a region which has, somehow, been separated from the rest of the world by forces unknown, and possibly unknowable. However, if you ask what it is about, I would squirm like an aesthete; that is much harder to pin down - and this is, in truth, part of the mythic power of the books. Th story might be about memory and growth, about the places we start from and where we end up, the choices we make along the way; about environmentalism and the pointless, unwinnable and self-destructive war humanity is waging against nature; about the ultimate unknowableness of the cold, uncaring universe. About the human need to to fight against the inevitability of annihilation and ever present authority and to come to an acceptance of what is.
In the first novel the 12th expedition into Area X have no names, having been reduced to their roles of Biologist, Psychologist, Linguist, etc, in what seems to be a (futile) effort to rob them of their identities to 'protect' them from the effects of this strange land, although it turns out to be not the least help as the initial strangeness eats away at them and this quickly ramps up to a horror that is bizarre and unimaginable while being somehow deeply personal. Annihilation defies understanding and is all the more terrifying for it.
The following volumes expand both the background and subsequent events and also ground the goings on; whilst in the first book we had no idea when or where this took place, we now see this is some version of the US and, outside of Area X, the characters have names and lives and histories. While we lose an uncertainty and universality in this, this allows VanderMeer to build real character and expand the scope of the mystery of what IS Area X.
I have only given Acceptance 4 out of 5, although the trilogy as a whole is definitely a 5. I think that the whole should, perhaps, be read as a single book to allow the connections throughout the story to work, for each part to build upon the other, although I doubt that any firm conclusion is possible, which is part of the strength of these books. They will stay with you and unsettle you long after you turn the last page....more
A lovely little short from Pullman. This is a gem of a story, wonderfully crafted and creepy, set in the same reality (I think 'universe' is the wrongA lovely little short from Pullman. This is a gem of a story, wonderfully crafted and creepy, set in the same reality (I think 'universe' is the wrong term, considering) as the wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy. An Oxford don and his visitor discuss a pair of works of art that always seem to end up together and may be connected to some deaths.
Atmospheric, and somewhat bringing to mind a Tales of the Unexpected vibe....more
This is a book on the social history of decapitation, which is rather more widespread than you might imagine. Starting with a rundown of the indignitiThis is a book on the social history of decapitation, which is rather more widespread than you might imagine. Starting with a rundown of the indignities heaped on the (severed) head of Oliver Cromwell after his death - kept on a spike for years, stolen, traded and passed around - Larson then goes on to cover various aspects of the way Western society has viewed the act of decollation and the resultant cranium.
And this is about how the Western (largely European and American) culture has both informed the view of the practices and, indeed, affected it. We start with a chapter on the vogue for early anthropologists and collectors to seek out those 'savage' tribesmen who took severed heads as part of their culture, in South America and New Guinea among other places, and how the act of seeking out and collecting these 'cultural artefacts' completely changes the behaviour of the people concerned, almost entirely for the more murderous; the Shuar tribe of Peru, who collected a small number of heads and shrunk them as part of rituals to obtain the glory of that individual massively increased production when offered valuable trade goods by European anthropologists, as did the Maori in New Zealand and others in New Guinea - although many more also referred to these strange white men as 'headhunters' due to their habit of going around asking the locals if they could procure severed heads. Subsequently, a good proportion of those shrunken and tattooed heads in various museum collections, rather than being those of 'native warriors' are those of innocent people, creations made purely for the procurement of incredibly valuable trade goods. Larson continues the chapter tracing the changing attitude toward these collections.
Each subsequent chapter follows a similar pattern, taking a specific aspect of the topic from its inception through its history to the most up-to-date perspective - the guillotine, trophy heads (largely in the Pacific Theatre in WWII), art and medicine - often referring back to previous entries (often done subtly but occasionally with clumsy repetition), the author weaves together stories that are interesting in themselves on a theme that opens up some thought-provoking avenues. I guarantee that some of the ideas - as well as some of the images - will stay with me long after the final page....more
A very nice collection of longer articles from New Scientist on the theme of Nothing in various forms. I particularly like the cosmology (of course),A very nice collection of longer articles from New Scientist on the theme of Nothing in various forms. I particularly like the cosmology (of course), and all there pieces are interesting in informative, although I have issues with the several that centre on the placebo (and nocebo) effects. These do highlight what can sometimes be a weakness of this type of article, that while explaining an apparent phenomenon it is presented in far too uncritical a fashion, which can lead the less informed reader to place too great a weight on the effect., a particular problem when it is picked up by the general media and further amplified or warped....more
An odd book, this seems to have grown out of a jokey discussion between Ann and Jeff Vandermeer about the potential Kosherness of fictional beasts. ThAn odd book, this seems to have grown out of a jokey discussion between Ann and Jeff Vandermeer about the potential Kosherness of fictional beasts. The problem is, it doesn't seem to have grown very much; each entry is a page or a little more and there isn't enough in the description of the animal to server as a bestiary nor enough in the few lines of discussion that follow the either flesh out the ideas, give much in the way of Jewish dietary philosophy or even provide much humour.
A very light book, Forster's review of her life through the houses she has lived in - starting with being born in a council house in Cumbria - is evocA very light book, Forster's review of her life through the houses she has lived in - starting with being born in a council house in Cumbria - is evocative but short on substance, although this may, in part, be to do with the abridgment for the radio. It felt more like a a lengthened piece from a Sunday supplement than a book in its own right, with details of where the author has lived and how it affected her life, with personal details (the relative poverty of her childhood, scholarship to Oxford, marriage, success and cancer), although Forster is a far better writer than the hacks who would write it as a lifestyle piece. Strangely - and, again, perhaps this is an effect of abridgment - after her childhood, other people seem barely there in her life; her husband Hunter Davies is there, and her children get passing mention, but they are shadows on the walls of the properties, flitting by in the odd phrase....more
Some good tales in issue 255 of the venerable SF magazine, and no real duds. I really liked Thana Niveau's 'The Calling of Night's Ocean', about a resSome good tales in issue 255 of the venerable SF magazine, and no real duds. I really liked Thana Niveau's 'The Calling of Night's Ocean', about a researcher trying to communicate with a dolphin and the unexpected consequences when this is achieved, and 'Mind the Gap' by Jennifer Dornan-Fish, also a story about communication with an AI given consciousness by use of an artificial sensorium but still unsure whether it is truly conscious. 'Oubliette' from E. Catherine Toblar is beautifully written but rather opaque of meaning, a small poem of a story....more
I had the urge to learn more about Carthage and its enmity with rome and, as a couple of people had recommended Adrian Goldsworthy to me, thought thisI had the urge to learn more about Carthage and its enmity with rome and, as a couple of people had recommended Adrian Goldsworthy to me, thought this would be a good place to start. I have to say that I was disappointed.
Goldsworthy says in the preface that he is a military historian, and it is largely this focus that failed for me; the author focuses on the battles themselves and, within them, on the minutiae of tactics and technologies that made the opposing sides feel like miniatures on a gameboard. I got no real sense of the generals involved - although he does mention them and their supposed attributes this is not done in a way that brings them to life at all. I read thoroughly through the introduction and the first section about the combatants, and then on into the chapters on the First Punic War, hoping that this was leading to more analysis and depth, but soon I found that my eyes were glazing and I was skim-reading, forcing myself to remain interested.
It is not that the history of a conflict cannot be written interestingly, giving a thorough idea of the way the battles themselves were fought whilst bringing to life the cultures, and even the characters, involved - take, for instance, Persian Fire, about the attempted invasion of the Greek peninsula by mighty Persia, including the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon. And, perhaps, this is the main difference; I didn’t think Goldsworthy a very good writer. Aside from being peppered with dry academicisms (“In this chapter we shall see…”) the writing itself is often clumsy (the word “began” used three times in two consecutive sentences) and, I’m afraid, just not engaging. The big disappointment, though, is that I was left feeling I learnt little about the cultures fighting this conflict which would set one up to be amongst the greatest powers the world has ever seen and utterly destroy the other. ...more