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
Jon Ronson is one of those writers - like David Sedaris - whose voice you hear as you read his words; the soft, slightly effete, often uncert4.5 stars
Jon Ronson is one of those writers - like David Sedaris - whose voice you hear as you read his words; the soft, slightly effete, often uncertain lilt of his sounding in the reader's inner ear. This is one of the things that makes him such an engaging writer, along with his style of placing himself (and his neuroses, which are particularly apposite in this context) directly in view, a method which rather than obscuring his subjects illuminates them, by giving us such an upfront view. The very subjectivity of Ronson's journalistic style allows us to see the complexity of the tale with clarity.
In this book Ronson stitches together, as usual, stories that illuminate a single theme - initially tied loosely but bound tighter and tighter as the book progresses. The chapters each involve a way in which we view madness, starting with his own rather off-hand description of an interviewee as a "psychopath" and his involvement in an entirely unrelated mystery (which is ultimately used to bookend the volume) which then spirals off from his increasing fascination with the diagnosis of mental disorders following delving into the DSM-IV (and subsequent self diagnosis of a dozen disorders). We meet a patient at Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital, committed following an insanity plea when on trial for GBH and a subsequent diagnosis as a psychopath, a history of that disorder and its diagnosis and treatment, and then on to a gallery of cases involving both people Ronson has interviewed (psychologists, psychiatrists, a former Haitian paramilitary leader, a corporate CEO famous for his glee in downsizing for fun and profit, former MI5 agent David Shayler) and others whose lives have been changed by direct or indirect contact either those who may have psychiatric disorders or with the madness industry tat has grown around them.
The connecting thread is this; that over recent decades we have become increasingly fond of defining behaviours that lay on the spectrum of human personality as 'disorders', using methods which may or may not be scientific and may or may not be accurate. There is plenty of questioning of those methods in this book, but the criticism is largely leveled at those people and organisations that are too ready to use these blunt tools for their own ends - whether it is the pharmaceutical industry and their ever increasing push to medicate human difference or the Metropolitan Police entrapping a neat suspect in a murder case despite a complete lack of evidence, while possibly allowing the actual killer the freedom to kill again.
Ronson is sometimes described as a humorist (as does Will Self in his Guardian review quoted on the blurb) but I think this is entirely misleading. Ronson is and always has been a journalist, albeit one who uses his wit and humour to allow us insights to the things about which he writes, a technique which is also effective when he drops it to highlight the sad or horrific - the town of Shubuta, Mississippi, devastated when the local toaster factory was closed to increase the manufacturing company's share price, the murders committed by actual violent psychopaths, the deaths and harm caused by the 'reality' TV industry when they have focused on a distorted view of what is not 'normal'. And, unlike much journalism, this does not attempt to give definite answers; the threads Ronson has drawn together are tied neatly enough to make sense but with enough frayed, trailing lines to leave the reader pondering long after closing the book....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
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
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
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
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
Glancing at the reviews for Brian Greene's overview of how we view the stuff of which our universe is made, it seems that some people base their ratinGlancing at the reviews for Brian Greene's overview of how we view the stuff of which our universe is made, it seems that some people base their rating and opinion on how much they agree with the science, or how credible they find it. While I have read a fair few popular science books – especially in the areas of physics and cosmology, areas I find utterly fascinating and about which I am perplexed that anyone can not be astounded and beguiled – I have to assume that I am reading a fair explanation of facts and theories. That is not to say that I assume the author is more knowledgeable than me simply because he has more letters after his name, but because he grounds his claims with background and the weight of evidence that is needed for a scientific hypothesis to become a generally accepted theory. Also, I have taken the effort to educate myself in these areas so have enough grounding myself to be able to appreciate the arguments.
That said, for much of this book I'm unsure how much background would be needed to understand the explanations. Greene writes with a clarity and readability which is all too rare in any field, and is particularly welcome in discussing such big ideas. As in Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design, Greene completely dispenses with calculations but, unlike Hawking, he also tries to keep the use of metaphor to a minimum. It cannot, of course, be dispensed with completely – metaphors are an extraordinarily powerful descriptive tool, especially in a field that can only properly be explained and understood using specialist mathematics – but for the most part Greene simply gives an overview of each field in historical context, and explains WHY it is important, what it explains and why it works.
He starts – as modern physics in so many fields must – with Isaac Newton, and particularly Newton's Bucket. If you hang a bucket of water on a rope and twist the rope, as the rope unwinds, spinning the bucket, at first the water remains stationary until the friction of the bucket's movement makes the water begin to spin. When it does, the surface becomes increasingly concave, moved outward by what why now call centripetal (or centrifugal) force. But what, asked Newton, is the water moving away from, or toward? What is it moving in relation to? He decided that it moved in relation to the fixed fabric of the cosmos, the stuff in which the matter (that he recognised as being the thing on which gravity works) sits. Recognising that he had no way of testing this medium by experiment, Newton took this is an immutable absolute and left it at that. Greene keeps returning to the bucket and its implications throughout the book, to superb explanatory effect.
I won't go further into the details (read the book!), but simply say that thanks to Professor Greene I now understand areas of cosmology and physics where I had previously had to simply give in to brain cramp and accept as being true. I understand why the speed of light (actually, the speed of any electromagnetic radiation) is approx 300, 000 km/sec faster than you, no matter how fast you are travelling. I understand a whole lot more about General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and why they make sense and are such powerful tools in describing our universe. I understand that Inflationary Theory is not merely a tweak of Big Bang theory to enable it to fit observed facts, but a whole new way of looking at the growth of the universe that actually explains much more about the fundamental physics.
I'm not claiming a thorough understanding of these subjects (and in some, like Brane Theory, I still found myself rather lost; a re-read may be in order), but I feel that The Fabric of the Cosmos has deepened my comprehension of and appreciation for the wonders of our universe. And for the wonders of the human mind to work out these things. In around three hundred years we have developed this system, science, as a means of examining the world around us in a way which is comprehensible to anyone who is willing to put in the work. All books on science now seem to feel the need to restate this about science; it is NOT knowledge passed down from on high by men in white coats using deliberately obfuscatory language for reasons of either professional pride or conspiracy. Science is a method that enables us to understand more and more about the world, to revel in the joy of knowing how the rainbow is formed as well as in its simple beauty. No idea in science is sacrosanct, no theory is holy. To achieve the status of acceptance of say, General Relativity or Evolution by Natural Selection, a theory has to be tested – that is, it has to survive again and again and again the onslaught of people systematically trying to prove it wrong. When a weakness is found the theory must be re-examined. Sometimes the fault will cause the foundations of the theory to crumble, and it will be discarded; it has still served a purpose, to show how promising such an approach is. Sometimes finding the errors will strengthen a theory and teach us more – Edwin Hubble's original calculations of distant galaxies seemed to show the universe to be about 1.5 billion years old, despite lots of other evidence at the time insisting it was at least 3 billion years old (as we now know, this was still almost five times too conservative). Everything else about Hubble's observation and theory made sense, there was simply an error in calculating the distance of the super novae he was using to get the figures, a correction which itself taught us much about the universe.
And this is incredibly important to realise because, while many theories, however much work they take, partly make sense on an intuitive level you get to Quantum and Brane theory and they simply cannot – in fact they seem, by intuition and everyday experience, utterly ridiculous (the great physicist Nils Bor said something along the lines of “if you think you understand Quantum Theory, you don't understand Quantum Theory”) but they are undoubtedly right. One important way a theory is tested is to use it to make predictions in the physical world and Quantum Theory has been called far and away the most successful predictive theory in science. It is, like every successful theory, one that accurately describes the way our universe works, with the limits of perception and understanding we have, which is why theories are modified or discarded when new information comes along. Which is why General Relativity replaced Newton's Laws of Gravitation as the best description we have for how gravity works – although NASA still use Newton's calculations most of the time, for the same reason you don't need to understand Gaussian Quadratic Maths to balance your chequebook.
Greene's book, the first I've read by him, shows why it is worth reading a range of books on the same (or closely connected) areas of science. While in The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinov managed to convey a sense of wonder and discovery on a par with Carl Sagan's writings (a plaudit I don't throw around lightly!), Greene has given us a book that manages a clarity and depth of explanation while being a thoroughly entertaining read. At schools, perhaps instead of training our children into narrowly defined roles, science classes should just be introducing them to the works of Greene and Hawking, Sagan and Tyson (Neil deGrasse, not Mike) and Krauss to show them how huge and wonderful and beautiful the universe is, and how much joy and fulfilment can be achieved through our efforts to understand it....more
I've been meaning to read Himes' books since hearing Cotton comes to Harlem on the radio some time ago. I'm not sure if the difference is the way thatI've been meaning to read Himes' books since hearing Cotton comes to Harlem on the radio some time ago. I'm not sure if the difference is the way that was dramatised or that A Rage in Harlem is an earlier work, but the style took me a little time to get in to. The novel is written with the breathless intensity of a pulp author writing to a deadline and wordcount - which Himes did - a ferociousness of pace further compounded by the fact that the action takes place over no more than a day or two.
In a way, it is a difficult novel to enjoy; while the pacing is breakneck and there are occasional flashes of literary brilliance in the prose, as with much hard-boiled crime fiction there are no characters to whom we can feel sympathetic; almost without exception the cast are venal and criminal and corrupt, or downright vicious. The closest is probably the central focus, Jackson, who is criminal and stupid. This isn't helped, frankly, by the fact that the characters are drawn with cartoonishly broad strokes lacking any real subtlety. I'll be intrigued to see if this develops in later books.
Another odd stylistic feature is the way Himes writes the action, of which there is a great deal. Again, much of this come across as cartoonish, even bordering on the comic - the two black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones walking into a chaotic scene in the precinct station and blasting their revolvers into the air like a couple of cowboys to calm everything down, a knife-fight with two drunks only managing to slash each others' clothes ("spilling newsprint like blood" as one is wrapped under his garments with newspapers for warmth). At times this feels almost like something from the Keystone Cops - but then then when the violence does result in (graphic, bloody) death, this is all the more shocking....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
The best science writers have an understanding of the subject on which they write that is both deep and broad along with the ability to express theseThe best science writers have an understanding of the subject on which they write that is both deep and broad along with the ability to express these ideas in a way which is both clear and connects it with ideas and experiences that resonate with the general reader. Pinker is, along with Brian Greene and Sean Carroll in physics and Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins in biology, amongst the very finest of these. ...more
This is at least my fourth read of The Shadow of the Torturer and I am, once again, convinced that it forms part of one of the greatest works of fictiThis is at least my fourth read of The Shadow of the Torturer and I am, once again, convinced that it forms part of one of the greatest works of fiction - I would say "of literature", but that is a decision for posterity - of the 20th Century. Wolfe's prose is both beautiful and precise, flowing like a river that you can be carried along by, or pause to peer at the levels of meaning beneath the glittering surface. Much of this, or course, would not be apparent on a first reading, as part of the beauty of this story is the construction of plot, an intricate Escher-like loop that twists back upon itself more than once, and yet never seems forced.
The magnificent exoticism of the setting, the grandeur of the writing and the use of mythic archetypes gives the whole the feeling and solidity of ancient legend - although it is undoubtedly science fiction, the appendix making clear that the use of archaic or 20th Century words for the technologies and creatures are conveniences for translation from "a tongue which has not yet achieved existence", it very much feels to be the case of a world that has long forgotten how its machines work and that they are to most people, in Clarke's famous phrase, indistinguishable from magic. Although perhaps that in itself is not so far from the present day....more