Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.Continue reading
Thought X is the latest anthology in Comma Press’s ‘science-into-fiction’ series, which sees authors paired with scientists to produce a story inspired by a particular idea, with the scientist contributing an afterword that elaborates on the scientific background. (I reviewed a related title, Sara Maitland’s collection Moss Witch, a few years ago.)
The theme for this new anthology is thought experiments. The editors point out in their introduction that there have been contrasting opinions over what exactly constitutes a thought experiment. I am much more of a fiction reader than a scientist (which was certainly brought home to me while reading the book!), so I apologise for any misunderstanding or oversimplification in the review that follows. Essentially, as I understand it, a thought experiment is a scientific ‘what if’ scenario used to highlight a particular question, or a limitation in a theorem. But I can’t resist quoting Terry Pratchett’s definition of a thought experiment, from The Unadulterated Cat: “one which you can’t do, and won’t work”.
I found that, with many of the fourteen stories in Thought X, I hadn’t known about the particular thought experiments beforehand. Now, with the benefit of the afterwords, it’s interesting to see the many different ways in which the writers drew on their thought experiments. In the spirit of placing an artificial structure on something to help describe and explain it, I’m going to organise this review according to how far the different stories refer to their thought experiment directly.
So, first of all, there are stories that don’t mention their thought experiments at all. In ‘The Child in the Lock’ by Robin Ince, Neil has been invited to dinner by his work colleague Tom, and is keen to make the right kind of impression – he’s even bought some new shoes, a pair that Tom. Neil is very early for his train, and goes for a walk to pass the time. He hears some splashing in a nearby lock, and sees the figure of a child. Should he go to the rescue?
The ‘Drowning Child’ scenario (as Prof Glen Newey’s afterword tells me) was put forward by the philosopher Peter Singer as an example of situation where taking the action which most would consider morally right (rescuing the child) would come at a certain cost to the only person nearby (getting wet, and so on). Ince has Neil reluctant to intervene (and ruin his nice new shoes?), then able to rationalise that choice to himself (maybe the kid is diving for coins, or something). The use of short paragraphs in quick succession emphasises the rhetorical dance of Neil’s thought process. The end of the story is suitably chilling.
Hannah, protagonist of Annie Clarkson’s ‘The Rooms’, needs a job. Her brother Alex gets her one at his company, training an artificial intelligence to interact in convincingly human ways. Hannah spends her working day in an enclosed room, across a desk from Myla, a robot in the form of a beautiful woman (there are no requests for male bots in this line of work, Alex tells her). She asks Myla questions on a range of prescribed topics, guiding the bot towards sufficiently ‘woman-like’ responses.
The thought experiment in this case is known as the ‘Chinese Room’, and essentially asks whether a computer carrying out various processes could be capable of understanding what exactly it is doing. Clarkson’s piece likewise asks whether a bot like Myla, simulating the appearance of humanity, could be capable of that. ‘The Rooms’ works well enough on this level alone, but here is where Prof Seth Bullock’s afterword really shines, because it explores the many different ways in which the story reflects its thought experiment: Myla may not understand what she is doing during her sessions with Hannah, but neither does Hannah, really – she just talks, with no sense of how it is affecting Myla. Could it be said that work undertaken in the Rooms is ultimately only of meaning to the client? And so on. I left Bullock’s afterword with a deeper appreciation of Clarkson’s story.
Some stories in Thought X have a discussion of their thought experiment woven in. A powerful example is ‘The Tiniest Atom’ by Sarah Schofield, in which Frank goes to visit the family of his fallen comrade Ted. Frank doesn’t give his name to Ted’s widow Nancy, even saying to her mother: “They call me Ted.” He helps around the garden, and generally makes himself part of the household.
In flashbacks to the trenches, Frank tells Ted about Laplace’s demon: a theory suggesting that the movement of everything in the universe, down to the smallest atom, follows a predetermined path; and that an intellect vast enough to process all that information could then predict the future. Frank had been working on a machine to do just this, and Ted has come to continue the task. Schofield uses the idea of the clockwork universe as a metaphor to explore the emotional displacement caused by the First World War: Frank’s death has created a vacuum; Ted, the outsider with the widest view of this particular ‘universe’, is ideally placed to fill it.
In ‘Red’ by Annie Kirby, Alice wakes one morning to find that her world is black and white – she can no longer perceive colours. A doctor compares her situation to the ‘Mary’s Room’ thought experiment devised by Prof Frank Jackson (who also provides the afterword). Mary lives in an entirely black-and-white room, but through excellent educational resources and intelligence, she has learned everything known to physical science about the world (including the human mind). The question posed by this scenario is: if Mary leaves the room and perceives colour for the first time, does she now gain new knowledge (given that she has studied the science of colour perception)?
Alice concludes that she is actually the opposite of Mary – she had colour perception and then lost it, for a start – but the story of Mary haunts her nonetheless. She dreams repeatedly of Mary, and certain features recur – the colour red, or Mary’s opening question: “What did you bring me?”. As Kirby’s tale unfolds, the theme of hidden (or lost) knowledge becomes key. We see Alice’s relationship with her partner Laurel unravel as Alice loses sight of what brought and held them together. We also see, chillingly, what lies buried in the imagery of those dreams.
Finally, there are stories that place the thought experiment itself at their centre. In ‘Keep It Dark’ by Adam Roberts, scientist Kay and blind theologian Broome travel out to a seemingly abandoned radio telescope, to meet their old colleague Lorenzini, who claims to have solved Olbers’ paradox: that is, in an infinite universe with an infinite number of stars, why doesn’t the night sky blaze with light?
The solution, according to Kay (and confirmed by Prof Sarah Bridle in her afterword) is simply that the universe is not infinite; but Lorenzini is convinced of another answer. He believes that all the light has been swallowed by dark matter, and he will not brook any disagreement. As the story progresses, tensions rise; but Roberts narrates this through Broome’s viewpoint, so one doesn’t ‘see’ exactly what is going on. The reader is left to interpret the meaning of what can be sensed in a world composed mainly of darkness.
Ian Watson’s ‘Monkey Business’ is all about the proposal that an infinite number of monkeys bashing away at typewriter keyboards would eventually produce the text of a Shakespeare play. Watson imagines a simulated world where that experiment plays out. 37 robot monkeys type away in the Templum of the city of Scribe. There are people to check their output for signs of Shakespeare; and whole industries to provide paper, ink, and other resources.
The story follows two characters journeying to Scribe, in order to see the monkeys. Along the way, we discover just how many variables there are in this scenario. Can any of Shakespeare’s plays be typed for the experiment to succeed, or does it have to be a particular one? Does it matter whether or not the capitalisation is correct? What if different monkeys typed out fragments that could be assembled into a complete play? And so on. It’s all told in an enjoyably theatrical style, and illustrates what a pleasure it is to think around with these thought experiments.
Comma Press are currently holding a competition to give away a full set of their ‘science-into-fiction’ anthologies. The full details are here, but essentially you have to tag Comma on Twitter or Instagram with a photo of your copy of Thought X, along with the hashtag #ShareYourThought. The winner will be announced on 21 May.
Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals (2017) ed. Rob Appleby and Ra Page, Comma Press, 260 pages, paperback (review copy).
Strange Horizons have my review of Saint Rebor, the latest short story collection from Adam Roberts (published as part of Newcon Press’s Imaginings series). I wanted to say a few words on my approach to this review, because it grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the other reviews that were out there.
Saint Rebor itself hadn’t garnered much commentary at the time I was putting together my review, but the book’s opening story, ‘What Did Tessimond Tell You?’, had several reviews following its appearance in a year’s-best anthology . The story is about a scientist who discovers why the members of her project team are quitting even though they’re on the verge of winning the Nobel. Generally, the reviews I read revolved around the plausibility of the science, and didn’t go much further than that.
This approach wouldn’t do for me because I had a very different sense of what was interesting about the story. To me, the issue of scientific plausibility was simply not important in terms of what Roberts was actually doing – in my experience of his fiction, it rarely is. I wanted to write a review that offered a different way of looking at the stories in Saint Rebor.
I was a little daunted by the prospect: Roberts’s style can be dense and allusive, and I know that his references are often beyond my own sphere of experience. I may well not have been the best person to engage with what I saw in Roberts’s stories – but it looked as though if I didn’t, no one else would, and I felt strongly that it needed to be done. (This, incidentally, is one of the impulses behind book blogging: that you feel something has to be said about a book, and nobody else is saying it.)
So I have a review which focuses in on a few of Saint Rebor‘s stories and (taking a cue from Roberts’s introduction) attempts to examine how – on the structural and linguistic levels – they exploit the tensions between ‘science’ and ‘fiction’. I hope you find it interesting.
The latest issue of the BSFA critical journal Vector has landed, and it contains my review of The Soddit by Adam Roberts. The Soddit was the first of the parodies that Roberts has produced alongside his ‘canonical’ novels; originally published in 2003, it was reissued last year. I started out imagining that the review would be just a bit of fun; as I went along, though, I found myself thinking more about the playful side of Roberts’s work, and what it is that draws me to his writing. Interestingly, Dan Hartland writes about similar qualities in his review of the story collection Adam Robots in the same issue. It seems we’re on the same page as regards Roberts’s “wilfulness and idiosyncrasy”.
Anyway, on to The Soddit…
Anyone who follows Adam Roberts on Twitter will know of his penchant for puns, which are always excellent, and never induce groans at all – honest, guv. (Thought I’d indulge in some irony, there.) And anyone who’s followed Roberts’s bibliography over the years will know that his sense of humour has found a home in his fiction, most obviously in the series of parodies he has written alongside his more serious SF novels. The first of these parodies, The Soddit, has recently been reissued (there was even a film to mark the occasion, or something), and I agreed to review it. What did I let myself in for?
You’ll have some idea of how The Soddit goes purely from knowing how The Hobbit goes, so I won’t rehearse the plot too much: a Soddit named Bingo Grabbings is cajoled by a group of dwarfs and the wizard Gandef to join them on an expedition to the Only Mountain, home of the dragon Smug; they are at pains to emphasise to Bingo that this quest is all about taking the dragon’s gold – honest, guv. An episodic narrative of various encounters then follows, until the group reaches its destination.
The humour of The Soddit typically starts with a pun on the name of a character from Tolkien’s work, and extends outwards from there. Some of Roberts’s ideas work better than others: for example, the shape-shifter Biorn is an inconsistent mishmash of Scandinavian stereotypes – he speaks in Abba lyrics occasionally, and likes his flat-pack furniture – that I found too broad-brush to be truly amusing. But I loved the translation of Gollum’s riddles in the dark into a philosophical contest with ‘Sollum’.
Beyond the humour, what comes through time and again in the book is a trait that Roberts shares with Tolkien (though it manifests in very different ways in the authors’ respective work): a love of language. In The Soddit, it’s not just about puns: there are passages where Roberts is clearly revelling in the possibilities of prose, the pure rhythm and flow of writing. If you like that in a work of fiction (and I do), it is a joy to read.
But The Soddit is not all about play; there are elements of a straightforward, serious novel here, and they work rather well. Instead of a Ring that makes him invisible, Bingo finds a Thing (complete with registered trademark) which makes true the opposite of whatever someone speaks through it. Cue the classic fantasy trope of ‘be careful what you wish for’, which Roberts uses very neatly. And I must admit to being surprised by the twist in the nature of the group’s quest, a twist that succeeds on its own terms even as one senses that Roberts is deliberately making the gears of narrative grind noisily. The Soddit is a showcase for Roberts’s sense of humour, yes; but his skill as a storyteller is also firmly on display.
We’re halfway through the year, and I thought I’d mark the occasion by taking stock and looking back at some of the highlights of my reading year so far. I’m limiting myself to five titles, and concentrating on books that had their first English-language or first UK publication in 2010. I’ve judged them on how much they have stayed with me since I read them. So, in alphabetical order:
Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers
Ostensibly a search across the Depression-era United States for a ruthless killer, this book has a rich metaphoric subtext that makes it a very satisfying piece of work.
Shane Jones, Light Boxes
My favourite read of the year so far. A short, magical tale of the battle against February, that works on about three levels all at once.
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
From a very short book to a very long one. An Irish boarding-school comedy with added theoretical physics throws in so much that there’s probably a kitchen sink in there somewhere – but it all works superbly.
Adam Roberts, New Model Army
Begins as the tale of an army that functions democratically, but transforms into something that genuinely is like nothing I have read before.
Amy Sackville, The Still Point
The parallel stories of a fateful Arctic expedition and a present-day couple at a turning-point in their relationship, wrapped up in a fascinating prose style.
My pick of pre-2010 books for the year so far is Christopher Priest’s excellent The Affirmation, the story of how a man’s life and his fictionalised autobiography intertwine until… well, read the book and see for yourself. And, of course, I’d recommend all the others to you as well.
Those are my picks for the first half of 2010, then. What have you most enjoyed reading this year?
I can safely say that New Model Army is like no other book I’ve ever read. I know this because I have no name for the feeling I was left with after I’d finished it. That’s a recommendation, by the way.
A few decades hence, a new kind of fighting force has emerged: organised on democratic principles (Athenian democracy, that is), New Model Armies (NMAs for short) have no command structure, and no specialisms; soldiers communicate with each other in the field via private wikis, and all decisions are put to the vote. A row over the royal succession has led the now-independent Scottish government to hire a New Model Army named Pantegral to fight the English, which the NMA has been doing very successfully. The novel’s narrator (though not, he is at pains to stress, its hero) is Tony Block, a member of Pantegral. Block tells of his exploits in the battles of south-east England, and it gradually becomes clear that he has been captured by the enemy, who have their own plans for him.
Having read that description, you may now have a conception of New Model Army in your mind which is nothing like the actual text. This is a novel in which the story is mediated through the voice in which it is told, and Block is as inclined to talk about his philosophy of democracy, love and war, as he is to describe his involvement in Pantegral’s military campaigns. As a result, we see both Tony’s ideas about war, and the effect those ideas have had on him.
Block is convinced of the NMAs’ superiority (both martial and moral) over conventional ‘feudal’ armies, and, indeed, Pantegral is winning the war in south-east England. But the New Model Army is also fallible – the majority vote isn’t guaranteed to be the ‘correct’ one, and such mistakes have consequences, as Roberts shows. There is no definitive ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side, here, which makes the novel all the stronger.
At a deeper level, we see how being in the NMA has affected Tony psychologically. His narrative voice veers from being highly learned to making daft pop-culture references (the silliest is perhaps a burning building being described as ‘a field of spiky yellow flame: a hologram of Bart’s haircut on a Brobdingnagian scale’ ). This technique is presumably meant to represent the mish-mash of experiences and ideas engendered by the structure of the NMA; but another effect it has to undercut the harsh reality of what’s being described. Tony says that, in the heat of the moment, he can’t afford to think about the damage being caused by all the fighting; his pop-culture frames of reference may be another means by which he de-sensitises himself.
The effect of this on the reader can be quite suffocating, as the emotion coming from the narrative voice is inadequate for the horrors it relates. It’s made all the more suffocating by how little we learn of Block’s life before he became a soldier – there’s little true sense of a life beyond this moment, and hence of a way out of Block’s mindset. His resolve not to think too hard about certain things ebbs and flows tantalisingly throughout the novel – and then New Model Army turns in a direction that requires a different sort of imagining; the implications of the ending are chilling, but also somehow uplifting.
New Model Army is different, in the best sense of that word – it does something I haven’t come across elsewhere, and does it very well. It’s another fascinating read from the singular imagination of Adam Roberts.
The commentary I’ve encountered on this year’s Clarke Award generally agrees on two things: that it’s a five-horse race, and that Chris Wooding is the author who’s written the also-ran. Having read all the shortlisted novels, I must concur with that view. Retribution Falls is a good book on its own terms — a superior sf adventure story — but it seems lacking in the context of this shortlist. It just doesn’t have the extra depth that the others, in their different ways, all have. For that reason, Wooding’s book is first out of the running for me.
The favourite to win the Clarke this year is The City & the City. This is a fascinating, innovative novel (the first, as far as I’m aware, to engage so explicity with the crtical taxonomy of fantasy that has emerged in the last fifteeen years), possibly China Miéville’s best-written to date. I like it very much… but I don’t think it should win. The reason I don’t think it should win is that the Clarke is an award for science fiction, and The City & the City doesn’t make sense if read as sf — one is forced into an unsatisfactory psychological interpretation. However, the novel does make sense — and is much more interesting — if read as fantasy (see my review for more on this); I’d be happy for it to win any fantasy awards for which it may be nominated, but I don’t see it as a good fit for the Clarke.
I intended to review the entire shortlist, but, in the end, I’m one title down. The reason I haven’t written previously about Gwyneth Jones‘s Spirit is that I really struggled to get to grips with it. I grasped the basics of the story, but there’s so much else about which I’m not sure that I can’t see my way to giving the novel a proper review. Why I experienced this difficulty, I don’t know; maybe it was because of all the associated books I hadn’t read (Spirit is a re-interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and is connected to both Jones’s earlier Aleutian Trilogy and her Bold as Love sequence), maybe something else. Whatever, though I’m not able to comment on Spirit in detail, I do gain an impression of a significant work.
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson combines fictional historical biography with far-future sf, to what I found was mixed effect. It is an excellent work at times, but tries one’s patience at others, and its two aspects don’t integrate as well as they might. But there’s a lot about the book that I know I missed (I didn’t pick up on all the sbutext, for example), so I’m quite willing to accept that Galileo’s Dream is a stronger book than I found it to be, and hence a strong contender for the Clarke.
There’s also a lot about Adam Roberts‘s Yellow Blue Tibia that I know I missed — but, all the same, I thoroughly loved it. Of all the shortlisted title, this is the one I enjoyed the most, both for its humour and for what it does as a work of imaginative literature. I can’t judge in full how successful it is, because for that I’d need more knowledge of its historical setting, and the science fiction with which it engages — but it’s worthy of winning the Clarke as far as I’m concerned.
Finally, Marcel Theroux‘s excellent Far North, which is my other pick of the shortlist. A post-disaster novel which is less about the effect of change on the world than itseffect on humanity, this is a quiet book that makes its point subtly and with force. It works superbly as an aesthetic whole, to a greater extent than perhaps any other novel on the shortlist. A win for Far North would be thoroughly deserved.
So, I’d most like to see Roberts or Theroux be awarded the Clarke this year, but, really, it’s an open field, and I would not like to predict who will win. The winner will be announced this Wednesday, and I look forward to finding out whom it will be.
The shortlist of the 2010 Clarke Award (for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2009) has been announced. The six nominees are:
Gwyneth Jones, Spirit
China Miéville, The City & the City
Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia
Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream
Marcel Theroux, Far North
Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls
This is an interesting mix of books. I plan to read and review the entire shortlist (I’ve read three already; reviews are linked above, as will the others be), so I’ll have more to say as time goes on, but here’s an initial reaction:
The book I’m most pleased to see on there is Yellow Blue Tibia. It has met with mixed reactions, but I found it a stunning read. The City & the City is a novel which has generated much debate, and is very much open to interpretation (perhaps more so than any of Miéville’s previous works); I like it, but I don’t think it quite works. I didn’t like Galileo’s Dream as much, but I know there’s more to it than I was able to see.
As for the three books I’ve not read: I had a feeling that Spirit might make the shortlist, as I’ve heard some very good things about it. I don’t know much about the other two titles: I’ve read one of Chris Wooding’s previous books , and thought it good (albeit not great), but I’ve not read Marcel Theroux at all.
Overall, from what I know of these six books, I would say this a nicely varied list — varied in terms of settings, types of sf, and approaches, and in the mixture of well-known and lesser-known names. I look forward to reading the complete shortlist, and finding out who will win.
UPDATE, 26th Apr: Round-up post
Second UPDATE, 29th Apr: The winner
I know we’re some way past the halfway point of 2009, but I wanted to do a mini-review of the year so far, as I’ve read so many great books this year that I’d like to highlight the best once again. So these are my top five reads of the year so far (all had their first UK publication in 2009), in alphabetical order (click the titles to read my reviews):
Keith Brooke, The Accord
Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal
Rana Dasgupta, Solo
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia
An honourable mention goes to Ken Grimwood’s Replay, which is my favourite pre-2009 book that I read for the first time this year. All six books are excellent, and I woud urge you to seek them out.
(Of course, I don’t just blog about books on here; so, for the sake of completeness: my favourite fiilm of the year so far is Franklyn; and favourite album of the year so far is Kingdom of Rust by Doves, which I will get around to blogging about eventually…)