The Square and the Tower – Niall Ferguson (Allan Lane – 2017)

Sweeping historical narrative, illuminating detail and compelling arguments make this a great read.

First, a gripe.  I was given a review copy of this book via NetGalley.  It was free so maybe I shouldn’t complain however it was almost as if the publishers didn’t want anyone to read the review copy, so bad was the formatting.  Words ran into one another, footnotes were shoe-horned without introduction in the middle of paragraphs and diagrams were cast adrift from their explanatory notes, which I would trip over several pages later.  If you want people to give reviews, at least give them the chance to read it.

Niall Ferguson considers the interaction between rigid ruling hierarchies and their interaction and competition with more loosely based networks over time.  He argues  that,

Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organised groups of people

Whilst this might be taken to suggest that shady networks, such as the oft-mentioned ‘Illuminati’ control world affairs, Ferguson dismisses any such arguments very early on.  He admits that as networks are usually quite informal, they rarely leave a lot in the way of documents or records and are not, therefore, a very attractive subject for historians, especially if the subject attracts conspiracy theorists.

We may tend to think of networks being more relevant now in our interconnected world of online networks but Ferguson shows that networks have been influencing our lives for centuries and have led to great advances (or great destruction).    Major religions, fascism and communism were all decentralised networks to begin with, although some transformed into highly rigid hierarchies over time and attempted to destroy other networks that may have challenged them.  Ferguson documents the example of Stalin’s Russia, where even the loosest connection with the ‘wrong’ person could be life-limiting.

Concentrating on our own times, Ferguson examines the internet, terror attacks, Brexit and Donald Trump.  In all he points to how a more nimble network manages, or has managed, to confound more rigid hierarchical structures.  Forget six degrees of separation, the average figure for Facebook users is 3.57 degrees of separation.  So you may be even closer to Kevin Bacon than you think.  Ferguson argues that the success of Brexit and Trump were attributable in large part to the way they used the internet to spread their chosen message, which made an impact regardless of its veracity or counter-arguments from the establishment.

Ferguson is a very compelling writer.  This was a fascinating, thought-provoking read and I would recommend it.

 

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Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris 2017)

Think of Saving Private Ryan with space marines set during the 30 years’ war and you’ll have a reasonable impression of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s latest novella.

The Ironclads are Scions, the sons of the fabulously wealthy and powerful of the world who take part in political and corporate battles dressed in impregnable, heavily armoured suits.

Ironclads is set in a world in which large corporations wage war against each other, corporations fight social democratic countries and the ordinary man or woman lives in a state of feudal penury where a life in the armed services means acting as cannon fodder.

The story follows Sergeant Ted Regan (our narrator) and his small team as they carry out a mission to find the missing cousin of a corporate Scion. Their task involves dealing with political and corporate intrigue, battles with impossible machines and supernatural Finns.

There are some light-hearted moments and I enjoyed a reference to the 1st fighting corps of Ikea. I imagined a large metal suit put together by allen keys and with a nice Billy bookcase mounted on the chest plate.

It’s a slim book and quite an easy read but I left it without strong feelings for the characters or the plot. It just passed by without making much of an impression.

Book Review: Binary System – Eric Brown (Solaris – 2017)

This is an enjoyable sci-fi adventure.  A good tale, but unlikely to convert those not already committed to SF.

Cordelia ‘Delia’ Kemp is a survivor a catastrophic starship explosion which results in her being thrown further from the Earth than anyone has ever been before.

Delia’s only companion is ‘Imp’, an AI implant that acts as counsel, computer and friend.  It’s a great idea, I wished I had an ‘Imp’ to help me out too.

In the first of a series of ‘billions to one’ chances, Delia reaches an inhabited planet that is able to support human life.  It struck me that it is difficult to explain a new idea or form without comparing it to something that already exists.  The inhabitants of the planet are likened to monkeys, locusts and centipedes.

Eric Brown offers a number of expository ‘information dumps’ to quickly fill in the background and provide explanation for what is to come.  Sci-fi readers will be used to this but it can appear quite mechanical and the writing is functional and straightforward.  There are lots of recaps of where the action is and how we got there. Some of the dialogue is a little hackneyed, like it was written for a summer blockbuster action movie.

At one point, Delia has a discussion about emotions with Imp.  One would suspect anyone fitted with AI would have had that exchange with the device a long time previously and it is obvious that the dialogue is for the benefit of the reader’s understanding.

This is a fun adventure/quest story with lots of good ideas if you can get past the outlandish probabilities without thinking too hard about it.

Book Review: A Horse Walks Into a Bar – David Grossman (Translated by Jessica Cohen)

I’d wanted to read this book since hearing an interview with the translator, Jessica Cohen.  The book, written in Hebrew, won the International Man Booker Prize 2017.  The prize is split equally between the author and the translator, recognising the skill and contribution of both.

The story is set over one evening in a comedy club in the Israeli city of Netanya.  The comedian is Dovaleh G,  an ageing performer who seems to have retained his ‘edgy’ image.  His painfully thin appearance makes us suspect that he is suffering from an illness.

The narrator is a very old acquaintance of Dovaleh G, a former friend whom he has not seen for decades.  Dovaleh tracks him down and pleads with him to watch this particular performance.  The acquaintance, a retired Judge, agrees to go but regrets it almost immediately.  He tries to leave but Dovaleh embarrasses him into staying.  The Judge then shoves “handfuls of nuts into my mouth and grind them like they were his bones.”  A vivid line.

Dovaleh builds up some rapport with the audience.  He is endearing, insulting, frustrating, violent and unpredictable.  Jokes are followed by random monologues and self-harm.

Dovaleh picks on a small lady who does not appear to be enjoying the show.  It turns out that she knew him when he was young and says that he used to be a ‘good boy’.  This is the catalyst for the disintegration of Dovaleh and the show.   Outraged audience members leave, but some remain as they cannot resist “the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

The comedy routine turns into a monologue on a painful incident in Dovaleh’s early life when he was faced with terrible circumstances, life-changing uncertainty, cowardice and indifference.

The writing in the translation is compelling.  When Dov is remembering a particular member he is described as having “Sleepwalking terror on his face: he’s there.  All of him is there.”  It’s a line that took me to the heard of the story, I could picture him and felt like an audience member, needing to watch but feeling guilty for doing so when a man is falling apart.

This is an unusual story of a childhood tragedy,  decades old guilt and confession told in a setting where you’d least expect it.

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (MacLehose Press 2016)

An immersive story about the lives of a close Norwegian family as they cope with growing-up, ageing, work, tragedy and the vicissitudes of the weather on their sparse life.  Contemplative and humane.  You will put the book down feeling like a family member and have an odd longing to visit the island.
The story, translated from Norwegian, follows fisherman/farmer Hans Barroy and his family over a number of years.  Hans lives with his father (Martin), wife (Maria), daughter (Ingrid) and sister (Barbro) on the eponymous isle of Barroy.
I was unsure what to expect when starting this book and suspected that the bucolic existence could be marred by some form of violent tragedy.  This isn’t that type of book, however, but I soon fell into the peaks and troughs of their lives.
Jacobsen writing is thoughtful and peaceful, I very much enjoyed the state of calm that I felt when reading.  At first nothing much seems to happen but then I realised that plenty happens but it is simply the narrative that takes away some of the sharp edges of events, both good and bad.  You feel the happiness and suffering of the Barroys, but not in a shocking, melodramatic way.
The island and the sea are important parts of the book.   The island is under a kilometre from north to south and half a kilometre from east to west.  The seasons and the tides are massively important to the Barroys.  The sea brings treasure but also ‘fragments of distant lives, testament to opulence, laxity, loss and carelessness, and misfortune which has befallen people they have never heard of and will never meet.’
The joy of the environment is obvious, as are its dangers
Jacobsen will sometimes focus on small or odd experiences.  For example, when Ingrid is taught why the ‘carding’ (cleaning) of Eider-down is important, or when a cat is carried away by an eagle.
The language of the Barroys is translated into a colloquial English which, in part, reads like Yorkshire dialect.  The meaning is never lost though.
The characters are thoroughly believable, all with their own particular strengths and foibles.  Ingrid starts in the book as an infant and, in some respects, grows into the most important and strong character in the book.  She is a survivor, it is a lifestyle that makes no allowance for the feint-hearted.
This is a book that takes you on a journey of years and engenders moods and an odd form of nostalgia in the reader. A book I would thoroughly recommend.

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year 11 – Edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris 2017)

You’d have to be very lucky to pick up a  compilation, such as this, and find you liked every story.  Conversely, you’d have to be incredibly unlucky to find that you disliked all of it.

This collection contains some excellent short stories.  It also contains some that, whilst not terrible, undermine the claim to be ‘The best’ of the year.

Some of the stand-out stories include:

  • The Future is Blue by Catheryne M Valente – This is a fantastic tale about a girl with the unlikely name of Tetley Abednego who lives on a floating continent of waste following an environmental disaster caused by the ‘Fuckwits’ i.e. us.  Tetley is widely despised, obscenities are flung her way regularly.  The descriptions of the floating world are vivid.
  • Even the Crumbs Were Delicious by Daryl Gregory – Babes in the Wood meets Philip K Dick in a funny, warm tale.
  • Things with Beards by Sam J Miller – Often dreamlike.  Space creatures deal with issues of equality and social justice.  A story to dwell on and read again.
  • Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson – A high fantasy story concerning war, magic and unimaginable sacrifice in the pursuit of victory.  Simply stunning, a standout in this collection.
  • Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman – Concerns contact with aliens who are sentient but not conscious as “Being aware would just degrade their skill”.  This is an interesting contemplation on how many strive to lose self-awareness.
  • Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley – Eco sci-fi, similar in theme to Catheryne M Valente’s story.  A massive remedial industry exists to prevent rising sea levels.
  • The Visitor from Taured by Ian R MacLeod – A love story in which the multiple universe theory plays a part.  Very well written and poignant.

There are many more stories, some good and some that are average.  The one criticism of this collection is that it feels too long and would have made a tighter, more impressive book with some of the weaker stories omitted.

Fans of sci-fi and fantasy are unlikely to feel short-changed if they buy this book.  There are enough great stories to make up for the ones that don’t quite hit the mark.

Book Review: The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories.

The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories – Edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (Solaris 2017)

I love the variety and surprises that short story collections often bring.  I was intrigued by this book which aims to showcase global storytelling and to showcase the djinn (alternatively jinn or genie) as an element of folklore with “immense contemporary” relevance.

The stories are written in a variety of styles.  Classic fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction and ‘weird’ feature amongst others.  Many of the writers bring contemporary issues into focus through a lens of magic.

I’ll highlight a few of the stories that stood out:

The Congregation by Kamila Shamsie – This has a traditional feel and is about a boy, fathered by a jinn, who wishes to feel whole again by being possessed by his jinn brother.  There is a lovely line it where a character says “There is no evil here, only love.  God save us from a world that can’t tell the difference.”

Hurrem and the Djinn by Claire North – Tells a tale of the Sultan’s favourite lady who is believed to be a witch.  It’s about the suspicion and rumour that dogs women of influence and the hatred they face.

Glass Lights by J.Y YangThis is a lovely story of Mena, a Muslim girl who was told by her grandfather that she is a djinn.  Mena quietly helps others without expectations.  It is a tale of everyday life, passing encounters with strangers and the mundanity and randomness of the working day.

A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar – The immigrant experience is writ large in this tale.  We are told that “Nations are great magicians; they pull borders out of hats like knots of silk.  Here, says the wizard nation, here are the terms of a truce: be small, be drab, above all be grateful, and we will let you in.”  This is a prose piece rather than a straightforward story.

Reap by Sami Shah – US based drone operatives spend long shifts watching and analysing a small village in Pakistan.  Through heat signatures and movements they watch a supernatural horror unfold.  Tense and very effective.

Message in a Bottle by K.J. Parker – Witty and mediaeval in style.  Some of the dialogue is a bit too contemporary to fit in comfortably but an excellent story nevertheless.

Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Z. Hossain – Great dystopian sci-fi about the poor and dispossessed.  A Djinn, a cook and a smuggler set up a kitchen and shelter to provide for the poorest.  Well written.  The descriptions of the simple meals cooked made my mouth water.

Somewhere in America by Neil Gaiman – Taken from his novel American Gods.  This is just excellent.  Funny, explicit, moving and empathetic.  It works as a standalone short story.

Overall an engaging, though provoking collection.