Book Review: Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (Penguin Books 2012)

On a periodic basis a general, but not overwhelming, desire to self-improve will coincide with a vague interest in a topic and the act of spotting an interesting looking book. Recently, I experienced just such a perfect alignment and picked up this popular science book on the chemical elements.

It has excerpts of glowing reviews from some pretty heavyweight supporters such as the Sunday Times, Nature, The Observer and, er, Lauren Laverne. All I would say is don’t always believe the reviews, even this one,

The book is organised into sections entitled Power, Fire, Craft, Beauty and Earth to reflect the essential nature of some of the elements. It even has pictures to entice even the most ardent recidivist anti-intellectual troglodyte. I don’t think small black and white pictures are awfully helpful or attractive in paperbacks but I suppose it does allow them to be included near the relevant text rather than in a separate section

For each element on which he writes, Hugh Aldersey-Williams flicks between history, religion, alchemy, experiments, the significance of the element over time and its discoverer. Whilst parts of this are very interesting, some are less so. For example, he obviously loves to carry out experiments as the early chemists or alchemists did and describes them in some detail. I suspect these were more fun to carry out than they are to read. For me it was like reading a lengthy description of how a mechanic had repaired the exhaust on my car; nice to know that it’s been done but not really exciting in the description.

There is much here that is fascinating such as the theory that the tomb of the first Chinese Emperor contained a scale replica of his empire complete with miniature rivers flowing with mercury, Agatha Christie’s use of Thallium in a novel that appears to have inspired would be murderers and Lavoisier (who named Oxygen) being sent tor the guillotine in revolutionary France. The book also served to remind me what a thoroughly reprehensible character the chemist Fritz Haber was. His interest in developing the use of gas in the First World War was far more sinister than a purely scientific endeavour. The world would have been a better place without him.

Whilst there are some very interesting parts it is quite hit and miss and a very good section could be followed unreasonably quickly by something that is very tedious and this seems to be the result of the magpie pick and mix approach which throws in anything and everything linked to a particular element. Given the logical clarity and beauty of Mendeleev’s periodic table it was surprising that the book was so seemingly random and jarring. It was a struggle to maintain an interest until the end. IMG_0085.JPG

Book Review: Twelve Tomorrows. Edited by Bruce Sterling (Technology Review Inc -2014)

I’m occasionally surprised by the books and magazines at the WH Smith bookshop in London’s Euston Station. I was immediately attracted by the 1960’s style typeface and had to pick it up. Sadly, it turned out to be less exciting on the inside.

This book contains nine short stories, some artwork by John Schoenherr, one book review and an interview with Gene Wolfe. There is also a preface by the editor Bruce Sterling but that isn’t counted otherwise they would have had to call it Thirteen Tomorrows, which wouldn’t sit as well on the cover and would just be plain unlucky.

My favourite part of the book was the Q&A with Gene Wolfe, I was hoping to like the stories a lot but sadly, this wasn’t to be. Many of the stories imagine a dystopia where technological advances are often more of a curse than a blessing.

Slipping by Lauren Beukes is the story of South African athlete Pearl, whose ruined body has been re-built and massively enhanced allowing her to achieve great speed in races alongside other similarly enhanced runners. A scene in which Pearl’s stomach in unhooked and replaced by a plug of hormones and nanotechnology before a race is particularly memorable. Running is Pearl’s chance to escape her poor background but the exploitation she is subject to from those supposedly helping her is clear to see.

Business as Usual by Pat Cadigan is a light-hearted affair in which free-choice is increasingly limited by the dictates of health-insurance companies and kitchen appliances. The message of the story is fine but the science is ludicrous. A talking fridge that rings a human operated helpline to discuss the meaning of free-will does not feel like an imaginable future to me. I will apologise if ever my fridge reports my fondness for cheese to my doctor.

Cory Doctorow’s Petard: A Tale of Just Deserts is the best story in this collection and imagines a near-future where technology and a greater understanding of chaos theory means that big corporations the ability to extend their control and increase profits at the expense of choice and dignity. It is set within MIT itself and is a nice tale of rebellion against ‘the man’.

Shipping Forecast is by Warren Ellis who I know primarily as a comic book writer. The style feels like a literary long-form treatment of a graphic novel. It has an interesting line in it about Segways not changing the world because they over engineered a problem that wasn’t really a problem. As an aside, this felt like a theory that applied to many of the stories in the book.

Death Cookie/Easy Ice by William Gibson remains a mystery to me. I read it twice and I still have no idea of what it is about. I suspect I may not be clever enough to understand.

Pirates of the Plastic Ocean by Paul Graham Raven is a good story where the main character, Hope Dawson, finds herself manipulated into assisting a fabulously wealthy would-be mentor who views macroeconomic growth and ruin from close up, purely as an academic exercise. The end of the story gives a nice sense of redemption and freedom.

The Various Mansions of the Universe by Bruce Sterling feels, like many of the other stories in this collection, a good idea screaming out for a story. In fact it feels like the story happened before we arrived and we’re now just viewing the happy ever after or at least the ‘moderately tolerable ever after’.

Overall, I was disappointed by this collection despite 2 or 3 highlights. IMG_0083.JPG