1. Thoughts on reading Ancillary Justice

    Posted July 16, 2015 in books  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve just finished reading Ancillary Justice, the recent recipient of multiple science fiction awards including the coveted Hugo. It was the first science fiction novel I’ve read for some time.

    Having once read that genre almost exclusively I was expecting to like the novel far more than I did, so I was left wondering if I’ve become less receptive to the genre as a whole or if it’s down to Ancillary Justice in particular.

    Before reading Ancillary Justice I’d heard a lot about its similarity to Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, and I could see some common elements, in particular the notion of starships having sufficiently advanced AIs that they develop personalities and become engaged in political affairs. But is that even an interesting idea any more? It seems to me that, in the early 21st century, our portrayals of the far future would be stranger if they didn’t include some form of advanced and politically engaged AI than if they did. So I’m not sold on the idea that the use of an AI as the novel’s protagonist is particularly radical.

    Of course it’s not fair to say that science fiction novels are only made good by the novelty and uniqueness of their underlying ideas, but I found Ancillary Justice flawed in some other ways too. There’s an over-reliance on what seem to be quite amazing coincidences, including the chance meeting with Seivarden which kicks off the story. For a while I expected some explanation for these, what with the numerous references to the Radch belief that there is “no such thing as coincidence”, but as the novel drew to a close it became clear that the coincidences were what they’d initially seemed to be: a convenient and lazy literary device. There were other problems with characterisation and motive but I’m not going to get into the details of these here.

    Don’t get me wrong, Ancillary Justice isn’t a car crash and it’s by no means the worst science fiction novel I read. Maybe my expectations were inflated by the awards it received; maybe I was wrong to think, upon starting it, that I was about to encounter the state of the art of modern science fiction. But I’m left with two questions. First, should I press on and read the sequels to Ancillary Justice? And second, are there other novels out there that better exemplify the best modern sci-fi?


  2. My review of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

    Posted February 22, 2011 in books  |  No Comments so far

    (This review also appears on the library page for Don Quixote)

    This was my first encounter with Cervantes and his deluded knight, Don Quixote. Previously discouraged by its sheer heft (this is a long book – basically two novels in one volume), my new e-reader allowed me to take it on holiday without risk of hernia. I’m glad I did.

    I found myself especially surprised at its sophistication, especially given that it’s nearly four hundred years old (the second volume was published in 1615). There’s a notion floating about that most of the interesting innovation in the novel form took place from the 19th century onwards, and I suppose I bought into that notion. My expectation – that Don Quixote would seem dated and quaint but historical and “worthy” – turned out to be very wide of the mark. This is pretty far from Balzac.

    In the course of these two volumes, Cervantes seems to invent almost every structural innovation that has been used in the modern novel, and then some. These innovations range from obvious ones like story-within-a-story to intricate crossovers between novel and reality and stylistic parodies of then-popular genres.

    To concentrate on this aspect of Don Quixote, however, is to unfairly portray it as a parade of gimmicks. The innovations aren’t distracting or clunky, and they’re balanced out by a rich vein of gritty historical detail that probably comes from Cervantes’ own history. I actually got a bit of a science-fiction buzz from the accounts of naval campaigns in the Mediterranean, which Cervantes actually fought in (he was captured and enslaved for several years). And this particular translation meticulously avoids introducing any olde-worlde mannerisms into Cervantes’ English, lending his voice a contemporary character that’s appropriate to the sophistication and “modernity” of the novel itself.

    What about Don Quixote himself, and his quest? I found him more insane, more dangerous, more misguided than popular conceptions of the character led me to expect. The word “quixotic” means hopelessly idealistic, impractical and unrealistic. Quixote is all of these things but he’s insane too, and highly dangerous, even though he usually finds himself on the receiving end of severe violence after conflicts he initiates. It’s only towards the end that I started to feel sympathy with Quixote, with this reaching something of an extreme when he and Panza are separated by the deceptive aristocratic pranksters. All in all though Don Quixote is actually a pretty dangerous character and the novel is quite violent both physically and psychologically.

    If you’re thinking about tackling Don Quixote I’d recommend you try to read it in electronic form, as the weight of the physical book would be discouraging. You’ll also benefit from the ability to follow footnotes and look up dictionary definitions. But be prepared for a long journey at the sides of these two unfortunate characters.


  3. More reasons to reconsider your Kindle purchase

    Posted December 18, 2010 in books, politics  |  No Comments so far

    I wrote a few weeks ago about my growing concerns over Amazon, the Kindle and censorship. Amazon – with its Kindle e-reader – is asking us to give it absolute control over what we can and can’t read. Now imagine books you own disappearing from your home without warning, just because another country’s government has deemed their contents politically undesirable. Would you tolerate that? If yes, the Kindle is for you – but if not, you should think twice before embracing it wholeheartedly.

    Yesterday, the Register published an article about further signs of censorship within the Kindle system. This censorship isn’t political – instead, the books affected are erotica novels with themes like incest and so on – but it’s still concerning.

    [Jess Scott, one affected author] went on: “I see other similarly-themed books still available for purchase, and see books with the subjects of rape, bestiality, etc, available for purchase (books that have not been deleted from Amazon’s catalog). If underage sex is illegal, why is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita still available for purchase?”

    The reply from Amazon, according to Jess, boiled down to a simple statement that they would judge each case on its merit, and they would act as their own judge and jury in cases such as these…

    It looks as though the Kindle marketplace is going to become something like an iTunes App Store for books, where unexplained and arbitrary decisions are made centrally about what users are allowed to access. That policy isn’t great when applied to apps, but it’s even less appealing where books are concerned.

    I find these shady shenanigans especially annoying because I really like my Kindle, and I’d like to store books on it just as permanently as I do on my bookshelf. At the moment I’m investigating how to “jailbreak” the Kindle, and when I get round to it I’ll post up a guide here.


  4. On Iain Sinclair, ant colonies, generative music and emergent systems

    Posted April 6, 2010 in books  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve recently started to notice a new pattern forming in my reading habits. Well, maybe it’s been around for ages and has just become more evident since I started using this blog for book reviews. Either way, it seems to have something to do with memory, emergence, cities, complexity and ants.

    Back in late 2009 I finished reading Haunted Weather, a collection of essays about 21st century soundscapes by David Toop. In that book, Toop touches on how modern sound-processing software (Max/MSP, Supercollider) allows music to be created using genetic algorithms. The unpredictable, evolving nature of these algorithms leads to music which is unpredictable and ever-changing: generative music.

    During the section on generative music Toop refers to another book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Stephen Johnson. I told Cathy that I was after a copy of this book, and it presently turned up as a Christmas gift.

    I didn’t start reading it straight away, though. At the time I was reading the Iain Sinclair-compiled London: City of Disappearances, on loan from my friend Jamie. In London: City of Disappearances, fiction and non-fiction from contributors including JG Ballard, Bill Drummond, Alan Moore and Rachel Lichtenstein loosely circles around the central theme of disappearance and loss in London.

    After reading that I moved on to The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, which was borrowed from my friend Lindsey. Gladwell has a model for describing the viral spread of cultural phenomena, where Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen propel memes into mainstream awareness. The process via which cultural phenomena “tip” is portrayed as a decentralised one, which usually lacks conscious co-ordination.

    When I was done with The Tipping Point I started reading Emergence. Its author, Steven Johnson, introduces the scientific phenomenon of emergence, where systems develop complex behaviours at a macro level even though system components are governed by far simpler and more basic rules. Before long, Emergence made me start noticing that the series of books I’d been reading recently had a common thread, even though on the surface they seemed extremely dissimilar.

    In Emergence, Stanford’s Deborah Gordon describes her studies of ant colonies over the course of their entire lifespans. She observed that ant colonies follow a consistent behavioural pattern, becoming gradually less aggressive and more predictable as they age. This happens over a period of roughly fifteen years, even though individual ants (the queen excepted) live for only one. So ant colonies have a “memory” which exists at the macro level (the colony) as opposed to micro level (individual ants).

    This trait of ant colonies can be found in human cities, whose memories also outlive those of their individual inhabitants. Cities have patterns which persist through the ages: a time traveller from Florence circa 800 years ago would find much of the modern city (including its language) alien, but would still be familiar with the locations of trades such as the silk merchants of Por Santa Maria.

    The persistence of these patterns in the face of continual physical change means that cities can be seen as memory storage devices. Lewis Mumford is quoted (from 1961’s The City In History) as saying that “the great city is the best organ of memory man has yet created”. Reading all this made me see London: City of Disappearances in a new light. Its underlying theme, that London is defined as much by what has vanished by what now exists, resonated with the idea of the city as an “organ of memory”, and the book itself was an example of that “organ of memory” at work.

    In some ways City of Disappearances is a work not of Sinclair and his contributors but of London itself. London wants to be remembered: as a system, it must be remembered in order to survive. And to be remembered, it must inspire fascination among those who live in it and who visit it, fascination that in turn inspires research, document and contribute to the collective memory of the city.

    Happy that Emergence had given me a new way to look at the Iain Sinclair compendium , I kept on reading and soon found myself rethinking my understanding of The Tipping Point too. The “tipping point” described by Gladwell is a phase transition triggered not by centralised direction (e.g. a big-budget marketing campaign) but by a complex set of interactions. In other words, the tipping point is itself an emergent behaviour.

    This made me feel a bit more charitable towards The Tipping Point. Emergent systems are difficult to describe, especially when human beings are the micro-level parts. Malcolm Gladwell describes a kind of behaviour in human societies that is actually quite complex, and does so in a way that is accessible and engaging: no mean feat.

    The pattern developing in my reading habits is leading me towards further exploration of cities, communities, markets – and the web itself – as complex systems where real change is driven not by charismatic individuals (hello Steve Jobs) but by emergent properties which are less predictable and less easy to control.

    And I might even be tempted to start learning more about ant colonies, even though I’ve got a bad history with them: the last time I came across an ant colony I tried to destroy it, but next time I might not be so hasty.