De omnibus dubitandum
14 Jun 2013
On 9 June 2013, Iain Banks died from cancer at age 59.
It’s hard to overestimate how much I love Banks’s writing. In my list of ten favourite non-fiction books, his solitary non-fiction effort is very near the top. My list of ten favourite literary fiction novels has three of his books on it. And over half my list of favourite science fiction novels of all time are Iain M. Banks books.
Even more than Hitchens, Iain Banks’ writing brought genuine joy to my life. And now he’s gone.
And I find that to be a profoundly sad thought.
Iain wasn’t done yet. He was nowhere near done. But cancer took him away, like it’s taken Hitchens, and taken family members, and taken friends.
Fuck you cancer. Fuck you very much.
26 Sep 2012
So reading this rather excellent demolition of the entire popular neuroscience genre was more than a little uncomfortable, though probably very necessary:
“So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form.”
While I do believe that neuro-scientific endeavours will, eventually, provide us with meaningful (if unpalatable for some) answers about the nature of thought and consciousness, it’s good to remind ourselves that this is a science in its infancy and we shouldn’t let ourselves be carried along by overly optimistic commercially-incentivised book writers.
1 Jun 2012
I have a confession to make: I haven’t read the Iliad. I have a lovely modern translation sitting on my bookshelf in a boxed set with The Odyssey, but I’ve only managed a few chapters of the Iliad before other – and, let’s be honest here, less difficult – books beckoned and I abandoned that most illustrious classic.
My fascination with the story of Achilles and the fall of Troy is undiminished, though. I’ve read alternative takes on this enduring epic saga, including a great science-fictionisation by Dan Simmons (for all his flaws as a person, Simmons sure knows how to write epic prose).
And now I can add another re-imagining of The Iliad to my list of completed reads: The Song of Achilles.
At first (and entirely erroneous) glance it might seem to be little more than a homo-eroticised fanfic version of the Iliad told through the perspective of Patroclus. But a book that wins prizes is not to be dismissed so casually. Especially when the Kindle version costs less than a fancy sandwich from Marks & Spencer.
So I bought it, downloaded it to the Kindle app on my iPad, and started reading last night. At about half past midnight I stopped reading. Not because I needed to sleep – though I certainly did – but because I’d finished it. I finished it in one night not purely because it’s not a huge book, but also because it’s addictively, mindbogglingly good. The very definition of a page-turner (or, more accurately on the iPad, a page-swiper).
The Song of Achilles manages to pay tribute to the original classic, give its own original spin to the ancient tale, and be immensely fun to read as well. The characters are well-drawn and multi-layered, the story flows with a rapid pace but commands the right level of detail, and the prose can be almost poetic at times.
In short, it’s a fantastic book. It’s not just a great re-imagining of the Iliad, it’s also a superb stand-alone work. Even if you’re not familiar with the Iliad, or if don’t like Homer’s grand tale, and/or if you couldn’t stand Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 Hollywoodisation of it, I would nonetheless recommend you give The Song of Achilles a try.
Unless, of course, you’re a homophobe. In which case you should fuck off and stop reading my blog.
The few bits of criticism levied against The Song of Achilles that I managed to find seem to focus on the decision of the author to portray the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles as homosexual. This is an odd complaint to make, in light of our knowledge that homosexual relationships were fairly commonplace and not particularly controversial in ancient Greek times. And I have to say, despite academic arguments on either side, the whole story makes more sense to me if Achilles and Patroclus are lovers.
Anyway, all this just boils down to one thing: I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone. Go and buy it. I mean it. And when you’ve read it, let me know what you think.
15 Feb 2012
The other day my eye caught an AdWords ad for a book called “The Final Theory” by Mark McCutcheon, an author previously unknown to me. This book allegedly solves all of the existing scientific conundrums and supposedly introduces ‘a new scientific perspective’ that ‘radically re-thinks’ all we know about how the universe works today.
Now, as you may know, I’m a bit of a science geek. I’m also a sceptic. De Omnibus Dubitandum, and all that. The description of this book in the ad and on its website set off all kinds of bullshit alarms in my head. The book’s marketing material focused purely on how this new final theory would overturn all established science and revolutionise our understanding of the laws of physics, casting in to doubt centuries worth of scientific advancements.
I’ve seen similar tones struck in many different promotional materials, usually those published by creationists, homeopaths, energy healers, and other similarly delusional quacks. So I did what any physics geek of sound mind would do: I went to Amazon.com and looked at the book’s reviews.
Amazon tends to be a place where works of atrocious quality are skilfully eviscerated by a horde of merciless reviewers who will destroy a work if it lacks merit. At least, that’s what I thought.
As it turns out, the vast majority of reviews for this book on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive, with no fewer than 71 five-star reviews at last count. According to the Amazon reviewers this book is at least on a par with Stephen Hawkin’s “A Brief History of Time”.
That, too, set of further bullshit alarms. I’d never heard of this Mark McCutcheon fellow before, and I try to keep myself at least moderately informed of what’s going on in the world of science. As this book was originally published in 2003, if it truly had such amazing scientific merit as is claimed by these countless Amazon reviewers, there should by all accounts have been quite a shockwave going through the scientific establishment. And there most certainly was not.
So I dug deeper. Wikipedia was, mysteriously, devoid of any mentioning of the book and its author. In fact, Wikipedia was so diligent in not mentioning Mark McCutcheon and his Final Theory, that I suspected it was a deliberate deletion. That turned out to be the case, as is evident from this administrators’ discussion page (search for ‘McCutcheon’ on that page to find the relevant passages).
Also there are various sceptical forum threads and blog posts dedicated to the book, specifically to how negative reviews on Amazon are mysteriously and inexplicably deleted, leaving only a vast bulk of four- and five-star positive reviews. These positive reviews are themselves rather suspect, as they seem to be posted by new Amazon users without any significant review history, and many of them use very similar phrasings and writing styles.
The last damning piece of evidence comes from a forum thread on a physics community site where the book’s ‘Final Theory’ is thoroughly slaughtered for the nonsensical quackery that it so obviously is.
What is most disturbing about this whole episode is Amazon’s complicity in the whole affair. There is, for all intents and purposes, deliberate censorship at work here in an effort to promote a book that espouses such an obviously farcical concept. Genuine criticism is being silenced in favour of a commercial message, trying to get you to buy a book that contains patent falsehoods, distortions, and lies.
I suppose when there is money to be made, truth is entirely optional.
25 Jan 2012
The west is sliding towards economic disaster, our politicians are increasingly racist & homophobic, organised religion continues to force its Stone Age worldviews on the masses, the internet is being turned in to a restricted playground for corporate forces, and our continued reluctance to tackle global warming will mean your children will be truly and royally fucked by the time they’re our age.
So let’s indulge in some worthwhile escapism. Here are a few recommendations for fantasy novels that I’ve recently read:
Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind / The Wise Man’s Fear
A newcomer to the fantasy genre, Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear are great wee tales. The protagonist is called Kvothe Kingkiller, a sorcerer of considerable reputation, and the books are basically the story of his life as told by Kvothe himself.
There are a lot of elements in these novels that have great promise, from the way magic works to the fae realm and its denizens. There are hints aplenty to the world’s long and chequered past as well as Kvothe’s own infamous deeds, but somehow the books never manage to convey a grand sense of scale. It all feels a bit confined and not quite as epic as I’d hoped.
Still, they’re very good books featuring a great leading character – though the supporting cast is very one-dimensional and needs work – and I’ll be buying the third instalment when it’s published.
Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold / The Heroes
Best Served Cold is the story of a female mercenary commander out to exact revenge on those who betrayed her, leaving nations destroyed in her wake. It is epic, gritty, and sometimes downright vicious, and I loved every single word of it.
The Heroes is about a single battle between armies of the Northmen and the Empire. While much more limited in time and geographical location, it somehow manages to feel every bit as epic – as if you are watching history being made. It’s even more violent than Best Served Cold (which is quite an accomplishment in itself) and is probably the finest fantasy (anti-)war novel you’ll ever read.
Richard Morgan: The Steel Remains / The Cold Commands
After a very successful string of science fiction novels, Richard Morgan decided to try his hand at writing fantasy. But Morgan being Morgan, it’s not just any fantasy. It’s fantasy as you’ve never read it before. I guarantee it.
For starters, a significant portion of his three main protagonists are gay – Ringil Eskiath is a homosexual warrior with a formidable reputation, and Archeth Indamaninarmal is a near-immortal lesbian descendant from a race of technologically advanced demi-gods. The third protagonist Egar Dragonsbane, a restless barbarian from the steppes, is positively mundane by comparison.
Not only is Morgan very good at characterisation, his world-building is also without equal. From the very first chapter you realise this is an old world – or, intriguingly, a potential young version of many different possible old worlds (you’ll need to read the novels for that to make sense, but trust me it’s a fascinating concept). Morgan also seems to have embraced Arthur C. Clarke’s edict that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as much of the esoteric sorcery in these novels is probably – though not definitely – technology wielded by ancient post-human species.
Richard Morgan also manages to capture that ‘ageing warrior’ essence David Gemmell so adeptly channelled, and there are many more fascinating ingredients to these two novels that ensure he’ll continue to have a host of very loyal readers, myself among them. I can’t wait to read what comes next, and that is the highest praise I can give any author.
6 Jul 2011
In typical Watts style that first chapter is so densely packed with ideas and concepts, other sci-fi authors would take decades to come up with even half of that stuff.
I can’t wait for this book to be published.
13 Jan 2011
What do you get when you take one of my favourite FPS games, and then throw in not one but two of my favourite authors – both of whom produce material that’s firmly on the gritty, violent and thought-provoking side of the Sci-Fi spectrum – and mix it up thoroughly?
You get this: Crysis 2
Sequel to the superb Crysis, this game is scripted by the indomitable Richard Morgan – known for his Takeshi Kovacs novels and the genre-defying The Steel Remains – and has an accompanying adaptation novel written by the unparalleled Peter Watts – author of the amazing and mind-blowing Blindsight, arguably the best science fiction novel of the past decade.
I’m afraid to get too hyped up about it, because we are talking EA and they have a knack for not living up to expectations and/or ruining games with great potential, but the involvement of these two authors can only be good for the final product.
Morgan’s violence, mood-setting and grittiness mixed up with Watts’ science, plotbuilding, attention to detail, and existential angst should – in theory – add up to something very special indeed. We’ll keep a close eye on this game, that’s for sure.