Published by: Michael O'Mara Books, 2018
This is a fairly light wander through the state of modern scientific thought in the form of fifty nicely chewy facts (humans are one of only three species of animals on Earth where the females experience menopause; time travel is not ruled out by the laws of physics; the fundamental building blocks of nature are all triplicated). It's a quick read (I only started it yesterday evening) and if you're a science nerd like me there's unlikely to be any factoid in here that you haven't already discovered elsewhere, but it's an entertaining read and more than one quotation from Douglas Adams is used to introduce some of the more mind-boggling concepts, which is always a good sign.
It's a teensy bit too light and fluffy for my tastes, but it would be a good choice for a present to a scientifically-inclined child.
Published by: Hodder and Stoughton, 2007
Given that advertising these days has become the bane of human existence as it vomits its "message" over almost every aspect of modern civilization (and this has triggered a veritable arms race across the Internet between those of us who would rather not be subjected to ads every goddamn minute and those who think that they have a right to blast us with whatever nonsense they want, regardless of whether or not we gave any consent to the matter) you may be rather surprised to discover that there was a time some fifty years ago when advertising executives were treated like rock stars and earned more money each year than the people who were running the country. But it's true. Back then, creatives who worked in advertising had the temerity to behave as if what they were making was art. As it turns out, for a while some of them may actually have come close to doing so. Sam Delaney's entertaining (if mildly alarming) book tells the story of that time in all its excessive, monomaniacal, hedonistic glory.
If you've watched an episode of Mad Men or two you may have dismissed the show's central conceit of an industry populated with truly monumental, psychotic assholes off their faces on testosterone and illegal stimulants as a wild over-exaggeration for dramatic effect, but that indeed seems to have been the case at many (if not most) of the most successful advertising agencies of the late sixties and early seventies. The book is full of tales of aberrant behaviour that today would be both totally inexcusable and utterly indefensible—if not deserving of a custodial sentence or two. That just seems to have been how it was back then; being regarded as a dangerous maverick was not only seen as the highest badge of honour, it was deemed a necessary attribute to cultivate if you wanted your career to get anywhere.
Which might be why many of the meetings of the day described in this book seem to have concluded with broken glass everywhere, bloodstains on the furniture, and more than one of the participants being carted off to the Accident and Emergency department of the nearest hospital. I've read precious few rock and roll memoirs which can come anywhere close to approaching the levels of decadence and excess on display here. This couldn't last, of course; by the latter half of the 1980s the industry was notorious for its commonplace egotism—and its hubris. When an agency that used to be content with trying to get you to vote for the Tories or sell you cigarettes and booze decides that they really need to buy not one, but two international banks, it's hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that the bosses concerned were suffering from delusions of grandeur. Let's face it: when a profession becomes so well-known for its dependence on prodigious quantities of cocaine that the character of a going-off-the-rails ad man has become both a cliché and a narrative trope used by a quite ridiculously large number of screenwriters (and it was the work of a couple of minutes to come up with that list of movies; I'm sure that you could add many more), you know that there is something very wrong with what's going on. The advertising profession ended up living and working in a bubble that was completely isolated from the general public to whom they were trying to sell things. So it tanked.
Today, the dust has settled from all that and we're back to most advertising being utter garbage, particularly the crap that's spewed at us by our screens and television sets every day; it's the sort of thing that people would much rather not be subjected to at all. And yet, somehow, there's even more of it about now than there ever was, as if it's something that we have to put up with. Spend a few minutes surfing through the commercial television stations here in the UK, and you'll probably discover that the vast majority of them are either in the middle of a commercial break, or just about to go to one (and even the transitions to and from programmes to adverts now take the form of crass "sponsored by" messages that are also adverts).
Why did I switch to reading a book about advertising when I've spent the last month or so immersing myself in texts written about cinema? That's an easy question to answer: all I have to do is list a few of the people who were interviewed for Sam's book and provided their accounts of what the industry was like back then, and the people they mention working with: David Puttnam, Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and his brother Tony, Hugh Hudson, Gray Joliffe, and Peter Mayle. Some of the UK's most creative powerhouses of the past sixty years got their big breaks thanks to the fact that they started their professional careers and learned their craft working in advertising. Trying to get us to buy things turned out to be a powerful means of learning the art of communicating with an audience for more authentic, productive, and wholesome reasons.
At least, that's what advertising executives would like you to think. But they would say that, wouldn't they?
Published by: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2020
As should be evident in the runs of books read and reviewed here this year that are written by the same person, when I discover a writer whose work I enjoy immensely I tend to read as much of it as I can possibly get my hands on. And so we come to another book on cinema written by the film critic David Thomson; published in 2020 this is, at least according to Wikipedia, his most recent work.
Written in his trademark relaxed conversational style, this book is an examination of the careers (and personalities) of some of cinema's great directors from Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, and Luis Buñuel to Stephen Frears, Kathryn Bigelow, and Martin Scorsese by way of Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and (of course) Orson Welles. You'll find Godard and Tarantino in evidence as well, of course—but you may be more surprised to encounter directors like Leni Riefenstahl and D.W. Griffith in these pages, as they were auteurs whose work has long since been eclipsed by their far right politics and toxic views on race.
As with Thomson's previous works, he is so enthusiastic in describing the merits of the films he discusses that I found myself struggling to resist the urge to go online and order copies of those films which I don't already have in my collection. And I can think of no higher praise for someone's writing than that.
Published by: Yale University Press, 2015
I continue to binge David Thomson's writing about cinema (and in this book he addresses stage and television as well) and I'm enjoying each book I've acquired immensely. This particular book is part of Yale's series of "Why X matters" essays in which passionate authors present concise arguments for the continuing relevance of important people or ideas.
Humans have been acting—the process of assuming a fictional role and staging a performance in order to tell a story and communicate specific events, emotions, or concepts (in ways that perhaps heighten their dramatic content and which maybe aren't exactly fastidious about the truth of things)—since we first formed social groups. I can still remember the time I went out for a meal during my first visit to the United States way back in 1984 and remarking to my hosts that it felt like everyone else there was performing a role. It was a heightened version of reality; it all felt staged. We all find ourselves playing the best version of ourselves from time to time, whether it be at job interviews or first dates and I'm sure you've found yourself adjusting your behaviour to fit in at social gatherings from time to time. The version of you that I'd encounter in your local pub will differ from the version of you I'd see at your workplace. Which of those is your true self? People who do this sort of thing professionally, inhabiting many different personae, face even bigger challenges. How do you keep track of which one is the real you? Some personality types feel a need for their day to day life to be masked behind a performance which hides their true self from everyone else, and this can become pathological. How much of what you do is fake? Brando taught acting classes to which he gave the title, "Lying for a living" which sounds harsh, but it gets to the heart of things.
Actors transfer ideas from the mind of the author to the minds of the audience. How did this strange behaviour come about? In Thomson's own words, the book takes "a discursive conversational approach just because the task of justification is so far beyond reach that it really doesn't matter."
So instead Thomson examines a selection of famous actors and considers what made them tick; what was it that drove them into the acting profession? What does it mean when a performance suddenly catches fire and leaves the audience transfixed? It seems that even the finest actors struggle to understand what it was that they did in such circumstances: we read about Sir Laurence Olivier's run of performances of Othello in 1964–65 and the one night where people felt he'd exceeded his own limits and achieved something unique. "Larry, that was beyond anything," he was told. "But what did you do?" Olivier responded in joyful anguish, "I know! But what was it? What did I do?" Olivier is not the only actor whose work is singled out for becoming transcendent. Gielgud; Brando; Vivien Leigh; Meryl Streep are all mentioned. Just what is it that made them so mesmerising when they were on? What happens when an actor gets so immersed in a role that it threatens their sanity? And what is missing when a role fells flat, as they sometimes do? What exactly is it that an actor does to their audience, anyway?
I agree that there are can never be definitive answers to those sort of questions. And even if someone were to come up with a plausible reply to any of them tomorrow, in twenty or thirty years' time it will no longer apply; the psychological and cultural context in which the performer interacts with the audience will almost inevitably have changed so much that if the "magic" is to be preserved, a new approach to acting will have to be invented.
But in the hands of a writer as gifted and knowledgeable as Thomson, the process of mulling these ideas over is both thought-provoking and profoundly entertaining. It's another gem of a book.
Published by: Allen Lane, 2012
If you know me at all, you'll know that I'm obsessed with film. I have a large collection of movies at home and I'll usually watch at least one of them every week. There's a whole other section of this website which is devoted to film and reviews of films that I've seen. That obsession with cinema extends to books about the subject, too; I've been collecting those since I received a copy of The Clapperboard Book of the Cinema (written by the renowned film critic Leslie Halliwell) for my birthday when I was in my early teens. A few years ago I picked up David Thomson's How To Watch A Movie (Profile Books, 2016) and enjoyed it a lot, so when I visited the British Lions shop in Thornbury recently and saw this hefty volume on sale there for just £1, picking it up was a no-brainer.
The book is a kind of social history of moving pictures, starting with the experiments of Eadweard Muybridge and concluding with the rise of Netflix. It's a cinephile's companion, in which Thomson examines a wide selection of noteworthy or significant works as a way of illustrating how they have changed the way in which we view the world, and how cinema has evolved over time. This in itself is an interesting task, because the consensus as to which films deserve a place at the top of any list of the "greatest films ever made" has not changed as much as one would expect over the seven decades that such things have been compiled. Thomson asks us why this should be, wondering whether the movie business ought to be worried that the vast majority of films that get to the top of such lists these days were made prior to the mid-1970s. I found this observation particularly interesting, because I've noticed over the past few years that there have been precious few new releases which I've felt an immediate need to add to my collection. The last film that I watched where I can distinctly remember thinking while I was sitting in the cinema watching it that the cinematic form had just changed, and changed forever was probably Christopher Nolan's Inception, and that came out way back in 2010.
The book is full of stories of the greats, of course; Thomson deftly chronicles the rise and fall of many screen icons and their studios and the reasons for many a downfall are examined in detail. The movies are replete with hubris, sometimes on a truly monumental scale. Each chapter is densely packed with recommendations of relevant films which the author thinks the reader ought to see, and these are contextualised in the industry by someone who clearly knows the subject inside-out and front to back.
The book is now more than ten years old, but it concludes at what feels like an appropriate time, closing just before Netflix and streaming services accelerated the shift in how we watch films away from sitting in the dark in isolation towards televisions, tablets, and phones where diversions can more readily intrude and social aspects interrupt our focus. There's an elegiac feel to the closing chapters and I agree with the author that we're losing something important in moving away from the soft light of photons reflected off a giant, silver screen. But as an illustration of just how much I enjoyed this book, I'll simply say that before I'd got half-way through it, I'd bought another five of Mr Thomson's works and I've already started reading two of them.
Published by: Orbit, 2020
I must admit I struggled with this one. It's a novel set in the near future which maps out how we might go about mitigating the increasing damage to the environment that is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels. It makes grim reading, not least because even though it was only written a few years ago its predictions about the way that effects of changes in climate will accelerate already look charmingly optimistic, as are its ideas about how likely it is that the financial organizations and governments of the world will do anything effective to fix things in time. As a result, I got about half-way through the book and had to put it down and leave it alone for a few weeks until I felt I'd regained enough resilience to get to the finish.
Robinson uses The Ministry For The Future to outline a set of changes which we should make in order to fix things, to be overseen by the titular, imaginary new wing of the United Nations (which immediately had me muttering that calling it a Ministry was therefore using the wrong word, because a Ministry is a governmental body but the UN is an intergovernmental organization and none of its existing departments has ever been given such an appellation). It's a nice gag playing on the secondary meaning of the word in its devotional or religious sense, but it didn't feel right.
In creating his plan of action, Robinson needed to tread a fine line between creating a techno-thriller action adventure that would keep the reader turning the pages and writing a manifesto with a call to action—all without everything degenerating into a polemical tract. I'm afraid that for me there were many chapters in the book where I felt that he really doesn't manage to pull this off. Instead, there are too many info-dumps about the science and the engineering which would need to be applied to fix things. Another thing that tended to throw me out of the narrative was how the author chose to illustrate the alarming ways in which things could go wrong even more badly than they already have; these are described in standalone chapters by eye-witnesses, who are usually anonymous and who make no further appearances in the story.
The author has clearly done a lot of research on the subject but given the fairly safe assumption that most of the people who will read the book are likely to know most of the main points already (according to the front cover the book is a favourite of Barack Obama's, for example) it feels a lot like he's just preaching to the converted. The book has laudable aims for sure, and maybe I'm being overly pessimistic but just as with Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth or indeed Adam McKay's brutally frank Don't Look Up I suspect that the effect it is likely to have in bringing about meaningful action on climate change will be far smaller than its creator intended.
The book weighs in at more than five hundred and sixty pages, and when I said it was grim, I wasn't kidding. The scenario he envisages for how the next couple of decades will play out is depressingly plausible. Having said that, the UK government's recent u-turn on green policies exemplifies the sort of behaviour that typifies a sociopathic, oligarch-controlled kleptocracy to such an extreme that I'm sure that although Robinson rails against exactly such a thing in the text, if he had thought of a COP23 signatory pulling this sort of stunt beforehand, it would have been rejected out of hand for being too hyperbolically cartoon-villain, on-the-nose satirical to stand any chance of the reader accepting it as truth. The take-away from this for me is that things in the real world are likely to turn out much worse than they do in the book, and the book's dark enough; without getting in to spoiler territory there's very little in the way of any positive outcome to be found until around page four hundred and fifty. Despite this, the tale of the central characters was interesting enough to keep me engaged (after the aforementioned hiatus, at least) and the plot takes more than one unexpected twist. It's a pity that most of the people who really need to read this novel are also exactly the sort of people who never will.
Published by: University of Texas Press, 2021
I've been an admirer of the Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky (1932–1986) since the 70s as he was responsible for not one, but two classic science fiction films. I remember watching Solaris (1972) on BBC Two at some point in the mid seventies and being half baffled and half intrigued. It was like nothing else my teenage self had ever seen and watching late at night on a not-particularly-good black and white portable TV lent the film an even more transcendently weird aura than any pristine print could ever hope to achieve. By the time Channel Four broadcast Stalker (1979) in the early eighties, I'd acquired a Betamax video recorder of my own and I was rapidly amassing shelves full of what we'd now refer to as "cult" movies. I eagerly added it to the collection. When I proudly screened it for some friends the following weekend they were less than impressed and insisted on watching the closing hour of the film in the player's fast-forward picture search mode, relying on the flickering subtitles to pick up the barest gist of what was going on.
The author Richard Kadrey is a fellow film nut and Tarkovsky fan and when he mentioned this book on social media I ordered a copy on the spot. It's a collection of Tarkovsky's essays which are ostensibly about his creative process but are just as much an artistic manifesto and an examination of the purpose of art in society. This version of the book was translated from the original German by Kitty Hunter-Blair. It was first published in 1986, the year that Tarkovsky died of cancer in Paris. Reading about the plans which he never got to put into action (including a version of Macbeth) is heartbreaking.
Tarkovsky had clearly thought long and hard about the responsibilities of the artist as creator. He calls many times for the director to be keenly focused on getting the truth from their ensemble and from the script. For Tarkovsky, everything had to be relatable to his own experience or he felt that the audience would instantly see the falsity of what he was putting on the screen. Letting the audience experience something beautiful was clearly of great importance and you can see how he manages to achieve a sense of the numinous quite clearly in the scenes in Stalker that are set inside the Zone, for example. Cinema clearly had a profoundly spiritual hold on Tarkovsky. He had absolutely no time at all for the shallowness of the tent-pole, blockbusting summer films of the day:
"Given the competition with commercial cinema, a director has a particular responsibility towards his audiences. I mean by this that because of cinema's unique power to affect an auditorium—in the identification of the screen with life—the most meaningless, unreal commercial film can have just the same kind of magical effect on the uncritical and uneducated cinema-goer as that derived by his discerning counterpart from a real film. The tragic and crucial difference is that if art can stimulate emotions and ideas, mass-appeal cinema, because of its easy, irresistible effect, extinguishes all traces of thought and feeling irrevocably. People cease to feel any need for the beautiful or the spiritual, and consume films like bottles of Coca-Cola."
I was struck time and time again as I read Sculpting In Time by paragraphs making statements powerful enough to be printed out and hung on the wall, framed, for motivational purposes in my home studio (or posted to become memes on social media, which I suspect would have irritated Tarkovsky immensely). I've been very tempted to add several of them to this review, but instead I'll just encourage you to read the book for yourself and find those passages that resonate most deeply with your creative soul. Because find them you will. It's that sort of book.
Published by: Faber and Faber, 2016
The Polish writer Stanisław Lem (1921–2006) was one of the science fiction greats, and Solaris (written in 1961) was the novel that really put him on the map. This paperback is the translation by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, which Lem criticised more than once (bizarrely the translation was made not from the original Polish but from a French translation, which isn't going to help anyone). There is a newer translation made from the original Polish a few years ago by Bill Johnston which is supposed to be much better and has the approval of Lem's family, but because of copyright shenanigans you can only get it on Kindle, and I don't give Amazon my money any more so I'm stuck with the old translation and knowing the above it's difficult to avoid the suspicion that most of the problems I had with the text were because the original intent of the author had been missed. I get the impression that Faber and Faber are embarrassed about the whole affair, as this paperback, brought brand new, is printed on cheap paper and the binding has wrinkled the pages where they meet the spine. It's a mess.
Solaris has been adapted for the screen three times, first in a Russian television production of an early stage play of the book that was broadcast in 1968, second—and most notably—by Andrey Tarkovsky in 1972 (a movie which is often referred to by critics as "the Russian 2001") and then most recently by the American director Steven Soderburgh in 2002 with George Clooney in the lead role (which has been largely forgotten). I've watched both film versions, and I suspect I'll be watching them again in the next week or so to see how they bear up against the book. But it's been long enough since I last watched either version that I don't think they have coloured my response to the text.
Solaris is the tale of a scientist, Kris Kelvin, who arrives at a research station flying above the mysterious ocean planet Solaris as it orbits two suns in a distant, unnamed solar system. The planet's ocean is a single, living entity which is apparently powerful enough to control the planet's orbit and keep it stable; humanity has been trying for hundreds of years to establish whether or not the organism is sentient and if it is, to make contact with it but all attempts have failed. Instead, a series of mysterious events have occurred within the station which have profound psychological effects on the scientists studying the planet. These scientists, or "Solarists" appear to be on the verge of abandoning their research as futile; public interest back home has died out, and Kelvin may have been sent from Earth to make the decision whether or not to bring the project to an inconclusive end.
The book also includes an account of a tragic event in Kelvin's life which took place years before he ever arrived at Solaris. This event, Kelvin's reaction to it, and his search for redemption become pivotal to the plot. This creates a mismatch in tone, as I get the impression that Lem set out to write Solaris as an odyssey, interspersed with pastiches and mockery of the academic writing style. There are large sections of the novel where Kelvin (and that's a worthy scientific surname if ever there was one) reads through the results of the research made by his predecessors as he searches for clues. It's these sections of the book which are also the least convincing; the technobabble of 1961 is not a patch on the sort of stuff we get these days, almost painfully so. Having said that, Kelvin's reading material does what it's intended to do: it allows Lem to show the futility of all efforts to understand what the planet is, and the ocean's bizarre behaviour (which is described in immense but ultimately unsatisfying detail) remains unknowable, ineffable. Solaris is just too different for it to be anthropomorphised, and the psychological events which are referred to (and which Kelvin eventually experiences for himself) happen in a way which serves to maintain this disconnect, even as it seems to bridge it. There are interactions, but there is no contact. Solaris is simply too alien for this to ever occur.
As for Kelvin's redemption, you'll have to read the book for yourself...
Published by: Jo Fletcher Books, 2019
This novella has cropped up in conversations with my SF-loving friends more than once. It's one of those books that people get really enthusiastic about when the discussion turns to recent literature that I ought to have read, and when such recommendations are made and lists are compiled (because my friends are that sort of person; that's why they're my friends) This Is How You Lose The Time War can invariably be found sitting at the top. So it was time I did something about getting hold of a copy and seeing what all the fuss was about. When I bought the paperback in my local branch of Waterstones, the young lady at the till revealed herself to be another devotee. I have learned that this is always a promising sign, and it proved to be the case once again here.
It's a witty, clever, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey adventure that takes SF's initial label of "scientific romance" literally. Saying much about the plot would spoil the process of discovering exactly what El-Mohtar and Gladstone have set up, so I'll just say that it takes the form of correspondence between two agents carrying out various nefarious deeds for opposing sides of the tale's titular war. The increasingly arcane contrivances by which this correspondence is exchanged had me snorting in amusement more than once (and the authors riff on this process with some truly first class, groan-inducing jokes peppered throughout the book, if you're paying attention). There are even reading recommendations, and any book that encourages its readers to seek out other works is worthy of the highest praise.
It's not perfect; there's one narrative twist in particular that felt like it nudged things a step too far (but that can be forgiven, because this is science fiction, after all). Even though the directions in which time travel takes place of either "upthread" to the past or "downthread" to the future are clearly used in the sense of "upstream" and "downstream" it felt like they would have made more sense if they had been reversed; maybe that's just my mind being weird. My inner copy editor was rather more pained by the use of the word "sack" instead of "sac" on not just one occasion, but twice. But this is just nitpicking—the book is every bit as wonderful as everyone told me it was.
Published by: Private Eye/Hodder & Stoughton, 1986
The satirical publication Private Eye began running the column that spoofed correspondence between Margaret Thatcher's husband Denis (1915–2003) to his pal Bill just two weeks after she became Prime Minister in 1979 and they continued to publish a letter, once a fortnight, until she was ousted from her positions as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party in 1990. "Bill" was almost immediately identified as Bill Deedes (1913–2007), who was editor of the Daily Telegraph at the time, although on a couple of occasions "Denis" refers to meeting Deedes in the letters, implying that this was not the case. This was very likely a literary device by Ingrams and Wells to emphasise the fictional (cough, cough) nature of the letters. The real Deedes clearly knew he was the person being depicted, eventually giving his autobiography the title Dear Bill. According to his daughter, the real Denis gleefully played up to the image of him portrayed in Private Eye as it enabled him to evade any suggestions of influencing his spouse's political activities by appearing to be a "gin-soaked, racist buffoon". The depiction caught on, and a stage play entitled Anyone for Denis? was adapted for television and broadcast on ITV. A puppet version of "Denis" regularly appeared in the television series Spitting Image. Although Ingrams and Wells had nothing to do with the show, it's a photograph of the puppet version of "Denis" which appears on the cover of the book, showing him pouring himself a fortifying snifter as he sits in his den with the threatening shadow of his other half cast ominously on the wall behind him.
This volume collects the best of the early years of the column. With the first letter dated the 18th of May 1979 and the last the 1st of June 1985, it covers the whole of Thatcher's first term in power and a fair chunk of the second. In it, many political characters from the day appear in the context of what "Denis" thought of his mostly-fictional encounters with them. It says a lot about the popularity of the column that many of the nicknames which "Denis" came up with passed into general public use. The Tory MP Sir Michael Heseltine was christened "Tarzan" (which apparently pleased him no end) and the encumbent President of the United States, Ronald Reagan is usually referred to here as "Hopalong". Thatcher's closest ally (and the figure most responsible for her lurch toward increasingly right-wing, libertarian policies) Sir Keith Joseph is usually referred to as "The Monk" and is portrayed as being completely unhinged, forever popping mouthfuls of green pills if not literally frothing at the mouth. The book gives a similarly warped perspective of many significant events of the day from the Falklands War, the attempted assassination of Reagan, and the bombing of the Brighton Metropole Hotel by the IRA to the rise of Gorbachev, perestroika, and the beginnings of glasnost.
Some of the characters referred to are never identified by their real names, which can make reading the correspondence at a distance of more than forty years something of a challenge. It's only when something of historical note happens and "Denis" refers to the reaction of the fictional version of the character that the penny drops and you finally have enough context to realise who it is that Ingrams and Wells were writing about. Others, such as "Maurice Picarda", the perpetually-failing business associate whose misadventures "Denis" chronicles at length, were based on their real-life friends. It's interesting how selective Ingrams and Wells were in picking their targets, though. While the Thatchers' son Mark is regularly pilloried for his business misadventures and romantic dalliances, their daughter Carol is never mentioned by name and there's just one reference to her existence, when "Denis" refers to his "other female dependent."
You may be wondering, as I was, whether or not a second volume was ever published to record the remaining half of Mrs Thatcher's tenure at No. 10 Downing Street. Annual compilations were indeed produced until the bitter end, but by 1990 the world had changed and rampantly satirical though Ingrams and Wells's creation might have been, the comedic tropes of rabidly right-wing views, shockingly racist language and alcohol abuse all cranked up to eleven no longer seemed quite as funny as they did back in the days when a character as vituperatively offensive as the monstrous Alf Garnett could keep a comedy series running (as Warren Mitchell did) for more than thirty years. We'd moved on, somewhat. However, this peek into the social and political mores of the time make me realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same: the malign influence of the sociopathic monster who ran things back then can still be seen daily in the antics of our present government.
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2020
There's a hefty amount of baggage associated with the title of this 2019 novella that's impossible to ignore so let's get it out of the way right now. It's a quotation taken from the same speech that Jeff Bridges riffs on early on in John Carpenter's 1984 movie Starman, one made by the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, back in 1977. It was recorded as part of the Golden Record which was attached to the Voyager 1 spacecraft. However inspirational the speech may be, it's impossible for me to get past the ick factor of knowing that Waldheim was a member of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party during WWII. Waldheim was involved in Operation Kozara in 1942, a military offensive in which multiple atrocities were committed and the boss he had worked for at the time, a General Alexander Löhr, was executed as a war criminal in 1947. When these aspects of his career were brought to light in 1986 Waldheim may still have been UN Secretary General but the United States government refused to allow him to enter the country and he was declared persona non grata by most other states. The Arab world and the Vatican seemed to think differently, however; Pope John Paul II awarded him the Order of Pius IX in 1994. So yes: Waldheim was a Nazi scumbag. Having acknowledged this, let's move on to the story itself, which is considerably more wholesome.
The book consists of four vignettes told by Ariadne, crew member on the interstellar spaceship Merian, as she explores worlds orbiting a red dwarf star some fourteen light years from Earth. The crew are all part of a citizens' space program rather than simple cogs in some giant state enterprise and they have no part to play in any military-industrial complex. This is used by Ms Chambers to subtly shift both the tale and its telling away from standard space opera tropes. The characters are entirely unconcerned with the ship's command structure. It's largely ad hoc and the idea of rank appears to be entirely absent (decisions the characters must make about who takes precedence are made by rolling a die more than once). There are no extensive discourses about how the planets being explored were discovered or where the system is in relation to Earth. There is no tedious fetishization of advanced technology. Instead, we follow everyday people doing their jobs in a series of different places. Chambers excels at gentle examinations of what it means to be human, and the exotic alien worlds and strange creatures being encountered are there as backgrounds which can be used to reflect the narrator's humanity back at the reader rather than being foregrounded to demonstrate the author's creative powers, formidable though they are.
The book becomes an examination of what might happen to a person's humanity (or indeed their soul, for want of a better word) when their body undergoes profound changes; in order to travel vast interstellar distances without some magical faster-than-light engines to get them there, the humans aboard the Merian have been genetically altered so that they can survive decades of hibernation, their bodies then further tailored to suit the next world on their itinerary while they are in transit. Transformed into glittery beings with antifreeze blood who can exist by eating starlight or hulking brutes that can work for year after gruelling year on a planet where the gravity is twice that of Earth, the people on board remain people. And just as Waldheim was getting at—in the process they learn what it means to be social animals; to be human.
The novella's framing context has to do with a sub-plot involving the planet the crew have left behind, which may or may not be in terminal decline. We are told right from the start that a decision needs to be made and that the point of the story is to provide enough information for the decision makers to act, but at the end of the book the author hands that responsibility over to the reader. Although it's fair to say that you can see it coming, it leaves the tale hanging without proper closure and I must admit I found that very frustrating. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll get a sequel. As with all good yarns, well told, I would love to know what happened next.
Published by: Methuen, 1994
Brian "Johnners" Johnston CBE was a true legend of British Broadcasting (when he died in 1994 the Daily Telegraph called him "The greatest broadcaster of them all" and that wasn't hyperbole, just simple fact.) He was a fixture of the BBC's cricket coverage from 1946 until 1992, becoming an essential part of Test Match Special for more than two decades. But Johnners wasn't just a sports commentator. He was so entertaining at doing what he did that quite honestly it really didn't matter if you knew absolutely nothing at all about cricket before tuning in to the show.
Johnners's success at the microphone came from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cricketing anecdotes, mixed together with a torrent of truly groan-inducing dad jokes. Most of the classics can be found in this book including the alleged occasion when Michael Holding of the West Indies was bowling to Peter Willey of England in a Test match at The Oval in Kensington, London, back in the glorious summer of 1976. "The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey," Johnners is supposed to have intoned, helpfully. No recording of this ever came to light and—sadly—the tale appears to be apocryphal, but that didn't stop its inclusion in this volume, and quite right too.
That gives you a flavour of the treasures that can be found within this pocket-sized compendium of fun. If you can't find something on any page that makes you snort with laughter or groan in pain, there's something wrong with you.
Published by: Penguin, 2006
One thing I've realised in reading books where the author attempts to identify trends and explicate aspects of popular culture (or even the modern world in general, it seems) is how rapidly a cultural idiom can pivot; it can swiftly become eclipsed and outmoded, passing into the Museum of Quaint Notions That Kind Of Made Sense At The Time. The way we interpret events from just fifteen or twenty years ago is still in flux, as things which were expected to change the world forever and which were media sensations at the time are now long abandoned. Do you remember how excited people got about the Segway, for example? Did you have a FriendsReunited account, perhaps? Or maybe you ran a blog over at Livejournal? I just checked, and—amazingly—the Russian blogging site is still grimly holding on. Conversely, trends that were obscure curiosities back then have gone on to become mainstream, or are at least in the process of becoming so. Twenty years is a long time when the world changes as fast as it does these days. In contrast, our perspective of things like the London cholera epidemic of 1834 has remained more or less unchanged over the same period. I think this is why I've been finding Johnson's books about historical matters (such as The Ghost Map) to be so compelling in a way that Emergence (which I reviewed as #55 below) and Everything Bad Is Good For You sadly do not. They're attempts to make judgments while the dust has yet to settle.
Everything sent me scurrying to the Internet to look things up more than once, because the book repeatedly omits details that I thought were relevant and I found myself wanting to know more about the stories being told. I felt like I wasn't being given enough context to let me judge whether or not the point being made was valid. To give an example, Johnson writes about the runaway success of Charles Dickens's serialised novels: I was surprised when he then described Dickens as "writing for the elite" as this somewhat contradicts the popular image of Dickens as the first mass-market writer. Johnson gives the number of copies of Bleak House that were sold at the time as 80,000, but he doesn't give figures for what we'd now call market penetration, or place this in the wider context of UK literacy. I wanted to know how fair that accusation of elitism was, so I started clicking. I discovered that in 1851 (the year before Bleak House was first published), male literacy in the UK ran at slightly under 70% and female literacy at just 54%. The UK population that year was just over 21 million. Taking a median literacy rate of 62%, that means Dickens's sales amounted to just 0.6% of his potential UK readership, which is indeed pretty darn elite.
But did Dickens's work help to drive the subsequent increase in literacy over the next quarter-century that Dr Ingleby describes in the first of those two links above? By 1900, both male and female literacy had risen to approximately 97%. As Johnson and Ingleby both observe, Dickens had used illiteracy as a major theme in his works and he had campaigned for educational reform, but rather than the engaging nature of his serialised works driving people to learn to read them, it was the 1870 Education Act (which passed into law the same year that Dickens died) which was the principal factor influencing the subsequent improvement in literacy and this gets no mention in the book at all. It's important when following the narrative of Everything... to remember that there may be (arguably will be) other factors contributing to each of the phenomena being described that haven't been mentioned, as the example above shows. My Internet delving went on to compare Dickens's potential for achieving market penetration with the way that a successful television series can manage nowadays: in the UK, almost 97% of households have at least one TV. It's an impressive figure, but the additional context that I discovered, that the amount of time that viewers spend actually watching broadcast television these days is in sharp decline, rather changed my view of the power of the medium to engage its audience.
I had a few niggles with the text; when he discusses NBC executive Paul Klein's programming principle of "Least Objectionable Programming (LOP)" and Neil Postman's axiom of "Thou shalt induce no perplexity" he observes that "many of the most popular shows in television history regularly flaunt (sic) these principles" which makes the opposite point to the one I suspect he was trying to make. The word he was looking for is "flout".
Nevertheless, some of Johnson's observations resonate strongly; the phenomenon of influencers had yet to make serious inroads on popular culture back in 2006, but he identifies it (and the dubious ethics of the practice). Later on, he's startlingly pessimistic about the next generation's moral standards:
"We're raising a generation of cognitive superstars who are nonetheless ethically rudderless, Intelligent, yes, but without values."
Everything isn't a bad book, by any means; it's just that (in the same way as I found when reading Emergence) many of the observations it makes now seem extremely optimistic. Extolling the virtues of reality television as a way of improving our social abilities hasn't really stood the test of time, particularly as the example that is used several times is the US version of The Apprentice, which was fronted by none other than Donald Trump (and his comb-over, which I was amused to see also gets a mention in the book). The general public may have gotten smarter at following the complex, multi-threaded plots of the latest TV shows, but after watching the barest minimum of TV news coverage of national politics and the subsequent career of the orange buffoon combined with the never-ending torrent of misinformation and fake news that the Internet has proved to be perfectly designed for, it's difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that the much vaunted sleeper curve is not making things better for us. Far from it; instead, the general public's ability to apply critical thinking appears to be in serious, if not terminal decline.
Published by: The National Trust, 2006
Another charity shop find, this one. I picked it up more for the spectacular collection of moody black and white photographs from the National Trust's Picture Library than for the text, which collects a number of accounts of spooky happenings on NT properties experienced by the Trust's staff. The stories are presented as fact, without much in the way of commentary, and there is much talk of many ghost hunting tropes, including the notorious "orbs" which (it seems to me) only occur when flash photography is used in dusty rooms...
In fact there's a striking amount of woo throughout the book, which was a surprise to see in a publication from an organization as ostensibly practical and down to earth as I thought the National Trust was. It seems that psychics are regularly invited to make pronouncements on what (or who) is responsible for all manner of occurrences such as furniture being moved overnight or encounters with people who vanish into thin air. Evans relates the thought-provoking tale of Harry Martindale, who was working as an apprentice electrician back in 1953 when he allegedly saw the spectres of a group of bedraggled-looking Roman legionaries marching through the basement of the Treasurer's House in York; thought-provoking, because he described the shields they were carrying as round, which did not match the standard rectangular design used by Roman soldiers. However it subsequently came to light that the legion which had been based in the York area had indeed been issued with round shields...
Whether you believe in such things or not, the tales of divination with pendulums and the NT seemingly encouraging the holding of ghost watches and even seances in an attempt to contact the entities thought to be responsible had me tutting sternly at such apparent credulousness.
But the photographs are a delight. It was nice to see a particularly atmospheric shot of the NT's property at Newark Park, which is just a couple of miles up the road from me, built on the edge of a 40-foot limestone cliff overlooking spectacular views of—well, of the countryside where I live.
Published by: Penguin, 2001
After enjoying The Invention of Air (see #53 below) I tracked down a couple of Steven Johnson's earlier books. The first one I've read is Emergence, an examination of the growing importance of the phenomenon of emergent behaviour (it's sometimes called "bottom up behaviour") and the part it plays in our daily lives. Emergence refers to the behaviour that arises seemingly spontaneously in systems which are following very simple rule sets, behaviour which may often seem to be far more complex than common sense would expect. It's a fascinating subject, and Johnson's opening example of emergent behaviour, of the way that a slime mold—one of the simplest organisms that there is—can find the shortest path through a maze, is highly compelling.
The first section of the book gives an overview of several pivotal moments in the study of emergence. Unfortunately things aren't quite as compelling from that point onward. I felt like much of the discussion involved circular reasoning; to give one example, the way one area of the Italian city of Florence became the place where all the silk makers congregated is explained because emergence happened there. I also noticed several anecdotes which talk about scientific studies but somehow their relevance is lost and the outcome or implications of research that's mentioned isn't dealt with. There might be lots of investigation going on, but the conclusions they reach don't seem to matter to the narrative, which is frustrating for a nerd like me. There are some nice history lessons, but very little science. This is particularly true when the book finally turns its attention to the way consciousness arises in the brain, which I'd rather expected to be its central subject. But we get as far as "it arises somehow" because there are billions of neurons in the brain and then the book has changeed tack to look at something else. The two principal uses to which emergent behaviour was being put back then (as far as this book is concerned) were that it was either used by retailers to track customer purchases so that merchants could recommend things to their customers that they would probably want to buy (Amazon's then-recent acquisition of a separate company specialising in this, with the now-familiar name of Alexa gets a mention) or it was used in the content moderation of community forums such as Slashdot. Back then, the use of content selection algorithms was actually seen as a good thing. How quaint! It's this sort of emergence that becomes the focus of the rest of the book and I hate to say this, but it's just plain dull.
In the final section of the book the Johnson of 2001 attempts to predict where the use of emergent behaviour was likely to take us. This really hasn't aged well. His view of how cool it will be to have advertisers tracking our interactions in an increasingly intrusive fashion and then using this data to spam us with individual, personalised messages seems painfully naive. There are some privacy issues involved, he tells us, but they don't seem important enough to elucidate. The reader is more or less assured that they don't need to be concerned about having big business snooping on them but instead is told how beneficial it will all be! Consider just how weaponized tracking has become and how many businesses follow all our activity online these days—to the point where many users (including me) have uninstalled Google's Chrome browser because of the security issues it presents. Things have turned out to be way more grim than the author predicted, and while I found Emergence an interesting read, I finished it just feeling depressed that we pretty much let big business do this to us without questioning its legitimacy. And neither the technology nor the science of emergent systems seems to be capable of dealing with all the telemarketers, trolls and scam artists that plague us. Quite the opposite.
Published by: Tor, 2023
John Scalzi is one of a very few authors whose work I will buy solely on the basis that they wrote it. These days he brings out a couple of books every year and this is the second novel of his to appear on this page (my review of The Kaiju Preservation Society can be found at #40 below). I have been eagerly awaiting this one; like KPS, it's not overtly set in the same world as any of his previous works, which gives him free rein to take things wherever he wants rather than having the plot constrained by canon amassed from one or more prequels. Scalzi takes full advantage of this, and oh boy, do I mean full.
In this book, just as with KPS, Scalzi takes a simple premise and drops it into the "real" world. In this case, the idea is that Ian Fleming based the character of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (and his cat) on a real supervillain, who ran an evil empire on much the same lines as SPECTRE. What would our world be like if such a thing were true? We would struggle to notice any significant difference, it seems. Scalzi then drops our humble protagonist, who has no idea of the existence of said organization, into a position of influence slap bang in the middle of the action, lets him discover exactly how crazy the world actually is, and sets about finding out what he's going to do about it. Charlie, the hero of the book and the titular starter villain, speaks with a voice that is unmistakably Scalzi's own and as I happen to like John's world view, I knew that Charlie could be relied upon to do the right thing, and thereby cause chaos.
Saying more than that would spoil things. Let's just say that I flew through this in two sessions, both of which concluded by my discovery that it was one o'clock in the morning and the bath I was soaking in had gone stone cold. There's a bonkers inventiveness to the tale that continues to escalate as things progress. It gets sillier and sillier, but all the characters just run with it and I did too, because it's all immensely funny. The last book that I can remember reading that was this gleefully mad (and this entertaining) was China Miéville's weird examination of Star Trek, Kraken. The throwaway gags abound. My favourite occurs when Charlie tries to get a handle on things by establishing exactly how evil the organization actually is. When he does so by comparing it to other evil organizations which he already knows about, he is sternly admonished:
"We're much less evil than Spotify. We actually pay a living wage to the people whose work we're selling."
If you know who Blofeld is, or Goldfinger, or Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, Doctor Evil, or Ozymandias for that matter, then you will get what this book is about. I think you'll probably love it, too. It's already my favourite thing Scalzi's written and I think it's also one of his best.
Published by: Penguin, 2009
A few years ago I read The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson's account of the London cholera epidemic of 1854. At the time, I was already familiar with how the physician John Snow mapped the locations of cases and noticed how they were clustered around the water pump in Broad Street. He had the handle of the pump removed, and the number of cases dropped dramatically. Snow had used a dot map to plot cases, and it's reproduced in loving detail in one of the textbooks that was set for me when I did my Master's degree: Edward Tufte's glorious examination of methods of data representation, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The Ghost Map is part detective story, part scientific history, and it examines a significant turning point in the history of biology and of medicine. It's a very enjoyable read. In The Invention of Air, Johnson turns his hand to biography; that of the British scientist and theologian, Joseph Priestley (1734–1804).
I'm ashamed to say that the only thing I knew about Priestley was that he discovered Oxygen (hence the title of this book) but Priestley was also a preacher and a politician. I was unaware of his friendships with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, and had no idea how influential he was in American politics as a result of this. Nor did I know that Priestley played a key role in promoting unitarianism, writing a book that denounced what he saw as the corruption of Christian belief by all manner of mysticism. This book was partly responsible for landing him in some extremely hot water with the British establishment.
Johnson weaves Priestley's tale well, and it's a dramatic one that kept me turning the pages and wondering what on earth was going to happen to the man next. There are flights from angry mobs, which is not something one tends to encounter in histories of many of science's grand old men. On the way we encounter personalities like Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) and Josiah Wedgwood as well as the American presidents mentioned above. Johnson comments how important scientific thought was to the American political scene, showing that Priestley was central to this attitude. He bemoans how things have changed in recent years (and quotes the failed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's depressingly anti-intellectual stance to illustrate this point). The GOP's opinion of science has deteriorated further since this book was published, of course; reading about pundits abandoning rationality in favour of glib soundbites aimed fair and square at the sort of souls who happily went out and burned Priestley's Birmingham home to the ground paints a shockingly familiar picture.
Published by: Vintage, 2023
Jarvis Cocker ventures into his loft, which—like rather a lot of us, if truth be told—he had been using to store all sorts of stuff that he'd amassed over the years which had sufficient sentimental value to not be thrown away, but not enough for it to remain on display downstairs. His mission: sort through it all and decide whether to "cob it" (an old Yorkshire expression meaning to throw out) or keep it. In the process he provides us with a fascinating musical and social history of his early musical career and Pulp, the band he formed in 1978 while still at school. Much delight ensues.
And oh, the treasures that are unearthed. All the way through, I'd turn a page, see one of the many photographs that complement the text, and exclaim, "Oh god, I remember those!" I'm only three years older than Mr Cocker, and evidently we had similar interests, fascinations, and obsessions growing up in the North of England in the 1970s. I still remember my more fashionable (and financially better-off) friends at school wearing the ludicrously baggy trousers that were known as Birmingham bags...
Objects are cleverly woven into an autobiography, of sorts. But this is not a "How I wrote 'Disco 2000'" sort of celebrity memoir. It's much more interesting than that and if there are hints as to what inspired some of his classic songs, they are carefully hidden and left for the reader to tease out, if they can.
Perhaps the most poignant object in the book is a ticket to the John Peel roadshow at the Phoenix Hall, Sheffield on Friday, 3rd September. It's important enough for the photograph to have a page to itself. It's remarkable how many lives the Radio 1 DJ John Peel changed over the course of his career, and Jarvis's life is an exemplar of that. Peel haunts these pages and seeing Jarvis's obvious gratitude and love for the man makes me wish that Mr Peel was still with us and still hosting his late-night show (which the BBC cancelled, and that has to be one of the most egregious acts the organization ever committed.) But after consulting a web page or two of calendars for the 1980s (as I have just done, because of course I have) it seems that Jarvis—as he happily admits elsewhere in the book—is not an entirely reliable narrator as the event on the ticket must have taken place in 1982. This was the year after Pulp recorded their first session for John Peel's show. He is forgiven, of course, because he's Jarvis. And after all, it was forty years ago (even if the 80s still feel to me like they happened yesterday).
The book concludes at the beginning of the 1990s, with Jarvis released from hospital after an extended stay brought about by falling out of a window and about to hit the creative purple patch which brough Pulp global superstardom. I sincerely hope that this means we will eventually get a volume two to bring things bang up to date. After all, a lot has happened to Mr Cocker since then. I would very much like to read it.
Because—just in case you hadn't realised it yet—this first volume is an absolute joy.
Published by: Abacus, 2004
This is a whistle-stop tour of the history of electricity. It's told as a series of vignettes featuring some of the people who helped to create the technology we depend on today. Unfortunately, the emphasis is on that word, "some." Bodanis picks and chooses his subjects seemingly at random; there is absolutely no mention at all of Nicola Tesla, for a start. Benjamin Franklin's early experiments are nowhere to be found. If the experiments with static electricity conducted by Thales of Miletus are mentioned at all, I must have missed them. Nor is there any mention of Hippolyte Pixii, who was the first person to construct a dynamo that supplied alternating current. You won't find any mention of Hans Christian Ørsted, who discovered that electric currents generate magnetic fields.
There's no mention of George Westinghouse, who developed a working power distribution system using alternating current (a curious omission for a book purporting to be an account of how electricity shaped the modern world) nor is there any hint of Edison's feud with him over the matter; Edison believed his own direct current distribution system was superior (it wasn't) and in 1903 he even orchestrated the public electrocution of a circus elephant called Topsy using alternating current to show how dangerous Westinghouse's system was. You won't find any mention of this in Bodanis's book, though. Edison was a nasty piece of work, bordering on full-blown James Bond supervillain—but Bodanis's account of the man borders on hagiography.
The actual technology of electricity gets very little attention. If I'd been writing this book, I would at least have mentioned the astonishing variety of voltages and electrical sockets in use around the world, even if I didn't have space for nerding out about the relative merits and drawbacks of popular designs or the reasons why they were chosen. I think I'd want to discuss why high tension power lines use such amazingly high voltages, too—as this would also explain why there's probably an electricity substation with a big transformer in it fairly close to where you live.
The science of electricity is given particularly short shrift. The book has an irritating habit of shuffling back and forth through history as various people are introduced, which wrecks any chance of conveying the conceptual development of what electricity actually is. And in focusing on the "human interest" aspects of the tale, Bodanis frequently prioritises descriptions of the personalities of people over what they actually did. As a result I'm afraid that the book ends up reading rather like a physics textbook might do if it had been written by the staff of Hello! magazine.
Published by: Book Club Associates, 1993
This was yet another second-hand bookshop find. I already had a copy of the first edition but this is the updated second edition. It has to be said that most of the "updating" involved resetting whole paragraphs originally WRITTEN IN CAPS LOCK with conventional type, refreshing black and white illustrations with better, colour ones, and finding more modern photographs to use, although the picture editor's fondness for profoundly cheesy, utterly generic stock photographs does not do the authors any favours in presenting the book as a robust work of science. This copy is also a good example of the one of the perils of charity shop discoveries: when I got it home I realised that it absolutely reeks of cigarette smoke. Ew.
Eysenck and Sargent might have been qualified psychologists but their grasp of the basics of science was—as far as can be judged from this book—pretty sketchy. Furthermore, since his death it has been alleged that Eysenck manipulated data obtained in his experiments (fourteen of his papers were retracted in 2020) and Sargent's record of experimental work in the field also came in for some pretty harsh criticism. They were also pretty terrible writers.
While we're still on the very first page of the first chapter, we are told that different fields of science play by different rules. "What works in physics will may not (sic) apply to psychology, for example." The authors argue that we must forget the requirement (standard in other fields of investigation) that experimental results must be replicable; that is, if another team of researchers conducts exactly the same experiment, they should get exactly the same results (or at least, as close as makes no statistical difference). "This is fine in theory," the authors gravely pronounce, "but in practice it may not work out so easily, as we shall see." Sorry lads, but I can't let such obvious misrepresentation go unremarked. If other experimenters are unable to reproduce the results claimed in the original study, this will be taken as a very large red flag indicating that the first set of results were either erroneous or—worse—fraudulent and the original experimenters were seeing something that didn't exist.
Eysenck and Sargent are also fond of using the same argument which Richard Milton uses in Forbidden Science reviewed as book #25 below: since Antoine Lavoisier insisted incorrectly in 1772 that "stones cannot fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky" and we subsequently discovered that meteorites are real, we are asked to accept that any weird stuff that science tells us can't exist might actually be real after all. ESP and PK might exist even though conventional science says they can't, because science sometimes gets things wrong. Bad science!
The authors are not above the decidedly unscientific technique of sticking the knife in to people they disagree with, either: any research or publication that contradicts their views is discussed with emotive, negative, highly-charged language. To give a couple of examples: on page 41, the 1987 American National Research Council's report on enhancing human performance, which concluded that there was "no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena" is described as "notorious". On page 100, Dr Alan Gauld's response to Guy Lambert's theory that underground watercourses are responsible for poltergeist phenomena is not described as criticism, but as an "all-out attack". Needless to say, any research that the authors do agree with is portrayed in far more rational, "scientific" terms, even when the evidence they're discussing, such as the career of the celebrated 19th century medium Daniel Dunglas Home, is nowhere near as unimpeachable as they seem to think it is.
But the biggest problem I have with the book is that first word in its title. Explaining something implies that you have a workable model of what's going on, at least enough for you to be able to predict what an appropriately designed experiment should find. Leaving aside the problem that the existence of ESP and PK is still very much open to question (even if you don't go as far as the aforementioned ANRC report does in concluding that they don't exist at all), it's clear that nobody has been able to achieve this so far. Nevertheless, I expected the book to address several key points.
Firstly, the description of ESP implies that it involves the transfer of information from one or more persons or from the environment to the mind of the ESP percipient. How does this happen? Can we detect the transmission as it happens? Can it be blocked by certain materials?
Secondly, the description of PK implies that mechanical force of some kind is somehow exerted on the objects affected by the PK practitioner. How is that force transmitted? What generates it? Where does the energy required come from?
Any book claiming to explain the paranormal needs to explain how these things take place and do so in terms of existing scientific knowledge. This book does not do this. It's not enough to describe metallurgical effects that were allegedly produced by someone using PK and claim that no person could have created them. You have to be able to map out the process which caused those effects and do so in a way that enables you to make predictions which can be confirmed or disproved by further experiments, and which can be replicated by other teams of researchers (see above). Frustratingly, the authors note that experiments designed to establish whether psi involves electromagnetic radiation have taken place, but they dismiss them as being "too boring to discuss"(!)
Some of the experiments which Eysenck and Sargent cite are interesting, particularly where subjects were able to identify target images being "sent" by someone elsewhere (in one case, the percipient was even able to name the image concerned as Blake's The Ancient of Days; in another, the percipient correctly identified a magazine advert for Coca-Cola). Eysenck and Sargent describe tests conducted during his Apollo 14 spaceflight by Dr Ed Mitchell which suggest that ESP can act over distances of thousands of miles. Well, sort of; firstly, they describe these tests as taking place on the Moon, which is inaccurate. As Dr Mitchell explains in his own book, Psychic Exploration: A Challenge for Science, they took place during four of his scheduled rest periods, two on the way to the Moon and two on the way back. However, Apollo 14's lift-off had been delayed by forty minutes, setting back the times of his rest periods. Mitchell had been unable to reschedule the first two sessions with his fellow experimenters in time which meant that, in his own words "the arrangements I had made with the receivers appeared to yield precognitive results, not telepathic ones." Eysenck and Sargent also fail to mention that the results Dr Mitchell obtained—he was 'sending' the image on one of five Zener cards to people back on Earth—were wrong more often than should have been expected if the receiver had simply guessed at random. In his own book, Dr Mitchell comments "The results were statistically significant, not because any of the receivers got a large number of direct hits, but because the number of hits was amazingly low. The statistical probability of scoring so few hits was about 3000:1." But how do you account for or explain something that a lot of the time seems to have the opposite effect to the one you were expecting to see? Simply giving it a name (it's called psi-missing) and acting as if it still supports your theory seems disingenuous, to put it mildly. How can you claim experimental results which show a complete reversal of the theorised effect as a win?
And while we're at it, why do the authors only refer to Zener cards as "ESP cards" and never mention Karl Zener's work with his colleague J. B. Rhine at all? It's one of the book's many curious omissions.
For all their talk of "models" and "effects" and the unrelenting citation of the probabilities of getting such unlikely results experimentally (and I noticed after a while that there's an awful lot of cherry-picking going on when it comes to sharing the finer details of experimental results) the authors avoid any discussion or even suggestion of any process known to physics by which this might take place. Without this, they have no working hypothesis which might be used to develop experiments to identify ESP or PK interactions or, for instance, to find materials which might be capable of blocking those interactions. What is even worse is that we are asked to consider the possibility that the researchers themselves might be exerting ESP or PK to influence the results. This goes way beyond simple experimenter bias and I don't see how you could design this out of an experiment. The authors also seriously discuss the possibility that PK might be being exerted retrospectively (i.e. back through time) by anyone at any time after the event, even in the future, to distort any results obtained in any experiment, which makes any possibility of isolating a system sufficiently where this can't happen and ruin things a pipe dream. It's a small step to jump from this to saying "it happens that way because God wills it" and that, folks, is not science at all.
So instead, the authors focus on ways to give the phenomena sufficient wiggle room to exist, and this is where things get really sketchy. Of course quantum indeterminacy is mentioned, and there is much discussion of collapsing wave functions and many worlds theory. Back on the book's first page, we are told that "Many scientists feel that phenomena such as ESP (extrasensory perception) are impossible because they contradict fundamental laws of physics. This is not a viable point of view." They expand on this claim in chapter 9 writing, "This view, of course, rests on the belief that physical 'laws' are true, 100.000% true, and true for all time. This belief, set against the history of scientific thought, is no more than a vulnerable assumption." This is a type of broken argument which is known to psychologists (as both Eysenck and Sargent were) as faulty generalization. I suspect that most physicists who are familiar with things like the second law of thermodynamics or general relativity would take issue with Eysenck and Sargent's claim that they cannot or should not be applied all of the time. Neither the conservation of mass/energy nor gravity makes exceptions, as far as I'm aware, and I think we'd have heard about it before now if they did. While the force of gravity might not be germane to discussions of ESP, the second law of thermodynamics is central to it. Dismissing scientific consensus as glibly as this is not itself science; it's wishful thinking. As a result of ridiculous statements like the ones I have just quoted, the book ends up decisively in the murky realms of pseudoscientific woo. I expected better from people with proper academic qualifications.
Published by: Penguin, 1990
I seem to have built up quite a collection of books on cosmology. As I've been collecting them for many years and many of the books which I've acquired were second-hand, they constitute an interesting history of how the field has changed over time; the oldest book in my collection is The Story of the Heavens by Sir Robert Stawell Ball which was published in 1901, well before the discovery of Pluto. It dates back to a time when the consensus view of physics was that everything had pretty much been done and all that was left was a bit of tidying up and defining results to a few more decimal places. Einstein had yet to have his annus mirabilis, quantum theory was unknown, and the size of the Universe was thought to be much, much smaller...
Cosmology is a field which continues to change. Indeed, it has changed significantly over the course of my life. Things have changed even more drastically since Dr Gribbin and Professor Rees wrote this book (which was first published just thirty-three years ago) with the shocking discovery that the expansion of the Universe is not slowing down—as pretty much every cosmologist thought was the case—but is, instead, speeding up.
This, then is a book written about a science that was on the cusp of one of the largest upheavals in its history. It's a book that was published in the same year that the Hubble Space Telescope was launched on the Space Shuttle Discovery (on April 24th, 1990). At the time the book was written, physicists were already scratching their heads about the fact that most of the stuff of the Universe appeared to be invisible and only detectable through gravitational effects, which had duly been given the name dark matter. Dr Gribbin and Professor Rees give a clear explanation of why dark matter exists and how cosmologists figured out how much of it there was in comparison with the "bright matter" that galaxies (and you and I) are made of.
Dr Gribbin and Professor Rees do mention a few "odd observations" which hinted that the Universe was not behaving as expected, but they focus on Halton Arp's observations of galaxies which we now understand to be interacting gravitationally. They provide illustrations of computer simulations (which when the book was written had reached a level of complexity where the evolution of the early Universe could be modelled in some detail) but they don't mention the fact that the results which most closely matched observations of the real thing all required the Hubble Constant to be lower than measurements suggested it actually was. Two years after the book was first published, the COsmic microwave Background Explorer (COBE) was launched, and its detection of anisotropy in the CMB really put the cat among the pigeons. By 1998, the University of Chicago's Michael Turner had christened the force that was speeding things up as dark energy. Today, we still have next to no idea of what dark matter or dark energy actually are.
But it's impressive to see just how on the money many of the speculations which Dr Gribbin and Professor Rees make in this book turned out to be. I was particularly impressed by their suggestion that it ought to be possible to detect the cosmological background gravitational radiation at some point in the not-too-distant future, a discovery that was announced a little less than two months ago. Gravitational astronomy is now a reality. The JWST and Euclid missions, both of which have recently entered service, are part of the next generation of space-based telescopes after Hubble. And back on the ground, the Vera C Rubin Observatory in Chile will come online next year and will survey half of the visible sky in unprecedented detail every three days. Who knows what unexpected discoveries could result from all of the observations that will be made over the next few years?
The "anthropic" part of the title comes from the observation that many of the physical constants of the Universe are exquisitely fine-tuned to allow for life to exist; if they were otherwise, we wouldn't be around to notice the fact (Professor Rees mused on this fact again in Just Six Numbers, reviewed as #4 below; so does Lee Smolin in #8, Time Reborn). The Anthropic Principle, in both its weak and strong forms, tends to get some physicists quite heated, because the sample size of intelligent life in the Universe that we have is constrained to a single planet: ours. This means we're still limited to old-fashioned speculation about what the odds of it happening might be, and speculation isn't what they consider to be proper science, or even science at all. Will a discovery of extraterrestrial life change that any time soon? Who knows.
I'd very much like to still be around when it happens.
Published by: Rider, 1987
Although it was published by a different company, this book follows much the same format as Orbis Publishing's The Unexplained magazine, which was published in the UK between 1980 and 1983 and which was a runaway success. The author of this book, Fred Gettings, was responsible for The Zelator, reviewed as #43 below. Fred was an authority on occult symbolism and acted as consultant for several BBC programmes on related subjects from the 1970s onwards. This book also covers a lot of the ground which is later mentioned—if only in passing—in The Zelator.
The commonality of the subject matter is understandable. What I found more confusing was why Gettings felt able to go into considerable detail in this work, given how opaque much of the text is in the book he wrote just over a decade later. The copious illustrations here make it a much more accessible and engaging read and the imagery (much of it dating back centuries) is explained clearly. The number of examples of occult images that are to be found in Christian places of worship is remarkable and their significance as symbols for initiates and alchemists gives a rather different perspective on the Church's inner workings; clearly they did not get there by accident. Gettings shows that this has much to do with the fact that the deeper levels of alchemy were not concerned with the literal turning of lead into gold at all, but were instead a school of human spiritual development. The occult literally means "that which is hidden" but for those on the path in Medieval Europe, spiritual signposts were left in plain sight, literally built into the fabric of a society which for the most part had no idea that such things existed at all.
It's a fascinating overview of a field of human knowledge that extends well outside its modern representation as the stuff of horror movies and little else.
Published by: Abrams, 2023
The original French version of this graphic novel won multiple awards, so I have been eagerly awaiting its publication in English. It tells the story of the development of the atomic bomb in the United States, Russia, and Germany in the closing stages of World War Two, principally from the viewpoint of the physicist Leo Szilard and the director of the Manhattan Project, Colonel Leslie Groves. It's difficult to imagine just how high the stakes were at the time. Ethics, along with political niceties, went out of the window. The scientists of one country decided that they really needed to know the fine details of how radiation affects the human body, so they injected a total of eighteen people with a variety of radioactive substances including plutonium and polonium and waited to see what would happen. Only one person appears to have been given a consent form to sign, but none of the people who were given the injections were told what they were being given, or why.
Oh, wait—you thought it was the Nazis who did that? No. It was The American Government. And they were still conducting similar experiments, still without the consent of the experimental subjects, well in to the 1970s. Some of the people experimented on were pregnant women.
This, then, is no tale of American triumphalism; far from it. Like Keiji Nakazawa's harrowing tale of experiencing the bombing of Hiroshima, Barefoot Gen, it shows the horrific reality of nuclear warfare. Read it, and you will be appalled at the brutality and callousness on display on all sides. If you've been to see Oppenheimer recently, you'll find this book essential reading.
Published by: Routledge Classics, 2006
Ah, Derrida. Take a thing. Write about its antithesis in terms of it being a not-thing. Point out that both concepts are therefore not each other, and are therefore alike in their not-ness. Assume that this allows you to write as if you've just proved black is white, and proceed from there. How clever you must think yourself in your obsession with opposites!
Ah, Derrida. Compulsive crafter of truly terrible puns. Derrida, for whom language becomes disconnected from communication, even as you demonstrate your profound love of words. You misrepresent the scientific method, because you seem to believe that theorising about things should be the exclusive domain of philosophers. Pronouncements such as "As theoreticians or witnesses, spectators, observers and intellectuals, scholars believe that looking is sufficient" and "There has never been a scholar who, as such, does not believe in the sharp distinction between the real and the unreal, the actual and the inactual, the living and the non-living, being and non-being ("to be or not to be," in the conventional reading) in the opposition between what is present and what is not, for example in the form of objectivity" are guaranteed to irritate quantum physicists, dark matter physicists, astronomers, string theorists, biologists, and many more fields besides.
Ah, Derrida. Why, when you quote from Shakespeare, do you use the First Folio text with its outdated spelling so that people will stumble over quotations that they know by heart if it is not to make it harder for what you want to say to be understood? It's the mark of an intellect which is profoundly unsure of itself to write in such an intentionally opaque fashion. Surely, if your argument was sound, you could make it without the need to obfuscate it so that you can retrospectively claim that what people are saying you said wasn't actually what you meant to say (e.g. "One cannot not have to, one must not not be able to reckon with them, which are more than one...")
Ah, Derrida. How very Kuhnian of you.
And you'd have thought that twenty years after your book's publication, Routledge would have fixed all the typos in the text, all the wrong words, all the brackets that open but never close, but this is clearly not the case.
But if you came here looking for pithy sentences to quote for your Derrida homework no, I'm not going to do your assignment for you by providing a deeper analysis of his thesis. You'll have to wade through Derrida's smugly turgid text yourself. See how many times you throw the book across the room with a snort of contempt.
Published by: Hamish Hamilton, 1952
Tazieff (1914–1998) was my first childhood hero. This became inevitable as soon as I read a third-hand account of his exploits in True Adventure Stories On Land, a book of real life "boy's own adventure" stories published by Bancroft that I was given as a birthday present when I was a small child. It's an odd book, which I've blogged about before. In recent years I've tracked down one or two of Tazieff's own works, and I have to say that his writing is noticeably better than the rather pedestrian retelling of his adventures which introduced me to his exploits in the first place. This is a (rather battered) first edition of the first of his books to be translated into English.
Tazieff was a volcanologist. He was one of the first to conduct proper scientific research in the field, and even in the early 1950s (which was well before plate tectonics became accepted fact) he was writing for a general readership about how magma plumes and convection currents in the Earth's mantle cause volcanic eruptions. He visited many of the world's most active volcanoes and this book is a chronicle of several of his visits to Africa and Italy and his attempts to understand what was going on from a geological perspective.
But this is no dry academic text. Tazieff was obsessed with getting as close to his subject matter as he could possibly get. Every chapter of this book includes at least one matter-of-fact description of encounters with potentially lethal hazards ranging from asphyxiating gases, having to negotiate volcanic slopes while "bombs" of still-molten lava were raining down on him and bouncing off his legs, heat so intense that it charred the clothes off his back, and all the while keeping an eye out for the deadly and destructive clouds of rock and steam which had yet to be given their modern name of pyroclastic flows. Tazieff was never happier than when he could literally descend into the volcanic crater itself. He writes nonchalantly about working there in environments so acidic that his safety wires were half eaten away and his tent disintegrated completely.
It's all recklessly mad and utterly gripping.
Published by: Corgi, 1974
I remember seeing this Corgi paperback in the Lytham Bookshop while I was on my summer holidays as a teenager. This would have been soon after I bought von Daniken's first book and I remember thinking that I ought to get myself a copy of this as well, as it looked like an interesting read. But with one thing or another it's taken me until now to finally get round to doing so.
Josef Blumrich (1913–2002) was born in Austria. He worked as an engineer for NASA between 1959 and 1974 and according to his online biography he was part of the design team for the Saturn V rocket. In the book's introduction, he describes reading Chariots of the Gods and deciding to prove its author was wrong, only to discover to his surprise that von Daniken's suggestion that Ezekiel's strange descriptions of encounters in the Bible might not be accounts of mystical visions but rather a sighting of physical hardware seemed to be both remarkably consistent and—in his opinion as a NASA engineer—plausible. Blumrich therefore decided to sit down at his drafting table and figure out if such hardware might actually work as a practical design for a nuts-and-bolts spacecraft. As Blumrich explains in the book, he knew the team who were building NASA's space shuttle, and he believed he could discern some of the principles being used in the shuttle's design in what Ezekiel said he'd seen.
And if he'd left it at that, this would have been an entertaining book with a fascinating take on the Book of Ezekiel. Unfortunately for us, that wasn't what Blumrich ended up doing. Instead, he tries to justify Ezekiel's clear description of purported extraterrestrials as human, attempts some analysis of the biblical texts in order to reconstruct them as witness statements, and discovers that much of the text that the first half of the book treats as concrete evidence was actually written by someone else entirely at a later date. Blumrich is also very choosy about what he takes literally and what he treats as metaphor; Ezekiel's repeated insistence that the things in his visions were living creatures is soundly dismissed as him not knowing what he was writing about. What is worse, Blumrich couldn't actually read the source material he was quoting as he didn't speak Hebrew. The translations he relied upon were modern rewrites of older translations which had been "adapted" for modern readers and much of the technological terms which he found so striking had been added by these translators rather than being taken from the original text.
And then there's the whole matter of corroborating evidence from other contemporary sources being entirely missing. You'd think that having more than one nuclear-powered spacecraft landing in the middle of Jerusalem would have been more of a big deal for the locals, but apparently this was not the case. For all its painstaking calculations of power to weight ratios and specific impulses, this is just another junk science book. It's fun, but it's wrong.
Published by: Century Books, 1998.
I bought this book, which states on the cover that it was written by "Mark Hedsel" with an introduction and notes by "David Ovason" together with Colin Wilson's book on esoteric themes, The Occult (which I was buying for the third time) at the Carrollwood branch of Barnes and Noble, shortly after the book was published at the end of the last millennium. When I read it back then, I couldn't understand much of what it was getting at; I also found it difficult to flip back and forth between the main text and Ovason's copious notes at the back of the book.
Twenty-five years later, I'm slightly more familiar with the subject than I was back then, and I know that neither Hedsel and Ovason ever existed; they were the creations of of Fred Gettings, who wrote more than two dozen books on occult themes as well as books about cats and how to draw. Gettings passed away in unfortunate circumstances in 2013. With all this additional context, I thought it was time for a re-read.
As I understand it, the book is based on Gettings's own experiences, although I wouldn't go so far as to call it an autobiography. There seem to be a lot of literary devices in play and in accordance with esoteric tradition there's an awful lot of obfuscation and misdirection going on (as "Hedsel" explains, much of the discipline's secrets have never been committed to text and never will be. Anything that has been written will consists of "blinds" intended to mask important knowledge from the non-initiate). This work is no different; alongside erudite and scholarly analysis of zodiacal symbolism found in French churches and cathedrals (Gettings really did spend decades researching this, writing several books on the subject) we find references to Blavatsky's Akashic Records and James Churchward's legends of Lemuria and Mu. Atlantis abounds throughout and yes, dear reader, I cringed every time it was mentioned.
"There is such a thing as magic," Gettings tells us, "but it has been misunderstood." Unfortunately The Zelator does little to clear up those misunderstandings, as to do so would go against the taboos inherent in magical or occult societies against revealing secrets to outsiders. This means that the author is free to write whatever he wants on the matter; who is to say that he's wrong? There is a single account in the book of what amounts to a magical duel between the author and an Indian practitioner of the dark arts which reads like something straight out of a Dennis Wheatley novel. How the author acquired those skills is perhaps sensibly left out of the book completely. Aside from a seemingly never-ending stream of conversations with a succession of occult masters about symbolism, the progression from initiate to adept is not described at all. Which is frustrating, given that the book is presented in such a way as to imply that this is exactly what the book is all about.
And that, in the end, is the problem I have with the book. As a straight autobiography it would have been fascinating but the author's love of obfuscation means that there's a permanent sense that we're just not getting a lot of what's going on. Gettings's final words on the book are "Without separation, there is no illumination." This is his central thesis, in a way; the steps that "Hedsel" takes forwards on the Path of the Fool all come as a result of a cleavage of some kind. This, I suspect, is why the authorial voice undergoes fission not once, into the erudite "Hedsel" but twice, into the more bumbling "Ovason" (who is clearly intended to be the Boswell to Hedsel's Johnson). Most of the book is written in the first person plural, letting us all in on the joke that all three characters are one and the same (and Hedsel would, I am sure, have much to offer on the religious symbolism inherent there). Given Gettings's ultimate fate, it seems that the significance of such fracturing continued to be significant to him right up until his death. It's a shame that the deeper meaning of this fission is left largely unexplained.
Published by: Corgi, 1973
R. L. (Robert) Dione's book on flying saucers and religion originally appeared in 1969, which not at all coincidentally happens to be the year after Erich von Daniken's white-supremacists-from-outer-space blockbuster Chariots of the Gods originally saw the light of day. Like my copies of von Daniken's works (which I've kept, but y'know—ew), Dione's book was published in the UK by Corgi, who had pretty much cornered the market for books about ancient aliens by the time the early seventies had come around.
Dione (1922–1996) was an odd bird; Wikipedia tells us that he had been a paratrooper during World War II, possessed a Master of Arts degree, and worked as a schoolteacher. He also had some very strange ideas about religion and the central thesis of this book is that most of the miracles which have shaped the development of Christianity over the last two millennia were staged by extraterrestrials rather than by any sort of supreme being. Placing people in hypnotic trances seems to be the author's favourite explanation of how things were achieved.
The first half of the book is an entirely uncritical rehash of UFO history up until the date of publication. Every single sighting or encounter that Dione discusses is assumed to have actually happened exactly as witnesses described. Unfortunately, tales frequently get distorted in the telling and to take one example from the book, the fall of "angel hair" which Dione describes—twice—as stopping a football game being played in Ohio in 1954 actually took place in Tuscany, Italy. Many of the sightings cited have not withstood the test of time; the Trindade Island sighting which took place in January 1958 has been called into question many times and Almiro Baraun's photographs were being dismissed as fakes by people such as Harvard astronomer Donald Menzel even before the Swinging Sixties had got under way (subsequent research by Peter Brookesmith, amongst others, strongly supports the conclusion that the images were faked).
Dione shows an equal lack of attention to detail when he starts to examine the history of religious miracles. There's a complete lack of any form of scepticism, which soon makes the author appear to be embarrassingly credulous. He takes miracles as literal "proof" of the existence of God, which is a bit of a stretch. Dione treats the Bible as on-the-spot reporting rather than as a collection of stories and commentary that were assembled well after the fact. But this helps him to get off and running with a convoluted theory full of false dichotomies, unwarranted assumptions, and enough supposition to sink a battleship. It's never entirely clear where Dione stands with regard to the existence of an actual creator. One minute he's discussing God as the wrathful, omnipotent being who takes centre stage in the Old Testament; the next, God is a long-lived or possibly immortal alien who stages all manner of events for Earthlings (who have been specially selected from the wider population, Dione suggests, for their ignorance and gullibility) while hovering in safety in his flying saucer, which has been cunningly disguised as a nearby cloud.
There are shades of darkness in the book which verge on paranoia; we are told that the miracles which took place at Fatima in 1917 were designed partly to infect large numbers of people with a specially prepared virus which was subsequently responsible for the Spanish Flu pandemic. Given that the pandemic didn't actually begin until March the following year, this also seems a bit of a stretch. Dione's God is a needy entity, desperate for attention and validation. Indeed, miracles here are framed as nothing more than a means by which God attempts to grow his follower count. But it's pointless wasting more time noting any of the other holes in Dione's argument. This is a rambling, confused mess of a book. It lacks any form of critical thinking, or even rationality. It's kook science of the very lowest kind, published in a cynical attempt to ride on the coat-tails of someone else's bestseller, created by an author who had such a low opinion of his audience that he couldn't even be bothered to check his sources.
Published by: Frederick Muller, 1954
As recent political discourse about extraterrestrials in the United States becomes even more heated and the waters are deliberately muddied on an unprecedented scale by all manner of hucksters and shysters (and the occasional well-meaning but misinformed innocent), it felt like the perfect time to read this 1954 account of an encounter with one of the classic "Adamski" type scout ships on the shore at Lossiemouth, in Scotland. The author even claimed to have conducted a conversation with its occupant—communication was conducted largely by pointing at things or drawing pictures on the pages of the author's notebook because as the author sadly observed, he did not possess the talent for telepathy which Mr Adamski clearly did. Also unlike Adamski, Allingham managed to escape injury when he touched the spaceship, which he said was because it had landed and its engines were switched off. Allingham reported that the hull felt warm to the touch. He also managed to take a number of photographs of the saucer and one of its occupant (although not at the same time, which strikes me as odd; it would have been the first picture I'd have attempted to take). The pictures show something which is clearly a close relative to the ship that Adamski alleged landed in California. The picture of the occupant is blurred and also heavily retouched, and shows a tall man in dark clothing turned away from the camera and walking off. After a few minutes of largely inconsequential questioning, the alien, who it had been established was from Mars, climbed back into his saucer and left. If an encounter with extraterrestrials could ever be made to feel mundane, then I reckon this one would be sitting at the top of the list. Nevertheless, Allingham claimed that someone by the name of James Duncan had been fishing close by and had witnessed the end of the encounter. A photograph of Duncan's handwritten statement attesting to this is included as one of the book's photographic plates.
The tale is full of red flags; the first half of Allingham's book discusses Adamski's book published the previous year which he wrote with the Irish polymath Desmond Leslie, Flying Saucers Have Landed. It does so in an almost entirely uncritical fashion. In 1954, Adamski was at the zenith of his contactee career, the prime exemplar of peaceful contact between humans and ETs. To Allingham's credit he does call out Adamski's claim to work at Mount Palomar; George did not actually work with the 200-inch telescope at the Observatory proper. He omitted just enough detail which would encourage people to assume that he did; as Allingham points out, the truth was that he worked at a café several miles down the road where he kept a couple of small telescopes ("No doubt to the annoyance of the people who worked at the Observatory," Allingham comments wryly). Adamski's career has been covered in considerable detail in recent years; Colin Bennett's Looking For Orthon is a good place to start and I covered the revelations that photographs of Adamski's purported scout ship were actually of a gas lantern bought from Sears in my review of book #36 below, so I won't repeat things here but in short, Adamski was an inveterate hoaxer whose subsequent claims grew so spectacular that even the most credulous members of his audience abandoned him. Red flag #1, then, is that Cedric's saucer looks suspiciously similar to those in Adamski's photographs.
Red flag #2 is the encounter's location. It should be noted that at the time of the alleged encounter Lossiemouth played home to one of the Royal Air Force's primary Quick Intercept stations, and it does so to this day. The idea that strange aircraft would be coming and going on the beach next door without any reaction from the fighter aircraft stationed there is unlikely, to say the least. You'd think that someone in the RAF would have noticed.
But the other red flags are more subtle, and they took longer to come to light. They're what makes this particular contactee book of considerably more interest than most other publications in the genre.
Red flag #3 is the author himself. The back jacket of the book describes Mr Allingham as having been born in Bombay, the son of a wealthy textile merchant. The two photographs of the author featured in the book were evidently both taken at exactly the same time (he somehow contrived to be wearing exactly the same clothes in both shots, at least) and they show a tall gentleman with thick-rimmed spectacles and a bow tie. There's an almost Pythonesque air of someone who is extremely keen to disguise their true identity about the pictures. It's also impossible to ignore how closely the author's stature resembles that of the Man from Mars whose photograph he allegedly took.
And it turned out that other information about the author was not just difficult to come by; it did not exist. The author did not appear to promote the book after its publication in any way other than a single speaking engagement in Royal Tunbridge Wells which was attended by the RAF's Lord Hugh Dowding, at least according to the astronomer Patrick (later Sir Patrick) Moore, who subsequently discussed the event with Dowding. After this, there were no further public appearances or speaking engagements; again, this strikes me as odd—particularly as the author clearly knew just how lucrative Adamski's public speaking career (where he sold prints of his photographs for several dollars apiece) was proving at this point. Hints that Allingham might not exist arose early on when the writer Robert Chapman attempted to track him and his witness James Duncan down. Chapman persisted to such a degree that Allingham's publisher eventually told him that the author had died in Switzerland after a short illness. Of Chapman, there had never been any sign at all.
The final red flag was the setting of the photograph of the author on the frontispiece of the book, as it shows the author standing rigidly to attention alongside what is described as "The author's 10-inch reflecting telescope." Eventually, researchers realised that they'd seen that particular telescope somewhere else. Further examination of these other photographs revealed that the Allingham photograph had been taken at the same spot. It wasn't Cedric Allingham's telescope at all.
Because it looked very much like one of the telescopes Sir Patrick Moore kept in his back garden.
The game was up, although Sir Patrick vehemently denied responsibility for the hoax right up until his death and threatened to sue anyone who suggested his involvement in print, although on the three occasions when this actually happened he refrained from doing so. The writers Christopher Allan and Steuart Campbell pointed out many similarities in Moore's prose style with those of Mr Allingham and observed that Moore couldn't resist including one of his own books in work's rather limited bibliography! But all doubt about the author's identity was removed in 1986 when Moore's friend Peter Davies confessed that he had posed for the photographs of Cedric Allingham which were used in the book. And he'd done so in Sir Patrick's back garden, with Sir Patrick's own twelve-and-a-half inch reflector.
So, knowing all this, what do I make of Flying Saucer From Mars? For a start, I was surprised by how positive it is regarding the tales of other contactees. Adamski is given far more credit than he deserved. The book's attitude is very much supportive of the idea that there really might be tall aliens gadding around the solar system kitted out in stylish jumpsuits and landing their craft right under the noses of the local military. If anything, "Cedric" was more concerned about nitpicking Desmond Leslie's historical research (he points out several cases of names that Leslie had spelled incorrectly) than in poking fun at the nascent belief system of "space brothers" (and let's face it, there are few juicier targets Moore could have picked). So what was Sir Patrick thinking? Did he write the book for a bet? Whatever his motives, I imagine that he planned to expose it as a hoax after its initial sales had died down, only to realise that the fallout might do more damage to his own reputation as a serious scientist than would occur if he kept quiet; I think that he probably chickened out and decided to pretend the whole thing never happened. Which is a shame, because I suspect that Sir Patrick's own account of writing the story and its subsequent reception would have been profoundly entertaining. Sadly, we'll never know.
Published by: Tor, 2023
The snootier sort of literary critic always turns their nose up at any work labelled science fiction. This has led to many cases of reviewers tying themselves in knots trying to avoid using the term when discussing the work of authors like Margaret Atwood, for instance (and Margaret's a badass, and totally writes in the genre). These critics miss the point—a point which has always been one of the genre's biggest attractors for me—that although works of science fiction may be set on distant planets, although the characters may not be human, and the action may take place in the distant future or the past, they are always a commentary on the times in which they were written. No author has a freer rein to capture the zeitgeist than the writer of SF. Readers of the genre tend to be more savvy and quicker on the uptake than the general reading public. Perhaps this is why critics hate reviewing SF; they know they won't be able to come up with anything original that its readers won't have already figured out for themselves. Worse, the reader will probably have noticed many aspects of the work which went completely over the critic's head. SF readers like pointing this out, which is not a habit likely to endear them to the aforementioned critic.
The impact of the zeitgeist made its presence felt particularly strongly as I read The Kaiju Preservation Society. The book was written as the world went in to lockdown at the beginning of 2021 with Covid-19 spreading rapidly around the world. As John says in his postscript, the stress of living while a novel and alarmingly lethal pandemic was on the loose severely limited his ability to work on the novel he had been writing. When he lost several thousand words of work thanks to a computer fault, he realised he had to stop writing it. But the very next day, he woke up with the whole of this book thought out, plotted, and ready to rock. This is not intended to be a work of serious literature, then. Ostensibly it's a lightweight affair. It's bubblegum; it's Saturday morning cartoons; it's SF's version of a pop song, a 7" single. Fundamentally therefore it's intended as a novel that makes you feel good without necessarily having to think too deeply about stuff. Reading this, you're seeing an author just kicking back and having some much-needed fun, because fun is never in such short supply as it is when there's an existential threat or two stalking the planet. But if you're one of us, you'll really dig it.
So this is a novel about existential threats, and about science being able to triumph over them. One recurring joke that made me laugh more every time that John leaned into it (and he leans hard) but also made me wince in painful recognition is the fact that our humble protagonist only has a Master's degree but every person he meets, no matter what line of work they carry out in the world of the book, has a full doctorate. I got that a lot when I worked in academia in the same circumstances; I was half-expecting jokes about tenure. And then there's the science part of science fiction to contend with. Plausibly fitting animate creatures the size of small mountains into a world in which the reader damn well knows they couldn't really exist is not only addressed, it's done so splendidly well that it had me nodding in sincere appreciation (the only trick which I think John missed, and I was very surprised because John is also one of us, is that I couldn't spot any reference at all in the book to the Oklo reactor; I may just have missed it, of course). There are some lovely ideas from the world of physics throughout and even the practice of reverse lampshading is explained for those readers who might need a bit more convincing on the science before they get on board with the plot.
And in referring to tropes such as lampshading and other works of fiction (to which end Neal Stephenson definitely owes Mr Scalzi a few beers, or possibly vice versa) the KPS also shows its hand as an unabashed love letter to certain aspects of popular culture. This is achieved without the masturbatory levels of fan servicing that meant that I never managed to finish Ernest Cline's Ready Player One because I'd thrown it in the bin (and not even the copy of Dan Brown's execrable best-seller which I was given for my birthday years ago met that particular fate; I never throw books away, even when they're not presents).
There are initiating conceits in the book that genuinely made me laugh out loud, particularly one gag regarding the US nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1950s. I'll admit to feeling very smug for spotting many of the references to the Showa-era Toho films well before a character in the book got round to explaining them for the general readership and the name of the base where most of the action takes place made me misty-eyed, as it was a lovely tribute to one of cinema's great visionaries. I burned through the book in less than a day (it's a 7" single, after all) and when I'd finished it, I genuinely heaved a sigh of satisfaction and sat there with a big grin on my face. There are relatively few books where I realised that they had adopted exactly the tone that I desperately needed at the time, but I've just added this one to the list. This 7" single is definitely a hit.
Needless to say I already have John's next book Starter Villain on preorder; it'll get reviewed here, too.
Published by: Orion Books, 2016
My run of books connected with the field of cryptozoology continues with this gem about the history of Nessie, written by Professor Williams. The blurb from Literary Review on the cover describes it as "Surely the best and sanest recent book on the Loch Ness Monster" and I wholeheartedly agree. If you've been reading these reviews, you'll have realised that despite a lifelong interest in Fortean subjects, I've become increasingly convinced that the vast majority of such phenomena are simply phantoms. The human brain has an alarming tendency to fill in the gaps in our perception—gaps which are much larger than you'd think, to an alarming degree—and when it fills in the details, it often gets things wrong. Our recall is also nowhere near as accurate as we'd like to think it is (and for a deep examination of that particular can of worms, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better work than book #7 below, The Invisible Gorilla). Most depressing of all is the recognition that when an offbeat story hits the media, it is almost guaranteed to attract an army of hoaxers, each keen to share some of the limelight and maybe earn a fast buck or two in the process.
Williams presents the accepted chronology of events and has carried out painstaking research, with access to the archives of many of the people who played a part in the evolution of the Nessie story. He provides new insight on the involvement of Slimbridge's Sir Peter Scott (I still remember sitting on the settee, fascinated as I watched him talking about the monster on television in the mid-1970s) together with many names that will be very familiar to you if you've read anything on the subject at all: Constance Whyte, Robert Rines, Tim Dinsdale, Adrian Shine, Nicholas Witchell and yes, even the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley. But then he does something different; he goes back to the beginning of modern sightings, and replays events with a detective's eye for ferreting out the truth of the matter. What was really going on in Inverness at the beginning of the 1930s? As he points out, the sightings began during the great depression when many people were struggling to make ends meet and six per cent of the local population were unemployed. How might someone encourage people to visit the area—preferably affluent ones from further south, with plenty of spare cash to spread around?
And that's where the spotlight falls conclusively on one person whose history is inextricably linked with the monster's: a water bailiff by the name of Alex Campbell. Under Williams's unrelenting analysis, Campbell's role in the history of Nessie rapidly changes from star witness (few people ever claimed to see the monster as often as he did) to unabashed creator. This isn't the first time I've seen this version of Nessie's origins in print, but it's by far the most damning. Williams shows how Campbell played a remarkably long game, planting the backstory of something fishy going on in the Loch a full three years before the mainstream media picked up the thread. Williams quotes a 1930 article in the local newspaper from an "anonymous source" whose writing style and fondness for particular turns of phrase ("What was it?" crops up more than once) bear a striking resemblance to Campbell's. But Williams digs deeper still, searching through sources other than Campbell for references to unusual animals in the area over the preceding couple of centuries. After all, the Loch was hardly unknown to science; its bathymetry had been painstakingly surveyed by Sir John Murray in 1908. But Professor Williams comes up with absolutely nothing unexpected. He also introduces us to the impressive roster of charlatans (beginning with the aforementioned Crowley, who later claimed that he'd invented the monster himself) who did all they could to confuse the situation and take a rise out of locals and Fleet Street newspapers alike.
Just as Kenneth Arnold's sighting of something in the skies over Mount Rainier in 1947 soon had people all over the world seeing things that they interpreted as flying saucers, so Campbell's tales had people seeing Nessie in every boat wake, seiche wave, shoal of salmon, or even the occasional pony or two taking a swim to cool off on a hot summer's day. If that didn't do the trick, then it was off to the Richmond branch of Woolworth's to buy a toy submarine and some plastic wood and sculpt a model monster that would fool the world for nearly sixty years. Even as we struggle with current "post truth" attitudes to everything from political discourse to television news, it's sobering to realise that exactly the same thing was going on nearly a whole century ago. We might tell ourselves we're more sophisticated these days, but more than a few of us are still chasing phantoms.
Published by: Five Mile Books, 2013
The last living specimen of Thylacinus cynocephalus, better known as the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf, died in a zoo in Hobart, Tasmania back in 1938. The species was the largest marsupial carnivore on the planet. Because it was believed to attack livestock the Tasmanian government offered a bounty for every one killed between 1888 and 1909 and this led to a rapid decline in population. As the book relates, back then this was seen as a good thing—by the local farmers, if not the population at large. As the human population of Tasmania grew and mining and logging became the state's principal industries, the tiger became extinct first in the wild, and then in captivity.
At least, that's the official story. The problem with it is that people keep having encounters with animals that look very much like the tiger is still alive, if not thriving. This first happened to the author on the coast of South Australia in the 1960s and the sighting began a lifelong obsession with finding out whether the Tasmanian Tiger really was as extinct as science seemed to think it was. Col Bailey (who passed away last year) became an authority on the social history of the animal, and this book chronicles his research from conversations modern witnesses and with old bushmen who knew the animal's traits and behaviour to his own searches for evidence in numerous forays into the bush. From his description of the almost impenetrable countryside that the tiger is thought to roam, it's easy to believe that they still exist.
It's a fascinating and tantalising tale, told simply and frankly. Col's enthusiasm for his subject shines out of every page.
Published by: Hodder and Stoughton, 2022
I've loved the Wayfarers series, and I felt a little sad when I realised that this is the last in the sequence. It's a sign of how good the writing is that while the finale does go out with a (sort of) bang, the bang in question is very much backgrounded and instead it's the interactions of a small group of people, forced by circumstances beyond their control into spending a few days together in a sort of celestial truck stop, which constitutes the bulk of the book.
The whole series has a comforting good-naturedness to it and this is particularly evident in this final story. There are conflicts, yes; but with one exception the people behave like grown-ups and act wisely. And the exception, an endearing twist on the trope of the moody teenager, provides both comic relief and high drama.
A friend of mine is fond of describing the original series of Star Trek as "competence porn". The show recognised that the crew of the Enterprise got where they were by being very good at a variety of important life skills, and that they were also the result of prolonged military training as well as having top-class abilities in management. Let's be realistic here: do you think any of us would be allowed to go gadding about the stars in a highly advanced spacecraft—a heavily armed one, at that— if that wasn't the case? Trek's popularity owed a lot to the fact that its characters solved their problems by thinking about them rationally (and all of these points had clearly escaped J. J. Abrams when he made the piss-poor reboot). Kirk and co. made decisions which were plausible and sane, and the inventiveness of their solutions (which seldom involved space battles or even extended punch-ups—well, most of the time at least; Mr Shatner's penchant for flying drop kicks and other martial pyrotechnics notwithstanding) was one of the show's biggest attractions for me. I suspect that the popularity of the Wayfarers series can be ascribed in no small part to the same thing. Here, the characters are motivated by a desire to be good people, and to do the right thing. And dammit, I enjoy reading about people behaving like that.
The fact that this feels like a radical choice to make in this day and age speaks volumes. We need more tales like this. We need the attitudes and sensibilities of characters like these to be the norm, rather than viewing them as a quaint reflection of a golden age that it's somehow become fashionable to pretend we've lost.
Published by: Anaya, 1992
Compared to Dr David Clarke's book reviewed immediately below, this is a very different kettle of fish. Jenny has been a fixture on the UFO scene for decades and she knows an immense amount about a perplexing subject (she currently writes regular columns for the Fortean Times which revisit many classic sightings, for example). She's made many useful contributions to research on the field and was responsible for identifying and naming the Oz Factor which forms part of the UFO experience described by many witnesses.
Here, she has attempted to write the quintessential how-to guide on the subject, a sourcebook for newcomers to the field who are keen to see UFOs for themselves. She also presents some of the most famous sightings from the history of the subject, but these cases seem to have been selected purely on the basis of their notoriety or fame, not on whether or not they constitute a useful record of a genuinely unusual occurrence.
One bellwether which I use in judging the accuracy of any book on the subject these days is whether or not it includes the sighting made by Patrolman Lonnie Zamora in Socorro, NM on April 24th, 1964, critically or otherwise. Zamora had made himself unpopular with students when he was a security guard at a nearby college and it seems that when he became a patrolman, his attitude towards students became even more of a problem and his new-found status seems to have turned him into a bit of a bully. Some of them therefore decided to exact their revenge. They got it by drawing him out of town with a speeding car and staging a "landing" right in front of him with a research balloon they'd borrowed (the performance may also have involved blowing up oil drums with dynamite which according to one confession the students had liberated from the college's mining school). In a reply to an enquiry about the encounter from the double-Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, the Institute's president Stirling Colgate revealed that not only did he know for sure that the encounter was a student prank, but he also had a good indication of who was responsible.
Another indicator of a book's sensibilities is the way it presents the exploits of one George Adamski, the most famous of the small cadre of Flying Saucer "contactees" who gained significant notoriety and fame in the 1950s and early 1960s. Adamski made headlines when he claimed to have met a man from Venus just outside Desert Center (a small hamlet in the high desert above Los Angeles, California) after seeing the Venusian's spacecraft, or as Adamski called it, a "Scout Ship", as it came in for a landing. Adamski offered sworn affidavits describing the event signed by his business associates (who could hardly be described as impartial witnesses) and several photographs of the ship as proof of the encounter. However the pictures he provided only show the ship in extreme close-up rather than in the context of the landing site, and eventually researchers identified the reason for this: Adamski's ship was actually the top shade of a gas lantern which he'd bought from Sears and pulled apart. If you're not convinced of any subterfuge by this revelation, all you need to do is have a look at his later cine film of a scout ship which he claimed had hovered above his house. It's even less authentic-looking; it's clearly a flat photograph of the same lamp stuck to a window and the camera is being moved about to give the illusion that the saucer is floating from side to side. Adamski used to hand out business cards with an address of Palomar Observatory; he worked at a hot-dog stand at the side of the access road to it. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a charlatan.
Even if we take into consideration the fact that this book is more than thirty years old, it's a bit of a disappointment. It fails both my credibility tests, because it presents both Zamora and Adamski's stories with no criticism whatsoever. But aside from that, the book's just not very good as an introduction to the subject. The quality of the picture reproduction is abysmal. Many of the images are halftone reproductions cribbed from other publications, and as most of the pictures chosen showed nothing more than fuzzy blobs of light in the first place, this does them no favours at all. One of the book's "historical photographs" was evidently taken using an equally historical cathode ray tube television set, because the clearest feature which can be made out in the image is its horizontal raster scan lines. Other photographs have been subjected to truly ridiculous levels of cropping so that most of the impact of the image is lost (Jim Templeman's famous photograph of the Solway Firth Spaceman is given particularly harsh treatment in this regard). A lot of the photographs used lack any useful context such as the date and time when they were taken, or where the photographer was.
This lack of useful context is carried over into the text of the book. It reads like a rough first draft waiting to be fleshed out and properly organised. A report referred to as the Battelle Study is better known to aficionados as Project Blue Book Special Report #14, but its formal title is not given. There are other weird omissions. John G. Fuller's groundbreaking book about Barney and Betty Hill's abduction experience, The Interrupted Journey is described, but the Hills are never mentioned by name. Several other famous cases are described but again, the witnesses are never referred to by name. The fact that one of the most famous photographs of the "Warminster Thing" was subsequently discovered to be a fake is revealed, but we're not told which photograph it was. Other known fakes are presented as genuine sightings and the ambiguity which lingers around some classic cases is abandoned. Jenny's view of what happened at Rendlesham is considerably at odds with that of Dr. Clarke, for example. There are spelling mistakes and some confusing typos, too (the infamous Condon Report is referred to being produced by the "London Committee" for example, and the reader is directed to consult the front cover to see a colour version of Ella Fortune's famous photograph of a UFO near Holloman Air Force Base taken in 1957 which is shown in black and white inside the book; instead, the book cover shows a completely different image).
It's a shame; this book could have been a useful resource for newcomers to the field, but the publishers seem to have been unwilling to pay for sufficient time or effort to be spent on bringing it up to scratch. As it is, it has nothing to recommend it.
Published by: The National Archive, 2009
This book comes at the same subject as book #33. It's an overview of UFO reports from the military, police, and members of the public that were gathered together over the course of the last half of the 20th Century by the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Defence before the files were transferred to The National Archive. Indeed, this book is published by The National Archive's own imprint. But where the previous book I read of Dr Clarke's focused on drawings and paintings by the witnesses, this book (which was published a few years earlier) is more concerned with the history of the phenomenon itself and while there are plenty of photos, the text rightly takes precedence.
And so we get an account of—amongst other things—mystery Zeppelins, of Foo Fighters, of ghost rockets, Kenneth Arnold's 1947 sighting above the slopes of Mount Rainier, of the Roswell Crash, and the death of Captain Thomas F. Mantell up to the closure of the UK government's files at the beginning of the 21st Century. Both Roswell and the Mantell crash resonate strongly right now because the accepted explanations of both these incidents involve giant balloons that the US Military were launching into the upper atmosphere. Once there, they could drift around the world whilst eavesdropping and taking photographs of foreign territories. For Roswell, a wayward Project Mogul balloon seems to have been responsible, and Mantell was likely chasing a Project Skyhook balloon, although records of the launch responsible have never been found. Given that a fatality was involved, I don't find it even slightly surprising that such records may have been very hastily destroyed. Both projects were highly secret at the time and as we saw last year, governments tend to get annoyed about foreign balloons drifting across their borders unchallenged. Dr Clarke reveals that Skyhook balloons were responsible for several sightings in the UK during the 1950s, too. This did not impress Her Majesty's Government at all, who appear to have been well aware of what was going on at the time.
Other mysteries have also been cleared up, in a way: almost all of the mysterious "angels" detected by early radar systems are now believed to have been caused by single birds, or flocks of them. One fighter pilot sent to intercept such a signal reported encountering a solitary Golden Eagle, happily riding the Jet Stream at an altitude of 25,000 feet! While these signals are still detected to this day, modern radar systems can be tuned so that they do not appear on the screen to distract the operator.
There are a few unsolved sightings in the book. Some of the encounters Dr Clarke found in the National Archive involved military personnel and most of these are intriguing. I have always been fascinated by the great number of sightings from the 1950s and 60s where the way the mystery object moves is described as being "like a falling sycamore leaf" and a classic example of this category of sighting involved a Gloster Meteor jet from RAF Topcliffe. Some military sightings are much more dramatic. A report by the crew of a Vulcan Bomber flying over the North Atlantic in 1977 reads like something out of a James Bond film. They appear to have inadvertently stumbled upon the test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and they had their radio systems jammed for good measure.
I find it interesting how the shape of objects changes over the years; the preponderance of reports describing slow-moving black triangles once the United States stealth fighter programme got under way is really quite striking.
The older I get, the more I realise that people can take a simple story and spin it into something outlandish to further their ambitions in the media or online. A case of this described in the book is the Rendlesham Incident, which took place just after Christmas in 1980. US Military personnel guarding RAF Woodbridge spent a couple of evenings chasing around a Forestry Commission plantation of pine trees nearby in pursuit of mysterious lights. Dr Clarke is of the opinion that the sighting was the result of bored servicemen seeing the re-entry of space debris (which was reported by other sources on the same night) and then misperceiving the nearby Orford Ness lighthouse. I agree with him; this is far more plausible to me than the likelihood that alien spacecraft landed not once, but two nights in a row. A few years ago, someone synced up a recording of the airmen's radio chatter against a video recording of the Orford Ness lighthouse in the early evening, and the way the radio chatter responds to each flash is hilarious, because it's so comically obvious that this is what they were looking at. Dr Clarke comments that thanks to a seemingly unending stream of sensationalist books and television programmes, the legend of the event has grown so large and unwieldy that finding a definitive explanation of what really happened is probably no longer possible. But a few people have done very nicely making appearances on the UFO convention circuit as a result.
Many of the other sightings in the book were also found to have very mundane causes, and it becomes clear that the MoD didn't close their files because they were involved in a cover up at all; they just got fed up with wasting time and effort responding to people who were getting ridiculously excited after seeing something mundane in the sky that they did't recognise. More than one incident recorded in the National Archive was the result of practical jokers such as notorious crop cricle makers Doug and Dave, or the cheeky funster who dressed up as a silver-suited spaceman during a flap near Milford Haven in South Wales. The book includes a copy of a letter sent to various defence agencies warning them to expect a wave of UFO reports because an airship advertising the recently-launched Ford Mondeo was about to start flying over the UK (and you may also remember the flap caused by one of Richard Branson's sillier publicity stunts over south London back in 1989). Some of the documents which Dr Clarke has unearthed are highly entertaining, particularly the handwritten note from an officer at RAF Odiham sent to his commander after there was an outbreak of crop circles in the area and the farmer on whose land they appeared wrote to ask if the RAF's helicopters were responsible:
"Personally, I suspect hippies with scythes!"
I suspect that I may just have found the title of my next album.
Published by: Adventures Unlimited Press, 2008
Another second-hand bookshop find. I've got a couple of Bruce Cathie's earlier books in my Forteana collection, but this later work of his (he passed away in 2013) was new to me. Cathie was an airline pilot and he saw several unidentified flying objects over the course of his career. This book opens with an account of a sighting he made in 1956 and the description leaves me in no doubt that he witnessed a spectacular bolide or bright meteor breaking up in the Earth's atmosphere.
Cathie was intrigued by his sightings and started to collect reports of UFOs first in his home country of New Zealand, and then across the globe. He was determined to find a pattern in the chaos. His first book was Harmonic 33, published in 1968. This was an account of how he managed to find just what he was looking for—because if you've got a large enough set of data, finding a pattern in it is, quite frankly, inevitable. Matt Parker's famous takedown of the ancient mysteries crowd by pointing out the mysterious alignment of branches of Woolworth's in the UK is a classic example of exactly this. But Cathie went further still; much further. He was a fan of numerology, which the rest of us know better as "dicking around with a calculator" and disappeared down the rabbit hole of finding repeating numbers in his calculations which he assumed must have Great Significance. It's not the first time anyone has made such claims; John Michell's classic New Age text The View Over Atlantis covered similar ground with the same amount of plausibility but far more elegance.
I must admit that this book defeated me. Not because the logic of his argument was too complicated to follow, but because there is no logic to be found. Instead, we're presented with a rambling mess of unfounded assertions, unwarranted assumptions, and unxplained conclusions. For a start, Cathie based all his calculations on the assumption that a photograph of an example of a species of sponge called Chronocladia concrescens that was taken by researchers on the USNS Eltanin in 1964 was actually an antenna placed on the seabed by aliens, which marked a node on his imaginary harmonic grid. Despite the fact that when the photograph was published in his first book people pointed out to him what it actually was, Cathie was still repeating his claim thirty years later (this work was first published in 1997). He was clearly extremely annoyed about being told that this was a species which had been known about since the 19th century, grumbling "Since this photo was taken there has been a determined attempt by the scientific world to label this object as nothing more than a plant of some sort."
Sponges, it should be pointed out, are not plants at all. Rather, they are marine animals—and best of all, C. concrescens is carnivorous. But Cathie describes himself as a maverick, and mavericks can't be bothered with sciencey stuff like rigorous accuracy, can they? Indeed, Cathie appears to have been entirely unconcerned about the need to explain his reasoning with anything resembling clarity or concision. Instead, he prefers to regale us with reams of pseudo-scientific waffle. Here's an example:
"The coordinate of 2545584412 was doubled in the diagonals of the polar squares, with all of its associated harmonics and other factors appeared to be doubled when the pattern was projected onto a flat plain." (sic throughout.)
As if this wasn't bad enough, we then get to the heart of the author's theory, which involves maths, and this is where the book completely loses the plot. Cathie talks many times about how he had to "fine tune" his results, making corrections to his calculations but it's obvious that what he was actually doing was fudging the figures he used so that the results he got fitted his theory.
One gets the impression that he spent an inordinate amount of time pressing buttons on his calculator to get numbers he liked (this was the first book he'd written where he had access to one, and he seems to have had a particular fondness for its reciprocal button), but whatever significance his mathematical transformations have is completely illusory. This conclusion is unavoidable once he adopts the bizarre practice of dropping trailing zeroes from his figures so that they fit—but only when they don't fit as they are; he's fine with using trailing zeroes when they do. He explains this bizarre methodology thus:
"In harmonic calculation decimal points as well as zeros to the right or left of a figure can be ignored; so it can be said that the square root of 695 was 2636."
Given that Cathie used to be a pilot, you'd think that claiming an altitude of 1 foot was functionally equivalent in any way to an altitude of 10,000 feet would be rather problematic. Let's face it: when you've strayed this far off the beaten path, the scientific community is unlikely to welcome you with open arms, but things get dafter still: when Cathie gets to the point where the accepted values of things like the speed of light or Planck's constant aren't giving him the results he wants, he simply assumes that science has got the figures wrong and uses values of his own instead. This is the principal error that he makes, and it's a pretty fundamental one: he is so convinced that his idea must be right that any result which falsifies his theory (and yes, we're back to Karl Popper again) is not just ignored, it's tweaked and distorted until it can confirm things instead. No justification is offered for doing so. This is play-acting science, not the real thing.
In one chapter Cathie compares himself to the notorious Saucer Contactee (and hot-dog salesman) George Adamski, complaining bitterly that the valuable cosmic revelations that both he and George have made were rejected by the scientific establishment. But this rejection was inevitable as the book is—not to put too fine a point on it—utter twaddle.
Published by: Four Corners, 2017
This is an oddity. It's the second in a series published by Four Corners Books under the general banner of UK popular culture; the first is a record of "eyeball cards" which were given out by CB radio enthusiasts in the 1980s. Other works in the series include a collection of images of the painted transparencies that were used in light shows during pop concerts in the 1970s to 1990s, a visual history of the wallets our photographs used to come back from the chemist's in, and a celebration of the humble flexidisc. But in this particular publication, Dr David Clarke curates a collection of drawings and paintings (and the occasional photograph) drawn from the Ministry of Defence's files on UFO sightings. These files were closed in 2007 and while many remain sealed under the 30-year rule, a selection were released to the National Archive for storage and digitisation (and you can read many of them online here). Dr Clarke was appointed by the National Archive to examine the records and draw out any items of historical or social significance.
Like the rest of the series, the content is entertainingly varied. It's tempting to dismiss some of it as the work of overactive imaginations or flat-out cranks, particularly when drawings include captions such as "received by telepathy". In contrast, other reports are sober accounts from members of the armed forces or police, and there's even a scan of a military radar plot. Some of the sketches included in the book are highly detailed; others are more impressionistic. For me, it's Ronald Claridge's painting of the immense object he saw as a crewman on a Lancaster bomber returning from a raid on Turin during World War Two that's the standout illustration in the book.
We shouldn't forget the lessons that Chabris and Simons taught us in book #7, reviewed below. Our memory is not as reliable as we believe, even when we're recalling truly unique experiences. Our brains have a habit of filling in the blank spaces of our perception with stuff that isn't there. More than one of the encounters presented in this book was resolved to the MOD's satisfaction as being completely mundane in nature. The number of objects described as having two extremely bright lights, "like aircraft landing lights", turn out to be exactly that and the MOD were usually able to identify the aircraft type and flight number responsible (that's kind of what the Defence Ministry is for, after all). Even the book's cover painting turned out to be a record of an overhead pass by a Russian Zond satellite. Not every witness was pleased to have their sighting dismissed so easily and the book includes one or two follow-up letters of the "I know what I saw, and that's not what it was" variety.
Yet the book retains a delicious air of folksy strangeness, suggesting the slight possibility that people do—very occasionally—see things in the sky which are not so easily explained...
Published by: Tor, 2023
The saga of the plucky crew of the space salvage vessel Vulture God as they fight a menace from the depths of another dimension intent on eradicating all sentient life from the Universe draws to a suitably epic conclusion. And it does so with action that happens on a scale that puts other space operas to shame. There are space battles, with all manner of interesting twists that ramp up the stakes and ratchet up the tension because—as one character finds themself pondering, you never know how much worse things could possibly get and it's important to be ready to recalibrate your scales in the face of new evidence...
When the stakes you're playing for are existential-level ones, issues of morality can be pushed to the background and the cost of survival used to justify whatever actions are taken (and yes, Ender's Game, I'm looking at you). The temptation to cross the line into unadulterated might-equals-right fascism is all the stronger when things aren't going your way, and Adrian does a good job in contrasting in inner voices of those who succumb and those who resist without turning the antagonists into Saturday morning cartoon villains. Although the sequence definitely has its fair share of black-hat bad guys, the stance of several of the other characters is more ambiguous and few of the putative good guys are morally spotless.
I've really enjoyed this series of books. Adrian has been at the top of his game from start to finish, and the plotting and character development has been complex and extremely satisfying. There are plenty of aliens involved, and they're written convincingly (as well as being amusingly weird, sometimes to the exasperation of the human protagonists). At the same time, many of them exhibit entertainingly human conceits; the venal tendencies of the Hannilambra to examine every new plot revelation for ways to turn a fast buck made me grin, for example, or the outrageously egotistical antics of the Essiel who tie themselves in knots making sure that their status as the coolest, most awesome species on the block is never put at risk and they never come out of any situation looking bad.
I'm sad that the adventure is over, for now. But there are plenty of stories left to be told in the Universe Adrian has built here. I hope we get to hear more of them.
Published by: Corsair, 2023
My fiction binge continues with a new novel from one of my favourite authors. The title perfectly captures the atmosphere of the tale: it's told in the first person by a private investigator, as all the best noir tales are, and true to form he's down on his luck; there used to be a dame in his life who has moved on to higher things; and rather than steering the plot's engine, he's more likely to be found at risk of being chewed up by its gears. If you're going to write successful detective fiction, your protagonist ought not to be too savvy. It's best when they are occasionally wrong-footed and forced to play catch-up, because showing us their thought processes as they struggle to make sense of things is a simple way for the author to provide context and exposition without being too obvious about it. You don't want them to be too stupid, though; most of literature's most famous gumshoes made themselves a reputation for getting things done. They're talented; just not talented enough to afford to put much aside for a rainy day. A balance has to be established. A noir plot shouldn't make things easy for them, either. It should be riddled with ambiguity. Every character might have something to hide. Who we think of as the antagonist might turn out to be simply a supporting character. And if the author's really good, as Nick most certainly is, then the detective's ideas about what is going on become another piece of the puzzle, because they don't necessarily reflect the truth of the situation.
Titanium Noir's Cal Sounder is no fool, but he works his trade on the periphery of a world that is alien to him, and from which he is excluded. It's a world that is peopled by gods and monsters.
Because the setting of the book is a futuristic city called Chersonesos, which is Greek for "peninsula" and in our world it was the name of an ancient settlement on the shores of the Black Sea near the city of Sevastopol. Harkaway's city is aware of its Greek influences; it sits on the shores of Lake Orthys. In Greek mythology, Mount Othrys was the home of the Titans, and in Harkaway's city, gigantic statues of Cronos and Gaia stand watch over its Western and Eastern approaches.
The city is home to a small group of beings called Titans, people of immense wealth who have been transformed by a rejuvenation treatment called Titanium 7 into towering superhumans. The treatment is costly as well as expensive—regaining one's youth exacts a price, and some of the Titans that Sounder encounters have paid more highly than others.
The blurb on the book's cover gives away more of the plot than this, so I'm not going to count any of the above as spoiler territory. Rather, it shows you the richly imagined and delightfully weird circumstances in which Sounder tries to keep up with what's going on. He's never going to be one step ahead of things, because that would break the noir rules, but watching him thread together the fabric of the narrative is hugely entertaining.
I've read all of Nick Harkaway's previous novels and count myself as a fan; his craft has always been exceptional but his writing here has become leaner and more efficient. This is no doorstop blockbuster which will take you all summer to read. Instead, the book is compact (which is another noir trait, incidentally) but utterly gripping. I burned through the whole thing in a day and enjoyed every single page.
But as someone who recently lost their own father, the acknowledgements at the end of the book regarding the passing last year of Nick's father John le Carré are heartbreaking.
Published by: Solaris, 2022
After finishing this book, I'm up to date on Dave's Fractured Europe sequence of novels, although this book isn't really part of the main story (the fact that its title doesn't follow the pattern established by its predecessors is one indicator of this; the absence of Rudi from the proceedings is another). It's very much part of the sequence, though. Some very familiar characters make appearances at various points in the proceedings, but they are there to support a new cast of characters with quirks and foibles of their own.
The author has a lot of fun with them, too; while the series of novels is ostensibly part of the spy/thriller genre, the characters here are well aware of its tropes: one suspected spy is mocked for operating under the name of K. Philby, John Le Carré gets a name check, and there are multiple references to The Third Man, all of which made me grin.
In fact my overall impression of Cold Water is that it is noticeably more self-aware and snarky than the first four books, and I really responded to this. I laughed out loud several times. Most of the leads are women and when two of them find themselves alone together at one point, one of them observes wryly that the conversation which they are having has just failed the Bechdel Test. Dialogue is neither cold nor clinical and Hutchinson is at his best when characters get exasperated with each other, which they do with considerable justification at many points.
The ending leaves things open for more Fractured Europe novels to appear in the future, and I sincerely hope we get them because at the end of this novel we're left with a new player in the game about whom we know next to nothing. What we do know about them is extremely interesting, and offers a potentially rich source of new directions in which proceedings could go. There were also one or two allusions to a far bigger picture dropped in to Europe at Dawn (one character mutters darkly about seeming "miracles" which they clearly found very troubling), and several references were made to dark and mysterious goings-on that the characters know little about (but are obviously deeply concerned by) are worked in to conversations here as well. Will these—or, indeed, the seemingly random mention of Cthulhu, say—turn out to be significant?
Oh, I really, really hope so.
Published by: Solaris, 2018
Book four in what has become one of my favourite sequences of novels covers some familiar ground; its timeline encompasses events beginning before the events of the opening of Europe In Autumn but here we see other sides to the main story. Here, the gaps all get filled in and a good deal of the questions which went unanswered in the first three books are finally resolved.
At which point you finally see how everything fits together like a Fabergé Egg; perfectly crafted and richly satisfying. And as with precious few writers these days you also realise that a lot of the puzzle pieces were staring you in the face the whole time; I'd only spotted two of them, and was feeling quite smug for doing so, but then it turned out that in the case of one character, even though I was waiting for them to show up again, I'd only discerned half of the matter. Great fun, and immensely entertaining.
At the time the book was published, this was intended to be the last book in the sequence, and things are wrapped up in a satisfactory manner that values the reader's relationship with the principal characters that may have developed over the course of four novels. But in 2022 a fifth book in the series appeared, and I have my copy right here, so let's press on...
Published by: Solaris, 2016
The sequence of books that started off as (apparently) a straightforward espionage thriller morphs into something much stranger and much grander, but even though the weirdness of the books is well established, three books in to the sequence, Mr Hutchinson still manages to take things in unexpected directions. And that's about as close as I'm going to get to a spoiler in these reviews; it's best if you read these books (and you most definitely should read these books) not knowing what to expect.
Rudi is still at the heart of things, of course. If anything, this is a series of books in which he propels events. He is not the sole driver of the plot's engine, however. Three books in, we are led to believe we are beginning to get a handle on who else is involved in what's going on and what their motivations are likely to be. Needless to say, by the end of this novel that isn't the case any more.
And Rudi would be nothing without an ever-growing cast of supporting characters—and they are all brilliantly written. Most of them are recognisable even when their names are not mentioned in the text. Being able to write dialogue well enough to achieve this is every author's dream, but few manage to pull it off as seemingly effortlessly as Dave does in this book. That craft never gets in the way of things, though. The writing draws you in and allows you to enter a changed landscape of the Europe of the future in a way that you don't notice at all, because you're impatiently wanting to find out what's going to happen next, and where.
This is the Good Stuff, people.
Published by: Solaris, 2015
I haven't embarked on a proper reading binge for quite a while, but in the case of the Fractured Europe series I found it impossible to resist the temptation and I flew through book 2 in less than 36 hours. I was utterly gripped.
The book takes the same premise as the first novel in the sequence but comes at it from the opposite direction, so to speak. The stakes are, of course, higher; the action even more kinetic; the scenario even wilder. And the writing is still spectacular. Although I'd spotted one plot reveal being set up a couple of chapters in advance, I was still wrong-footed by the plot on many occasions. I love it when that happens.
Describing the plot will inevitably veer into spoiler territory, and as I said in the previous review, I don't want to do that. I'll just say that this sequence of novels is one of the best I've ever read. I'm already a hundred pages in to book 3, Europe in Winter.
Published by: Solaris, 2014
Somebody once described this book as "Len Deighton meets Franz Kafka" and that is a perfect take. Written well before the outbreak of Covid, it's a tale set in a Europe which has been ravaged by a pandemic badly enough for many countries to have disintegrated into tiny polities and city states, with varying degrees of success. This book has some serious depth to it; the politics and mores of Eastern Europe are described with an easy knowledge that signifies a master storyteller working at the height of their powers. The characters, the set pieces, the dialogue draw you in effortlessly and the progressively more and more unsettling plot will have you turning the pages to find out just how many more layers of the story you've yet to uncover (it's a lot).
It's best if that's all you know about the plot before you start reading. The first time I read it I had no idea of the ride I'd let myself in for, and finding out what was going on was a delicious experience (which is apt, as Rudi, the principal protagonist, starts out as a chef; there are nods to Bourdain, Blumenthal and Ramsey for gourmets to spot). You should go into it spoiler free too, if you can. Don't even read the blurb on the back. But trust me on this: you should read this novel, because it's something very special. It's thrilling and bold and original and it's going to blow you away.
Put it like this: I decided as soon as I'd finished it that I need to read the rest of the series, in order, back to back, in one go—and so this evening I unaccountably found that several hours have passed without me noticing and I'm already half-way through Europe At Midnight.
Published by: Fourth Estate, 1994
This was another charity shop find, which I discovered sitting on the shelves in the "science" section of the British Lions shop in Thornbury. To start with, I was hopeful that the book's sensationalist title was simply a marketing gambit and it was actually going to be an academic examination of the conflicting claims made by Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper about how the field of science determines the fundamental truths of reality. Scientific progress happens in stages, and according to Kuhn, current schools of thought (which he refers to as "paradigms") may stay in place for centuries until their adherents either die out or are convinced of their error by younger, more charismatic theorists. Kuhn focused heavily on the "convincing people you're right" part of scientific debate rather than the "providing strong observational or experimental evidence" or the "must be able to accurately predict what an experiment will find before you start" parts that constitute the bedrock of modern scientific practice.
Kuhn's representation of the process through which he believed a theory gained scientific acceptance was that scientific truth was essentially democratic. If your theory got the most votes from your peers, then that was all it needed to become part of scientific canon. This erroneous portrayal of how science works has led many people—usually those without even the most basic scientific knowledge—to think that their pet theory deserved to be regarded on an equal footing with those developed by teams of scientists after years of painstaking research; that it's simply a matter of getting enough votes to win out. This idea is more than a little bit frustrating for the scientific establishment and as a broad generalisation, Kuhn's view of how science makes progress isn't really reflected by the historical evidence. Theories are usually replaced when better data are available, often as a result of advances in technology (the telescope, for Galileo; x-ray crystallography for Crick and Watson; a handy microwave horn antenna for Penzias and Wilson, and so on). Popper, on the other hand, introduced a splendid way of sorting out scientific claims from non-scientific bunkum that's known as the Falsification Principle. If you can't make any observations or perform an experiment that would show conclusively that the theory is wrong, then for Popper (and pretty much all modern scientists agree with him on this) it can't be classed as a scientific theory at all. For example, the statement that the Earth is flat can be falsified by flying high enough that you can see the curvature of the Earth. And that statement has been falsified many times because you don't have to fly very high at all to see it for yourself. The Flat Earth people may think they've got sufficient votes for their view of reality to prevail, but it doesn't matter; their "theory" is both unscientific and has been conclusively proven to be wrong. I'm tempted to say that it's not rocket science, although in this case rockets do come in useful when making experimental observations.
As you might have guessed, I'm in Team Popper. The amateur theoreticians, not so much.
This book was written a couple of years after the announcement by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons that they had managed to achieve a form of nuclear fusion on a tabletop, using equipment that could be bought at a decent hardware store for around $90; today, the scientific consensus is that nuclear fusion was not taking place but anomalous generation of heat was replicated by other experimenters, which has led to cold fusion being rebranded as low-energy nuclear reactions and research in this field continues to this day. The initial reaction of the scientific establishment in not accepting Fleischmann and Pons's original claims seems to have been justified. Milton opens his argument with Fleischman and Pons's case, and develops his thesis along the lines that if cold fusion actually is a real thing—and nearly thirty years later, that's a contentious assertion, remember—then who is to say that (insert any other theory of your choice which was disregarded by mainstream science) might be true as well?
Which is an interesting argument, for sure. Unfortunately it's also entirely nonsensical.
What is taught to the next generation of scientists is not determined by some sort of popularity contest amongst the scientific community. It's judged by the accuracy of any theory's predictions about how reality behaves. I've ranted about how Kuhn's book successfully wrecked an entire generation of scientific praxis elsewhere on this website, so I'll spare you a repetition here. Put simply: if your theory is wrong, it doesn't matter how good your public relations team is, you won't win the scientific debate. The truth of how things are is not determined by running some sort of talent show. Kuhn seemed to believe otherwise, and here Milton appears to agree with him. Milton's style is to represent a selection of failed theories (such as the existence of the lumeniferous ether) as failing because—as per Kuhn—it's the scientists who are better at winning arguments who dictate scientific consensus, rather than—as per Popper—because someone (in the case of the ether it was Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley) found a way to falsify the old theories, and promptly did so.
Science does not advance if its practitioners pick and choose the data that fits a theory while ignoring the (significantly larger) pile of observations that contradict it. However, Milton provides examples of scientific investigations which appear to have adopted this approach. Observations of fractional charges on an electron have been obtained experimentally over the years, even though at the time they were first recorded the scientific model of the atom predicted that this would be impossible (rather than going away, that particular story has become more and more interesting since this book was published) and Milton quite rightly criticises scientists who have been caught fudging their results to fit their pet theory. However, it's science's behaviour when the opposite takes place and researchers publish their anomalous results that is the issue here.
The idea that science might take a dim view of contradictory results is not without merit. Charles Fort's famously iconoclastic books written in the 1920s took pot-shots at science's habit of sweeping any "damned data" under the carpet, and indeed Milton explains that it took years for Scientific American to acknowledge that the Wright Brothers had achieved powered, heavier-than-air flight; the idea that meteorites were rocks that had fallen from the sky was still being ridiculed by prominent thinkers (including Thomas Jefferson) in the 19th century. People were making bold assertions about the impossibility of space travel less than a month before the Russians put Sputnik I into orbit. But here, science's intemperance for open-mindedness is exaggerated so that policing procedure in order to get a better theory can be applied to truly off-the-wall ideas as well and make them just as "true".
Valid criticisms of methodology or tales of injustice are buried under a mess of false equivalences, specious arguments, and seemingly deliberate misrepresentation. So, for instance, we're told that the Michelson-Morley experiment (which sank the idea of a luminiferous ether once and for all) is actually still open to doubt because of experiments that Dayton Miller carried out in the 1920s. Miller did indeed report anomalous results, but Milton fails to mention that (spoiler alert) no other researchers have ever managed to replicate his results, despite technology having gotten much, much more accurate since the 1930s. Nor does Milton take the time to describe how Miller's explanation of what his experiment showed was rapidly and soundly disproved experimentally by the Hammar Experiment, which was conducted in 1935.
It gets worse; we're encouraged to view Lord Clancarty's famous debate about flying saucers in the House of Lords as some sort of turning point in science's conspiracy to conceal the truth. Milton writes that in his debate, Lord Clancarty referred to flying saucers originating from inside a hollow Earth, the UFOs gaining access to the surface by means of a gigantic hole at the North Pole, but an examination of the parliamentary record in Hansard reveals that he made no mention of the existence of such a hole at any point in his speech whatsoever. In fact, Clancarty made the claim on BBC Television several years afterwards in May 1982, in an interview with Terry Wogan, of all people. As an aside, the ESSA-7 image of the North Pole to which Clancarty referred has been wilfully misinterpreted. The satellite did not take a photograph of a giant hole at the top of our planet. Instead, the image is a mosaic of many, much smaller photographs joined together. No photographs were available to fill in the details at the pole, because the inclination of the satellite's orbit never took it over the area. With no data to show, the image compilers simply left that part of the mosaic as black. The idea that the Earth is genuinely hollow and can be accessed via a hole at the North (or perhaps the South) Pole is the domain of conspiracy theorists and science fiction authors (Rudy Rucker wrote two rather fun adventure novels with Edgar Allan Poe as his protagonist on this theme, for example, but I don't think Rudy ever intended anyone to take them for factual accounts of a real journey, even if he did write himself into the plot in the second book). The Clancarty debate turned out to be an anticlimax. No startling information was revealed; according to Dr David Clarke, the MoD had spent the previous six months briefing other members of the house to speak on its behalf and play things down but even if they had not done so the overwhelming mood of the event was one of frivolity mixed with embarrassed bemusement.
I'd pretty much realised at this point that I was dealing with someone who was exhibiting the same sort of behaviour as those of the "alternative science" theorists with whom the book takes sides.
And just to confirm this, Milton now begins an examination of Immanuel Velikovsky's classic work of crank science, Worlds In Collision. Milton presents Velikovsky as a misunderstood genius who was vilified by the scientific establishment. Milton describes, correctly, how several universities threatened to withdraw their custom from the Macmillan publishing house unless Velikovsky was moved to a different publisher. This does not appear to have dented the book's sales; the resulting notoriety that the book acquired probably increased them. You can't really describe your work as "suppressed" when it sat at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. Milton frames Worlds in Collision as a rational, erudite work of science which, quite frankly, is unfair, as the nuttier aspects of the book make for great (if implausible) reading. Many of Velikovsky's references are taken from the Bible and other religious texts, so it should be clear that WiC was not a work of science. I have my copy of the book right here, so let me give you an example of its true flavour, taken from page 184 of the Abacus Editions paperback:
" When Venus sprang out of Jupiter as a comet and flew very close to the earth, it became entangled in the embrace of the earth. The internal heat developed by the earth and the scorching gases of the comet were in themselves sufficient to make the vermin of the earth propagate at a feverish rate. Some of the plagues, like the plague of the frogs ('the land brought forth frogs') or of the locusts, must be ascribed to such causes. "
You've no doubt already spotted the many flaws in that chain of reasoning. Velikovsky also claimed that the approach of this cometary version of Venus reversed the rotation of the Earth for a day, making the Sun change course in the sky. The mechanical stresses involved in having the Earth slowing down and stopping like this would have levelled every single tree and man-made structure on the planet. Nor did Velikovsky ever explain the process by which he believes the planet Jupiter managed to spontaneously expel around 1/320th of its total mass to create Venus, which is the central tenet of his story. Milton appears to think that these events might well have actually happened, and that scientists ganged up on poor Immanuel because his ideas went against the current paradigm. Which they most definitely do, and repeatedly so; in his first chapter, Velikovsky dismisses the theory that the planets of the Solar System formed from the gravitational accretion of irregularities in a protoplanetary disk. Nearly seventy years after WiC was first published, this theory is not only universally accepted; science has progressed to the point where it has actually managed to watch this happening in a disk surrounding another star.
Milton doesn't explain why Velikovsky's ideas go against the current paradigm, and this is the crux of the matter. It's not because they're part of a bold, new paradigm which better explains how reality works; it's because they're silly. This is the common thread which draws together all of the supposedly "suppressed research" in the book. It isn't being suppressed because it goes against current thinking. Indeed, you can hardly describe such work as being suppressed at all if you can read about it in mass-market paperbacks. It's simply being ignored, because it's irrelevant nonsense. There's a big difference.
After reading his Wikipedia page it is very difficult not to draw the conclusion that this book was written as a result of sour grapes. Let's face it: when Richard Dawkins describes your previous book as "twaddle" you're probably best just packing up your schtick and taking up gardening instead. This book reads as if the author is seizing a chance to settle his scores with the scientific establishment. At several points in the book, Milton assures us that he's "Not knocking science," but he certainly seems to be intent on some serious character assassination.
It's an entertaining read. But it's not a scientific one.
Published by: BBC Books, 2013
Yes, discovering two very different books with titles which both begin How To Read... during my recent charity shop adventures amused me, and I couldn't resist reading and reviewing them consecutively.
This book is aimed at budding astronomers, at people who are considering buying a pair of binoculars or a telescope to observe the night sky. It's a laudable aim, and one that was dear to the heart of Sir Patrick Moore, presenter of the BBC show The Sky At Night from its first broadcast on the 24th April 1957 until he made a last, posthumous appearance on the 7th January 2013, a few months prior to the book's publication. He was 89 years old. This book was published by the BBC and bears strong The Sky At Night branding. It also has an introduction by Dr Brian May, who—aside from being the lead guitarist in Queen—is also an astrophysicist, and was a friend of Patrick's. He has appeared on the show several times.
It should be clear therefore that the book's intended audience is viewers of the television show (which is still running today). For the majority of the book, the authors understandably stick to objects which their audience will find easy to observe with the naked eye, binoculars, or a small telescope. These are all to be found within our own solar system, starting with the Sun (with the essential warning that you should NEVER look through a telescope at the Sun) and moving outwards until we reach the Kuiper Belt, the origin of many (but not all) of the comets that occasionally grace our night skies. The authors explain that they're not going to discuss the wider field of cosmology, so other than a passing mention of our own Milky Way galaxy there is no discussion of nebulae or galaxies. I found this rather odd, as the Andromeda Galaxy can be seen with the naked eye in good seeing conditions and it covers a larger part of the sky than the full Moon. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are distinctive features, too. It's an even dafter decision to justify once the discussion in the book swings around to exoplanets, which the amateur astronomer stands absolutely no chance whatsoever of seeing from their back garden.
There are some odd omissions. When the principal features of the Moon or Mars are discussed, it rapidly becomes obvious that the book really needed to include decent maps of them rather than the simple astronomical sketches provided. Although the inner planets are described as being "terrestrial" neither the reason for this adjective nor the word itself are ever adequately explained—terra is Latin for earth or ground, and terrestrial planets are simply those which have surfaces you could stand on (if you were wearing appropriate clothing, that is.) Other terms such as "convection" are mentioned several times before an attempt is made to explain them properly. The process of sublimation is described in a roundabout way without using the actual word for it at all (perhaps the authors had used up their quota of allowed technical language by that point).
There are lots of weird errors. The astronomical term preceding (as opposed to following, both words that are used to describe which side of a planet is being observed in preference to East or West) appears as "proceeding" which is something else entirely. Two of Saturn's moons are confused: tiny Pan (10 km across) is initially described as being one of the two shepherd moons of the F ring, acting with Prometheus (101 km across); instead, it's the moon Pandora (84 km across) which helps Prometheus to create the weirdly braided F ring and Pan is responsible for the less pronounced Encke Gap within the A ring. We're told that the Greek word for the Sun, "Helios", means "sun-centred" (at this point, the authors are explaining the word "heliocentric" so this appears to be one of the book's many editorial glitches). One mistake that really annoyed me appears in the chapter on Mars. It perpetuates the long-standing myth that at its closest approach, the planet will appear to be nearly as large as the Moon, giving their relative diameters as we observe them through a telescope as 26 arcseconds and 30 arcseconds respectively. I've ranted on my blog before now about this particular claim, because it's obviously, blatantly false. The Moon is about 30 arcminutes across; even when Mars appears at its largest in the night sky, it is roughly sixty times smaller than the Moon. Considering the authors are both professional astronomers, I find it hard to believe that they were responsible for this howler.
In fact I can't believe that they were responsible for large portions of the book, as the standard of writing varies so much. A lot of it reads as if it had been given to a bunch of undergrads as a project that could earn them a few extra marks and what they produced was hastily compiled without bothering with any proof reading, but instead was sent off to the publisher without any editorial input at all. How was it that absolutely nobody in the production process noticed that the opening paragraph of the chapter on comets contains the sentence "A bright comet in the night sky can be a glorious sight, a bright majestic tale (sic) sweeping back from the fuzzy nucleus"? That repeated use of the word "bright" is a regular feature of the text, too. There's a lot of redundant verbiage; references to "the skies above" abound. Where else would they be?
The quality of the writing for a lot of the book is distinctly sub par. There's none of the lyricism of Carl Sagan to be found here. In fact, the grammatical style is all over the place. Phrases such as the old chestnut "quite literally" are used with figures of speech, a rookie mistake if ever there was one. The wrong word gets used more than once (much more, if I'm honest), perhaps as a result of autocorrect getting its wires crossed or poor dictation software; this means that rather than embarking on a quest to understand the laws of nature, the conclusion of one chapter tells how humans have apparently embarked on a question to do so. Later on in the book, we are told that the rings of Saturn when viewed edge on will appear as "little more than a thin slither (sic) of light". The slither / sliver confusion is repeated a couple of pages later. Ironically, in the final chapter about the possibility of life on other worlds, "planet" is used when the writer clearly meant "plant"! And sadly, there are a fair few typos, so we're introduced to the rather feminine sounding Giordana Bruno instead of Giordano Bruno and later we learn about the renowned English astronomer Sir "Issac" Newton, for example.
For me, the more serious issues with the text are the structural ones. The flow of ideas from simple to complex gets jumbled up (and as I'm a professional training designer, that sort of thing really bugs me). A subject's introductory paragraph sometimes ends up as the final paragraph of the preceding section. Wider context is often treated as an afterthought. We're told what Pythagoras did before it's explained who he was, or where he came from. Relatively obscure points are made not once, but several times (for example, we're told that the original name for the telescope was the optical trunke when Galileo's achievements are being discussed, and then again when the authors are examining the work of Hans Lippershey). This may be the result of the book having more than one author, but any editor worth their salt should have been keeping track of who mentioned what.
Things aren't a complete write-off. There are some interesting titbits in the book; why is the planet Mercury associated with Wednesday by so many different cultures, for instance? But I'm afraid that there are much better introductions to astronomy out there, made with more care than was used with this one.
Published by: Bloomsbury, 2013
I wasn't sure I was going to get on with this book, as the author chose to use the very first paragraph in it to have a go at his kids for not taking the dog out, a chore which had been relegated to him. But as his dog-walking took him to the local churchyard, this turned out to have inspired the rest of the book.
And once the grumbling is out of the way, the book turns out to be a bit of a treasure. Stanford weaves together a fascinating mix of archaeology, social anthropology, religious belief, and philosophy as he visits a selection of the Europe's graveyards both ancient and modern. Although the book is predominantly an examination of burial practices, it's never morbid and there are some great snippets of information for trivia hounds, such as the origin of the word "mausoleum"
Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris makes an appearance, of course. So do Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh and the Scavi in Rome. I was slightly surprised that Highgate Cemetery was missing; instead, London gets a chapter on Paddington Old Cemetery. Each is discussed with empathy and respect. Stanford dives into the history of each location in order to explain how it became what it is, and he does so in the context of personal visits which add an element of—well, I guess that "adventure" isn't exactly the word I'm looking for in this context, but nor is it far off the mark. There's a sense of presence in a significant space, of being surrounded by history, and a vivid sense of the societies that used them that is just as exciting for me. The book is frequently surprising, too. I'd never considered the economics of a graveyard before, but it turns out to have played a pivotal role in how the ways we bury our dead have changed over time. There are some sobering statistics, too. It turns out that a grave will be tended by other members of the deceased's family for an average of just fifteen years. Perhaps as a result of this, many modern grave markers are made from wood and other biodegradable materials. A century from now, your final resting place may have become completely anonymous...
I did find myself wishing that the illustrative photographs had been better, though. They appear to be the author's snaps of each location, rather than professionally composed attempts to convey the atmosphere of each place. And as they are reproduced in halftone in with the text rather than being provided on separate (more expensive) glossy plates, the picture quality suffers considerably. More irritating was the fact that when a photograph appears in the text, it lacks any form of caption to explain its context. To find out what it is you're looking at, you have to consult the list of illustrations that is provided at the front of the book; this gets rather tedious after the first dozen or so.
But that's a minor niggle. If you've ever considered just how you would like to be remembered after you've passed on, this book will give you plenty of food for thought.
Published by: E-bookarama Editions, 2019
Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky was an early pupil of the mystic George Gurdjieff, whom he met in Moscow when he was in his late thirties. It seems an odd age to begin a serious attempt at spiritual enlightenment under the tutelage of a guru who was only eleven years his senior, but Ouspensky had been interested in Theosophy for over a decade, travelling in the footsteps of its inventor and greatest publicist, Helena Petrova Blavatsky. He spent time in Tamil Nadu before the First World War forced his return to Russia, where he ended up working for a succession of newspapers. His motives may indeed have been pure but unfortunately, judging by some of the tales that Gurdjieff tells in his autobiography Meetings With Remarkable Men, it's difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that the older man had developed his reputation as a great philosopher as a useful asset to be used in separating gullible people from their money. Did Ouspensky see an opportunity to follow the same path as his mentor? HPB, after all, had done very nicely from her tales of talks with the Ascended Masters in the mountains of Tibet and the grab-bag of ideas from Buddhism, Hinduism, Monism, and Freemasonry that she assembled into the Theosphical school of thought, which became popular in the early part of the Twentieth Century. Theosophy aspired to be regarded on an equal footing with science, but it was nothing of the sort; it's mysticism with a dash of philosophy, and not very good philosophy at that.
The thing about claiming to be in the possession of secret knowledge is that eventually you have to put up or shut up. Read HPB's writing and you soon realise how wobbly the whole edifice is; Ouspensky would need better material than that if he was going to make a proper go of things. And indeed it seems that he managed to be plausible enough to achieve considerable success. For a time, he could be found delivering lectures to the great and the good (and the credulous) in the salons of Viscount and Lady Rothermere, as well as those of several prominent Theosophists. Ouspensky did not regard the scientific method as useful (perhaps it seemed too much like hard work), nor did he keep abreast of recent developments in the field of physics, despite relying heavily on its findings to shape his arguments. Einstein is acknowledged, but Special and General Relativity are only mentioned in a way that implies spuriously that they support Ouspensky's pronouncement that "Matter, i.e. everything finite, is an illusion in the infinite world."
In fact, much of the book was already out of date by the time the first edition came out. The luminiferous ether was still being presented as a fact by Ouspensky, even though Michaelson and Morley's classic experiment proving that it couldn't exist had been performed twenty-five years earlier. Max Planck's paper proposing quantum theory was more than a decade old, but you'll find no mention of it (or Max) whatsoever here. Gurdjieff's tales are of making easy money. Actually exerting oneself in order to become better informed about a subject wasn't part of the game. In Ouspensky's A New Model of the Universe the resulting lack of a solid theoretical grounding is abundantly clear, as many of his assertions are made without evidence in a very "the dog ate my homework" fashion. "All the good stuff will be in my forthcoming book," Ouspensky tells us. It never was. You can see this attitude in Tertium Organum, too.
I find it particularly telling that Ouspensky preferred to refer to textbooks on physics written for schoolchildren; for A New Model of the Universe he used one written by Professor Orest Danilovich Khvolson, who was a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and one of the first physicists to publish on the concept of gravitational lensing. For Tertium Organum, Ouspensky quotes heavily from the writing of Professor Nicholas Oumoff of Moscow University, who was a genuinely influential scientist who had successfully recommended the physicist Sir J. J. Thomson for a Nobel prize in recognition of his discovery of the electron, but the quotes that Ouspensky selects are mostly taken from the Professor's dabblings in philosophy. Indeed, given Ouspensky's treatment of Einstein, I'd be very surprised if Oumoff actually supported any of the theories which Tertium Organum espouses. Ouspensky was also very taken with the work of Charles Hinton, a British mathematician who wrote science fiction stories in his spare time which mused about life in higher dimensions. Hinton is best known today for having coined the word "Tesseract" which I guess makes him an authentic part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But Ouspensky got lucky. By focusing on the idea of higher dimensions, he captured the zeitgeist for many people who were seeking a deeper meaning to life, the Universe, and everything from the cosy cottages of the Home Counties of the 1920s. Cosy they might have been, but the horrors of the First World War were still fresh in people's memories, and there was comfort in the idea that science might be on the verge of breaking through to the hereafter. Additional, higher dimensions were a plausible location for an afterlife that the bereaved hoped that they might soon be able to communicate with directly. People were looking for answers, and Ouspensky had ones that sounded like they ought to be correct, even if they weren't fully understood by his readers.
Or perhaps Ouspensky had twigged that trying to think in more than three dimensions made people's brains hurt, so claiming that he was (very occasionally) able to do so himself was a subtle way of asserting authority and superiority over his audiences. We'll never know whether he could actually do so or not, but I'm profoundly sceptical.
Humans evolved in (and still live in) a world of three dimensions of space and one of time. As such, it's very difficult for our primate brains to visualise things in more than three dimensions. Edwin Abbot's novella Flatland became immensely popular in the 19th Century as it turned the problem on its head, getting us to imagine what life would be like in just two dimensions. Hinton's scientific romances suggested that four-dimensional beings—if they existed—ought to be capable of manifesting in our world, and therefore provided a seemingly-reasonable explanation for psychic phenomena. Beings who existed in four dimensions would, of course, be far more advanced than humble primates such as ourselves. Ouspensky picks up this idea and runs off with it. He begins by claiming that the lower animals can only think two-dimensionally, but then remembers birds, which clearly have no problems negotiating their way in a three-dimensional world at all and changes his mind (later on, he's clearly forgotten about them again and repeats his original claim.) Interestingly, he comes up with a concept now known as a worldline, which is formed by the persistence of a three-dimensional object over the fourth dimension (which is, according to Einstein's General Relativity, that of time). But Ouspensky doesn't appear to have read Professor Khvolson's work quite as diligently as he did Hinton's, so we are assured that the fundamental duality in the Universe is not that of matter and energy, but of matter and motion. Things rapidly stray further and further off the beaten track, and this is not helped by Ouspensky's preference for the writing of Emmanuel Kant in explaining the nature of things over that of dear old Albert and his pals. And so by the time we get to Chapter 13, we're being assured that because we cannot know the ding an sich but only our perceptions of it, then our humble three-dimensional reality cannot exist; its appearance as mere phenomena masks a deeper form of existence which science is unable to reveal and we're back to Plato's cave and Arthur Schopenhauer's Veil of Maya. Ouspensky's conclusion is not that we think in three dimensions because that's the form of the world we live in, but the reverse: that the world exists in three dimensions because that's how we think. Sensibly, when it comes to providing information on how one might go about cultivating the ability to think in more than three dimensions, he hands the problem straight back to Hinton. Smart move there, Pyotr.
Ouspensky evidently had a real problem with the scientific approach and some chapters are little more than extended diatribes against positivism and its shortcomings. He, of course, knows better than all those crazy scientists and despite admitting that "The whole of our positive science—physics, chemistry and biology—is based on hypotheses contradictory to Kant's propositions" he takes Immanuel's side in every discussion. As with his work A New Model of the Universe, his authorial voice is that of a wise headmaster. As an ascended sage, he wants you to know that he has it all figured out. Of course he has; he is privy to arcane knowledge! But rather than share that knowledge, he uses it primarily to justify smug judgements such as "Kant's idea is quite correct" and "(visualization) creates the possibility of the same mistake which has stopped Hinton in many things." Ego has taken over ambition and choked the desire to inform, and it's not a pretty sight.
A strong smell of hubris pervades the book. After all, if you've given your work a title implying that it contains the third great revision in scientific thought after those of Aristotle and Francis Bacon, you'd better have some truly Earth-shattering stuff to back it up. Given Ouspensky's relative obscurity these days you'll already have figured out that Tertium Organum falls well short of its ambition. Ouspensky's thesis relies heavily on taking the adage that "everything that exists for long enough becomes its opposite" as literal truth and he turns this into a bizarre system of pseudo-logic that allows him to contradict Aristotle and "prove" that A is equal to not-A, black is white, everything in motion must possess life, and reality doesn't exist. Explication is for wimps; whatever he intuits is true must therefore be so, because he says it is. Yes, really; or as he puts it, "Consciousness, therefore, is the sole basis of certainty." As the book progresses his assertions get bolder and weirder and eventually we find him throwing statements at us such as "A religion contradicting science and a science contradicting religion are equally false" and my favourite, because it is presented with a wild blend of italics and upper case: "Mystical states give knowledge WHICH NOTHING ELSE CAN GIVE."
I don't buy any of this for one moment. Ouspensky clearly had an interesting mind and if he'd been a bit more open to the scientific method (and, perhaps, a bit less of a chancer) he might well have made a significant impression on Western thought. But instead, he wrote a string of smug, disappointing works that use mysticism to hide gaps in his arguments and misrepresentation of other people's ideas when his own begin to fail.
This was yet another cheap e-book edition I picked up for my Kindle that suffers badly from a complete lack of understanding of how the original work was formatted. The chapter summaries are not presented at the beginning of the book, but as the opening paragraph to the chapter they describe. Even worse, every single page in the e-book is numbered as page 2. There are better versions of the book kicking around on the web that you can download for free, and you'd be better off doing that, should you decide to read the book at all. Don't feel that you need to on my account.
Published by: Bloomsbury, 2000 (ebook)
Much as I love food, and cooking, I never wanted to be a chef. I was never sure why. Or at least, I wasn't until I read this extraordinary autobiography.
When I was a child, my parents would always watch cookery programmes on television (I'm old, so back then these were in black and white, and were usually presented by Fanny Cradock and her long-suffering fourth husband, Johnny, whom she bossed around at every opportunity). When I was small, British cooking had a reputation to match that lack of colour, coming as it did from a country that had only recently been freed from the food rationing that had been imposed during the Second World War in order to conserve dwindling food supplies. Recipes involved disgusting substances like powdered egg; taste was calibrated in shades of grey and food was something which you consumed to fend off hunger rather than something that could bring joy.
That only began to improve at the end of the 1960s and an early sign of change was the advent of the celebrity chef. My first experience of this was watching "The Galloping Gourmet". This was a Canadian television show shown by the BBC and presented by Graham Kerr, who introduced his personal take on New Zealand and Australian cuisine which he would prepare live in front of a studio audience. At the end of each show, one member of the audience was picked to try whatever had been made. The antipodean character of it all made for exotic television at the time and the show was wildly popular. I was surprised to discover very recently that Kerr is actually from Brondesbury, in London. His fondness for (as he put it) a "quick slurp" was the first occasion when I noticed just how frequently alcohol was involved in the process of preparing food; that impression was subsequently confirmed once Keith Floyd got his first series on the BBC. By the start of the 1980s, I had discovered the delights of food from off the beaten track in both domestic and foreign cuisines and my lack of culinary adventurousness (learned from my parents) had disappeared forever. And I've never, ever looked back.
I still have absolutely no inclination to be a chef, though.
After reading Anthony Bourdain's memoir about his professional career, I'm very glad that I didn't choose that path. I wouldn't have survived it. Bourdain's experiences with hard drugs (which appeared to be very much part of some aspects of New York's culinary scene in the early 1980s) make Kerr and Floyd's fondness for an occasional snifter seem positively quaint. Much of the kitchen life he describes reads more like a novel about the Vietnam war. Life as a top chef is clearly not for the faint of heart. Gonzo sensibilities are much more the order of the day and I was not surprised at all to discover that Bourdain was once described as a worthy successor to Hunter S. Thompson. He was clearly very well read, and I smiled to read him name check William Gibson and Philip K Dick in the space of a single sentence when he describes visiting Tokyo for the first time. But the man had a poet's gift when it came to describing food. You'll find your mouth watering time and again as you read about the food (and some very special meals) that shaped his talents as a master chef.
Perhaps knowing of his death from suicide in 2018 has coloured my reading of the book, but there is a darkness to his writing which often throws the rapturous descriptions of good food into stark relief. There is a crushing sadness lurking amongst the joy; there's a profound sense of resignation and occasional despair at the physical toll he inflicted on himself, and there are glimpses of a deep weariness that he was holding at bay with the constant consumption of aspirin and cigarettes. He wrote Kitchen Confidential when he was forty-three years old but it reads like he was at least twenty years older than that; a chef's life is undoubtedly a hard life and Bourdain wore his battle scars proudly. He was a warrior, and he doesn't hide that fact; there is considerable violence in the stories he tells, enough that more than one genuinely shocked me. But at heart he was an exceptionally gifted communicator and a truly great writer, and this book really demonstrates those qualities of his at their best.
Published by: Black Swan, 2013
I've just finished reading another book from Professor Jim Al Khalili, and in this one he has a lot of fun explaining some of the world's most famous paradoxes, those ideas that have you scratching your head because from their descriptions it sounds like science (usually physics, but occasionally mathematics gets a look in as well) has got itself into a muddle along the lines of the philosopher Epimenides, who once declared "Cretans are always liars," thus creating a sentence that cannot be true, but cannot be false either—provided that it is uttered by someone who really is from Crete, as Epimenides was.
Jim presents the grandfather paradox: if time machines are ever invented, would you be able to travel back in time to kill your grandfather before your mother or father was born and stop yourself from existing, allowing your parents to meet after all, in which case you would be born and go back in time? This conundrum becomes a stepping off point for discussing current thinking in quantum physics that arose from the group of brilliant minds that Niels Bohr gathered together in Copenhagen in the 1930s. I'm sure that the people at Marvel will be delighted, because it appears that the existence of a multiverse provides a plausible way of resolving the paradox.
Olber's Paradox (if the Universe is infinitely old and infinite in size, the night sky should shine as brightly as it does during the day, so why doesn't it?) provides an opportunity for a whistle stop tour of modern cosmology. Xeno's paradox is used to show how badly the ancient Greeks struggled with the concept of infinity and infinite series and the solution to the fallacy is shown as clearly as I've ever seen it. The Fermi Paradox (if aliens exist, where are they?) allows Jim to discuss the Drake equation and recent discoveries of exoplanets, leading him to explain how it would only take a spacefaring civilization ten million years or so to colonise an entire galaxy, with no magic faster-than-light flying saucers required at all, just lots of patience.
And yes, game show host Monty Hall makes an appearance and now I finally understand why I should change my choice about which door to open if I want to end up with a luxury car instead of a goat.
For a book that was published ten years ago, Paradox remains remarkably up to date, although the suggestion that the as-then recently discovered bacterium GFAJ-1 might be an example of life evolving on Earth for a second time (because it seemed to show an ability to incorporate arsenic in its DNA instead of the phosphorous that all other terrestrial life uses) seems to have fallen by the wayside. But the mention of a new particle discovered by scientists working at CERN in Switzerland in the book's final chapter was right on the money; it was the long-anticipated Higgs boson.
Published by: Penguin, 2022
Whenever I hear someone start talking about the exponential curve of modern technological growth I wince, and prepare for another sermon on the Singularity, a concept dreamed up for the most part by Ray Kurzweil about the future moment where the curve of a graph plotting mankind's progress in pretty much anything over time becomes vertical, and—to borrow a phrase from Arthur C. Clarke—we will find ourselves moving suddenly and jarringly from "sufficiently advanced technology" into "magic". At that point, Kurzweil and his acolytes argue, all humanity's problems will be instantly solved by superintelligent AIs, molecular-scale 3D printing, nanotechnology robots swimming through our bloodstream, and any one of a thousand other things that currently only exist in science fiction novels. The downside is that humanity will no longer exist; we will have been transformed into something new and strange. And Kurzweil tends to be somewhat hazy over whether or not you or I will have any say in the matter if we're still around when (or more accurately, if) the Singularity finally happens.
I was delighted to discover that Azeem Azhar's book does not go down that road. In fact, Azhar explicitly rejects Kurzweil's vision in favour of a much more sober examination of what it means for people who live in a time of change that is unprecedentedly rapid on many fronts. This has resulted in instabilty across the board from the employment market and economics to how food gets on our tables, from manufacturing and supply chains to politics at all levels from local to global upwards. We're already living in the exponential age, and the future we seem to be travelling towards is nothing like the rosy, have-it-all utopia that is envisioned by Kurzweil. For a start, the important decisions on the way the world should be run these days are much more the purview of giant multinational corporations than inefficient, outdated practices such as democracy.
So what, Azhar asks, can we do about it? In his opinion, the answer is "quite a lot, actually." But the optimal response involves a rebalancing of capital on more equitable terms; it requires the immense business behemoths that companies like Amazon have become over the last decade to limit their excesses (or—more effectively—have limits imposed upon them by external arbitrators), and most importantly it means shifting the balance of power away from obscenely rich CEOs back towards their impoverished employees (the figures Azhar gives on how much employee productivity and GDP have grown over the past forty years while wages have barely shifted since Thatcherism and Reaganomics kicked in at the start of the 1980s should leave you outraged). To his credit, Azhar points out that the way forwards needs to be different for different cultures and nations; the gig economy might suck here in the UK, but it is a way out of poverty for many people in African states. To borrow a concept from William Gibson, change, like the future, will not be evenly distributed. It can't be.
At the book's heart is a fundamentally humanist rallying cry: everyone should have sufficient agency over their own destiny. We're clearly not there at the moment. But as technology makes its way up the exponential curve, it provides the means for this to happen, and to happen for everyone, rather than just for the chosen few.
But—as this book makes abundantly clear—late-stage capitalism can no longer be even remotely considered as a candidate for the means by which we can bring such a utopia about.
Published by: Headline Book Publishing, 2000
Kitty Ferguson has had two careers: as a professional musician and as a science writer. She brings both to bear on this book, which is a history of the science of cosmology (which studies the Universe in an attempt to determine how it came to be the size and shape that it is today, and how it might develop in the future). Both Pythagoras and Johannes Kepler wove ideas from music into their thoughts on why the stars and planets are arranged as they are; even today, the resonances (a musical term) between the orbits of the planets plays a significant part in our understanding of how planetary systems develop over time—not just in our solar system, but also in the many planetary systems that we now know exist around other stars.
This is one of the best popular science books I've ever read. Ferguson takes a subject that I thought I knew about well and made me realise that a lot of what I thought I knew wasn't actually correct. Galileo's relationship with the Catholic Church is perhaps the most obvious example, but there are many others; many of cosmology's developments did not originate with the people who are most closely associated with them. There are plenty of fascinating insights into many of the field's most famous players, and the fundamental concepts are explained clearly and engagingly; I now know why Cepheid Variables behave in the way that they do which makes them so useful as "standard candles" for astronomers, for example.
The book was published at a moment in time when cosmology was undergoing its greatest upheaval since the Copernican revolution that placed the Sun at the centre of the solar system back in the 16th century. The "funny energy" that was hinted at following the examination of type 1A supernovae in distant galaxies by Saul Perlmutter and his team (which not only confirmed that the universe is expanding but also revealed that the expansion is speeding up) is discussed in the final chapter; today, it is formally referred to as dark energy but we have still to discover what it is, or how it works. For this book to remain relevant a quarter of a century later is a testament to how well it is written. Highly recommended.
Published by: Heritage Illustrated Publishing, ebook
It took Laurence Sterne eight years to write this extraordinary book. It didn't take me as long to read it, but it's a work I've been dipping in to over the course of several months rather than something that I could read over the course of a day or two. The text is intense and demanding. And that's because it's very difficult—if not impossible—to concentrate on the story thanks to its many asides, diversions and abrupt changes of narrative. Although its title suggests that this is the author's autobiography, it's nothing of the sort. That's the basic joke of the book. The narrator continually changes his mind about what he's telling us, going off at tangents that become increasingly more wild and implausible as the book progresses. They come so thick and fast that trying to keep track of where you are in the narrative becomes impossible. Some threads are dropped, only to be picked up dozens of chapters later. Not one of them ever seems to be drawn to a satisfactory conclusion. This self-sabotage is cleverly worked into the text as a family trait; Tristram's father sets out to educate his son by obsessively writing an encyclopedia for him, and in becoming more and more distracted by its content he fails to complete it, thus failing to provide his son with any useful education at all.
At the time it was written, this must have been a radical departure from how tales were normally told in print and Sterne seems to have invented a new style of writing in order to pull this off. The punctuation which he employed throughout the book to underline its changes of direction is still strikingly eccentric and surprisingly modern. Sterne liked his em- and en-dashes even more than I do, and even travelled from Yorkshire down to the printers in London to make sure the text was rendered just how he wanted it; some dashes in the original edition were outrageously long. They give the text a breathless quality that makes me think that the author intended the tale to be told loudly, at full tilt, and as quickly as possible so that the reader is permanently left behind, confused, struggling to catch up.
The result draws the reader into an ADHD fever dream of distraction and information overload (although the erudite, scholarly quotations that are thrown at us are—of course—entirely made up, the sources complete works of fiction). There are whole paragraphs in French and whole chapters in Latin but when the narrator relates anything taken from (no doubt spurious) Greek text, it's simply—and in my opinion, hilariously—introduced with "(in Greek)".
No wonder the book caused such a stir when it was originally published between 1759 and 1761; it was a sell-out success. It remains notable enough for Michael Winterbottom to have directed a film of it back in 2005, complete with an all-star cast.
But although the cover of the ebook proclaims that this version is the "classic illustrated edition" it is nothing of the sort. In fact, it's a poor effort. Sterne would have wept to see what a mess has been made as all his wonderful dashes have been reduced to hyphens and I'm sad to say that the edition I read omits all of Sterne's elaborate typographical jokes altogether. The famous "black page" (was Zappa a Sterne fan?) is nowhere to be seen. The jokey blank pages added for the reader to supply content from their own imagination, such as in the description of the Widow Wadman, are replaced with pedantic text of "(blank page)" which makes the joke fall as flat as a lead balloon. Worse, William Hogarth's illustrations are all absent—they have been replaced by a boring selection of irrelevant, anachronistic paintings from the following century. The result is that the playful heart, the idiosyncratic, essential stuff of the book is largely missing.
Read the book, by all means; just don't bother with this ebook version.
Published by: Taylor and Francis, 1999
Jim is one of the best science communicators out there, and his Radio 4 series The Life Scientific is well worth a listen. In this book he sets out to explain the possible "practical" applications of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity for things like crossing interstellar distances in the blink of an eye or travelling through time. He does so in a way that is easily accessible and does not require detailed scientific knowledge. But I used those inverted commas advisedly, as travelling through wormholes requires the use of all sorts of exotic things that could exist, but probably don't, like exotic matter, which would have all sorts of mind-bending properties. And even if we could travel to a convenient black hole, using it to travel through time would—well, let's just say it would be somewhat risky. Many physicists believe that even if Einstein's equations predict that it would be possible to jump back into the past, the Universe will somehow prevent your journey from taking place. There are too many potential paradoxes lying in wait for the unwary chrononaut to stumble upon otherwise, and these are explained in a clear and entertaining fashion.
This is a fine read, and having listened to Jim on the radio a lot, it's unmistakably written in his voice. Great fun.
Published by: Constable, 2022
This book was recommended to me by Leah, a dear friend I've known for forty years who is based in California. We first met back in the 1980s as a result of our connections with the UK and US metal scene and Leah remains an enthusiastic metalhead to this day. "You need to read this," she told me when she came to stay recently, and I ordered a copy on the spot. She was absolutely right, too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
This is an oral history of how, at the beginning of the 1980s, the British heavy metal scene somehow mutated from a small, largely underground collection of small groups into a global phenomenon that transformed rock music and inspired a whole generation of musicians to embark on their own musical journeys. It created a movement which is supported enthusiastically by its loyal followers to this day. In the process, it spawned Kerrang!—the world's first full-colour music magazine dedicated solely to heavy metal which is still thriving forty years later (and nowadays it has its own satellite television music channel, too).
This is a book of tales of how things went down, told by people who were there at the time and whose names will be instantly familiar if you were around back then too. Not all the stories agree with each other, but that's all part of the fun. Hann's book brought back lots of vivid and happy memories. I lost count of the number of times I found myself muttering, "God, I remember that!"
At one stage or another I must have seen almost all of the bands that are mentioned in the book, and I still have 45s and LPs from the likes of The Tygers of Pan Tang, Fist, Sledgehammer, Raven, Samson, Saxon, Judas Priest, and Dianno-era Iron Maiden. I would religiously buy the music newspaper Sounds every week. As Hann quite rightly points out, the NWOBHM movement would never have happened without its support—and more specifically, without the enthusiastic writing of its journalist Geoff Barton. I lived in the suburbs of London back then and once I had a car of my own, visits to the Greyhound in Fulham Palace Road, or the Soundhouse, or any one of the legion of London pubs that used to run Heavy Metal Nights in the 1980s were a part of life for much of my early twenties—because I wanted to see what the hell Barton was raving about. I would also make regular pilgrimages to the Hammersmith Odeon, to the Marquee in Wardour Street (which was the first venue in which I ever saw Metallica play), to the Rainbow in Finsbury Park (where I saw Graham Bonnet during his tenure as frontman for Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow), or the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand (where I saw the Tygers, Magnum, and the nascent Def Leppard on their first headlining tour of the UK which is mentioned in detail in the book). Metallica's Lars Ulrich explains just how pivotal the NWOBHM was in the inception of the Thrash Metal scene; I also learned of an astonishing interview with Black Metal legends Venom, whose frontman Cronos christened what have since become four distinct musical genres in the space of a single sentence that had the journalist scrambling to write down...
Hann's central thesis is that for most of the bands who were a part of the movement, they got as far as they did as a result of three things: word of mouth (from Barton and a few others in the music press such as the late, great Malcolm Dome); rampant enthusiasm; and self-belief bordering on delusion, spiced with a generous helping of sheer bloody-mindedness. In the short term, attitude and energy often counted for much more than musical ability, particularly where Geoff Barton was concerned. And for a time, the bombast and hyperbole worked; many of those acts found themselves playing to venues holding several thousand people. But while many bands got in the album charts once or twice, and a few even reached the dizzy heights of an appearance on the BBC's chart show Top Of The Pops (probably the number one ambition of a large proportion of UK musicians around at the time), a crushingly small number of them went on to sustain a financially viable level of success. Sadly, for the bands that didn't make it, it wasn't always their fault. Perhaps the most telling comment in the book comes near the end and is made by Hann himself, who observes, "Almost every band in this book has a complaint about either their management or their record label, and it was ever thus." Many of the musicians from those days talk ruefully about bad decisions and missed opportunities. I wasn't aware of the reasons behind Gillan splitting up, for example.
It all left me feeling rather sad. Sadder still was the way that serious interest from record companies in up-and-coming metal bands faded away after the spectacular success of Def Leppard's album Pyromania showed that commercial gain was easier to achieve with bands who were willing to make radical changes to their approach in order to break the much larger American market. Those bands who remained true to their original vision were largely left high and dry. But today, many NWOBHM bands are still playing what's left of the UK club circuit (and the lucky ones get to take in the occasional festival, too), although few bands can boast that they have the original line-up of members any more.
Aside from Def Leppard, Iron Maiden are pretty much the only part of that generation of British bands who went on to achieve the sort of world domination that every NWOBHM band dreamt about, and many of the people interviewed for the book clearly view Maiden (and, indeed, Motörhead) as something individual and iconic, not as part of a wider movement. While Lemmy, Eddie, and Phil are mentioned several times in the book, they were clearly viewed as being something apart, something radically separate from the NWOBHM movement. Lemmy himself always said that what Motörhead played was rock and roll. But what both they and Maiden did superlatively well was this: they did the work. The secret to success is often just a matter of polishing an impressive set of musical chops by putting in lots and lots of gruelling hours on stage, combined with dogged persistence and an utterly unstinting focus on professionalism.
And that is probably the most important lesson I've learned from reading this book, although "Do not attempt to make your own pyrotechnic displays for your band's stage show" runs it a very close second and I guarantee that if you read this book, you will repeatedly find yourself asking, "How are these people still alive?"
If you like heavy metal; if you've ever been in a band; or if you've ever wondered what it's like to be in a band, you're going to love this book.
Published by: Bluebird, 2021
Given that Mo Gawdat used to be Chief Business Officer at Google X, I fell for the blurb on the back cover of this book that claims "no one is better placed than Mo Gawdat to explain how the Artificial Intelligence of the future works."
The problem is, he doesn't explain things at all. And, as he reveals in the book early on, the programmers who wrote the initial code for modern AI applications can't explain how they work either. When you dig into the field of AI in more detail, you'll see a lot of the experts start waving their hands about and walking back the more extravagant claims that have been made on AI's behalf. Chatbots like ChatGPT create the illusion of knowing what they're talking about purely because they take milliseconds to examine billions of text conversations their creators scraped off the Internet and find a response that best fits the content of the discussion you have had with them so far; they're using statistics, not consciousness. But you won't find detail like that in this book. Nor will you encounter a discussion about what a conscious machine might look like, or how we'd build one. I expected the idea of consciousness to be central to Gawdat's book, but it's barely touched on. And as for taking the step of asking permission to use all the content that's been lifted from other people's websites in order to train those AI databases, well, who can be bothered to do that, right?
Instead, the first half of the book relies mainly on tropes from science fiction films to show how bad the future could be (and I suspect William Gibson would take issue with Gawdat's frequent use of the term "mild dystopia" because a dystopia is, by definition, as bad as it gets—and I've seen him make exactly that point in discussion with the author Nick Harkaway.) And in discussing these science fiction tropes, Gawdat left me with the distinct impression that he hadn't actually watched the source material he writes about, but had instead just skimmed the Cliff's Notes for them. There's an awful lot of misrepresentation (apparently the problem of interstellar space travel is solved, because we can play video games that take us there in our VR headsets; tick the box for instant teleportation replacing air travel for the same reason while you're at it) and careful omission of many significant problems (Gawdat assures us that a self-driving car has never killed a human being, which is absolutely not true, and was so well before the book was written). It's all thrown together and spiced up with plenty of tired clichés and cringe-inducing, patronising asides to the reader.
Gawdat explains that he dictated the book to an app called otter.ai and then checked the results using Grammarly, and oh, boy, it shows (to give just one example, I'm pretty sure when he writes "punch" in the book, what he actually would have said was "punish"). He frequently loses track of his argument, telling us we should refuse to work on AI in one chapter, declaring that AI will happen whether we work on it or not in the next, and then recommending that we don't work on AI later still before assuring us it will inevitably happen in the book's conclusion. I'm pretty sure we'd have gotten a better and much more readable book out of him if he'd used a human editor instead.
The second half of the book is where things start to get interesting, however. Here, Gawdat lays out a rambling case for how we should behave in our daily lives in order to persuade the AIs that we will be worth keeping around when they complete their inevitable rise to power. Even if they never do, it would make the world a much better place, as it involves not being a dickhead, not trolling people online, leaving positive and compassionate comments on YouTube, not using the recommendation functions on retail websites, and never sharing all those tedious click bait articles and videos that we come across on Instagram or Facebook.
Now that's something I can get behind.
Published by: Penguin, 2020
This was a Christmas present from my brother, who knows my musical taste very well (although I have to admit that I only have Kraftwerk albums on vinyl; that will have to be remedied.) It's a fairly quick read, and while it has its roots in academia—according to the bio at the front of the book, Schütte teaches German popular culture at Aston University—the book gives an interesting and accessible account of one of the most significant bands ever active in the field of electronic music and discusses their influence on popular music as a whole. Artists from Jam Master Jay to Brian Eno, from Blondie to David Bowie, make an appearance or provide pithy quotes.
I wasn't aware of Ralf and Florian's fondness for cycling, which it is suggested accounted for the significant deceleration of their artistic output in the late 80s. Or of Hütter's claim that he never listens to music in any form any more, even when he's relaxing at home.
And yet this book feels distant, removed from things. At first, I just put this down to the fact that Kraftwerk the band have never really been interested in discussing their philosophy or artistic approach in any terms other than self-deprecating humour or ironic mockery. There's little to go on to gain a sense of what the musicians are like as people; they were always famously reticent in interviews and from 1978 onwards they didn't even pose for their own press photographs any more, delegating that role to their robotic mannequins. But then I realised that most of the book is written at one remove from things. Although several personnel from Kling Klang are thanked in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, there's surprisingly little original research in evidence. Most of the descriptions of significant events and critical opinions have been gleaned from interviews that were conducted by other people, from archived articles in the music press, and from other academic works. Although Schütte is clearly a big fan of the band, the result is a book that feels remarkably (and disappointingly) gutless. If there are insights to be found here, they are mostly recycled ones.
Shortly after the book was published, Florian Schneider died. Although he hadn't performed with the band since 2006, he still felt like an integral part of the band. Reading about the mannequins the band used in Schütte's book I began to understand that the band's use of dummies of themselves as equals in the presentation of their music is probably why I still regard him as part of Kraftwerk's very considerable Gesamtkunstwerk. And I suspect I always will.
Published by: Quartet, 1978
I tracked down a second-hand copy of this with considerable interest, because I'd read that Frank Herbert had used it as one of his principal sources when he was writing Dune (the book was originally published in 1960). It's an account of Shamyl (now rendered as Shamil), third Imam of the Caucasian Imamate (now part of Dagestan) and the war he waged successfully against a Russian force that vastly outnumbered his own for the best part of a decade in the middle of the 19th century. Given the current situation in the region, where another state continues to hold out against seemingly inexhaustible numbers of Russian troops, The Sabres of Paradise has taken on a new significance.
If you've read Dune, much of the book will seem familiar. Frank Herbert lifted some sentences almost verbatim and used many others as inspiration. The Caucasus may not have had sandworms, but Shamyl's murids would never have willingly given up their knives. A warrior was judged by the flair with which he used his blade in combat (this right down to the observation "to kill with the point lacked artistry"). But Kanly here is not the mannered feuding between the great families of the galaxy. Instead, it refers to a long tradition of blood vendettas, which Blanch describes in grisly detail. The secret hunting language of Shamyl's people, Chakobsa, gives its name to the Fremen tongue. And Blanch's quotations of Arab poems and the laments of Georgian prisoners alike made their way to Herbert's work, all of it uncredited.
It soon becomes clear that the Padishah Emperor of Herbert's work bears a strong resemblance to Tzar Alexander II. From now on, I shall always think of the planet Kaitain as St. Petersburg; the Russian houses of the Romanovs, the Lermontovs, the Gagarins, the Vorontzovs and many others make an appearance, and their vast wealth and unashamed opulence all strike chords with anyone familiar with the Atreides and the Harkonnens.
But the book refuses to be read only as a sourcebook for what is, quite frankly, a much lesser work. The depth and complexity of the tale being told here eclipse the work of fiction it inspired. As unbelievable as parts of it become, the story related here really happened. Indeed, one or two surprisingly familiar characters make their appearance, including Count Leo Tolstoy.
Blanch, who died in 2007 at the age of 102, considered The Sabres of Paradise to be her best work, and I can see why. Brian Aldiss was a fan, describing it thus: "A book as thick with flavour as roast wild boar, tusks and all." The book is a tour de force of simply astonishing writing: painstakingly researched, it tells a story of ceaselessly shifting politics, of great heroes gaining—and then losing—their grip on power and influence, of hostages taken, of tragedy and betrayal, of daring and hope, of indulgence and excess pitted against asceticism and denial.
Published by: Orbit, 2022
I've been waiting to read the final volume in the grand space opera of The Expanse since it was published in hardback last year, and when the paperback arrived this morning, I set everything else aside and dived in, because I've been a fan of the books for quite a while. I can't claim I was there at the beginning, but I'd certainly become a fan well before the TV series first appeared.
The television series has come and gone, although the plot of the show was not that of the books, and Amazon wrapped things up at the end of its sixth season without ever getting to the events that take place in Leviathan Falls. But then again, it's Amazon, so things are going to be messed up; it's their default operating mode.
Discussing the plot would plunge us rapidly into spoiler territory, and I'm not going to be That Guy, so all I'm going to say about it is that it draws things to a satisfyingly grand conclusion. Perhaps the best endorsement I can give the book is to say that I've already finished it.
Published by: Canongate, 2012
ZONA is a book with a considerable reputation. It has cropped up in my conversations with all sorts of people over the last few years, and to say that its readers rave about it is an understatement. I decided it was well past time I got a copy and found out exactly what all the fuss was about. I'd become one of the converted within a couple of pages.
Ostensibly, the book is Geoff Dyer's attempt to describe, scene by scene and shot by shot, what happens in Andrei Tarkovsky's legendary 1979 film Stalker.
But the book is so much more than that. When people describe a work as being a "meditation on modern life" it's usually a sign that they're struggling to encapsulate writing that ranges far and wide in its subject matter rather than it literally being the author's thoughts on what it means to be alive in the modern world, but ZONA somehow manages to be both of those things at the same time. There are accounts of childhood adventures exploring the derelict railway station at Letchworth (Dyer's own childhood version of The Zone) in the 1960s, tales of the film's troubled production history, outrageous stories of the director terrorising both Russian film censors and the film's financial backers, mixed together with thoughts about identity, what happens when you frame the film as a bizarre Soviet take on the long-running BBC sitcom The Last of the Summer Wine, despair and wretchedness, and love and hope (or the lack of it). The whole thing is permeated by a deep and enduring love of the magic of film, and it's a delight from start to finish.
Published by: iUniverse, 2005
Back in 1988, Dr Pauline Oliveros (1932–2016) was invited by the trombonist and didgeridoo player Stuart Dempster to visit an empty water cistern in Fort Worden, in Port Townsend, WA. Built to hold two million gallons of water, the now-empty concrete space possesses a 45-second reverberation tail and once this had been discovered, word had rapidly spread around local musicians and Dempster was keen for Oliveros to hear what it sounded like for herself. Access to the cistern was by climbing down a 14-foot ladder and Oliveros duly lowered her accordion down into the dark before climbing down herself. With them was Al Swanson, who made a sound recording of their performances inside the cistern, which more than lived up to its reputation for other-worldly acoustics.
As a result of the length of the reverb, the musicians had to alter the way they approached their performances, listening keenly to the way sounds lingered in the space around them. Recognising that this focused attention was not the way most music was usually performed, Oliveros began exploring its implications, and continued to do so for the rest of her life. From that single performance, the Deep Listening CD, band, and compositional movement sprang into being. It continues to this day. Oliveros pioneered the use of software known as convolution reverb in live performance so that any venue which the band played could take on the acoustic qualities of the original recording location. Oliveros was a pioneer in the field of ambient music and her influence has only grown since her death. After listening again recently to Tom Service's fascinating examination of her career on his The Listening Service podcast, I decided I really ought to get myself a copy of her book.
So I did. The text begins with a summary of the one-day Deep Listening workshop that Oliveros taught for many years (she also taught a much more academic version of DL that took its students three years to complete) and gives brief descriptions of the various physical exercises that are intended to reintegrate physical awareness of one's body with awareness of the sounds that surround you in your environment. This part of the book can seem very "New Agey" and I say that as someone who studied Chinese exercise and qi qong for nearly ten years back when I lived in Milton Keynes.
But press on, and you get to the meat of the book: a series of exercises and projects intended to help students develop their abilities to listen in new ways, to become actively aware of the sounds surrounding them. Oliveros asks some piercing and unusual questions of the prospective deep listener ("When can you feel sound in your body? How long can you listen? When are you not listening?" are just three examples) that seek to challenge the complacency with which most of us treat our ears. Following the exercises are a number of thoughtful commentaries by Dr Oliveros's students and colleagues. I finished the book in a very thoughtful frame of mind, and full of inspiration for new things to try in my own compositional work.
Published by: Penguin Books, 2013
I enjoy reading Lee Smolin's books a lot; this is the second book of his that I've finished this year. He writes clearly, and comes up with very interesting ideas about reality that often challenge consensus. He does this admirably in Time Reborn, which is an argument against one of the basic conclusions of relativity: that time is an emergent property of the Universe, rather than being something fundamental. When I first heard about the concept of the Block Universe—which Albert thought was a source of comfort, because it posits that all events, past, present, and future all exist simultaneously in a four-dimensional Universe which can never change, I was utterly horrified. For me it's the most depressingly grim theory of existence that I've ever encountered (it's also a central plot point in Alan Moore's epic novel Jerusalem, incidentally).
Smolin argues convincingly that this view of time is mistaken, and that the future is not set. The concept of free will, Smolin says, isn't dead yet (even if it's taken a severe kicking in recent years). This is very good news for people like me; I'm all for second chances.
Harking back to Sir Martin Rees's observation of how the laws of physics and physical constants in our Universe seem remarkably fine-tuned in order to allow for our existence (see book 4 below), Smolin offers a simple, if jaw-dropping explanation: this particular Universe is just one of very many others; he suggests that each universe produces progeny within black holes and the laws which are selected to govern each universe at the moment of its creation (in its own individual Big Bang) are somehow heritable, depending on a form of cosmological genetics. Minor variations of laws and constants selected when each new Big Bang occurs within a fresh black hole provide a process by which the production of increasing numbers of child universes can evolve naturally over time. Darwin's "survival of the fittest" can therefore be applied, not just to species of animals, but to entire universes: Smolin suggests that the descendants of those universes which are better at producing black holes must be better at producing progeny of their own. For there to be large numbers of black holes in a universe, he argues, there must be stars, and galaxies, and that creates the potential for complex molecules to exist. With each generation of universes which successfully manage to reproduce, the likelihood that their descendants will be based on laws and physical constants like the ones we see in our Universe gets larger, and the likelihood that those complex molecules will aggregate together sufficiently to become conscious starts to grow. Life therefore becomes an inconsequential side-effect of Cosmological Natural Selection where evolutionary pressures operate at a scale that predates the Big Bang by an absolutely mind-boggling degree (it could very well be infinite). There is no longer any need for an anthropic principle; the way things work here has evolved to the point where life can arise. There may well be billions of similar universes like ours out there, each very slightly different to ours, each forever out of our reach. However Smolin argues that it will soon be within our capability to test whether this theory is true or not with empirical observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background.
The discussion isn't limited to the evolution of the Multiverse, either. It becomes a philosophical journey around the idea of whether we can ever determine the "true" nature of reality, as well as a critical examination of what drives capitalism and whether or not any current models of economics make any sense at all. It's all heady, fascinating stuff.
Published by: Harper Collins, 2011
How many times have you looked for your car keys unsuccessfully, only to spot them sitting on the table ten minutes later? Did you know that you may have picked them up and quite literally held them in your hand while you searched the house, but not realised that you had found what you were looking for?
This is a non-fiction book about six ways in which our thinking can lead us astray (or, sadly, land other people in jail for crimes that they did not commit). It's a great precursor to Daniel Kahneman's classic work, Thinking, Fast and Slow which was published just six months later. The Invisible Gorilla demolishes the idea that going with your intuition or gut feeling (the "Thinking Fast" in Kahneman's book) is more reliable than sitting down and thinking things through properly. Chabris and Simon (who were both teaching psychology at Harvard University at the time) went viral at the turn of the century thanks to the ingenious experiment they devised and conducted which gives this book its name. We might think that we're aware of what's going on around us, but sometimes we fail to see something outrageously obvious, even when it's right in front of our face.
The authors examine six main aspects of how our minds work and show just how badly they can be broken as we go about our daily routine: attention; cause; confidence; knowledge, memory; and potential. You will discover that although we think that we can trust the way our brains interpret reality, this is often simply an illusion.
Some treasured myths are well and truly busted, including the idea that playing Mozart to babies makes them smarter, that subliminal advertising works, or even that having access to more information will inevitably lead to you making better financial decisions. David Dunning and Justin Kruger's work on the level of skill that absolute beginners think they have in a subject is discussed in detail. This explains why far more than the expected half of a set of test subjects will rate their skills or abilities as above average. We also learn just how narrow a field of knowledge can be; even though someone is an expert in one field, they can still be a complete idiot in others. If nothing else, this book should stop you from spending $500 for a spiffy gold-plated Ethernet cable which won't perform any better than a $2 one you can buy at the supermarket.
If you're someone who always trusts your intuition whenever you make a big life decision, reading this book is not only recommended, it could save you a lot of pain...
Published by: Thames and Hudson, 1996
Professor Steven Mithen (b. 1960) is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading. In this complex and ambitious book, he sets out on a grand quest to determine how the human mind evolved. Along the way, he sets out plausible explanations for how art, religion, and science originated from changes in its structure.
The book sets out a narrative in four acts. Act 1 is concerned with the hominins and the point at which the evolution of man and chimpanzees diverged some six million years ago in the shape of our ancestral ape. There is very little in the fossil record from this era and even now, there's a lot of debate about whether the 5.6 million-year-old species Ardpithecus kadabba (only discovered after Mithen's book was published) is part of humanity's lineage or not, so Mithen is working almost entirely in the dark; he sets his stage accordingly. Act 2 begins 4.5 million years ago with Australopithecus and includes the discovery of "Lucy" at Olduvai Gorge, concluding with the appearance of Homo habilis. Act 3 begins 1.8 million years ago with Homo erectus, moves to Europe half a million years ago with the hefty Homo heidelbergensis, and concludes 100,000 years ago with Homo neanderthalensis. Act 4 introduces modern man, Homo sapiens sapiens onto the stage, and the play ends in the modern day.
So how do you infer the structure of a mind from the fossil record? As an archaeologist, Mithen employs some fascinating methods. Not only have casts been made of the brains of our ancestors from the empty fossil skulls that have been found, vast quantities of behavioural clues abound in the artefacts that they left behind. The development (or rather, the absence of development) of the handaxe, minute scratches on pieces of bone, even the likely numbers of social groups which formed for each species inferred from analysis of dig sites can all be employed in a forensic reconstruction of their character.
Mithen uses the idea of a cathedral as his central metaphor for how the structure of mind should be regarded. Different modes of thought about natural history, technology, or social interaction are seen as smaller chapels inside the main edifice. In our early ancestors, Mithen suggests, each metaphorical chapel was walled off from the rest of the building, and primitive minds could not use resources from one mode of thought to inform any of the others.
I noticed distinct similiarities between Mithen's thesis and that of Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (a work that is entirely absent from the book's very extensive bibliography, possibly because it was famously described by Richard Dawkins as "one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius") although Jaynes believes that the emergence of the modern mind took place much more recently. In Jaynes's view, before the bicameral mind became whole, communication between different modules of cognition in the brain (leakage between the different "chapels of the cathedral" in Mithen's model) were interpreted as divine inspiration and gave rise to religion and the search for their explanation to theology.
Which is all well and good, but there are many problems with this narrative. For a start, there is a lot of confusion about what is meant when the author refers to "The Mind." The words mind, thought, consciousness, intellect, intelligence, and mentality are used will-nilly and seemingly interchangeably, nor is there any attempt to define what any of them are actually referring to. This shouldn't come as a surprise, because the arguments in philosophy, psychology and sociology about what we mean when we talk about the mind (or any of the other terms I just listed) continue to this day. The idea that the brain imposes structure on the mind is a reasonable starting point. There are aspects of how we think, tendencies for our thinking to fall in to patterns which are seemingly genetically transmissible, yes; Chomsky proved that. You know it yourself, if you speak one of the world's commoner languages, particularly English. I have a hunch that the mind's fondness for hierarchical order which this tendency shows is a clue to its underlying structure. The level of consistency is fascinating; why should that be? But what that underlying structure is remains unknown. When we dig more deeply into the subject, we rapidly get into trouble. Even fMRI imaging has not enabled us to determine how consciousness works, and nearly sixty years after Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke showed us a thinking computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we remain unable to make one. Nearly twenty years after this book was published, we still do not have an agreed scientific theory of consciousness, and it may not even be possible to construct one, ever.
Also, the depiction of Homo neanderthalensis as somewhat brutish and dull is becoming rapidly outdated (in particular, the discovery of clear ritual behaviour dating back 176,000 years at Bruniquel seems to blow rather a large hole in Mithen's argument that such things only began to take place when modern man started doing them).
The book's a fascinating read and it's an interesting exploration of the ideas around the evolution of thought, but when it comes to delivering a solid conclusion, I think we have to accept that the big questions are still unanswered.
Published by: (less than) Stellar Editions, 2014
I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Hardy's most famous book referenced in print and the last time it happened I resolved to get myself a copy (thank you, World of Books) and read it. So here we are.
Professor Godfrey Harold Hardy (1877–1947) was one of Britain's finest mathematicians. He wrote this essay (at seventy pages, it's hardly fair to call it a book) at the age of 62—exactly the age I am now, and if I had any hopes of becoming a mathematician in my dotage, Hardy succinctly trashes them in his introductory paragraphs. He tells us that he "no longer has the freshness of mind, the energy, or the patience" to continue doing his job. Mathematicians over the age of forty contribute little to the field, we are told; by the age of sixty they may as well give up.
This rather morbid dwelling on fading intellectual prowess pervades the book, which is sad. There are brief glimpses of the joy Hardy must have experienced working with John Edensor Littlewood (1885–1977) and the Indian prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920) at Cambridge, and he also clearly had a great enthusiasm for the game of cricket, which provides fertile ground for many of the analogies that are used in his explanations. Then again, the book was originally published in 1940, so the bleakness is understandable. Perhaps if he'd set about writing the book a decade or two earlier, he might have had a less pessimistic outlook.
But as a manifesto for creative work, it has much to offer. Hardy splits the field of mathematics into the trivial and the real, and for those seeking to contribute to the body of mathematical knowledge, he suggests that people aim to create something significant which possesses depth. These seem like admirable goals to aim for, whatever the field of work in which you are involved happens to be. Hardy seems fond of judging a discovery very much by how far down the rabbit hole of existing knowledge you have to go in order to understand the proof. For mathematicians, the reward of finally understanding something that has required them to think very hard about is a source of delight, and it can prove addictive. Failing that, the trick of taking things that everyone already knows, turning them on their heads, and using them to synthesise new knowledge is likely to bring you immortality of a sort. What Hardy is apologising for, he explains, is finding satisfaction and self-esteem in working in the field, and for believing that he had helped to make a significant contribution to it, which he undoubtedly had.
I must admit that I struggled to make it to the end, however. This was not Hardy's fault, but the publisher's. Judging by how they assembled this particular edition, Stellar Editions appear to be a shoddy, fly-by-night outfit that doesn't care about the products they release at all. The presentation of the book is inept. The blurry photographs on the front and back cover are so badly chosen and cropped that I find it hard to believe that they were the best that the designer could come up with. Worse, whoever set the type seems to have no more than a passing acquaintance with the English language. Most pages have at least one typo on them, and many have three or four. I had to keep re-reading sentences and then trying to figure out what Hardy's original text would have been. A quick online search of reviews of other books that they've published tells the same story, so this clearly wasn't an aberration. Stellar Editions clearly don't believe in spending money on designers, proof readers, or anyone else. If you're going to get a copy of this book for yourself, I strongly recommend that you make sure to get an edition that was published by somebody else.
Published by: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2015
Originally published in 1999, this overview of the then-current state of cosmology by the Astronomer Royal is very much a science book for non-scientists, sometimes infuriatingly so. I'm pretty sure that when he explains that "the size of the observable universe is, roughly, the distance travelled by light since the Big Bang, and so the present visible universe must be around ten billion light years across" his editor simplified the language a little bit too much; if the Big Bang happened ten billion years ago (it's now thought to be more like 13.8 billion years ago) then the radius of the universe would indeed be ten billion light years, but that would make it twenty billion light years across. And thanks to the accelerating expansion of spacetime and progress in modern physics, the universe is now thought to be closer to ninety billion light years across, but let's not quibble over a mere eighty billion light-years.
When we do get to the science, though, it's breathtaking. Sir Martin sets out just how remarkably fine-tuned the observable universe seems to be by discussing six dimensionless numerical constants which measure the way everything works. The first, the ratio of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces acting on a pair of protons, doesn't have a name, so he calls it "N"; the second, Epsilon, measures the efficiency of nuclear fusion in creating helium atoms from hydrogen (the fact that the symbol used in the book is the Greek letter of that name is never explained, which is a shame). The third is Omega (this Greek letter is explained, presumably because it doesn't look like any letter that English readers will be used to) measures the ratio of gravity to the expansion force exerted by dark energy, which must have started off being extraordinarily close to 1, even if that is no longer the case. The cosmological constant, Lambda, compares the energy density of the universe with the critical energy density of the universe. It's so small that its effects only become noticeable over distances of billions of light years. The fifth number, Q, is the proportion of the energy that it would take to pull a galaxy apart to the total amount of its "rest mass energy" (which is calculated using Einstein's most famous equation, E=mc2.) And finally, we're asked why it is that we live in three dimensions of space plus one of time rather than two, or four, or six dimensions of space and two or more of time.
In each case, if the value any of these numbers was even slightly different to what it actually is, we would not be here discussing how extraordinary those values are.
What does science make of this apparent fine tuning? That's where Sir Martin reveals the most amazing part of the whole deal: the universe in which we live might be nothing special, and just one of a quite possibly infinite series of other universes where the six constants he lists have quite different values. In some, there might not be any stars; indeed, they might not even contain any atoms at all. Other universes might consist in their entirety of a single, stupefyingly massive black hole.
Or perhaps the six numbers are connected in some way that we're not aware of, Sir Martin muses. Is there some Grand, Unified Theory of everything that would explain this fine tuning? When he updated the book in 2000, he clearly had high hopes that superstring theory would provide the answer, and do so within the next decade. However, as we've seen in the first two books I read this year, things really haven't turned out that well for superstrings, or even string theory in general. This doesn't hurt the book's main thesis; it's just rather sad to see that those grand expectations have yet to come to pass.
Just six numbers, and yet Sir Martin weaves an astonishingly profound tale out of them. Giordano Bruno got burnt at the stake for undermining the Catholic church's view that the Earth was the centre of the universe and Man was God's greatest creation by suggesting that there might be other worlds out there and that some of them might harbour intelligent life. Goodness knows what the Roman Inquisition would have made of current thinking about cosmology, or how astonishing the scale of everything actually is compared to our humble, pale blue dot.
Published by: Fourth Estate, 2003
Professor du Sautoy needs to write more books, because this is one of the best-written popular science books I've read in a very long time. It's the story of the Riemann Hypothesis, a nineteenth-century conjecture about the behaviour of prime numbers (specifically, how often they crop up among the natural numbers) which suggests that it is related to a type of equation called a zeta function. Riemann died young and never got around to proving his hypothesis. Instead, the problem soon found fame thanks to the way that it resisted all attempts to find a decisive solution. Since Fermat's Last Theorem was finally proved by Sir Andrew Wiles in 1993, the Reimann Hypothesis has become the Holy Grail of mathematics and is quite possibly the most important unanswered question in science. It's proved intractable enough to have become widely known outside the mathematics community, and it's even played a central part in at least one best-selling novel.
It's also intimately linked with the cryptographic algorithms that are used to protect the details of your credit card when you shop on the Internet, and Professor du Sautoy explains why it is that some areas of mathematical research aimed at proving the hypothesis have ended up being closely monitored by organizations such as the United States' National Security Agency.
Saying more about the history of the hypothesis would spoil things; the book is written like a whodunnit and the cast of characters includes many extraordinary figures from the field of maths. There are some familiar faces from physics, too. I was most surprised when Freeman Dyson made an appearance in the closing chapters.
I don't think it counts as a spoiler to reveal that as of today, the hypothesis remains unproven. But I was astonished by the directions the tale takes and the connections with seemingly unrelated areas of physics that have been discovered as a result of the heroic efforts to find a solution over the last two centuries. Even without a triumphant grand reveal at the end, this book is a delight from start to finish.
Published by: Houghton Mifflin, 2006
Another book from my charity shop science book haul. While this book is also about string theory, it examines the science from a markedly different perspective. Although the first few chapters are dedicated to where string theory came from and why it's so important, Smolin's main focus is on advancing a pretty solid argument that the theory has now taken over theoretical physics to the exclusion of pretty much all other theories. Smolin sets out why this is not a good thing, examining the sociological behaviours that are driving it. He's an excellent communicator. His writing is clear, easy to follow, and he conveys the roller-coaster ride of excitement and disillusionment that he personally experienced as a working theoretical physicist when the string theory revolution happened and the way people did physics started to change.
Although he assures the reader that this isn't meant as an attack on the science behind string theory or of the people working in the field, it's hard not to come away from the book feeling that an awful lot of very clever people have spent the last four decades barking up what might very well turn out to be the wrong tree. And they have done so for so long, Smolin argues, because it has become politically unacceptable for anyone to challenge consensus thinking on the subject. He sets out some pretty damning evidence for this extraordinary claim. String theory may well turn out to be one of the most expensive dead ends in the history of science.
Or it might not. The "Trouble with Physics" of the book's title is not just related to the politics of modern science; it's also the problem with the theory itself, which appears to be impossible to test experimentally. It can't even be used to make useful predictions, because the landscape of the underlying aspects of the theory is so wide-ranging, the properties of reality it can define are so varied, that nobody can identify which one we've ended up with, let alone explain why. One problem associated with the theory is thought to have around 10500 different solutions but it could be as many as 10272,000, or even higher. In trying to narrow things down, string theorists seem to have done the opposite. That's not exactly what you'd expect (or want) from a single, elegant theory of how the Universe works. The Emperor might not be wearing any clothes, but nobody has yet managed to get close enough to him to find out for certain.
What struck me most about the tale being told here is that the moment at which the field of theoretical physics stalled corresponds to a quite striking degree with the point at which the centre of activity in the field shifted from Europe to the Americas. Smolin classes the shift as being away from seers (disruptive visionaries like Einstein who thought deeply about the philosophical aspects of their work) towards craftspeople (who tend to be more attached to the status quo). Ironically, the lack of seers has turned string theory into something that looks remarkably like a cult, suffering from groupthink and exclusion of the out-group almost as badly as the Republican Party.
When this book was first published, Smolin got a lot of flak for calling out what he saw as an endemic problem in modern physics. However, nearly two decades on from the book's debut, no progress seems to have been made in proving he was wrong.
Published by: Abacus, 1992.
I started this year with something from a recent charity shop haul of science books. It's an overview of string theory by the physicist and writer Dr. F. David Peat (1938-2017), and while it's somewhat out of date, it covers a lot of the history of the theory and its principal ideas. Roger Penrose's Twistor Theory and spin networks (which subsequently led to the development of Loop Quantum Gravity) feature prominently.
It's all a very dense read, and while I got the general gist of things, a lot of the maths (and there's a lot of maths) went completely over my head. Indeed, Peat bemoans the fact that as the 1980s progressed, physics as he knew it was becomingly increasingly abstract; he more or less gives up on the idea of depicting what the fundamental concepts would look like, as many of the theory's fundamental entities don't just exist in the three dimensions of space and time that we're familiar with in every day life. However we are treated to an introduction to one of modern physics's most eccentric invention, the trouser diagram.
And no, I am not making this up.