Sunday, 27 March 2011

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Good thing I managed to avoid the movie version in the cinemas. It's much harder to go from film to book (tried it with the Damned United recently) than the other way around. However I still imagined Skinny, New Spiderman and The Other One when reading it. They were pretty good, actually, even if they were just in my head.

Mild spoiler time - this is science fiction. It's set in shabby genteel England in the 80s and 90s, but it gradually becomes apparent that something's very different and very wrong in this society.

It starts with Kath, who's a "carer" for "donors," looking back at her time at a kind of boarding school called Hailsham, then into adulthood, with her two friends Tommy and Ruth. Tommy's an angry misfit, almost a rebel. Ruth is what Cartman would describe as a "super king kong megabitch", but it's not really her fault.

The genius here is the focus on their relationships. The real story - their actual situation - is, for the most part, kind of a side issue. It's assumed we know about it. There's a great bit when they discuss how they're gradually told at school about what they are, but always when they're slightly too young to understand it. It's like boiling a frog - do it bit by bit so it always feels normal. The same trick is played on the reader.

It's a very creepy and horrible world that's portrayed here, and totally believable. Civilisation is always good at rationalising evil, if the benefits are worth it. Slavery's an obvious comparison, but for some the farming of animals and abortion are equally abhorrent. Most people don't really want to think about it, and we use euphemisms like "beef" for "dead cow" or "abortion" for "killing a fetus." Here it's "donations" and "completion."

I really liked this book. It made me angry. There's a similarity with Ishiguro's Remains of the Day - that friction between the repressed characters who accept their position, and the emotional turmoil that's being portrayed. Masterful stuff.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Morality is how we want the world to work. Economics is how the world actually works. Abortion reduces the crime rate. Taking your child to museums won't keep them off drugs. Guns don't kill people, swimming pools do.

Freakonomics is a study in comforting lies and unintended consequences. It reveals a world which at first glance appears counterintuitive or chaotic, but is in fact driven by incentives which you can tease out by asking the right questions of the data.

What's made this book a big hit is the range of systems it looks into - cheating by sumo wrestlers, weird baby names, the history of the Klu Klux Klan and dealing crack. It's all about getting information, collating it and finding out what's happening.

So there's a lot of light-hearted stuff here (crack and the KKK are funny, right?) but there's some in depth looks at big issues - bringing up your children for instance. It turns out parents have a big influence on the future success of their brat, but it's all stuff which happens before the birth - income, education level, etc. None of that endless fussing seems to make much difference. Even whether parents are still together or not isn't a big deal.

Of course, this is a book about using statistics to look at complex systems, and there's always going to be questions over how you use the data. There's been a big stramash over the authors' assertion that legalised abortion caused a steep decline in the crime rate seventeen years later. That's been criticised heavily on economic as well as moral grounds. The most interesting accusation is that Levitt whitewashed his earlier finding that a higher rate of abortions by black mothers-to-be in US cities was in fact the important factor in the crime drop. Now if that's true, what happened to economics over morality?

Anyway, it's always a very interesting read, and a great reminder not to put your faith in received wisdom and wishful thinking.

PS christ knows what I've done to the font. I actually posted this to Advance With Sound by accident, then had trouble getting it back. Now it's all wrong.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

Let's think way back to the 1890s. Britain rules a quarter of the world - the biggest empire the world has ever seen. It's position seems to be unassailable. But, starting with some pig-ignorant Dutch farmers causing trouble in South Africa, things start going wrong. A few decades later, and it's all gone.

Now, America's not quite in the same position, but it should be sobering for them to reflect on how quickly it can all go away, and how to cope when the decline happens.

The title of this book's a bit misleading. Zakaria's talking about the rise of a multi-polar world over the next few decades in which the USA still plays a major part. But it's only since the 1990s that America's been the sole superpower, and if they think that's the way it'll always be, they're deluded.

Zakaria looks in depth at China and his home country India (he's now American.) China's the big boy in the coming years, and a bit of a mystery. What does it mean to be communist and capitalist? How nuts are they about things like Taiwan? And how scared should we be of them? The author's pretty sanguine about the Chinese, arguing that it's very different to how it was under Mao (a sadist's plaything) and despite some nasty human rights abuses and no democracy, it's heading in the right direction.

The real weakness of the government is a paranoia about their position, manifested in a fear of social unrest - why do they get their knickers in a twist about Falun Gong? Recent protests, incidentally, have been slapped down with a mixture of quite effective internet sabotage and good old fashioned stomping.

India's a strange one. It's economy is growing really fast - hourly wages have doubled in the past decade. Lots of people are getting rich, but there's still staggering poverty - 50% of infants suffer from malnutrition. Also the politics is rubbish, and there's stacks of corruption. Zakaria says the big plus for India is stuff left over from the British Empire - the English language and legal system, which means they know about contract law.

The USA is still going to be on top for a while to come, according to the author, although he again picks out the weaknesses. He rightly points to the political system becoming dangerously corrupt and ineffective due to special interests and the sensationalist media. Zakaria doubts that hard geopolitical choices which have to be made in the future (e.g. unpalatable but necessary concessions to China) will be possible in the increasingly strident bubble of US politics/media.

So things are looking up for China, India - even America. So who's really going to suffer in the coming years, according to Zakaria?'s us. Western Europe's going down the pan. China can do manufacturing better than us. India trumps us on technology. We've got a big public sector, a dwindling private sector, an ageing population and a boneheaded aversion to immigration because "they're taking our jobs - we can't afford them." We're toast.

Really worth reading this book if you're interested in how the future's going to unfold. It's clear and engaging despite often being about pretty dry stuff like economics. Although, I've just been enjoying Freakonomics as well, so perhaps the subject isn't as boring as The Man has led us to believe.

Friday, 18 March 2011

The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach

So, German sci-fi? Metropolis, but that's a film. Anything more and I'm struggling. Kurt Vonnegut? He bummed about in Dresden for a bit, but he was American. Von Daniken? Swiss, and he thinks it's all true.

Luckily we've got Andreas Eschbach. Only one book in English though, but it is a great one.

It starts in the desert, describing a society dedicated to the making of carpets for the Emperor's Palace. They're made from the hair of the makers' wives and daughters, and each one takes a lifetime to complete. The only clue that it's science fiction at the beginning is the rusted and useless rayguns carried by the merchant's guards.

I'm not going to give much else away, because the plot unravels really nicely - each chapter's like a short story focusing on one character, but all the pieces fit together. The sense of scale, both in time and space, is immense and it's contrasted with the second by second ritual of tying these carpets together.

There's also friction between the cynical and gloomy worldview about politics, power and faith, and the role that love plays in changing the rules.

A big recommendation from me - beautiful and poetic with big ideas about science fiction and human nature.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

I, Fatty by Jerry Dahl

It's a funny business, celebrity. One minute you're loved around the world by millions of fans who think they know you personally. But if they think you've betrayed them, that love turns to hate pretty quickly.

These are the fictionalised memoirs of Roscoe Arbuckle (never Fatty to his face), one of the very first international superstars of the modern age. A hugely famous film comedian before the twenties - the first star to earn a million pounds a year - he started the careers of people like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. And he invented the throwing of custard pies.

But if you've heard of him know, it's probably about him raping a woman to death with a coke bottle. It's pretty clear he was innocent, and Arbuckle was eventually cleared after three trials. It didn't do his career much good though and he died ten years later a drunk and a junkie (though to be fair he'd been on booze and heroin for quite a while before that.)

This is a fascinating read, and clearly very well researched. I love learning about the early years of filmmaking, and this book shows how seat-of-your-pants it all was. Much of it was just filmed on the street using whatever came to hand. Doing a slapstick routine with a hose while firefighters were actually putting out a blaze may have been step too far, admittedly.

It's very sharp on what it's like to become so famous, and have that fame turn on you. It shows the power of tabloid demonisation. William Randolph Hearst made a fortune from Fatty the Demon, and it's a false image that survives to this day. And it outlines how the nascent Hollywood machine got a scapegoat to placate the moralising mob, and so save the whole industry. Lots here to reflect on in respect to today's celebrity meat grinder.

You should check out Roscoe Arbuckle on youtube - the movies are still funny, and he's surprisingly acrobatic for a big lad. Especially good are the ones he made with Buster Keaton, the only star to publicly support him through it all. A stand up, fall down guy.

Good god, got two more books I've already finished to review and I may also be done with Stone Junction and Freakonomics pretty soon. And I did run out of reading material on holiday and had to read a chick-lit book I found. Comfort Food, by the author of Friday Night Knitting Club. Actually wasn't too bad - got halfway through it, and I kind of want to know who Gus ends up with now.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

Rapidly becoming my new favourite writer.

This isn't set in the same universe as Revelation Space or most of Reynolds' other work - in fact it's set in two other universes. One is a few centuries in the future, in which the Earth's been made uninhabitable by runaway nanotechnology (they call it the nanocaust. I prefer the term nanogeddon.)

So while archeologists of the future make trips to the remains of Paris, universe number two deals with a detective/jazz musician living in Paris in what's meant to be 1959, but which we soon learn isn't the same as our 1959.

It's a great set-up and a very easy read. Not as hard sci-fi as his other stuff but lots of fun. Both sides of the story work well and the characters are convincing and engaging. There's also plenty of interesting stuff about nanotechnology.

Although the plotting is very good, the big minus here is that the nefarious plan from the villains makes no sense at all. The ending's also pretty weak - it leaves too many loose ends. The suggestion is that it's all going to be tied up in a sequel, but there isn't enough loose-endage to warrant another book. Another few chapters would've done it.

What Century Rain really reminds me of is a good episode of Doctor Who. Not one in particular, but the kind where there's a strange version of the past that's really in the future. Worth reading if you fancy some light and fun sci-fi with a bit of romance and noir thrown in.

Okay, I've finished I, Fatty a novel about Roscoe Arbuckle so I'll post that soon, and I'm halfway through some German sci-fi called The Carpet Makers. Starting to worry I haven't brought enough books on holiday.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Stephen King, but not horror. Not completely, anyway. If you're a fan of the man's work, this is closest in form and style to Different Seasons. Four novellas with just the barest touch of the supernatural.

All four are about retribution. The first book "1922" is about rural murder, guilt and madness. And rats. The second - "Big Farmer" - concerns rape and revenge. The third is "Fair Extension" about envy and a pact with the devil. "A Good Marriage" is probably the one I enjoyed most, about a woman who makes an unfortunate discovery about her husband.

All really enjoyable, and all very different. You can still tell it's King, largely because of the multiple voices for the protagonist, and the repeated phrases which become motifs, but he reins it in well here. What I really liked about the stories was the lack of twist, which is refreshing in suspense tales. The endings are all satisfying and never seem like a quick fix or cheap thrill.

I didn't enjoy it as much as Different Seasons, or the Bachman Books (less pulpy than Bachman, incidentally), but that's possibly just age. Reading Apt Pupil or Rage when you're a teenager makes a big impression. But it's certainly his best work since......oh, Hearts in Atlantis probably. Although I've just checked, and I haven't read Lisey's Story or Cell. And this book's at the other end of the spectrum from his Dark Tower stuff, although there are at least two references to It, so clearly King can't help tying all his work together.

A book on tape, and as usually happens I've just finished a paper book at the same time - Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds, so I'll need to knock off that review before I forget what happened. Now listening to The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria (geopolitics, rather than sci-fi) and finishing off Booky Wook 2. But I'm off to Barcelona tomorrow, so I'll need to dig out some holiday reading.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Embracing Defeat by John Dower

How do you civilise a modern, advanced nation which has proved itself to be uncivilised?

This is the job the Americans gave themselves in Japan after World War Two. Like Germany, it was a country gone mad, but the roots of that madness ran much deeper than with the Nazis - at least that was the thinking.

Dower's history looks at the things from the other side - how a catastrophic defeat affected people and the way they thought about themselves. How being occupied by a different culture - a different race! - for the first time in the history of Japan changed them. And what their hopes were for the future.

Now, in a self-fullfilling prophecy I only got halfway through the book. This part deals with the social history in the first couple of years after the defeat, but it is a great read. It looks at issues like depression and poverty, prostitution, the black market and politics through things like pulp novels, cartoons and (of particular interest to me) radio. The average household listened to five hours of radio every day. There was a regular show trying to re-unite families with returning soldiers and featured a section called "Who am I" for those solidiers who couldn't even remember if they had families.

The impression I got was of the Americans doing their best, through old fashioned colonialism, to drag the Japanese into freedom. It wasn't always pretty, but it could've been so much worse. And it certainly wouldn't have worked if large numbers of Japanese hadn't been keen so create a new democratic, free and pacifistic nation. In fact one of the themes of the book is whether forcing Hirohito to resign would perhaps have been more acceptable to his subjects than the Americans assumed, and whether it would've led to a more mature and honest acceptance of their collective war guilt.

That seems to be a big issue in the second part, which deals with the emperor and the war crime trials. I may get it back out of the library, but the first half is a fascinating snapshot of life in a country halfway between defeat and rebirth, east and west, past and future. And unlike so much history, it makes you feel pretty good about the human race.