Croeso i Gymru

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Camelot! Camelot! Camelot! (It’s only a model). On Second Thoughts, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a Silly Place.

Earlier this week several Gees drove 300+ miles across Britain to spend a few days in an entirely different country. Specifically, Carmarthenshire, where Mrs Gee has relations. We rented a cottage on the edge of the Brecon Beacons with perhaps the most spectacular view I have ever seen from any AirBnB, or hotel, or other accommodation, anywhere in the world, including Hawaii. From the garden, or kitchen — or loo — one could look all the way up the hill to a Romantic Ruin. The view was entrancing in all weathers (and you do get a lot of that in Wales —  weather) and seemed to sum up the nature of Wales in a single shot. We do have friends elsewhere in Wales, in the altogether more rugged landscape of Powys, and are aware that we are yet to visit our correspondent Professor Trellis of North Wales, in Aberystwyth. One day…

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What I Read In May

UntitledKen Liu (ed.) Invisible Planets Hungry as I am for more SF from China, and with birthday requests on the table, Mrs Gee ordered me this collection of contemporary Chinese SF, edited and translated by Ken Liu. Thirteen stories, all by authors of whom news had yet to reach mes oreilles. All except, of course, Cixin Liu, author of the extraordinarily successful Three-Body Problem trilogy (reviewed here and here). Liu (sensu Cixin) is an author of two of the stories here, and one of the three essays on Chinese SF, its genesis and current reach, that end the book. The question one wishes to ask — indeed, it is asked in this book — is just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? what is it that makes Chinese SF so distinctive, so Chinese? It’s a rather hard question to answer. For a start, the selection of stories here ranges from the gritty, grubby cyberpunk of Chen Qiufan to the fantasy of Xia Jia and Cheng Jingbo and the 1984-style dystopia of Ma Boyong. My favourite was Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, reminiscent in its tone and subject of Golden-Age stories by the likes of Heinlein or Asimov, but with its own distinctive flavour. From this, the only answer seems trite: Chinese SF is like any other SF, except that it is written from a perspective that’s, well, Chinese. I suspect, though, that such differences as there are might not be readily appreciable to western audiences. The stories are, after all, presented in translation, and selected by an editor who is quite candid, in his introduction, that some stories didn’t make the cut because their concerns were so rooted in Chinese cultural and political preoccupations that they couldn’t be presented without many burdensome footnotes. So it could be that what we see here as distinctively Chinese SF is as authentically Chinese as the food served in most so-called Chinese restaurants in England. That is, selected for its appeal to western palates rather than being truly representative. To appreciate Chinese SF, then — to truly appreciate it — one has, I suspect, to be not only a fluent reader of Chinese, but conversant with every tic and nuance of a culture thousands of years old which, in the past century or so, has undergone a series of truly seismic changes. Like Borges’ character Pierre Menard, who wished to read Don Quixote as it was meant to be read, one would. have to become, effectively, Cervantes. These stories brought home to me, rather starkly, that writing is more than print on a page, but only comes alive in the mind of the reader. And each reader, each one lonely in their lighthouse steeple, will take different things away from the same stories. Not to be discouraged, though, I shall be moving on to the companion birthday present — Broken Stars, a follow-up anthology of more Chinese SF stories, also edited by Ken Liu. I am looking forward to that.

Screenshot 2024-05-06 at 20.32.29Adrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Ruin BEWARE There are spiders spoilers spiders octopods octopuses cephalopods. This is the sequel to Children of Time, reviewed last month. In that novel, human arkship Gilgamesh comes into contact with a planet, Kern’s World, which, due to sabotage (and an honest mistake) during the terraforming process, became home to a species of sentient spider. Here, a different terraforming team, on the spaceship Aegean, meets a  system with two planets. The first, Damascus, a barren water world, is terraformed and successfully colonised by sentient octopuses bred by the crew. The second, Nod, contains the first truly alien life ever encountered by humans, though at first it seems of a very lowly kind. The human expedition, though, becomes host to a kind of sentient plague that has brooded on the planet for aeons, waiting for just this moment. Centuries later, a combined human-spider expedition from Kern’s world that reaches the Nod-Damascus system has to grapple with not only the plague but the enraged cephalopods fearful that the new humans have come to unleash the plague upon them. But just as humans and spiders have achieved some level of mutual understanding, they both have to learn an unfathomable new language, the protean and emotive communications of the octopuses. This novel is a lot of fun, though with the added octopuses adds a layer of complexity that can sometimes drag on an already complex plot. It doesn’t have the wonderful sense of development that the first book has — perhaps because Tchaikovsky has already demonstrated his fluency, his ability to get inside the minds of other species, riffing entertainingly on philosopher Nagel’s question of what it must like to be a bat.

UntitledAdrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Memory Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. But I digress. This is the third volume in the trilogy that began with Children of Time (reviewed last month) and Children of Ruin (above). By this time in the time-stream, the humans, the spiders from Kern’s world and the octopuses from Damascus have formed a single, post-scarcity civilisation, glued together by the (now tamed) sentient plague from Nod. Consciousness can be uploaded into multiple lab-grown bodies, and people of one species can present themselves as individuals of another. Death has been abolished. An expedition from this multipartite civilisation reaches Imir, one of the worlds targeted for terraforming by the ‘ancients’ before the Old Earth was ravaged by war. Imir hosts a colony of post-war humans who had arrived on the arkship Enkidu. Unfortunately, the terraformers had left Imir before the job had hardly started, so the colonists are forced to live an increasingly desperate, hardscrabble existence. The expedition of protean squidspiderpeople decides not to confront the colonists directly, but infiltrate their way into their society. When they do, it becomes apparent that All Is Not Right. People keep popping up in unexpected places and times, in particular Heorest Holt — erstwhile captain of the Enkidu and First Founder — and his grand-daughter Liff. Something very strange is going on. This wouldn’t be a Children of Earth novel without another intelligent species, and in Children of Memory it is a kind of raven. The ravens come from another hardly-terraformed planet and have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. The ravens tend to come in male-female pairs, and the ones we meet here are Gothi and Gethli, who, when they work together, are expert problem-solvers. At first, Gothi and Gethli seem to be comic relief, but as the book goes on you realise that they are central to the plot, and their commentary on the action, insightful, and often funny (there are references to the Dead Parrot Sketch), holds the key to the major theme of the book. Where Children of Ruin was all about communication, Children of Memory is all  about the shifting nature of sentience, one’s sense of self, and how this is tied in with memory (the clue is in the title). Gothi and Gethli conclude that they themselves are not sentient, and, therefore, nothing else can be. What a burden it would be, one of them says, if you had to think all the time. I smiled at this, as the evanescence of sentience was the punchline in a book of mine, The Accidental Species. In my view, most people go happily throughout life without being sentient. And that’s okay, because too much sentience is pathological, seen only in young people whose prefrontal cortices are wiring up, or those with some forms of mental illness. There are more clues in the names — Tchaikovsky has so much fun with names. His spiders generally have Shakespearean names — Portia, Bianca, Viola — and there is always an octopus called Paul. Some might remember an octopus of that name renowned for seemingly being able to predict the result of international football matches. The ravens were originally nurtured by a human called Renee Pepper, a name that seems to me suspiciously close to Irene Pepperberg, a pioneer researcher into bird cognition. There is a strong Nordic element in the names of the colonists of Imir. The name for the planet itself comes from Norse mythology, and Gothi and Gethli are obvious re-castings of Odin’s ravens Huginn (‘Thought’) and Muninn (‘Memory’). The arkships have names that come from one of the earliest known myths, the Gilgamesh story, and there are parallels between events in that story and the fates of the arkships Gilgamesh and Enkidu, if one cares to look. Children of Memory is a deep, thoughtful book, and does occasionally tie itself in knots (I haven’t even mentioned the sub-plots that discuss whether our Universe might be a simulation) but carried (at least for me) a powerful emotional impact. The trilogy as a whole is one of those reading experiences  that inspires thought, and will remain long in the memory.

UntitledTom Chivers: Everything is Predictable Two backpackers are lost. Wandering along a country lane, they meet a farmer idly leaning on a gate, chewing a grass stalk. ‘Please Sir’, asks one of the hapless pair, ‘How do we get to Cromer?’ ‘Well’, says the farmer, thoughtfully, ‘I wouldn’t start from here’. But I digress. Many years ago when the world was young I penned a polemic that attracted many fruitbrickbats. Among the many things that attracted the ire of the hip and fashionable was the assertion that, in science, no matter how many fancy schmancy statistics you use, you’ll always end up with an estimate of probability that something or another is true, and after that you’re on your own. I was accused of being something called a ‘frequentist’, and that was among the more polite epithets. I have since learned that there is a better way of doing statistics, and that relies on something called Bayes’ Theorem, and the people who do statistics that way are called Bayesians. To this day I have never really understood Bayes’ Theorem, and have, frankly, been deterred from learning by the fanatical adherence to their creed of its devotees (fanaticism of any kind being something of a turn-off). Imagine my delight when my good friend Mr. B. C. of Swindon reviewed the book currently under discussion — a guide to Bayes’ theorem and an explanation of what the fuss was all about. Buoyed up by his stellar review I bought the book, imagining that the skies would clear, the scales would fall from my eyes, I would experience a Damascene Conversion, and then run naked through the streets of Cromer shouting ‘Eureka’. (Nobody would mind. They are used to such things in Cromer). Well, it wasn’t quite like that. I did learn a lot, but I am still rather confused. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected this to be a how-to book, with problems and worked examples (such books do exist). It’s more of a history of a concept. However, as Chivers helpfully repeats throughout the book, frequentist statistics (I do hate these ‘-ists’ and ‘-isms’, I prefer to think of it as ‘the statistics I was taught’) says that you set up a hypothesis, gather some data, and ask ‘how likely are we to see these data, given the hypothesis I’ve set up?’ Bayesian statistics starts with the data, and ask which hypothesis it best supports. The crucial difference between the two is that Bayesian statistics starts with what’s called a ‘prior’ — that is, an idea based on what you already know,  against which you test your data, and if the mismatch is unacceptably large, you add the new data into the pot and stir it round again, converging on a solution. If, for example, you are trying to work out the probability that a hypothesis might be true, there is no need to go in blindly. Instead, you can arm yourself with already established knowledge. So my hapless pair trying to get to Cromer mightn’t have to ask the farmer at all if they have a map, a GPS, or have just seen a sign saying ‘CROMER 2 MILES’. In a way, Bayesian statistics is the application of common sense. It is essential in things like drug trials, as Chivers explains. It has revolutionised work in evolutionary biology, my main concern in my day job (by day I’m with the Submerged Log Company), particularly the computation of evolutionary trees. Rather than put the genomes or observed traits of a whole load of fish and fowl into a computer and have to decide between the zillions of possible solutions that emerge, you can start by saying that you know from copious previous evidence that fish aren’t fowl and whales are not insects that live on bananas, therefore discarding a lot of no-hoper solutions and can home in more quickly on the most plausible evolutionary tree. Chivers doesn’t say anything about evolutionary trees, though he does discuss the history of Bayes and of statistics as a whole (very interesting) and bangs on at some length about how the brain is a Bayesian machine and that Bayes, like Love, is All Around (rather tedious). Although he discusses the enormous controversies that Bayesian statistics stokes, he doesn’t really explain (to my satisfaction, but then I have a large posterior) why the fury is so, well, furious. So I am not sure I really learned a great deal more about Bayesian statistics than I knew before, and I certainly can’t carry in my head (yet) a succinct explanation of why it’s better than good old-fashioned statistics, for all that he repeats the mantra throughout. It’s a diverting book, but perhaps I’ll have to get one of those how-to guides with problems to work through and answers at the back of the book. This book is fun, for certain definitions of ‘fun’, but as the farmer said, I wouldn’t start from here.

UntitledAdrian Tchaikovsky: The Doors of Eden BEWARE there are spoilers monsters spoilers gigantic sentient space-faring trilobites! WHEEE!!! Mal and Lee are a couple of misfits whose shared passions are cryptozoology and each other. Hiking on Bodmin Moor in search of monsters, they encounter a ring of standing stones and find themselves in another world. So far, so Outlander. There follows an overstuffed sofa farrago adventure that involves speculative palaeontology, dimension-hopping Neanderthals, dinosaur bird-people, M.I.5, sentient ice minds, the inner workings of the City of London, warlike rat-weasels (in airships — gotta have airships), a very sweary transsexual super-genius, and even a James-Bond-style supervillain. This is a rich mixture that’s rather too intense for my fevered brain to cope with. There are too many times when some character asks where they are, or what’s going on, only for their interlocutor to respond with something gnomic. And far, far more F-bombs than necessary. Enjoyable — but exhausting.

UntitledBilly Connolly: Rambling Man Only two comedians have made me laugh to a state of helplessness. One was Jo Brand, and it was after she said this: ‘The underwear you want people to see is black. And the size of an atom. The underwear you don’t want people to see is grey … and the size of Buckinghamshire’. Okay, I guess it’s the way you tell it. I can’t remember precisely what it was that Billy Connolly said to make me laugh so hard I almost krupled my blutzon, but after the high-octane SF of Adrian Tchaikovsky I needed something a bit lighter for my daily walks. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which I enjoyed reading consuming listening to this memoir through my ear holes, narrated by the man himself. The Big Yin is now in his eighties and not quite as furiously frenetic as he once was, but his memoirs of his travels from the tropics to the arctic are, if not eye-wateringly hilarious, then never less than amusing, and sometimes moving. After that I downloaded one of his live shows to listen to, and it was great fun, but I now realise that a lot of Connolly’s humour was visual as much as verbal. He really did throw himself around, back in the day.

UntitledPhilip Ball: How Life Works ITEM:When Sir Dudley Marjoribanks, later Second Baron Tweedmouth, set out to develop the perfect dog for retrieving the carcasses of ducks shot over water and bringing them undamaged to the hunter, he crossed a throw-rug with a garbage disposal unit water spaniel with a flat-coated retriever and the golden retriever was born. I grew up with a golden retriever, and have kept three myself. All golden retrievers love water, and nothing better than to present people, at moments of occasion or arousal, with a plush toy or item of soft furnishing held gently in the mouth. And yet none of these dogs was trained to the gun, with ducks. The dogs just do it spontaneously. But nowhere, I suspect, in the genome of the golden retriever is a gene that encodes this behaviour. It must be somewhere, in the neural wiring of the brain,  but that’s not encoded in the genome either. At some level, the tendency of retrievers to retrieve is an emergent property of all the genes, cells, tissues and organs that make up the dog, when they are all put together and sent off into the field, tails wagging.

ITEM: The Gees have been enjoying a reality TV show called Race Across The World in which teams of couples have to get from a point A to a point B, thousands of kilometres and several countries apart, entirely by surface transport, with a budget equivalent to the air fare, and without smartphones or credit or debit cards. In the latest series, twenty-something brother-and-sister Betty and James Mukherjee got most of the way through when Betty admitted to her brother (and therefore the public) that she had been diagnosed with a condition called Mayer Rokitansky Küster Hauser syndrome (MRKH), in which she was born without a uterus, and also one of her kidneys. MRKH is a congenital defect that results from the imperfect formation of the the tubular, embryonic structure from which forms parts of the urogenital system. This structure forms when two sheets of mesoderm (another embryonic tissue) meet and fuse in two parallel strands on either side of the developing body. There is no known cause for MRKH. Searches for mutant genes connected with the condition that are found in common in all MRKH cases have been in vain. And that’s to be expected: MRKH is the result of tissue movements — actions of whole sheets of cells — that might be contingent on mechanical and environmental factors as much as genes. What doesn’t excite comment, as perhaps it should, is that Betty and other MRKH patients are otherwise perfectly normal, intelligent and fully functional human beings, able to communicate their state and their emotional response to it, despite the absence of key internal organs. If development were under total genetic control, with each step in the process dependent on the successful completion of the one before, people with MRKH, or any other developmental quirk, would not be born. But because development is rather loose, and tolerates a degree of variation as it goes on, people are nonetheless born and live their lives with a variety of syndromes. As I have argued in a book called Jacob’s Ladder: The History of the Human Genome, such variation is the price we pay so any of us can be born at all.

ITEM: When Offspring#1 had aspirations to study medicine, and, ultimately, surgery [SPOILER: he got better] he wondered how it was that people could wander around full of thoughts and dreams and hopes and motivations and aspirations but inside they looked like wet lasagne. Where did all those thoughts, dreams, hopes and so on and so forth come from? Where, in that mass of goo and squish, is the person who prefers (say) cats to dogs; is rather good at maths despite their own expectations; is a passionate player of Dungeons and Dragons; will eat a whole packet of liquorice allsorts at one sitting; and supports Norwich City FC?  As with the tendency of retrievers to retrieve, all are emergent properties, There are no genes that encode a tendency to support Norwich City FC as opposed to, say Ipswich Town FC Accrington Stanley. But this raises another issue. Retrieving in dogs, however it is determined, is inherent. Supporting one football team or another, in contrast, demands a degree of choice. It requires something called agency.

Enter science writer Philip Ball with this magisterial account of the workings of genes, cells and bodies. It is, first of all, an antidote to the gene-centric view of evolution, in which genes are ‘libraries’ or ‘blueprints’ or ‘programs’ for creating a body out of nothing, and all else is commentary. It turns out that genes are rather less, or more, or. well, something or other, it’s actually really hard to explain, and that’s because it’s almost impossible to describe what goes on at the scale of atoms and molecules without recourse to metaphor. It’s often been a cause of some wonder to me how molecules in cells can do what they do when they are packed in so tightly, and all surrounded by water that cannot possibly behave as a bulk fluid. How can molecules meet and interact in the way they seem to do in all those neat diagrams seen in textbooks and (I have to say) scientific papers, when the viscosity regime must be rather like treacle? Such misgivings have similarly long preoccupied Ball, who is trained in physics and chemistry rather than biology, and can appreciate problems that biologists might miss. He  puts it very well when he says that the insides of cells are less like factory floors than dance floors, crowded with excited dancers packed in together and jiggling about and unable to communicate with one another because of all the noise. In such conditions, how can JAK kinase possibly get to JIL kinase across such a crowded room, in order to — well, let’s just think of something, oh, I don’t know, Release Calcium from Intracellular Stores? The intracellular environment is noisy, and very far from favouring the kind of neat networks and diagrams in which abbreviations cleanly interact with other abbreviations. Rather, says Ball, cells make a virtue of the noise and disorder. Molecular interactions are much less precise, much more fleeting, than one might imagine, and tolerate a degree of slop that no engineer would possibly countenance. Because of that disorder, the interactions between the various levels in the rough hierarchy of scales from genes to proteins to cells to tissues to organs to organisms are not always clear. But order emerges from the melee, nonetheless.

If that’s all there was to How Life Works, it would be a good book. What makes it a great book is that Ball unflinchingly tackles the really big question — what is the nature of life? What makes a living thing alive? What is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? What is the nature of that vis essentialis,  pneuma, je ne sais quoi, that animates a bag full of wet lasagne? It’s here that Ball gets into challenging and exciting territory. Remember, some few paragraphs ago, I talked about agency? Ball suggests that organisms are living because they make active choices. We can choose whether or not to eat a third bagel (you’ve had four, actually, but who’s counting?). A golden retriever can choose, and often does, whether or not to chase that thrown ball.  A living bacterium can sense the presence of nutrients, and actively move towards them. A dead one cannot. At the most basic level, a cell membrane can admit the passage of some ions, but not others, even against a concentration gradient — Maxwell’s Demon, made (in some sense) real. In the deepest philosophical sense, life is that which gives an assembly of atoms meaning. Given the difficulties of describing the biochemical and cellular processes of life without recourse to metaphor, some will find this hard to take. There is also the issue (which Ball deftly navigates) in which biologists are afraid to use terms such as ‘agency’ and ‘purpose’ for fear of invoking teleological or panglossian explanations, or, worse, welcoming a role for divine intervention. No such things are necessary — yet living things are definitely alive, and conventional prescriptions for the properties of life that we are taught in school (that it reproduces, grows, excretes, blah blah blah) fail to satisfy, and, being that this is biology, are plagued with viruses exceptions.

As I was reading How Life Works, I was reminded of Erwin Schrödinger’s 1944 book What Is Life? subtitled The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, in which the famous physicist attempted to tackle the essential problem of biology. What Is Life? was part of a movement in which physicists became enamoured of biology and, having done so, boosted it into the molecular age (Francis Crick was one such). Not long after I had that thought, Ball obligingly discussed What Is Life?, its deficiencies, successes and influence. Ball, like Schrödinger, is also a physicist, and can therefore take a more dispassionate view of biology than those who labour in the trenches. How Life Works is What Is Life? for the 21st century, and, because we know so much more than people did in Schrödinger’s time, is more successful (that the title doesn’t end in a question mark is an Important Clue). How Life Works should be required reading for anyone thinking of taking a degree in biology, and if it doesn’t get at least shortlisted for the next Royal Society Science Book Prize, I shall have been a giraffe on a unicycle [DISCLAIMER: Ball is a personal friend and former colleague — we worked together, back in the day, at the Submerged Log Company — though my copy was given to me as a birthday present by Mrs Gee, who paid real money].

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Build It And They Will Come

I love ponds. I love digging ponds. I love furnishing ponds with plants. I love watching as the wildlife spontaneously arrives. I have had a number of ponds in various places in my garden — and previously on an allotment —  as well as large containers full of water. I have become fond of those old galvanised tanks people used to have in their attics, found on Facebook marketplace and reclamation yards.

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But recently I had the urge to dig the biggest pond I could. Partly because I love ponds. But also because a pond, once established, is almost labour-free gardening, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do with that part of the garden. So I started to dig. Here is the resulting hole. It’s about three metres in diameter and a metre deep in the middle. The scale bar at the bottom (we’re scientists, after all, we have to have a scale bar) is an old-fashioned imperial yard. So just short of a metre.

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I sculpted a rim round the edge for planting. After taking some time to make sure it was more or less the same elevation all the way round the rim, smooth it out and remove roots and sharp stones, I lined it with a thick layer of pond-maker’s fleece. This is woven by hand by artisans in Peru from the nose-hairs of specially bred alpacas, probably synthetic, and helps protect the overlying pond liner from any potential point sauces tzores sources of stress, such as any stones I hadn’t removed. Remember — water is very heavy.

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Then I wrestled the pond liner itself into place, a sheet of super-thick polythene six metres square. I got the fleece and liner from a specialist online shop. Thirty-six square metres of thick pond-grade polythene weighs a lot and was delivered on a palette by a lorry that got stuck trying to negotiate a right-angle bend at the bottom of our street. I had to rescue it with the family car. It was a squeeze even getting all that paletted polythene into the back of a large Volvo. This is some serious pondage. Very nearly a small lake.

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Only after all that fuss and flapdoodle could I fill the pond with water.

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After leaving it all to settle down, I introduced some gunge from the bottom of the large container where the frogs like to congregate in spring. Said gunge is probably full of all kinds of biology just waiting to burst out and stretch itself in all that water. Then I put in some plants — reeds and irises and water lilies that were getting out of hand in containers elsewhere. I added a few more plants from the garden centre.

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This is what it looks like today. It already looks great, though I still have to tidy up the excess polythene round the edges.

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While I was doing this, and other gardening, this afternoon, a neighbour put their head over the fence for a chat. It was then I noticed a damselfly on a stinging nettle near the pond. I hope it’ll be the first of many new visitors to the pond.

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Ah, weeds. I think I have the national collection of stinging nettles. Stingers love nitrogen-rich soil, and our soil is especially fertile after having had hens run all over it at various times. However, at this time of year the garden is also overrun with garlic mustard, red campion and speedwell. A few years back Mrs Gee scattered some wildflower seeds from a packet she got off the front of a magazine, I think, and now they’re rampant. I like weeds, because I am lazy gardener I like to encourage biodiversity in my small plot. I do get out the strimmer to keep paths clear, but that’s pretty much it. And I don’t have a lawn. Minimal gardening — and a pond.

Build it, and they will come.

Something else happened, too. After cleaning out the chickens, planting tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse, and doing other odd jobs in the sunshine, I felt the corners of my mouth and my cheeks crease up. It was a smile. Can’t remember the last time I smiled, spontaneously. Truly, getting out of doors and doing things in the sunshine is effective therapy.

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What I Read In April

UntitledCixin Liu: The Dark Forest This is the sequel to The Three-Body Problem, which I read last month. In that book, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie sends a signal into space that alerts another species to human existence. The species inhabits a planet that orbits chaotically in a system of three suns. As a result, this planet, Trisolaris, is subject to extreme and unpredictable climate swings. When the Trisolarans learn of Earth’s equable situation, they launch an invasion fleet. In the centuries that the Trisolaran fleet will take to reach Earth, humans do their best to think of ways to counter the Trisolaran menace. It turns out that the Trisolarans have a way to infiltrate all human communication in real time. But they have a weakness, for, unlike humans, they are completely incapable of deceit. Human thought, in human brains, remains opaque to them. Thus the humans come up with the Wallfacer Project, in which four humans are chosen to think deep thoughts and possibly come up with a scheme to counter what comes to be seen as an otherwise insuperable threat. The least likely of the four Wallfacers is unambitious astronomer Luo Ji. Nobody knows why Luo has been chosen — except that someone, somewhere, keeps trying to kill him. This leads Luo into what at first seems an unlikely partnership with rough-hewn detective Shi Qiang (my favourite character from the first book). This book is as rich and as deep and as full of marvels as The Three-Body Problem — and as full of absorbing red herrings, diversions and dramatic plot twists. To sum up, it’s a cross between the fable of the Three Little Pigs and an exegesis on the Dark Forest Hypothesis — that the reason why the Universe seems devoid of intelligent life is that the civilisations that last are those that do their best to remain hidden. For in the Dark Forest, there are wolves. Like The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest is a tour de force of modern science fiction. Moving on to Death’s End, the final book in the trilogy…

UntitledCixin Liu: Death’s End This novel begins in an unlikely place and time — Constantinople, as it is about to fall to the Turks in 1453. A prostitute discovers that she has amazing magical powers… which fail just when they are most necessary. The significance of this is revealed later. Back to the near future, the United Nations, keen to raise funds, start a cheesy scheme to ‘sell’ star systems to the public. Few take up the offer, but one is terminally ill Yun Tianming, a former college classmate of brilliant astrophysicist Cheng Xin, who secretly has a crush on her. Having come into money just before his death, Yun Tianming buys Cheng Xin a distant star system. The significance of that is revealed later, too. Later still, Yun … or rather, his brain … is sent by Cheng Xin in an experimental probe to spy on the advancing Trisolaran fleet, but is lost. Meanwhile, the now aged Wallfacer Luo Ji (from The Dark Forest) comes up with an ingenious deterrent that will prevent the Trisolaran fleet from attacking the Earth — a threatened broadcast into space of the location of Trisolaris, which will bring down a so-called ‘Dark Forest Strike’ from an unknown alien assailant. He moves from being Wallfacer to Swordholder, wielder of the deterrent. But this action runs the risk of exposing the Earth, too, at some future date. The Trisolarans call the Earth’s bluff just as Luo Ji hands the sword to his successor, Cheng Xin — who fluffs it. The significance of that, too, becomes apparent later. The Trisolarans invade the Solar System, but the deterrent is sent anyway by Gravity, one of the few spaceships that managed to evade the invading Trisolarans. Trisolaris is destroyed, and Earth seeks to find ways to either send a message of goodwill (thus preventing a strike) or to discover ways to protect the Solar System. Centuries later they are aided by an unlikely ally — Yun Tianming, who had been picked up by the Trisolarans and reconstituted into fully human form. He drops hints about possible strategies to Cheng Xin in the form of a fairy story, something that his Trisolaran handlers will not understand. Sadly, the humans — as it turns out — completely fail to understand the message, with dire consequences. But that is only the half of it, and what I have written hardly begins to convey the beauty, grandeur and melancholy of this stupendous book. Just like The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, Death’s End is full of old-fashioned SF super-science wound into engaging personal stories that called to mind everything from the aliens in Carl Sagan’s terrific novel Contact (read the book: please avoid the film adaptation, so dreadful that even Jodie Foster could not save it) to Flatland, a fantasy on life in two dimensions. For it turns out that space is not the wilderness we always thought it was. What we humans think of as the unshakeable laws of physics, such as the number of spatial dimensions, and the value of the speed of light in a vacuum, have been repeatedly adulterated by hyper-technical civilisations that are constantly at war, and the Universe we know is the bombed-out wreck of what was once an Edenic state. Like its predecessors in this majestic trilogy, Death’s End combines prose as delicate and beautiful as a traditional Chinese brush painting with huge passages of exposition that shouldn’t really work, but rather than hold up the narrative, they only increase the tension. I found it by turns suspenseful, exciting and at times intensely moving. I can safely say that The Three-Body Problem, considered as a trilogy (for it is just one long story), is the first book I have come across that knocks The Night Circus off its perch as the best book I’ve read in the past decade, and that Cixin Liu is the most compelling author of hard SF I’ve come across since I first read the nouveau space opera of Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds. Having devoured the trilogy as audiobooks, I shall now buy the dead tree versions which I’ll set up at home where they’ll take pride of place in my alphabetically arranged SF library between Le Guin (Ursula) and Lovecraft (H. P.). Having said that, I might put The Three-Body Problem on a separate shelf, all on its own, as a shrine, and worship at it. For The Three-Body Problem trilogy is a masterpiece in anyone’s cosmos.

UntitledDonald L. Miller: Masters of the Air As you both know, Offspring#2 is the Gee family’s resident projectionist, with a knack of discovering televisual emissions that others might enjoy. So it was that she spotted Masters of the Air, a mini-series about the lives, loves, horrible deaths, incarcerations and occasional survival of the boys (they were, really, just boys) of the American bomber crews stationed in East Anglia during the Second World War. And so Offspring#2 passed me the book of the film, as it were, which turns out not to be a drama at all but a serious and well-researched work of military history, a genre I rarely touch, if ever. Well before Allied infantry set foot in Hitler’s Fortress Europe, and while the sea lanes were still prowled by U-boats, the crews of the US Army Eighth Air Force (the US Air Force did not become a service separate from the Army until 1947) flew their B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses over Germany, at first unescorted by fighter support, with the aim of the pinpoint destruction of Germany’s industrial infrastructure (the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt feature strongly) and do so in broad daylight, with rather small bombs. They largely failed, and that they were mercilessly shot up by the Luftwaffe is to be expected, but US planners felt that such a stiletto approach would be more humane than the bludgeon wielded by the RAF, devised by the head of Bomber Command, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, of saturation bombing of German cities by night, with much larger bombs. The strategy only began to achieve success after D-Day, when fighters that could escort the bombers became available, and when strategists finally realised that striking Germany’s oil refineries and synthetic oil plants would cripple the Reich. That, and Hitler’s hurried scheme of devoting resources into futuristic weapons such as ballistic missiles and jet aircraft that would be payback for the destruction of German cities, but which came too late. In the end, though, the inaccurate targeting of the Eighth Air Force ended up converging with the merciless slaughter dealt by RAF Bomber Command. Masters of the Air is an intriguing if rather dense read, and shows, once again, that the schemes of military theorists far from the front are tested by many others with their lives, and underlining that old dictum that the best-laid plans of any military strategist rarely survive first contact with the enemy.

UntitledAmor Towles: A Gentleman In Moscow Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, late of ‘Idle Hour’, an estate near Nizhny Novgorod, returns to Russia from Paris after the Revolution to set his grandmother’s affairs in order. He is rounded up by the Bolsheviks, who, rather than shoot him for being a  ‘social parasite’, have what seems to be a worse fate in store. He is made a ‘former person’ and confined for life to the luxurious Hotel Metropol, just opposite the Bolshoi Ballet and within sight of the Kremlin, there to live at the state’s expense, in a tiny attic room, as he is forced to watch the collapse of his privileged world. But the Bolsheviks hadn’t reckoned on the resourcefulness of their prisoner. Rostov’s late guardian, the Grand Duke, had instilled in the young Count not only perfect manners, but an unshakeable maxim: you must become the master of your circumstances, lest you become mastered by them. So Rostov adapts to his new life and finds in it contentment as he encounters poets, actors, waifs, strays, journalists, diplomats, party apparatchiks, petty bureaucrats, movers and shakers among the hotel’s guests. His old-world decorum finds him taking a job as Head Waiter at the hotel’s prestigious Boyarski restaurant, as well as advising the New Russians on how best to conduct themselves in foreign company. This perfectly constructed novel is every bit as elegant and well-comported as its protagonist, with wry, funny asides and delicate prose lightly concealing the ups, downs — and horrors — of the Soviet Union from its birth until the early 1950s. I found it most affecting. Now I’ve finished, I find myself missing Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, known to his friends as Sacha, a man with a steely resolve buried, seeming very deeply, beneath his well-groomed exterior.

UntitledSusanna Clarke: Piranesi A young man called Piranesi lives in a strange, Borgesian world, an infinite series of gigantic marble halls styled on classical lines, and ornamented by uncountable statues. The highest halls are full of cloud: the lowest, inundated by the sea. Piranesi is content, making fires of dried seaweed, eating delicious concoctions of seaweed, mussels and fish, communing with the many birds that flock the halls, and tending to the needs of the various mummified corpses found, now and again, in odd corners unoccupied by statues. The only other living person is ‘The Other’, with whom Piranesi meets each Tuesday and Friday. But all is not as it seems. There are intrusions from another world, revealed at first by odd facts, such that the bones of one of the dead people are stored in a box marked ‘Huntley and Palmer’s Family Circle’; and the mention, by The Other, of nonsensical words such as ‘Battersea’. The unravelling of Piranesi’s world is seen through his eyes — or, rather, through his meticulous diary entries, for Piranesi documents  the events as obsessively and seemingly as uncomprehendingly as the autistic boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. At first one is inclined to think that Piranesi is a psychiatric patient, and all indications suggest that this is the case. But as with everything in this story, nothing is really what it seems. Not even Piranesi. A beautiful book, if slightly unsettling.

UntitledFerris Jabr: Becoming Earth Those who seek for life elsewhere in the Universe first need to understand this: that life does not just exist on Earth. It is everywhere. Life clothes every surface. Everything that is living hosts other living things on, inside and around it, and these motes host smaller things too. Life modifies the Earth to make its habitat amenable to yet more life. Even the inanimate world might be very different were it not for the all-pervading influence of life. In this evocative hymn to life, journalist Ferris Jabr shows just how much life has shaped the Earth during its long history. Life enhances, speeds up, facilitates geology. Everyone knows that we owe our breathable atmosphere to life, our nourishing soil. Fewer will realise that without life, plate tectonics might not be what it is. Most of the minerals extracted from the Earth would not exist without life.  In his quest to understand the interconnections between Earth and life, Jabr climbs dizzying towers into the canopy of the Amazon rainforest to show how forests create their own weather, and descends deep into old mine workings to show how life thrives far underground. And yes, he meets a centenarian James Lovelock, originator of the ‘Gaia’ theory of how living things regulate the environment to keep it equable. Jabr is no blind follower of Gaia, though. To him, the whole planet is not a living thing — instead, Earth has come to be shaped by life in ways that could never have happened had life never existed. Loving and lyrical, in some ways this reminded me of classic nature writing such as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. While Jabr reminds us of the current threats to the climate from human activity, he notes that progress is already being made. Things might not be as bad as they seem. For we humans are just as much a part of nature as the worms that burrow kilometres underground in search of bacteria, or the aeroplankton of spores and living dust that the winds carry in the air far above. [DISCLAIMER: this book was sent to me by the publisher for an endorsement].

UntitledAdrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Time BEWARE There are spiders spoilers spiders. Generation starship Gilgamesh is the last hope of humanity to flee a dying Earth in search of a new home. Eventually they discover a gorgeous green planet that had been terraformed by an outpost of the long-gone human empire, watched over by a half-mad quasi-human guardian determined not to let any human land there and spoil her experiment in generating new sentient life. The life that arises, however, is not quite what the guardian — and the desperate crew of the Gilgamesh — had expected. Who will win the ultimate battle? Terrific, thrilling, madly inventive hard SF adventure. Moving immediately on to the sequel…

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What I Gave Up For Lent

The thing I usually give up for Lent is abstinence, but it turns out that my deprivation this year was more substantial. As you’ll both know, for a while I’ve not been listening to, watching or reading the news. It turns out, entirely by coincidence, that the day I decided to do this was Ash Wednesday, so I decided that I should return to the world of current events on Easter Sunday.

So what’s changed? Not much. It’s a case of Meet The New Boss, Same as the Old Boss. There is still conflict in the Middle East. There is still conflict in Ukraine. There is still antisemitism. There is still transphobia. The England team invariably loses. If Norwich City gets promoted to the Premiership, it’s bound to be relegated given another year, two at most. The governments of those countries that feature prominently in the news seem as inept/venal/corrupt as ever. Some politicians/football managers/celebrities have disappeared from the feeds, to replaced by other politicians/football managers/celebrities identical (to me) in all but name. King Charles III and his daughter-in-law, the Princess of Wales, have been seriously ill, but are now getting better. This is a good thing, but people are becoming ill, and getting better, all the time. Except that some get worse.

So, what did I miss?

As it turns out, nothing much. So my return to the world of news was not marked by a sudden rush to buy all the papers, log on to the news websites every five minutes or impose a hush when news bulletins come on to the radio, still less the TV. Instead, I find myself bumping into the news in a much more muted, less enthusiastic way than I once did. I’ve not bought a newspaper (I find them all universally dreadful). The only periodicals to which I subscribe are The Literary Review (which I read avidly) and The Spectator (which I dip into only now and then when I’m feeling especially depressed). I’m willing to bet that one would have to wait many months — perhaps years — before the news became substantially different. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So why are people (some people anyway) obsessed with news? I have no idea. It all seems so — well — trivial. The only thing likely to stir the sludge of my cynicism is the re-election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, if only to confirm my dim view of the human condition, for the section of humanity represented by Trump seems to be intent on diminishing the reproductive self-government of women, and it seems a truth that’s self-evident (to me) that the reproductive self-government of women is the only thing worth getting steamed up about, as any and all benefits experienced by humans in general, such as increased health, wealth, welfare, contentment, education and longevity stem, ultimately from that sauce source. Societies that restrict the empowerment of women will either fail to develop, or go backwards.

In sum, my experience of news abstinence (I have coined the term nayesrein) is the cultivation of a kind of Philosophic Repose (on a good day) or Swiftian detachment (on a less good day). For in the end, we’re all doomed.

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What I Read In March

UntitledAustin Wright: Nocturnal Animals Teacher Susan Morrow used to be married to a failed writer called Edward. Twenty years later, divorced with two children and comfortably re-married to a physician, she receives a manuscript from Edward, from whom she hadn’t heard for all that time. Over Christmas, when her husband is away at a conference, she dives in and discovers a terrifying crime story in which a husband, wife and teenage daughter are hijacked on the freeway during a vacation. Much of the rest of the novel consists of Edward’s novel seen through Susan’s eyes, interspersed with Susan’s reflections on her own past and present life, all the while asking the question of why Edward has sent her this novel, after all these years — a question that’s, teasingly, never answered. This is one of those novels that’s gripping at the time but which one forgets as soon as it is finished, even though, so it says, it is now a ‘Major Motion Picture’, a strap line that seems to ensure obscurity for almost any book to which it adheres.

UntitledMichael Reaves and John Pelan (eds) Shadows over Baker Street I had never before heard of this cobwebb’d grimoire: news of it was bruited forth to me, no doubt by some eldritch form of astral projection, by my associate Mr. C___ D___ of Leeds, our correspondent in all matters chthonic. The great thing about fanfic, I suppose, is that the author is free to do mashups of otherwise separate tropes of popular culture. Offspring#2 and I have wondered, for example, whether the egregious intrusion of Tom Bombadil into The Lord of the Rings might be spun as an incursion into Middle-earth by Dr Who circa Matt Smith, with Alex Kingston as ‘the River Woman’s Daughter’. But I digress. Conan Doyle’s well-loved stories of the tenants of 221B Baker Street have inspired a legion of knock-offs; as have H. P. Lovecraft’s demented demonology that is the Cthulhu Mythos. Some of these are really good — I cite for example the TV series Sherlock in which Holmes and Watson are re-cast in modern dress, and the novels of Charles Stross set in ‘The Laundry’, the government’s department of the occult. But what if Holmes and Watson were themselves to encounter the Elder Gods? Think about it. Holmes succeeds by the application of pure reason. Lovecraft, by the conjuration of an ectoplasmic atmosphere of supernal terror (or so they tell me) which almost by definition defies ratiocination. So here we have a collection of stories in which Holmes and Watson are invited to investigate cases of reanimation, eructations of ancient cults, and people who seem to be turning into fish. The best one is the first, A Study in Emerald, by Neil Gaiman (of course) and most of the rest are a lot of fun. Real people such as H. G. Wells get stirred into the mix, along with — on one occasion — William Hope Hodgson’s character of Carnacki the ghost hunter. The High Victorian atmosphere lends itself to excursions into orientalism that might not be welcome nowadays except in the guise of pulp pastiche. There’s a lot about Watson’s time in Afghanistan, for example, and the abhorred Necronomicon of Abdul Al-Hazred makes several appearances. I could have had more about Moriarty, to be honest (he only features in two of the eighteen stories) and overall they get a bit samey after a while, though nothing less than enjoyable for those of a certain cast of mind. I am struck by Philip Ball’s contention in The Modern Myths that the literature that gets into the popular imagination is that which is formulaic, and not necessarily very good. One cannot deny the power of the Music of Erich Zann Cheap Music. Your powers of deduction amaze me, Holmes, how did you work out that our visitor was an acolyte of Nyarlathotep, the blind idiot God who resides in the very vortex of the void, whisperings of whose existence have only otherwise reached our ears through the terrified murmurings of those who have delved too deeply into the occult, the forbidden, and the arcane? Elementary, my dear Watson. It’s the tentacles.

UntitledCixin Liu: The Three-Body Problem When one is listening to audiobooks, the program will sometimes come up with suggestions of the if-you-liked-that-why-not-try-this variety. So imagine my puzzlement when after listening to Barbra Streisand’s memoir My Name Is Barbra the algorithm came up with hard science fiction from China. Naturally, I dived in. I’d heard vaguely that Chinese SF is cool and trendy, and that the big name in the field is Chinese-American Ken Liu, but hadn’t heard of Cixin Liu, a Chinese author, here translated by Liu (sensu Ken). I shall ask no further questions of the algorithm, as  The Three-Body Problem is one of the very best modern SF novels I have ever read. The novel starts in 1967 when a young girl, Ye Wiejie, witnesses her father, a physics professor, beaten to death by high-school students during the Cultural Revolution. This traumatic event shades her future, and — eventually — that of humankind. We see her brutal exile to a remote logging camp, to her involvement as a technician in a secret radio-astronomy program of initially unknown purpose,  to her political rehabilitation, and, finally, retirement as a physics professor at Tsinghua University, where her father had once taught. But there is another strand to this — or, rather, several, as the novel is somewhat nonlinear. In the present day, Wang Miao, a materials researcher working on a super-strong nanofilament, is coopted by a bluff, hard-drinking, hard-smoking cop Shi Qiang to investigate the mysterious deaths of several scientists. This leads us, through various diversions, to a secret scientific society charting the very limits of science; eco-terrorism; an eerily realistic computer game set on a planet orbiting chaotically in a triple-star system (hence the title); and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The scope is vast, and some of the set-pieces are truly staggering. Witness, for example, an analog computer consisting of thirty million soldiers arrayed on a vast plain using black and white signal flags as ones and zeroes. And the efforts of alien scientists to create sentience by etching microcircuits inside protons. It shouldn’t really work, but it does. There is a lot of exposition, which I don’t mind, but others might find it holds up the action. I was captivated by the sense of exoticism: Ken Liu’s translation is compelling for an English-language reader or listener while maintaining the original novel’s distinctive Chinese flavour. Imagine my surprise, when looking up from this bravura feast of diamond-hard SF, to learn that there are sequelae, and, not only that, a televisual version on Netflix. Unlike Nocturnal Animals, I don’t think I’ll forget this one, and I have already cued up the sequel. I may be some time…

UntitledSerge Filippini: The Man In Flames To the modern mind, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) is a martyr to an embryonic science in an age of intolerant religion, burned at the stake for his doctrine that each star was a Sun with its own system of planets. There was more to it, of course. In addition to his cosmological speculations, Bruno evolved a philosophy — even a religion — based on the idea that God lived in all things, and that people should be free to worship as they wished. It was a dangerous time to hold such views, and Bruno was nothing if not tactless in promoting his prolific works and disparaging of anyone who didn’t agree with him. Not surprisingly he made more enemies than friends and was forced to leave the city in which he resided at any time and hit the road. He never stayed anywhere long, and lived the life of a perpetually peripatetic scholar (nowadays we’d call this a ‘postdoc’), picking up lecturing jobs where he could before the tides of religion and politics turned against him. Born in what was then the Kingdom of Naples and initially a Dominican monk — before he was (inevitably) excommunicated — he progressed through Italy, Switzerland, France, England, France again, Germany and was lured back to Italy where, in Venice, he was betrayed, imprisoned, tried, transferred to Rome, tried again, and finally executed. The Man In Flames is the autobiography he (probably) never wrote, during the final ten days of his life, as revealed to author Serge Filippini and translated from the French by Liz Nash. The book stays fairly close to what is known of his life, but of course takes some license,  allowing us to meet, through Bruno’s eyes, contemporaries such as Montaigne, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Giacomo Archimboldo, Philip Sidney, King Henri III of France, Queen Elizabeth I of England and even a young William Shakespeare. A story of passionate love runs through the book like a thread: the love of Bruno’s life is Cecil, a brother of Philip Sidney, who, as a diplomat to the Venetian Republic, is unlike Bruno in every way. Cecil is calm and urbane where Bruno is an excitable loudmouth who promotes his heterodox views to everyone he meets, whether they are welcome or not. Even Cecil cannot save Bruno from a fate that he seems to have brought upon himself. As a book, The Man In Flames is an enjoyable, occasionally scatological romp through an often lethally turbulent time in early modern history.

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What I Read In February

Screenshot 2024-02-03 at 11.50.58Barbra Streisand: My Name Is Barbra I first came across Barbra Streisand with a fluffy comic song in my parents’ record collection. It was ‘Second-Hand Rose’, which I now know was written in 1921 and originally performed by the music-hall comedienne and singer Fanny Brice. It was in a Broadway musical about Brice that Streisand made her name and shot to stardom. That was Funny Girl. Streisand was just 21. As a child she was practically feral. Her father died when she was an infant. Plainly an inconvenience to her cold stepfather and uncaring mother, she left home in her mid teens and hustled for acting and singing jobs, eventually scoring a residency at a well-known Manhattan night spot as well as stealing the show, aged just nineteen, with a supporting role in a Broadway production, I Can Get It For You Wholesale.  Her talents as singer and actor were spotted and she was cast as the lead in Funny Girl. That was made into a movie in which Streisand starred opposite Omar Sharif, and she never looked back. Dozens and dozens of albums followed, along with films, in which she played an ever more active part behind as well as in front of the camera. This culminated in Yentl, the story of an Orthodox Jewish girl who impersonates a man so she can acquire learning, in which Streisand not only starred, but wrote the screenplay, produced and directed — a first for a woman.  There are parallels with Streisand’s life and that of rock star Geddy Lee, whose memoir My Effin’ Life I reviewed last month. At first glance, it’s hard to imagine musicians as different as Lee and Streisand. But look closer: they are both Jewish; their fathers died when they were very young; neither went to college (which perhaps explains the ferocious curiosity of the autodidact); both are entirely self-taught as musicians, and have enjoyed lifelong and lauded careers. This mammoth memoir goes into immense detail about every project Streisand was involved in, her loves, and her hates. She settles old scores, talks about food (a lot), and recalls every outfit she’s every worn, anywhere. At almost 1,000 pages, it was (unusually for a celeb autobiography) written without literary assistance. Perhaps Streisand’s greatest coup was that she had written into her contracts, from a very early age, that she would have total creative control of any recording project she would be involved in. I suspect that this applied to this book, too. My Name Is Barbra is an enjoyable if over-long read, but somewhere there’s a place for us in Manhattan is a book editor sobbing into her skinny latte in frustration.

UPDATE: Since reading this I’ve started to listen to the audiobook. This makes more sense than the dead-tree version. It’s narrated by Barbra herself, naturally, and also has clips of the music she mentions along the way. It’s amazingly long — about 48 hours — so is likely to keep me out of mischief on dog walks for some time.

 

UntitledIain Banks: Espedair Street Danny Weir is a gangly bug-eyed kid from a sink estate in Paisley, Scotland, who goes by the name of ‘Weird’ (a school joke: he was ‘Weir, D.’ in the school roll). He has just one talent – writing songs. In the early 70’s he linked up with a promising rock band, became their bass player and main songwriter, and enjoyed (if that’s the word) the life of 1970s rock excess. Years later, he lives in a converted folly in Glasgow, fabulously rich but somehow aimless. A concatenation of events leads him to contemplate suicide. That’s when his rockstar past collides with an uncertain future. But which will he choose? Espedair Street comes from the literary-novel side of Banks’ personality. With his middle initial ‘M’ he wrote brilliantly realised and influential space operas. I’ve read all of those, some of them many times, but haven’t read so many of his M-free works. Those I have read are varied in character and tone, from the ghoulishly gruesome Complicity to the affectionately dotty Whit to the readable but strangely heartless The Business to the fantastical Transitions to his gleefully revolting debut The Wasp Factory. Okay, perhaps I have read more of them than I first thought. Espedair Street tends to the darkly comic, with some amazing sitcom-style set pieces (always involving a great deal of alcohol and drugs), but is on the more affectionate side of his writing. I once met Banks in the coffee queue at a SF conference, and considering that many of his works are very dark, sometimes violent, he was the nicest, kindest, sweetest person imaginable. Perhaps he exorcised his demons in his writing. He died of cancer aged just 59: even with his prodigious literary output, he left us far too early.

UntitledMartin Popoff: Queen: Album By Album I rarely read, still less buy, books about rock musicians written by fans or journalists, even books about Queen, a band I’ve been fond of since I was eleven. I confess that I bought it by mistake, on eBay. I thought I was bidding on a book of Queen sheet music, as I have just joined a Queen tribute band as piano player and need to sort my Galileos from my Bismillahs (I bought that too, in the end). Still, it didn’t cost much, and when it arrived, I read it. It’s a series of transcribed interviews with various Queen fans, musicians and journalists conducted by rock journalist Popoff, each chapter analysing one of their many albums in chronological order from the self-titled debut in 1973 to their final record, Made In Heaven in 1995, released four years after Freddie Mercury’s death. I was pleased to see that not everyone agreed with one another, nor did they have universal praise for everything Queen did. Hot Space came in for a critical panning, which one would expect, but to my surprise A Kind Of Magic came off worse. Reading this did make me realise that no Queen album can be seen as a coherent whole. This is perhaps a function of the band having four strong-minded songwriters with very different tastes. That they worked so long together and produced (in my opinion) some fantastic and enduring music is all the more mysterious.

UntitledHarry Sidebottom: The Mad Emperor Until recently perhaps the only time anyone heard the name of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known as Elagabalus or Heliogabalus (reigned 218-222CE) was in the Gilbert and Sullivan song sung by the Modern Major General:

I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s/ I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for Paradox/ I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus/ In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.

But who was Heliogabalus, and what exactly were the crimes, so proverbially well-known in Victorian times that Gilbert and Sullivan’s audience would immediately have understood? History has painted Heliogabalus as the most depraved and dissolute of all the Roman Emperors (something that takes some doing). He was perhaps most notorious for his many extravagant banquets, which were not only decadent but dangerous. This idea was cemented in the 1888 painting The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a fine example of High Victoriana, showing guests at one of his soirees suffocating in a blizzard of rose petals. Lately, Heliogabalus has become a minor icon in parts of the LGBTQ+ movement, as a man who wanted to be regarded as a woman, and even (legend has it) that he inquired about having surgery to create a vagina. Wherefore the modern gender-fluid ideation?  Historian Harry Sidebottom tries to separate the man from the myth in this excellent book which — be warned — is much drier than you’d expect from the subject matter. The problem is that almost all we know of Heliogabalus comes from three sauces tzores sources, all variously unreliable, only two of which were written by contemporaries, and only one by someone who ever stood in the same room as Heliogabalus. What is certain is that Heliogabalus was a spectacularly incompetent Emperor. His lavish spending depleted the Imperial coffers; his habits alienated the Senate, the Army, the Plebs and the Imperial Household — the four constituencies that any competent Emperor would have to mollify; and, worst of all, he tried to introduce a new religion to Rome. Heliogabalus, although born in Rome, was raised in his family’s ancestral home of Emesa (modern-day Homs) in Syria, where the local god was Elagabal, a solar deity manifested as a large conical black stone. Heliogabalus was a High Priest of Elagabal and brought the god to Rome, where he insisted that it assume primacy over Jupiter, father of the Roman pantheon. Romans didn’t mind adding another God to their pantheon (they did it all the time) but objected to the demotion of Jupiter. That, along with the fact that Heliogabalus often wore priestly robes rather than a toga (a habit that the Romans found effeminate); was circumcised and didn’t eat pork (A similarity to Judaism — antisemitism, then as now, lurked close to the surface); and tended to promote people to high office on the basis of penis size — all contributed to his downfall. What Sidebottom doesn’t explain is how, a century or so later, Jupiter and the entire Roman pantheon were not only demoted but completely swept away by another obscure Oriental cult, an offshoot of the despised Judaism, that venerated a man nailed to a cross. But perhaps Constantine had better PR.

UntitledRichard Shepherd: Unnatural Causes When I was an undergraduate I went to a talk given by a forensic pathologist who recounted some grimly hilarious episodes from his casebook, many of which have stuck in the memory but which are probably unrepeatable nowadays. Imagine my anticipation when I was recommended this book by a colleague who, like me, enjoys a televisual emission called Silent Witness, which follows the lives of forensic pathologists as they solve mysterious deaths from the many clues that silent corpses can reveal — if you know where to look. Unlike Silent Witness, Unnatural Causes is the memoir of the real-life work of a forensic pathologist, one Richard Shepherd, who was switched on to cutting up dead bodies in his earliest youth, and ended up involved, directly or indirectly, in many celebrated cases, including the Marchioness river boat disaster, the Clapham rail crash, the 9/11 outrage, and the inquiry into the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed.  The personal cost of such work proved to be enormous. His first marriage was sacrificed to his devotion to slicing and dicing, along with his mental health (in later life he suffered from PTSD) and — very nearly — his reputation, when he was referred to the General Medical Council over a trivial error (the case was dismissed). Shepherd clearly prefers the company of the dead, who, unlike the living, are unlikely to overload one with emotional demands (his young baby, his frustrated wife, the grieving relatives of the dead) or indulge in personal character assassinations (attack-dog barristers in court-room cross examinations). His only solace seems to have come from flying, an occupation that took him far away from the cares of the everyday. I have to say I found this a grim read, though I stuck it out doggedly to the end.

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No News Is Good News

During a group discussion at work (as you both know, by day I’m with the Submerged Log Company) a colleague noted that among the various things one wouldn’t be allowed do with human subjects would be to deprive them of access to the news for five years.

Five years without the news, I thought. Bliss! Sign me up!

That was when I decided to  make myself nayesrein (I’ve just made that word up), so since 15 February I have stayed away from all sauces tzores sources of news, whether broadcast, print or online. I can choose not to watch TV news, or look at news websites, and when the aggressively inoffensive burble of BBC Radio 2 that’s usually on at home is interrupted by a news bulletin, Mrs Gee either switches it off, or I fire up Queen’s Greatest Hits from my iPhone into my bluetooth-equipped hearing aids. If in the supermarket, I avert my eyes from the come-on headlines on the news stand.

Earlier experiments with abstention from news (for a day or two, such as over a weekend) show that lack of exposure to news does improve my mood.

Consider: most of what news editors choose to report of world events is dreadful, and what makes it worse is that there is very little you can do about it. That doesn’t stop one being personally affected by the news. Ever since Recent Events in the Middle East, there has been a sharp rise in anti-semitism, evidenced with such strength of feeling and in such a large swath of the population that Jews like me feel, to say the least, intimidated. In short, it’s a downer.

How long will I abstain from news?

I don’t know yet. Some news has already leaked through (the death of a Russian opposition politician) but perhaps some crosstalk is inevitable. It reminds me of Anathem, a fine novel by Neal Stephenson, of a secluded order of monks whose members can choose to shield themselves from the outside world for a day, a year, ten years, a hundred years … even ten thousand years. I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep it up for that long.

I have a feeling that the world would be a far better place if we went back to a kind of world in which news came to us once a day, via a radiogram, at 9pm, and read by Alvar Liddell. Failing that one could get it from The Times, two days later.

Perhaps, you might argue, constant exposure to news should make for a more informed electorate. On the other hand, I am not at all sure that access to the news on demand, at any hour – any minute – of the day or night, is really healthy. And that’s aside from the invariable spin that news editors choose to put on the news, at times simply by choosing to include one item rather than another. It’s no wonder that fake news and conspiracy theorists have thrived in such a news-soaked atmosphere.

Hey, I have an idea. Wouldn’t it be great if the whole country, or even the whole world, simply refused to access any news site, or buy any newspaper, or listen to or watch news broadcasts, for a short while, such as a week, and do something more useful instead such as go for a walk? It would do wonders for our mental health.

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What I Read In January

UntitledGeddy Lee: My Effin’ Life Frank Zappa once quipped (and I am working from memory here) that rock journalists are people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for the benefit of people who can’t read. I am mostly inclined to agree — the memoirs of rock musicians, often ghost-written, are not generally works of great literature, and neither is this one. It is however a great deal better than most, for two reasons. First, the author (who had a little editorial help) is the bass player and lead singer of the rock band Rush, which, as they came from Canada, have what can be described as a cult following (that’s me, and possibly Ricardipus) but only if one regards Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as the biggest home movie ever made. Rush was very much on the intellectual end of the rock spectrum, combining dense, complex arrangements with lyrics based on science-fictional themes or social or historical commentary. Although much of this came from the drummer and lyricist, the late Neil Peart, it would hardly have succeeded were his bandmates, Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson, not also intellectually in tune, and this depth is echoed in this book. The second reason is Lee’s background. He was born Gershon Eliezer Weinrib to two Polish Jewish emigres who’d come to Canada following the Holocaust. Indeed, Lee’s parents met in a Nazi concentration camp, and that both survived can be put down to a series of hair-breadth ‘scapes. Lee has researched the Holocaust and his parents’ experiences and these and the wider context are described in two moving chapters. (‘Gershon’ became ‘Gary’ became ‘Geddy’ following his mother’s inability to pronounce ‘Gary’ in her thick Polish/Yiddish accent. ‘Eliezer’ was shortened to ‘Lee’). Lee’s father died when Lee was just twelve, leaving this nerdy boy with the responsibility of saying kaddish thrice a day for eleven months just before his own bar-mitzvah, a period he describes as his ‘year of woe’. Although Lee gave up formal religion after that, his Jewish background informs his writing and world view, and as a fellow Red-Sea Pedestrian whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, this part of the book resonated strongly with me. I suspect that many Rush fans will skip those chapters. The rest of the book will probably be of little interest to anyone else. But for Rush fans who happen to be Jewish, this will hit the spot.

UntitledHilary Mantel: A Memoir of my Former Self: A Life In Writing The late Hilary Mantel was the author of Wolf Hall and its sequelae, together a fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, the canny and ruthless advisor to King Henry VIII. Wolf Hall and its immediate sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, both won the Booker Prize, but even more prestigious accolades awaited: Wolf Hall was my read of 2016, and the third volume, The Mirror and the Light, was in my top ten in 2021. A Memoir of my Former Self is an anthology of her journalism. It’s an eclectic collection, including assorted film reviews for the Spectator (she liked RoboCop, but not Mickey Rourke); delvings into her ancestry; reflections on the craft of writing historical fiction (and for her, writing was very much a craft); occasional pieces on travel; musings on a fetish for stationery; and — most of all — her reprinted Reith Lectures. What shines through this scatter of pieces, sometimes funny and demotic, occasionally dense and philosophical, is a barely suppressed rage at her own treatment by the medical profession. In her twenties she experienced agonising abdominal pains, which were brushed off by (male) doctors as symptoms of depression. It’s turned out that they were gynaecological and very real. Severe endometriosis required a complete hysterectomy and the excision of parts of her bladder and bowel at the age of 27, the consequences of which she was to endure for the rest of her life. Even in this supposedly enlightened age, the medical profession treats female patients as so many hysterical women, to be patronised with valium and told to go away and pull themselves together. Mantel’s death in 2022, aged only 70, from a stroke, was a grievous loss to literature.

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Filming

IMG_7242I met this small grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) on the beach at Cromer last week. Although grey seals are fairly active at this time of year — you see their heads bobbing up just offshore now and again — in all my years of beachcombing this is the first time I have seen a live and apparently healthy seal on the beach. Please be reassured that I didn’t get quite as close as this picture suggests. I used quite a high zoom and cropped the image.  It’s always wise to keep some distance from wildlife, especially seals on the beach, to avoid distressing them: seals on the beach, especially young ones, can end up stranded, and die. This one didn’t seem ill or in any way discommoded, and a short time after I took this picture the seal flopped off towards the sea.

This sighting was all the more remarkable because I happened to be on the beach with a film crew. It was from European TV channel Arte, which came all that way to Cromer to interview me (me!) on the history of life on Earth as part of a fifthcoming forthcoming show, my recent volume on this subject having now appeared in five of the six languages in which it is broadcast (the six is French, and that edition is available for pre-order).

So I was accompanied by the producer and two cameramen. One had a small movie camera (it looked just like a top-spec SLR to me) on a ‘steadycam’ apparatus, which meant that the camera kept pointing in the desired direction no matter how the support armature was moved, rather like a bird of prey keeping its eye on the prize while hovering in mid-air. These things will be familiar to anyone who makes movies, but I had never seen one before, and it was eerie to watch. The other cameraman had a remote-controlled quadcopter drone, which was tiny. We were on the beach to get some atmospheric, establishing shots (luckily the rain and wind held off until after we had finished). You know the sort of thing, pictures of me walking up and down the beach looking thoughtful, all of which will be edited down to 0.003 seconds in the Final Cut, but which were fun to do. What was disconcerting to me (doing the walking up and down) was the drone hovering a few feet away from me at head height. It took quite a bit of concentration not to turn my head to look at it. But it was there, just out of the corner of my eye.

All of this was enjoyable recreation for a short spell, before I take up the cudgels of publicity again. I have been guesting on the occasional podcast (my latest is here) and am gearing up for an appearance at the Norwich Science Festival next month. By ‘gearing up’, I expect I shall turn up and open my mouth, hoping that something intelligible will come out of it. Winging it — it has always worked for me in the past. And the manuscript of my next book is now submitted, so in a few weeks I’ll probably have edits to take up, galleys to check, indexes to compile and so on and so forth. But I already have a website up so you can check on progress. It won’t be out in English for another year, but I’ve already sold translation rights for several foreign-language editions.

Apart from that I am enjoying recreations such as reading Barbra Streisand’s autobiography and learning to play songs by Queen on the piano. The former is fun and engaging, and I’ll post a review when I’m done (it’s a very big book). The latter are fun and engaging in a different way. Queen, especially the late Freddie Mercury, wrote proper songs, you know, with proper chords and melodies and everything, and it’s fun to engage with sheet music again. Most pop songs can be comped from a chord chart, but the only way to learn Love of my Life, for example, is from the dots, and the experience is comparable to playing a very simple Mozart piano sonata: simple enough that I can almost read it at sight. I’ve often thought that Mercury didn’t write pop songs so much as show tunes. The rusty gears of a long unused part of my brain grind into life once more, as they did when I read Bohemian Rhapsody from the sheet music aged 15.

To all of this tuneful activity must be added Shaken and Stirred, the second album from my recording project G&T. This took far longer to complete than it was meant to, but it’s here now, and it’s even getting some airplay. OK, it’s community internet radio, but it’s definitely something: my co-conspirator, guitarist Adrian Thomas, was interviewed on Poppyland Radio by DJ Simon Pink (you can listen to it here). Simon has interviewed me too for a broadcast soon.

In other news I am starting to dig a large pond in the garden. It’s fun planning such an exercise, and it’ll take some months to complete. There is a lot of earthmoving and levelling to be done, and at the age of 61 and three quarters I can only manage a small bit at a time (I am digging it by hand). Each spring the pond we currently have heaves with hot frog-on-frog action, but the space is my newt minute, and I’d like to give them a bit more elbow room for next year.

All of which means that I am climbing out of the slough of despond in which I had been mired last year, which basically wiped out spring and summer last year for me. I’m not out of it yet, and I may never be, but if I look after myself and get plenty of sleep and don’t take on too many commitments simultaneously all at once at the same time and all together, things will start to look up, I hope.

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