Skip to main content

Make, Think, Imagine - John Browne ***

When you read a politician's memoirs you know that, nine times out of ten, it won't really quite work, because the message can't carry a whole book. It's reminiscent of the old literary agent's cry of 'Is it a book, or is it an article?' It's not that there aren't a lot of words in such tomes. It's almost obligatory for these books to be quite chunky. But it's a fair amount of work getting through them, and you don't feel entirely satisfied afterwards. Unfortunately, that's rather how John Browne (former head of oil giant BP)'s book comes across.

It's not that the central thread is unimportant. It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that science, with its roots in philosophy and the pursuit of knowledge, was considered far loftier than engineering, growing out of mechanical work and the pursuit of profit. There is, perhaps, still a whiff of this around in some circles - so Browne's message that engineering has been crucial to human development and to our vast improvements in living standards is an important one.

However, the way that Make, Think, Imagine goes about expanding that article-sized content into a full book doesn't feel entirely effective. We get some interesting history, but it can sometime feel like going around a museum gallery - lots of information but often quite dull. To be fair, the book isn't all like this. A few parts shine, notably Browne's exploration of the history of our use of energy. With an oil background, he can't help come across a little defensive in places, but he can say proudly that he was in the (very small) vanguard of oil executives recognising that climate change is real, even if did make him something of a pariah amongst his peers. To some extent here and, for example, in a section covering artificial intelligence he takes on the negative impact of the products of engineering, but more often the book is a paean to the wonders of engineering achievement.

That being the case, a natural comparison is Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, but Make, Think, Imagine lacks Bronwski's humanity and writing style - and Bronowski's wider scope when examining human achievement. A part of the problem takes us back to the political biographies. It's hard to find one that doesn't (subtly or blatantly) underline the author's position as a 'great person' in history. Lord John Browne (the 'L' word is diplomatically largely missing from the book) can't help but do a bit of the same thing, whether it's casually dropping in his apartment in Venice, his former trusteeship of the British Museum or his calling in to see various places and engineering developments around the world in what feel more like royal visits than a writer investigating. Bronowski gives us a picture of human achievement from a position of humility - Browne from that of a leading oil man.

That all sounds a little negative - but I would say this book should be essential reading for politicians, who all too often have an arts background or in some cases anti-capitalist views. Browne does give us plenty of evidence for the dramatic benefits we've received from engineering. But it's more a matter of doing your homework than a highly engaging read.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg 


Popular posts from this blog

Infinity Plus: Quintet (SF) - Keith Brooke (Ed.) ****

When I was younger there was nothing I liked better than a good, deep, dark (frankly, often downright miserable) science fiction story, and this collection delivers excellent modern examples that would have fit easily into a thoughtful if downbeat 70s collection such as the 'New Writing in SF' or the Interzone magazine of the day (one was actually first published in Interzone, in 1987 - the rest date between 1989 and 2010).

If I'm honest, I prefer more upbeat fiction now, but that doesn't stop me appreciating the quality of these five stories, put together by the SF website and publisher Infinity Plus. I've rarely seen a better contradiction of Margaret Atwood's putdown of science fiction as being limited to 'talking squids in outer space.' What we have here is pure character-driven storytelling with not a mention of space, spaceships, ray guns or aliens. It's the inner world, not the outer trappings of sci fi tropes that interest these writers.


The Lost Planets - John Wenz **

Reading the first few lines of the introduction to this book caused a raised eyebrow. In 1600, it tells us, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake 'for his radical views - that not only was the Sun just one of many stars, but those stars likely had planets around them as well.' Unfortunately, this bends the truth. Bruno was burned at the stake for holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith - for conventional heretical beliefs amongst which his ideas on cosmology were trivial. This was an unfortunate start.

What John Wenz gives us is a people-driven story of the apparent early discovery of a number of planets orbiting other stars, made by Peter van de Kamp and his colleagues at Swarthmore College in America, most notably connected to a relatively obscure star called Barnard's star. Wenz is at his best dealing with personal conflict. The book really comes alive in a middle section where van de Kamp's discoveries are starting to be challenged. This chapter works wel…

Bone Silence (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Of all the best modern SF writers, Alastair Reynolds is arguably the supreme successor to the writers of the golden age. He gives us wide-ranging vision, clever concepts and rollicking adventure - never more so than with his concluding book of the Ness sisters trilogy.

Neatly, after the first title, Revenger was written from the viewpoint of one sister, Arafura and the second, Shadow Captain, had the other sister Adrana as narrator, this book is in the third person. It neatly ties up many of the loose ends from the previous books, but also leaves vast scope for revelations to cover in the future if Reynolds decides to revisit this world (he comments in his acknowledgements 'I am, for the time being, done with the Ness sisters. Whether they are done with me remains to be seen.')

As with the previous books, the feel here is in some ways reminiscent of the excellent TV series Firefly, but with pirates rather than cowboys transported into a space setting. Set millions of years in…