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Showing posts from August, 2020

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…

The Hair-Carpet Weavers (SF) - Andreas Eschbach *****

Penguin has decided to bring back some 'science fiction classics', in a handsome new series (if rather oddly formatted - they're unusually small books, perhaps to make them fatter, as we're less used to the sensible length books were in the past). While this title is stretching that 'classics' label a tad (the book only dates back to 1995, and this translation is from 2005), The Hair-Carpet Weavers was certainly a great addition to the collection.

Andreas Eschbach builds a fascinatingly weird set up in an interplanetary empire that has lasted tens of thousands of years. On the featured planet, each craftsman spend his entire life weaving a single carpet from the hair of his wives and daughters. The book consists of 18 linked stories, which gradually fill in the big picture of what is, to begin with, a baffling and unlikely society. We start on that single planet, but by the end have take in the whole Empire and how and why it is changing.

The stories are beautifu…

Meteorite - Tim Gregory ****

There have been many books on astronomy, ranging from exploring individual aspects of the solar system, such as the Sun or Mars, through to studies of the most distant depths of the universe, but there has been relatively little on the only astronomical objects that we're able to touch (other than the Earth itself) - meteorites.

In Meteorite, Tim Gregory fills in many details of the nature of these rocks from outer space, from how they formed in the first place to the range of types and origins that are possible. Most come from the debris of the forming solar system left in the asteroid belt, but some were smashed off the Moon or Mars by an incoming impactor.

Although the main focus is the meteorites themselves (if there's any doubt, we are talking about the solid remains that fall to Earth when a meteor - a shooting star - in part survives the journey through the atmosphere), Gregory also fills us in on the contribution that meteorites have made to the Earth, whether it be brin…

Trafalgar (SF) - Angélica Gorodischer ***

Penguin has decided to bring back some 'science fiction classics', in a handsome new series (if rather oddly formatted - they're unusually small books, perhaps to make them fatter, as we're less used to the sensible length books of the past). 

In Trafalgar, we get a series of linked short stories featuring the interstellar trader Trafalgar Medrano. Although taking place in a range of settings, the stories are in the tradition of bar tales: short stories, where the main character bends the ear of friends (or just anyone in earshot) with their exploits. P. G. Wodehouse, for example, wrote a number of these, and they reached their science fiction zenith with Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart. In Angélica Gorodischer's book, Trafalgar tells his stories to the female narrator and whoever else is around.

I'm not sure why, but these stories rather reminded me of Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo tales, though they were significantly less nimble than Gu…

What Do You Think You Are? - Brian Clegg *****

I very much enjoyed Brian Clegg's book, The Universe Inside You, to which this new book forms a kind of inverted sequel. Where the earlier title used aspects of the human body to explore the universe around us, this one focuses inwards, looking at what makes the individual human the person they are.

Clegg starts with genealogy, noting that because of the way that family trees double in size with each generation, it soon fails as a way to show what we are as individuals, (the numbers involved spiral out of control and the neat tree becomes tangled), meaning only a tiny part of the tree is ever examined. After showing how we're all related to royalty, we are taken on a tour of the atoms that make us up (I love the various ways to work out how much they're worth, including getting the equivalent weight of potassium from bananas), the food that powers our bodies, the paeleological evidence for the origins of humanity as a species and the nature of life.

Perhaps the most interest…

The Infinite Retina - Irena Cronin and Robert Scoble ***

I really wanted to like this book - spatial computing and augmented/virtual reality are topics that are fascinating and will definitely influence our lives. There is a lot on them in this chunky tome, but a considerable amount of the content is repetitive, and it suffers strongly from geek-enthusiasm, making wildly optimistic predictions of how we'll all be wearing augmented/virtual reality glasses by 2023-2025, and of the transformative dominance of autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars if you prefer fewer syllables).

The approach to each of these areas was, for me, full of issues. If I think about what I currently use a smartphone for and it's a very wide range of applications - maybe 40 different roles - but I can only think of one, following directions using mapping software, that would be enhanced by augmented or virtual reality. Similar, my main computer I do maybe 20 different things more intensively. Here, for example while working with text documents or spreadsheets, …

10,000 Light Years from Home (SF) - James Tiptree Jr. *****

Compared with literary fiction, the science fiction back catalogue has suffered badly over the years, with many classics from the field out of print. Gollancz has thankfully made inroads into these missing titles with their excellent (if mostly ebook) Gateway series. Now, Penguin has decided to bring back some of the greats too, in a handsome new series (if rather oddly formatted - they're unusually small books, perhaps to make them fatter, as we're less used now to the sensible length that books were in the past).

It was brave of Penguin to include a collection of short stories as one of their launch titles for this new set of reprints. Short stories are arguably the definitive format for SF - one where it beats most other genres hands down (it's really difficult, for example, to make a detective short story work) - and I'm yet to speak to anyone who doesn't enjoy short stories. Yet in the publishing world, collections of short stories are often considered to be a …

Auxiliary: London 2039 (SF) - Jon Richter ***

Jon Richter shows a lot of promise in this dystopian murder mystery set in a dark, future London. The main character, detective Carl Dremmler, polices a world where pretty well everything is run by a blend of AI and the internet called TIM, where humanoid robots are commonplace and where total immersion gaming is so beguiling that players regular die, failing to emerge into the real world.

Things get intriguing when a man who murders his partner claims that his artificial arm attacked her of its own accord. Despite doubts from the police hierarchy and opposition from mega-IT companies, Dremmler and his partner begin to suspect the man is telling the truth and something dark is happening. Things get particularly interesting - and the writing particularly engaging - when Dremmler visits the mega factory where the artificial arm was created and sees a production line making what he had thought was a real person.

The book really takes off at this point. Admittedly, sometimes the concepts…

Rewilding: Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe ****

Those who are enthusiastic about saving the environment often have a mixed relationship with science. They might for example, support organic farming or oppose nuclear power, despite organics having no nutritional benefit and requiring far more land to be used to raise the same amount of crops, while nuclear is a green energy source that should be seen as an essential support to renewables. This same confusion can extend to the concept of rewilding, which is one reason that the subtitle of this book uses the word 'radical'.

As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe make clear, though, radical change is what is required if we are to encourage ecological recovery. To begin with, we need to provide environments for nature that take in the big picture - thinking not just of individual nature reserves but, for example, of corridors that link areas allowing safe species migration. And we also need to move away from an arbitrary approach to restricting to 'native' species, as sometimes…