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Showing posts from September, 2018

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…

Snapshot (SF) - Brandon Sanderson ****

Although a science fiction story is just as capable of having all the usual furniture of a novel - character building, human reactions, locations and environment and so on - there is the added depth science fiction gains by being a genre of ideas. Some of the early greats of science fiction - Asimov, for example - managed the ideas and the 'What if?' far more eloquently than they did the traditional elements of fiction writing, presenting us with cardboard characters. Although Snapshot is nowhere near as bad as the old brigade in this respect, there is no doubt that Brandon Sanderson scores significantly more on the 'What if?' aspect. This is very much an idea-driven novella.

It's a dramatic idea at that. What if it were possible to recreate a day in a city with all its inhabitants, going through exactly what happened on the day? It would enable, for instance, police officers to go in and attempt to solve a crime, able to revisit the scene and interact with those in…

Future Politics - Jamie Susskind ***

Don't ignore this book if you are turned off by politics, as, despite the title, the theme of the book is how the internet, AI and the future of information and communication technology will impact our lives. Although politics is the primary way this is reflected, the book has a much wider remit - and these technologies are, without doubt, producing sweeping changes that will increasingly have a disruptive impact.

Jamie Susskind starts with a rather breathless (and sometimes over-the-top) vision of the future of these technologies - he admits, like all futurology, what he says will almost certainly be wrong, but argues that just because this is the case doesn't mean we shouldn't examine potential consequences. He then goes on to examine how lives transformed by the internet, AI and mobile technology will have different opportunities and threats in the areas of power (human power, not rate of energy consumption), liberty, impact on democracy and justice.

There is some really …

An American Story (SF) - Christopher Priest ****

I’m cheating a tad by reviewing An American Story here, as it’s not really science fiction - but Christopher Priest is one of our leading SF authors, and there are elements of science and mathematics in what is principally a straight novel exploring the impact of 9/11 on relatives of those who were killed, riffing on the experience of loss and the nature of memory.

To do this, Priest makes uses of a mathematician who seems to be involved in a project that draws a parallel between a mathematical conjecture and a psychohistory-like concept where reality is forged from perception. I say ‘seems to’ as almost everything that happens in the book has a dream-like uncertainty. For example, the main character’s mother-in-law claims to have been in a car with his former girlfriend years after she was killed on American Airlines Flight 77.

I usually find books that jump backwards and forward in the timeline really irritating, and Priest does this a huge amount, but given the nature of the topic, t…

The Cryotron Files - Iain Dey and Douglas Buck ****

This is a rip-roaring tale of remarkable technological achievements, cold war spying and a suspicious death at a very early age that has inevitably fostered conspiracy theories. Dudley Buck, the subject of the biography, made three hugely important contributions to computer science - yet he's still not widely known. I've read many books on the history of computer science, and this is the first time I've ever heard of him.

We start off with fairly familiar territory with Buck's background - it might feel a little dull - but once he's involved in computing, things get a whole lot more interesting. About the only aspect of the early biography that stands out is that Buck had an extremely unpleasant idea of what constitutes a prank, including electrocuting people and trying to build a bomb on campus. However, though he apparently continued as a practical joker when older, it seems his attempts, while still malicious, became less life-threatening.

In terms of computing te…

Twitterbots - Tony Veale and Mike Cook ***

This is an odd one. It's an in-depth look at Twitterbots - applications designed to post on Twitter making human-like pronouncements. We start with a really interesting, if highly verbose introductory section about these programs, introducing me to lots of examples I hadn't come across. I particularly liked the historical examples of condensing a message with humour (and a bit of intellectual oddity) in the Latin punning telegraph messages that seem to have been briefly popular amongst the British establishment in the mid-nineteenth century. For example, in 1856, when the British annexed the Indian province of Oudh (rhymes with loud), the governor-general sent the message 'Vovi.' This means 'I have vowed'... which sounds distinctly like 'I have Oudh.'

Then we plunge into the mechanics of Twitterbot construction. Tony Veale and Mike Cook, two British/Irish academics writing with a distinctly transatlantic style, give us detailed guidance on simplistic bot…

How to Speak Science - Bruce Benamran ***

I can't remember a book where my mental picture of what the star rating would be has varied so much. At first glance, it looked like a solid 4 star title. It looks fun (despite the odd title - it sounds like it's a book on public speaking for geeks) and a flick through showed that it covers a huge amount of science topics, mostly physics - so it was promising as a beginner's overview. There is one small issue to be got out of the way on the coverage side. There's a whole lot of physics, with a gaping hole that is quantum theory. More on that later.

After reading a few pages, I had to downgrade that score to 3 stars because of the writing style. It oozes smugness. All became clear when I read the words 'For those of you who aren't familiar with my YouTube channel.' How to Speak Science reads like a transcript of a YouTube rant. The reason I love reading books and can hardly ever be bothered to watch videos is to get away from this kind of thing. However, I ac…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…

One Way (SF) - S J Morden ***(*)

If, like me, you love both SF and murder mysteries, the marketing for this book made it seem perfect. 'A murder mystery set on the frozen red wastes of Mars. Eight astronauts - one killer - No way home.' When Agatha Christie set her first ever murder mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in a country house, she knew what she was doing. Confining the murderer and potential victims in an isolated location made for a cleverly managed setting, with a limited enough set of suspects to make it practical to take on the detective at the game of whodunnit.

So, I was rather confused to discover that the book is hardly a murder mystery at all. At least not until you get to about page 265 out of 330. The main line of the story is not bad at all - it just isn't a murder mystery. This mission to Mars is to set up a base for NASA to use later. It's a private mission, and rather than expensive astronauts, prison occupants with life sentences are used. It's a clever premise and i…