Skip to main content

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, the effect just added to the sense of mystery and connections that may or may not be true - although done differently, I was reminded of the way Alan Garner plays around with time in his masterful novel The Owl Service.

This was, then, a fascinating novel, and very readable too for a book that surely could be considered literary fiction. However, I also found aspects of it irritating and disturbing. This started with the probably unintentionally hilarious fantasy that after Brexit, Scotland would benefit financially from coming out of the union, losing its subsidy from England, and would magically get straight back in the EU and be able to pass the economic tests to join the euro.

I also was a little disappointed by the most science-related bits. The main character is a freelance science writer - but he simply didn’t ring true. As a science writer myself, I’ve never come across a real one who like the fictional Ben had no specialisation or apparent expertise. This particularly came through when he interviewed a mathematician, who also spoke totally unlike any mathematician I’ve ever come across, more like a liberal arts lecturer than a mathematician - all indirect and waffly with none of the precision you’d expect. 

The sense of unease came to a head when it became clear that Priest was basing his story on 9/11 conspiracy theories, making the 9/11 event an act of the US government as an excuse for war, and naively blaming every negative thing that has happened since on it. If this had been pure fiction without a basis in real life, it wouldn’t have mattered, but when there are so many real families who suffered as a result, it’s distinctly creepy to impose this on them. In an author’s note at the end, Priest claims to find the conspiracy theories plausible, though he does also seem to acknowledge that they have been comprehensively debunked (I’d recommend reading the book 9/11 Myths, based on the article Priest mentions), which makes me wonder whether the line is more political than down to actual belief.

Despite my concerns, I think this is a really interesting novel and one I would recommend reading, not because I think the conspiracy theories are right, but rather because it does what all good novels do and makes the reader think - even if the resultant thoughts are very different from those that I suspect Priest intended.


Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Models of the Mind - Grace Lindsay *****

This is a remarkable book. When Ernest Rutherford made his infamous remark about science being either physics or stamp collecting, it was, of course, an exaggeration. Yet it was based on a point - biology in particular was primarily about collecting information on what happened rather than explaining at a fundamental level why it happened. This book shows how biologists, in collaboration with physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists, have moved on the science of the brain to model some of its underlying mechanisms. Grace Lindsay is careful to emphasise the very real difference between physical and biological problems. Most systems studied by physics are a lot simpler than biological systems, making it easier to make effective mathematical and computational models. But despite this, huge progress has been made drawing on tools and techniques developed for physics and computing to get a better picture of the mechanisms of the brain. In the book we see this from two directions

The Ten Equations that Rule the World - David Sumpter ****

David Sumpter makes it clear in this book that a couple of handfuls of equations have a huge influence on our everyday lives. I needed an equation too to give this book a star rating - I’ve never had one where there was such a divergence of feeling about it. I wanted to give it five stars for the exposition of the power and importance of these equations and just two stars for an aspect of the way that Sumpter did it. The fact that the outcome of applying my star balancing equation was four stars emphasises how good the content is. What we have here is ten key equations from applied mathematics. (Strictly, nine, as the tenth isn’t really an equation, it’s the programmer’s favourite ‘If… then…’ - though as a programmer I was always more an ‘If… then… else…’ fan.) Those equations range from the magnificent one behind Bayesian statistics and the predictive power of logistic regression to the method of determining confidence intervals and the kind of influencer matrix so beloved of social m

How to Read Numbers - Tom Chivers and David Chivers *****

This is one of my favourite kinds of book - it takes on the way statistics are presented to us, points out flaws and pitfalls, and gives clear guidance on how to do it better. The Chivers brothers' book isn't particularly new in doing this - for example, Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot did something similar in the excellent 2007 title The Tiger that Isn't - but it's good to have an up-to-date take on the subject, and How to Read Numbers gives us both some excellent new examples and highlights errors that are more common now. The relatively slim title (and that's a good thing) takes the reader through a whole host of things that can go wrong. So, for example, they explore the dangers of anecdotal evidence, tell of study samples that are too small or badly selected, explore the easily misunderstood meaning of 'statistical significance', consider confounders, effect size, absolute versus relative risk, rankings, cherry picking and more. This is all done i