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Showing posts from February, 2020

Something Doesn't Add Up - Paul Goodwin ***

If there's one thing that's better than a juicy statistic, it's enjoying the process of pulling apart a dodgy one. It's why the radio programme More or Less is so excellent - so Paul Goodwin's book, subtitled 'surviving statistics in a post-truth world' was something I was really looking forward to - but for reasons I find it hard to put my finger on, it doesn't quite hit the spot.

Goodwin, a maths professor at the University of Bath, starts with a series of chapters telling us what's wrong with many of the statistics we see everyday. And he makes good points. We discover the dangers of rankings and trying to summarise a complex distinction in a single measure. We see why proxies are poor (essentially, if you can't actually measure what you want to, using something else that might be an appropriate indicator, but often isn't). We explore why polls are problematic. And there's a bit on Bayesian statistics and how it still tends to be disre…

Disaster by Choice - Ilan Kelman ***

At the heart of Ilan Kelman's book is a striking claim - 'natural' disasters don't really exist. Instead, it's suggested, there are natural hazards and we choose by our actions (or often inactions) whether or not to turn these into disasters.

The book starts really well with a gripping description of the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath. Kelman makes a good job of telling the story and using it to powerful effect. He goes on to effectively describe some of the possible natural hazards that can lead to disasters, this time focusing his story on the mundane-seeming protection of Canvey Island from the Thames and on Australian bushfires (in a book written before 2019's devastating fires). We see how a combination of economics, politics and the human ability to not think to clearly about the future encourages a repeated failure to learn the lessons of past events.

This is no cold, scientific assessment - Kelman does not prevent emotional language from entering h…

Scotland in Space (SF) - Deborah Scott and Simon Malpas (Eds.) ***

This is one of the strangest books I've ever read, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. On the one hand, it's a genuinely interesting and original concept - on the other hand it costs nearly twice as much as a typical paperback, but only has two readable shortish stories in it.

One of the reasons for the book's odd feeling is that it isn't a straightforward collection of SF short stories. There are three stories (I'll come to the disparity of number later), four short non-fiction pieces, and three pieces of literary criticism based on the short stories. Even though the stories are themselves long for the format, that is still not a lot of material for the price. The oddity also extends to the format of the book itself. Inside it has a stylish layout with clever use of colour. But the cover screams 'self published' - it just doesn't look like like the cover of a professionally produced title.

Let's get onto the content. As you might guess, it is…

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (SF) - Robert Heinlein ****

Revisiting this 1966 classic, which despite a few issues is Heinlein’s best novel, showed that it holds up surprisingly well. Amongst the big names of science fiction's ‘golden age’, Asimov may have had the edge on ideas, but Heinlein was a far better writer and this shows from the very beginning when the narrator comments of a self-aware computer ‘I had nicknamed him for Mycroft Holmes, in a story written by Dr Watson before he founded IBM.’ 

It might come as quite a surprise to those familiar with Heinlein’s politics, but in this study of colonial revolution, the author doesn’t shrink from including some communist ideas and terminology, while coming relatively soon after the McCarthy era, arguably Heinlein was brave in scattering speech with Russian terms and a tendency to drop the definite article. He was also critical of the US for institutional racism.

The story itself plays out the transformation of a prison colony on the Moon into a self-determining republic. The reluctant ce…

The Magicians - Marcus Chown *****

The title may seem an odd one for a popular science book, but it refers to what Chown describes as ‘the central magic of science: its ability to predict the existence of things previously undreamt of which, when people went out and looked for them, turned out to actually exist in the real universe’. That may be true of all branches of science, but physics – which is what the book is about – is a special case, because its theories are rooted in mathematical equations rather than words. This makes the matter completely black-and-white: if the equations predict something you had no inkling of, then either the maths is wrong, or that thing really does exist. This book describes some remarkable instances where the maths was right.

Actually, I’m not sure the title is strictly accurate. It’s true that it centres on people – both the theoreticians who came up with the predictions and the experimentalists who proved them right – but in most cases the ‘magic’ is something the human players simpl…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Alastair Reynolds - Four Way Interview

Alastair Reynolds is a science fiction writer based in Wales. A former space scientist, he turned from studying pulsars and binary stars to writing fiction, and is now the author of twelve novels and over fifty short stories. He has been shortlisted for the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards and has won the Seiun, Locus and Sidewise awards. His new book is Bone Silence.

Why SF?

It's the form that encompasses all other forms - infinitely adaptable and infinite expansive. It's brash, bold, colourful, disreputable, sneered at, and I love it unreservedly.

Why this book?


This is the conclusion of a trilogy I started a few years ago. It wraps up the adventures of two sisters, Adrana and Arafura, who get drawn into a world of space piracy and treasure hunting millions of years in the future, after our entire solar system has been dismantled and reforged into countless tiny planetoids.


What's next?


Another novel set against the background of my Revelation Space universe, which I've be…

Atlas Alone (SF) - Emma Newman ****

The fourth in Emma Newman's loosely connected Planetfall books takes place entirely on the spaceship Atlas II on its journey from Earth towards Planetfall. This might seem limiting, but Newman cleverly sets much of the action in virtual reality - the main character, Dee is an enthusiastic gamer, but she soon discovers she is taking part in a game that is far more realistic than she realised.

This is the first of the Planetfall books where we have continuity of characters (from After Atlas), though the focus shifts from Carl to Dee. There are the usual threads of Newman's books - the central character is flawed and potentially self-destructive, the interplay of powerful factions and conspiracies, the rise of artificial intelligence - and here it all comes together particularly impressively.

For at least the first three-quarters of the book I was convinced this was going to be a five-star review. Atlas Alone is tightly written, the immersive virtual reality is brilliantly handled …

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.

On…

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…