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Why Does E=mc2?
Why Does E=mc2?
by Brian Cox
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

202 of 206 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Why does E=mc2, 28 Jun 2011
This review is from: Why Does E=mc2? (Paperback)
Before I start this review, just let me tell you where I stand re: popular science. I'm a complete beginner! The most amateur of amateurs. I'm intrigued, interested verging on passionate - but I've only read a handful of science books. So, I came to this book knowing nothing about the famous equation other than "energy equals mass times the speed of light squared" which, pre facto, was pretty much meaningless to me.

As I understand it, the success of this book varies wildly depending on the individual reader's pre-existing knowledge of science/quantum physics etc. As such, this is a review for people like me: utter beginners in the field.

In brief: the first half of the book is brilliant! Informative, well-written and mind-blowing in the way that high-concept astronomy often is. The second half of the book, however, is an incredibly difficult, long-winded explanation of vectors and the so-called 'master equation', most of which flew right over my head. I read it all, and bits of it made sense to me but, like many people here; this just feels like two books. The first half is clearly for people like me (beginners) whereas the second half is a radically different reading experience, which I imagine is much more suited to hardened afficianados of popular science.

Now for more detail: The first 150 pages or so don't explain the famous equation, as such; rather, they explain the things we *need* to know in order to understand the equation; such as the relative nature of time and space. All of this is articulated with very helpful diagrams, metaphors and fictional anecdotes. Any basic maths here (such as Pythagoras) is re-capped for the forgetful student(i.e. me) and parts of the book are also strikingly funny. I can imagine Brian Cox's lilting Manchester tones narrating.

The second half, however, carries a massive tonal shift, which is characterised by an increase in technical diagrams, equations and much more intense demands on the reader's mathematics. Similarly, very new (to me) terms are introduced at a frightening rate and explained very quickly 'muon', 'vectors', 'tachyon', 'higgs', 'neutrinos', 'W' and 'Z' particles etc. etc. The reader is then expected to have a perfect and instant recall of ALL of this information, sometimes tens and tens of pages later. This, added to the massive equations makes an awful lot of demands on the reader's memory, especially for a beginner.

All of this is fine, except that it's so at odds with the initial 150 pages (or so). Stylistically, there're two different books here. The first half takes a long time to explain basic maths like Pythagoras' theorem, but the second half rushes into incredibly difficult algebra with only the most cursory attempts to elucidate; there's too much of a disparity here.

How is it written? Well, again, this is a book of conflicts. The early descriptions of space and time and wonderful; enlightening, understandable and articulate (but a warning: some of the metaphors used to explain things (such as a man on a bike riding through a desert) are often more baffling than the physics itself). I really dug the first 150 pages - but then things changed (for the worse).

The phrase 'more about this later' is used ALL the time, which makes me think that maybe the book's chapter structure isn't optimal. Similarly, the phrase 'this is all you really need to know' is used SO much that I often felt patronised/spoken down to by the writers. And I know they're physicists, not writers, but some of the sentence construction (especially with regard to negative articles) is terrible, like this little blighter:

"Might spacetime not be the same everywhere, and might this not lead to consequences that we can observe: the answer is emphatically yes!"

The negatives here took quite a few minutes of de-coding before I realised that was actually going on. With subject matter so difficult, poor sentence structure really damages this book's eloquence.

So... the first half is truly excellent (almost worth the price of the whole book); but, if you're a beginner like me, expect to find the second half difficult, confusing, poorly written: it makes a lot of demands on the reader.

If you've read A LOT of popular science, then I imagine this book will be fine.
Comment Comments (11) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 12, 2014 2:09 AM GMT


The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Windup Girl, 23 Jun 2011
This review is from: The Windup Girl (Paperback)
In 1972, The Club of Rome (a kinda international politically-motivated think tank) commissioned a book called 'The Limits to growth', which stipulated that finite fuel reserves, space and means of food production cannot indefinitely support an exponentially increasing global population. Their end-game predictions include: mass starvation, economic breakdown, rising sea levels (due to ever increasing demand for and consumption of fossil fuels), over-population and a hyper-spread of urban sprawl/megacity residency centres. Their solution?: population and economic escalation should be curtailed until a sustainable plateau is achieved, therefore avoiding the apocalyptic scenarios forecast by these theories of run-away growth. Of course, such ideas receive relatively little media attention because, frankly, opposition to growth of any kind is tantamount to political career suicide. Well, imagine a fiction in which these predictions have all come true, and you've pretty much got the setting of Paolo Bacigalupi's near-future dystopia 'The Windup Girl'. Just add rape. Lots and lots of rape.

The novel is set in a non-disclosed but presumably not-too-far-off future in Bangkok, which is now just below sea-level and protected from floods by a ring of levees. The world's oil supply is depleted, the city bakes in a perpetual heat wave and food is either synthesised or scarce. So far so Soylent Green. Electricity is harnessed from giant battery-like coils called kink-springs (I know, I laughed too) that store kinetic energy and are wound by genetically engineered elephants (`megadonts') in massive factories. One such factory is owned by our protagonist, a man with possibly the most cringe inducingly B-movie name in recent sci-fi literature: Anderson Lake. But Anderson Reservoir isn't all he seems - his factory is merely a front that provides him with protected residency in Bangkok: he's really an American `calorie man', one of many such individuals scouring the world for rare disease-resistant foodstuffs. He's in Bangkok to negotiate a military coup of the city state with the Ministry of Trade: Americans will provide men/fire power in exchange for access to Bangkok's vaulted seed bank. The only thing standing in their way is the militantly jingoistic and quasi-religious organisation The Environment Ministry (the `White Shirts'), who're tasked with making sure that nothing too `foreign' (people, goods, disease etc.) gets into the city - they're isolationists bordering on racist.

While searching the city for rare `gene hacked' edibles, Anderson Pond encounters (and soon falls for) the titular `Windup Girl'; a Japanese genetic experiment called Emiko. She's a sex slave in a high class Bangkok brothel, which is just what she was created to be: Emiko has been genetically fixed so that she cannot resist the urge to please. Basically, she's a kind of future sex toy. Don't be fooled by the given name, she's not a `windup girl' in the clockwork sense - rather, this a derogatory label used by the people of Bangkok to describe Emiko's quasi-artificiality.

The book has a large ensemble cast, and each chapter is told from the sympathetic POV of one of about eight characters - and I don't have the stamina (and I imagine you don't have the patience) to go into them all here. But notable among the chorus are: Hock Seng, a semi-legal Chinese-Malay immigrant who hopes to steal the kink-spring blueprints and sell them to local mafia-esque crime don `The Dung Lord'; Jaidee, a trigger happy ultranationalist, and Kanya - his second in command. Once this ragtag dramatis personae is established, Bacigalupi proceeds to weave his plot threads into the narrative equivalent of the spaghetti junction: rather than being conceptually or stylistically difficult, The Windup Girl is convoluted in its plotting, with some characters so tenuously related to the central narrative that you wonder why they feature at all.

Stylistically the book isn't up to much; frequently garrulous where it needn't be yet restrained when explanation/clarification is most required. Instead of being a quirky tick or stylistic flamboyancy, this is just incredibly irritating. Explanations of strange religious rituals and quirks of new technology are too often cut-short, whereas extended descriptions of Emiko's sadistic rape are overly long and gratuitous. Arguably the horrifically vivid rape scenes are necessary to shock the reader or to make a laboured social comment about sex slavery: but, Bacigalupi, I got the point the first time, the fourth/fifth/sixth such number is just filler. I'm sure a certain type of reader will revel in the sordid sex, others may be dense enough to require a point be hammered (pun unintended) home repeatedly for it to sink in, and some readers may genuinely enjoy a kind of self-righteous moral outrage inspired by such scenes which makes them worth revisiting. But, for me, once was enough.

'The Windup Girl' should be lauded for its intricacy of plot, and Bacigalupi has really done his research when it comes to Chinese-Malay-Thai racial tensions. The book is unashamedly intelligent, and the unforgivingly convoluted plot asks a lot of the reader's attention to detail (not a bad thing). But said intricacy is somewhat of a double-edged sword, and all too frequently the reader encounters narrative red-herrings and dead ends. For example, after one particularly violent sequence, I was convinced that Emiko isn't really a sex-slave, but one of the fabled `military windups' sent undercover to Bangkok to perform a series of assassinations; I speculated her cover to be so complete that even Emiko herself doesn't know the truth of this, and genuinely believes that she's a clone of the sex-bot variety - and maybe her genetically altered mind is triggered to `activate' her military nature when certain conditions were met. But such speculations on my part were soon squashed, and the truth behind the novel's more violent events turned out to be much more mundane than my own speculation had led me to believe. Disappointed.

But it's not all bad. There's a pleasing Biblical sub-text functioning in 'The Windup Girl'; in fact, it's so striking that it almost extends beyond the merely figurative. The Windup Girl's dystopia can be easily described using religious terminology: if the society is post-lapsarian (the age of western abundance is over and the world has fallen into decay) then Anderson is exiled Adam, desperate to regain access to his lost Eden (the endless bounty of fruits now sealed inside the seed bank) and Emiko is Eve - a parentless construct cloned from genetic material purely to provide "company" and entertainment for men - their `A' and `E' initials are probably incidental, but are nonetheless a satisfying addendum. Without wanting to give too much away, there's also a resurrected martyr and a fittingly eschatological flood; the novel is even overflowing (geddit?) with superlative churchly language: `destiny', `divine', `redemption', `prophecy', `atonement' etc. Why is this analogy relevant? - especially when it's so at odds with the futuristic brand of bio-punk Buddhism adhered to by the novel's protagonists? Well, I suppose it contributes to the sense of scale that Bacigalupi is clearly aiming for, but more significantly it places a burden of mythos on the characters' shoulders which simultaneously highlights their roles as world-changers and augments the book's narrative preoccupation with rejuvenation, repetition, reincarnation cycles and the sense of history repeating/re-starting - a set of interests which is echoed in imagery as much as in plot.

So there's a lot going on in 'The Windup Girl', and lots for the literary dork to unpick (there's a nice collection of Lewis Carol references, such as literally chameleonic cats called `Cheshires' etc.) but the most interesting parts are unfortunately sidelined by political concerns, and while constructive racism, immigration theory and green anti-GM politics are fascinating topics, I couldn't help but feel that they choke the narrative; their little tendrils wrap around every aspect of the book to the extent that the more weird/wonderful and sci-fi aspects just don't have room to breathe and, let's face it, these are the things we read sci-fi for. Several major (and obvious) questions also go unanswered: this may be a post-fossil fuel society, but why is there no mention of solar, wind, hydroelectric or nuclear power sources? It's a very long book for what is essentially a small collection of interesting, scattered moments: the novel's ending tableau is fantastic and the windup girl Emiko is so down-trodden it made my heart bleed (I should probably get that seen to, etc.) but the best bits are underdeveloped and the worst drag on and on and on (and on...). Oddly enough, I found the most-hyped aspects of the book to be ludicrously overrated, and the quieter, more experimental moments to be bathetically underrated. I hope I've given you enough to think about: it's long, but there are flashes, and these brief junctures of brilliance just about make 'The Windup Girl' worth reading. Just.


Time's Arrow
Time's Arrow
by Martin Amis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Time's Arrow, 12 Jun 2011
This review is from: Time's Arrow (Paperback)
Time's Arrow is a life backwards, but not in the Benjamin Button sense; rather, the book begins with our protagonist's death in the late 20th Century, and tracks backwards through time to end at his birth some 70 years previous. Counterpoint to this is our narrator, a kind of psychological hitch-hiker. Basically, the narrator is a character living inside the protagonist (but can neither exert control or influence) and who's forced to experience events backwards. Thus, to our narrator, the world is a baffling and irrational construct which begins with death ("I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep") and ends with birth - the terrifying entry into the mother's womb.

Got it? I'm finding the premise surprisingly difficult to explain. Imagine watching a film backwards while somebody describes the action as if it were playing forwards and you'll have some idea of this book's narrative throughline. Although the concept is initially baffling, the novel's opening 50 pages (or so) carry with them an persuasive sense of comedy that lightens the tone and makes the longer-than-average time it takes to acclimatise to the novel's style more endurable. For example, moments of otherwise mundane experience are lifted into the sphere of the comedic by our narrator's bizarre inverse chronological perspective: as our narrator sees is, a visit to the doctor consist of an immediate consultation followed by an unexplained hour-long wait in a holding area. Sex is a strange, tufted and clumsy process, the ultimate goal of which is, clearly, to be taken to dinner in a nice restaurant; where food is regurgitated onto cutlery before cooled in ovens and taken to stores where it is exchanged for money etc. etc. These amusing descriptions are augmented by reverse dialogue (much harder to follow than you'd think) which is equal parts funny and frustrating - a conflict that probably explains the novel's paucity of direct speech. More irritating is Amis' characteristic tonal smuggishness; whether he's bombarding the reader with very unusual words (more, it seems, to show-off his learning and belittle his audience than to elucidate or enlighten) or making naff nudge-nudge-wink-wink asides to the reader when, for example, the narrator explains that all relationships begin with horrific arguments and end with awkward "hellos" at parties; too much of the novel's opening is redolent of some smart-ass joke that Amis doesn't want the reader in-on.

But emerging from the somewhat clumsy and inchoate first 50 pages is a steadily spreading darkness, a kind of sinister shadow that creeps over and into the narrative, first with occasional negative abstract nouns (`regret', `deceit', `loss', `exile') and later with more horrific and grotesque manifestations (nightmares, arguments, violence). Yep, our protagonist harbours an appalling secret about his past (or his future? haha etc./*yawn*), which is only gradually revealed as both reader and narrator journey back through time.

To fast-forward: lots of incidental things happen to our protagonist (of ever changing name) as he becomes younger and younger until we reach the real crux of both the book and his mysterious identity. This aforementioned tonal gloom gets darker and darker until eventually we discover the truth that's casting it's shadow over the text: our protagonist was a Nazi doctor who administered thousands of phenol injections to German Jews in Auschwitz. Of course our narrator can't discern any sense of horror or crime from the actions of the holocaust; to him it's all backwards, and so it's a beautiful and selfless act of creation. As such, the book's linguistic register is altered to become fittingly biblical: "Our purpose? To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with fire."

[A note on where I stand re: the aestheticization of the holocaust]: I've always been uncomfortable with artistic representations of the holocaust (especially in literature), not because I adhere to any outré political or moral stringencies, but because I find the numbers and sheer horror involved to be utterly ungraspable. It's so radically alien to our everyday experience, and six million murders is such an unknowably huge number, that, rather than horror, I'm often beset with a sense of numbness when I read about it - and this is probably the complete opposite of the intended effect of any piece of holocaust art. I can't make sense of it (if sense there is to be made). At the same time, however, I don't hold to an Adornian idiolect of `No art out of Auschwitz' - (a concept I remember an eccentric university lecturer trying to push onto me over and over again). So for me the holocaust isn't beyond representation, it's just... difficult.

But Time's Arrow's backwards narrative, oddly enough, offers a relatively successful heuristic to the problems of describing the holocaust without simultaneously generating this sense of emotional disconnect. Everything we know about the holocaust becomes a reversal: murder to birth, pain to healing, starvation to growth, imprisonment to freedom; and there's something undeniably beautiful about destruction that's undone. For the narrator of Time's Arrow, the holocaust isn't a disgrace of history relegated to the past; instead, it never happened and never will. It's strikingly reminiscent of a scene from Slaughterhouse 5 in which Billy Pilgrim watches old war films backwards.

Of course, the corollary to this interpretation is a more cynical reading that finds the cancelling of the holocaust to be a grossly offensive and dismissive literary act. My counter-point to this argument would be that Amis never asks the reader to ignore or forget the holocaust, rather, he gives us a celebration of the life and vibrancy that was lost, rather than yet-another bleak description of the act of massacre. It's a bit like feeling grief through looking at photographs as opposed to grief through looking at gravestones. I found this book offers one of the few representations of the holocaust that really got to me with a kick-in-the-guts sense of emotion. The re-birth of a people is incredibly moving purely because it doesn't wallow in the blatant horror that's already seared into the minds of the reader from so many other sources.

In other aspects the books is... alright. Characterisation is somewhat lacking, as most of the people we meet are either foils for reverse chronology jokes "my wife gets younger every day" (literally) or cartoonish representations of Nazi evil. The narrator is the only persistent voice, and even his confusion and bewilderment regarding his temporal situation often feels abstract and disinterested, which creates an unnerving sense that he's not at all real, but merely a funnel through which Amis can pipe his backwards narrative.

On a more pernickety level, the medium of the novel (reading left to right, top to bottom etc) creates problems for the time-in-reverse gimmick - such as: why isn't the narrator speaking backwards? The aesthetic of the concept is imperfectly realised because it's so often frustrated by the limits of the form; i.e. the book has to make some kind of sense.

So Time's Arrow is a neat idea, but whereas the novel's best bits come from the nature of the backwards narrative as a storytelling gimmick (the aforementioned holocaust in reverse), this is also the source of the book's most major failings. Sadly you have to plough through a lot of dirt to get to this book's diamonds. As good as this books is, if you do happen to be looking for an experimental anti-war novel that highlights the senselessness of massacre, you're probably better sticking to Slaughterhouse 5.


Kafka On The Shore (Vintage Magic)
Kafka On The Shore (Vintage Magic)
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Kafka on the Shore, 2 Jun 2011
Uncomfortable writing this review. Any book with such a plurality of possible critical interpretations is bound to be difficult to précis; and similarly I'm almost certain to fail the interpretive expectations of any number of fans, purely because Murakami enjoys such a breadth of readership that any attempt to pigeon-hole this book is likely to satisfy readers of one particular ilk, and disenfranchise many others. And I wouldn't want to do that.

Actually - scratch that - I am going to plant my flag; if anything, 'Kafka on the Shore', rather than defying meaning, challenges the reader to find it; so let's go, let's chuck some `interpretations' at it, and see which ones stick...

If you've not read it, 'Kafka on the Shore' goes something like this: it's a bildungsroman (of sorts) - 15-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home, simultaneously running away from his father's sinister Oedipal prophecy that Kafka will sleep with his mother (and, in an odd addendum, sister) and destroy his Dad. A concurrently running narrative involves 70-year-old illiterate "cat tracker" Nakata and his ill-defined quest across Japan; having murdered a mysterious stranger and abandoned his life-long home - his journey of self-discovery provides a charming parallel to Kafka's, despite the disparity of age.
'
So far so de rigueur, but what begins as relatively standard litfic fare soon acquires various tropes and motifs of genres diverse: a 'Midwich Cuckoos'-esque intervention of an `other' force lends a striking sci-fi bent to the plot, while devices of metaphysics and magical-realism invade the narrative of both protagonists to radically alter the course of the story. Finally, the intervention of a ghost (or, rather, an earlier version of an older character) brings touches of Derridan hauntology (on a personal level) to the text, as spectres of happier, perfect versions of the past continually haunt the hierarchies of the present. So if this book does tickle your fancy, prepare for ghosts, spirits, (possible) aliens, rains of leeches, never-aging WWII veterans and many more peculiarities.

The crux of the fan-divide is this: are the (how shall we put it..?) oddities/weridnesses/non-realistic aspects of Kafka on the Shore merely manifestations of the characters' internal psychoses, or are they objective, physical facts of the universe of the novel? It'd be easy, for example, to categorize the `boy named crow' character as an internal fancy of Kafka - an `imaginary friend' concocted by the protagonist to accompany him on his journeys (both physically through Japan and symbolically into maturity) and to provide a narrative reason/(excuse) to engage Kafka in psychoanalytic dialogue. But (methinks) such a boring interpretation is dismissive of the weird/fantastical aspects of the narrative. So much of the book questions the nature of the subjective (what is love, what is family, what is sex, what is home etc.) that it is surely fruitful to extend this enquiry into the objective by introducing non-naturalistic/weird phenomena (strange crow-boys, raining fish, talking cats, invisible gateways, magic flutes...) and using them to probe the nature of the universe, as well as the nature of ourselves.

So, here's my two pence (cents, for my transatlantic friends): all the weird/metaphysical stuff functioning in Kafka on the Shore is real! I want it to be real, and I want to believe that this is a story of the fantastic, and not just an over-extended sympathetic fallacy. Of course, any book featuring a coma is open to that most boring post-modern question: "what if the entire book is the coma?" - well, I choose to suspend my disbelief entirely and I have faith that the oddities are realities, not delusions. 100 pages in, it became clear that there is no single, obvious way to interpret this book's persistently weird events; so I abandoned an attempt at a psychoanalytic reading and embraced the oddness as physical fact rather than a narrative manifestation of the characters' inner turmoils.

But that's not to say that 'Kafka on the Shore's metaphysical/sci-fi/weird elements are meaningless trivialities crow-barred into the narrative to earn literary cool-points. There's a complex system of signs operating in Kafka on the Shore, and if the magic is real, then what it stands for is real too.

Kafka's quest to discover sex is quest for completeness, of sorts. In an inversion of Western/Judeo-Christian notions of sexuality, Kafka believes that he banishes impurity in the act of sex, and the fact that these acts are shared with a spirit (stick with me...) creates a bridge between the modern and traditional as the spirit/ghost/(whatever) acts as a guide to Kafka and helps him to overcome the Shinto notion of impurity. In effect, Murakami has fashioned a modern, physical world that echoes and reflects themes and motifs of older legend/myth cycles. Here ancient spirits haven't gone away, or been defeated by science - they function in 21st Century urban Japan in real and influential ways.

'Kafka on the Shore', then, is most beautiful when Murakami converges his traditionalist influences with the modern setting. An ancient spirit that guides Nakata to an `entrance stone' can only be explained as a genuine visitation from a Japanese deity. Likewise, a disgusting tentacular creature that emerges from the mouth of a dead body is at once a very modern manifestation of a horror film grotesque, and a very traditional materialization of the wingless dragons of Japanese folklore. The Weird (yup, now with a capital `W') is no less serious in 'Kafka on the Shore' than it was in the most fantastic of Japanese myths. So, you know; I recommend that you embrace the weirdness, and don't try to explain it away.

'Kafka on the Shore' is a love-letter to traditional Japanese literature. And while I'm hardly steeped in the oeuvre, I was able to recognise where this book pays homage to its sources, and where it deviates. Kafka on the Shore operates in the margins between the traditional and the modern: where urban realities and mythical fantasies collide and function together, rather than in opposition.

How does it read?: very well, for the most part. Occasionally Murakami gets a little self-indulgent and pretty much copy-pastes long passages of Nietzsche or Goethe into the book. Plus the frequent and (often random) sex scenes go too far in their gratuity; unfortunately they end-up dominating the narrative in abrupt and distracting ways. Whether Murakami did this as an act of titillation (a failed one) or to heighten a connection with the concerns of our teenage first-person narrator is unclear - either way, I found the constant sex obstructed the flow of the story by effectively grinding things to a halt every 50 pages.

Don't be scared of 'Kafka on the Shore'. The trick is to wrestle it into submission and pound meanings out of it. And you really should do this: too much dithering or on-the-fence thinking and this entire book will elude you. The above is how I've chosen to read it - but your reading history/tastes may well make you more inclined to dismiss the fantasy elements, or at least to psychologise them, in order to produce a more naturalistic interpretation. The fundamental question "what is it?" is still up for debate: urban fantasy, psychological enquiry, Weird fiction (there's that upper-case W again!) or simple horror/ghost/sci-fi story. It's up to you. For once, I don't find genre pigeon-holing useful, and if anything, this book is a very good example of the 21st Century phenomenon of the literary genre smorgasbord. So I recommend you forget labels and enjoy this weird, magical, beautiful book for just what it is.


Freedom
Freedom
by Jonathan Franzen
Edition: Hardcover

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Freedom, 12 May 2011
This review is from: Freedom (Hardcover)
I wanted to hate Freedom. Seriously: I hoped it would suck. This isn't because I harbour any particular hatred of Jonathan Franzen or his oeuvre, but because the critical landscape that surrounds this novel irritates me to a point of near eye-gouging distraction. Even months before the book was published it seemed that the literary (and especially US) press had already made up their minds: it was going to be extraordinary. Perhaps its nine-year gestation period following the phenomenal success of The Corrections was partly responsible for the hype; after all, if he's spending this long writing it then it must be good, right? Right? And from the instant of its publication it was superlatives-are-go for the American press, and such hyperbolic terminology as `greatest', `cleverest' and `coolest' festooned the headlines of the book review pages. I'm pretty sure I read a `bestest' somewhere too...

But you've gotta feel a little sorry for American literary journos. They're so desperate to discover the fabled Great American Novel(tm), and Jonathan Franzen really was their prime candidate; who can blame them for their brash pre-emptive optimism? That the G.A.N(tm) is a nebulous and illusory concept is beside the point: they knew Freedom would be big, and treated it accordingly. The kudos for having called it out as genius before they'd read it was worth the risk of embarrassment should the book have been monumentally bad. Not that the Brit media was any less hysterical: Franzen even graced the front page of The Times when his iconic glasses were swiped at a London signing. Elsewhere, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian moronically described Freedom as a "self evident classic" (???) and "the best novel of the century"; whether he means the one just started or the one that ended before the book was published is unclear, either way, his fatuous assertion doesn't hold up to any kind of scrutiny.

Why does this kind of one-sided critical extremism irritate me so? I don't know; maybe it's a latent primordial response to run from anything that's shoved so forcefully in my face; or maybe it's because, at heart, I'm still a petulant and reactionary teenager who hates the thought of reading a book that everybody else is reading (the latter being most likely, methinks). Whatever the reason, the immense Freedom hullaballoo irked me something fierce, and I thought: wouldn't it be hilarious if the book was rubbish?

Well, imagine my disappointment when, about 50 pages in, I found myself really enjoying Freedom...

It's not the greatest book I've ever read, far from it. And it doesn't live up to the hype (but then, nothing ever could) - it is, however, darn good; and even if Franzen's hyperrealistic, middle-brow mulch isn't your particular brand of literary tote bag (to be honest, it's not really mine), you should still read it because it's moving, well-written and has things to say. To sum it up briefly, I'd describe Freedom as a family saga -cum- state of the nation epic. A `slice of life' novel. The crux of the book is a love triangle between Walter Berglund - a man who suffers from perennial nice-guys-finish-last syndrome-, his wife Patty and their friend Richard Katz; a rakish, womanising and mildly successful rock star whose moral discomfort with commercial success, and whose emotional conflict between his promiscuous tendencies on the one hand and his genuine love for Patty on the other make him by far the most interesting character.

Stylistically the book was a letdown, and Franzen isn't the "extraordinary stylist" that Ron Charles so famously asserted. Long, compound-complex sentences are the name of the game; and while the prose is incredibly internal, psychological and moving, stylish isn't quite the word I'd use to describe it. This is especially true for the `book within a book' (a cliché of modern literature if ever there was one), which takes the form of Patty's supposed autobiography. Irritatingly, Patty writes exactly like... Jonathan Franzen, and the complete lack of any tonal shift or change of register came as a massive disappointment. Nope, style isn't this book's great forte, but what it lacks in panache it makes up for in content.

The majority of the narrative is driven by a kind of amorous bleep-test that sees Patty running a constant back-and-forth between her two lovers; no sooner arriving at one than she turns towards the other. Yet Patty's designs on unfaithfulness become the ultimate source of her own sexual frustration. Walter is too meek and submissive to assert his right as husband to her sexual fidelity (which is what she most wants from him - to care), but Richard is too strong-minded and morally driven to ever betray the trust of his best friend by indulging his passions for Patty. Thus Patty finds herself trapped in a sexual limbo - her husband's lack of passion grants her a kind of freedom by neglect (albeit a morally dubious one), but it's a freedom that she is unable to express; her desires for Richard being stonewalled by his loyalty to Walter. Incongruously, the strongest relationship in the book is between Walter and Richard, and it's jealousy at this impenetrable homosocial bond that becomes the significant cause of Patty's inevitable (even predictable?) breakdown.

But such situations don't stay tidally locked forever, and after a long build-up the proverbial really hits the fan at about two-thirds of the way through the book. Mistakes are made, relationships ruined, families torn asunder, and all the usual yadda yadda of emotional fallout ensues. In fact, the final 150 pages or so really are the best. It's here that Franzen addresses the problems, pains and fears of change, and where seemingly minor actions: sex, a phone call, writing a song or taking a political stance all have major, life-changing resonances. I've never encountered a book in which perspectives, desires and loyalties shift so much, and change becomes a transcendental force, not only expressed in the personal/sexual lives of the protagonists, but in society (as depicted by Franzen) as a whole.

Walter is a passionate conservationist; in fact, large chunks of the book have a very left-wing, in-your-face anti-corporate agenda (mostly expressed by a malcontent mouthpiece character (oh so subtly called `Jonathan')) and despite Walter's pronounced hatred for economic greed and the evils it inspires, we eventually find him forming an unusual alliance with an open-face mining corporation, an agreement which sees both sides benefit but which, undoubtedly, would have horrified the younger incarnations of Walter. Similarly, Patty's white-picket-suburban-soccer-mom fantasies are perpetually frustrated by the idiosyncrasies of modern American society: recession, underage sex, neighbourhood feuds and ever-present spectres of drug and alcohol addiction. Her eventual epiphany is one of the novel's primary messages: things can't stay the same. Patty's vision of the perfect family life isn't thwarted by any action of her own, but by the realisation that the 1960's suburban ideal just doesn't exist anymore.

It's a supreme irony that the book many hoped would become the Great American Novel(tm) is actually the book that sticks a middle finger up to the whole G.A.N(tm) misnomer. Instead of capturing the quintessential American social and literary experience, Freedom exposes a country that is very much a frontier nation: in a state of perpetual flux, impossible to pin down and ever-changing. From hard rock stars that turn into placid folk icons (Richard), to intense love that descends into the purest hatred, to much broader political shifts and the mellowing of once hard-line ideologies, Freedom is characterised by a kind of mutability, the expression of which is probably best found in one of the book's most striking if simplistic plot threads: nobody here wants to become their parents.

The struggle against history (familial and political) and the desire to escape the path laid before them is the cast of Freedom's most noble and defining endeavour. The ways in which Jonathan Franzen manipulates this familial microcosm to echo and reflect broader American concerns is the book's greatest achievement. In doing this, Franzen exposes the major flaw in the concept of the Great American Novel(tm): America can't be defined; at least, not yet. Freedom isn't perfect, and if anything the constant references to War & Peace are proof that even Franzen himself thinks a little too highly of himself. It is, however, very good, and in denying the critics what they most wanted, Franzen describes a new way of representing Americana.

G.A.N(tm) 2.0, anyone?
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 3, 2011 1:47 PM BST


Remainder
Remainder
by Tom McCarthy
Edition: Paperback

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remainder, 6 May 2011
This review is from: Remainder (Paperback)
"Well f*** off: it's the same book as it was two years ago." Was Tom ("the most galling interviewee in the world") McCarthy's response to the myriad publishers clamouring to acquire the rights to his much-rejected 'Remainder' after it became a cult success on the museum gift-shop circuit (I know, I'd never heard of such a thing either). This linguistically gauche up-yours to the literary establishment couldn't be more apposite, given that frustrated return and failed re-emergence are key among 'Remainder's multitude themes. Me, I would have gone for `look who's come crawling back', and launched verbose invective about not knowing what you've got when you've got it. But that's the difference between me and monsieur McCarthy: he can say more with a few words than I could articulate with an entire library; and that is why I love him, and why you should read this book.

Where to begin? - A pertinent question, seeing how Remainder starts somewhere towards the middle and casts a man without a past as its de facto hero. The book opens in medias res with a flash-back to our nameless narrator's "accident", which renders him comatose and, upon waking, amnesiac. "Bits of technology" have fallen from the sky to strike his noggin, and that's all we (and he) will ever know. Speculative attempts to identify the falling matter are ultimately rendered futile as McCarthy refuses to satisfy the reader (or his cast) with any definite answers; naturalistic readings may suggest parts of a plane or building are accountable, but the real import is found in the objects' metaphoric value. That's right: the technological junk that biffs our protagonist is, in fact, a great big symbol, and while McCarthy doesn't quite write `he was hit on the head by a falling metaphor', he may as well have: the book's opening being its least subtle passage. Whether you interpret the tumbling technology as representationally atavistic (technology is bad and look what damage it causes - let's get rid of it) or as social commentary (it destroys our memories and shortens attention spans) is up to the caprice of the individual reader - I prefer a more optimistic understanding which lifts the onus from crisis to opportunity ("crisitunity" - ©Homer Simpson) by freeing the protagonist from the burdens of past choices and the pressures of social conformity - as well as bestowing upon him a compensation pay-out of eight million pounds. Themes of communication and transmission are also invoked by the image of technology in free-fall (subjects echoed in McCarthy's later novel C) so, you know... look out for them as well.

Now incredibly wealthy but with no extant memories, Mr no-name assumes the mantle of that capitalist anomaly: the millionaire without history. He has no market loyalties or consumer tastes upon which to fritter his new-found riches. What he most wants is a past, but his recollections never return: instead he is tormented by manifest fragments of memories which take the form of random images of places (exclusively mundane: a bathroom, a hallway etc.) and people (a neighbour who puts out rubbish, a pianist who lived below him). His life his lived at a disconnect from "authentic experience" - obviously a trauma from his horrific accident. So, in an attempt to capture and make-real these tid-bits of a past, he begins spending his money on incredibly elaborate re-enactments; buying entire streets and buildings to re-mould in the image of his vague memories, employing `permanent' actors to play-out the roles of people he barely remembers, and hiring vast teams of professionals to ensure every minute detail is perfect. Every movement he makes is an anguish of a half-remembered past, and so he attempts to re-create a space in which his movements, thoughts and life are "real", unforced, and un-troubled by the spectre of deja vu; his ultimate goal being to produce a re-enactment so perfect and fluid that there is "no space between" the memory and the present, so he can "merge" with the moment and know a kind of happiness.

But obviously, the performative aspect of these re-enactments soon becomes a barrier to achieving a genuine, non-mimetic experience. His response is to create ever more elaborate sequences in an attempt to lose himself in the moment and forget the performative nature of his everyday experience. I won't spoil it, but suffice to say that the book's final re-enactment is something very special indeed.

'Remainder' got under my skin; the protagonist's border-line obsessive personality disorder began to resonate with my own daily experiences - especially after a long reading session - and simple tasks like opening the fridge door became, for me, unnervingly histrionic, as I couldn't divorce my everyday actions from a sense of constant repetition. But that's what the best novels do - get under your skin and into your thoughts, even after you've put them down- and for this alone I think the book is valuable.

With such a characteristically modernist premise, I was expecting a prose much more stylistically arch than I found in 'Remainder': the first person narration is clear and expressive, but (unlike many recent attempts at avant-garde fiction) isn't stylized to within an inch of its life. It's not perfect - occasionally the tone approaches near Amis (the younger) levels of self-satisfaction on the smug-o-meter, never more so than when McCarthy is stuffing the narrative with literary references (Ulysses, T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Dickens etc. etc). Similarly, some readers may be frustrated by the explicit focus on repetition and re-enactment, which is almost David Foster Wallace-esque in its deliberate tediousness. But where the prose really sings is in the metaphoric landscapes McCarthy creates. In Remainder everything is a symbol or has an analogy (in structuralist terms (this is an attempt at modernism after all), you might say there's a disproportion between the signifiers and signifieds). A striking example of this can be found early, when the nameless hero stares into a crack instead of a mirror on a bathroom wall. The crack, as metaphor, probably offers a more accurate reflection of our protagonist than any mirror could. It functions as a visualisation of his mind and analogy for his missing memories. This becomes even more explicit later on, when all his attempts to re-create the crack are frustrated and problematic. I suppose `the crack that can't be filled' offers an external microcosm for his internal torments.

'Remainder' is successful at challenging both social and personal notions of harmony by asking the fundamental question: are we more than the sum of our memories? In stripping his protagonist of history, McCarthy creates a man who feels inauthentic yet becomes self-obsessed; his desperation to identify and find a sense of himself becomes an addiction: as he keeps telling us - his re-enactments aren't art - they're his life. Thus Remainder exposes a dominant cultural discourse; one which renders all our actions fundamentally performative and repetitious. The individual's struggle against these notions and his quest for a sense of authentic individualism is just about as perfect an expression of the modernist agenda as you're likely to find. It's a strange, very funny (and equally disturbing), beautiful book. Zadie Smith believes that it points to the future of English Literature: and while I'm not quite as optimistic, I think Remainder will be remembered as something that stirred the pot. As for its place in modern `Literature'; well, it's a tiny but bright star in an otherwise dull and mundane sky. Read it. Read it now.


The Big Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Mystery (Penguin Fiction)
The Big Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Mystery (Penguin Fiction)
by Raymond Chandler
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Big Sleep, 30 Mar 2011
I think it's fair to say that 'The Big Sleep' was the novelistic progenitor of noir, and established a tough-edged and metaphor heavy voice as the de facto narrative tone of the hard boiled genre. If you're familiar with the rough, first-person voice-over in films like Sin City or even the voice-over edit of Blade Runner: well, this is the book that spawned that style.

It's also a book that has got by on its style rather than its substance: but that's not the backhanded compliment it sounds, because Chandler was a master of style. The novel has some depth (there's a fixation with opening and closing doors that's both visually interesting and metaphorically loaded: an opened door can be a scintillating invitation or an act of trespass and violence; in Chandler's mind, both at once. Plus some protagonists are now firmly established genre archetypes, and it's always nice to know where these things come from); but, let's be honest, I read The Big Sleep to earn literary cool points - The Big Sleep being the academically acceptable face of pulp fiction.

I highly recommend 'The Big Sleep'; its tough, agressive, violent and un-sympathetic plot makes it a hard and dark reading experience; but the book is so influential that its effects can be felt everywhere: from early hardboiled crime fiction, through to Paul Auster's 'The New York Trilogy' or even The Rebus novels by Ian Rankin ('Scottish Noir', as it's sometimes called). Even if you find the plot tame and uncomplicated by modern crime standards, this is a book that's worth reading, just so you can see where it all began. Interesting for literary history dorks (like me!) or just fans of cool, stylish and effortlessly sharp writing.


A Visit From the Goon Squad
A Visit From the Goon Squad
by Jennifer Egan
Edition: Paperback

36 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Visit from the Goon Squad, 25 Mar 2011
'A Visit from the Goon Squad' employs an eclectic cast of middle-class urbanite American baby-boomers to tell a story of time, distance, regret, loss and memory. But before you groan at the prospect of yet another downbeat and middle-brow hyperrealist novel of the Ian McEwan variety, let me say that while its subject matter may be de rigueur, this novel's form and style are refreshingly innovative; experimental, even. In fact, it's the best book I've read this year, and while it may be early days to be positing that with any gravitas, I think AVFTGS will take some beating.

The book begins innocently enough, 'in medias res' with the clichéd but nonetheless effective framing device of a story told from a psychologist's couch. The opening line is even charmingly self-aware of this narrative convention; `It began in the usual way'. Here we meet Sasha, a kleptomaniac PA with a penchant for other women's purses (not a euphemism), and Bennie Salazar, a middle-aged, failing music mogul who tips gold flakes into his coffee in the hope of revitalizing his waning libido. It's a nice little metaphor that ties money to sex and power in Bennie's industry.

But from these humble beginnings things get weird and wonderful pretty darn quickly. The book's non-linear narrative bounces around from 1970s San Francisco to near-future cityscapes (2020, or thereabouts) with confidence and clarity: never feeling directionless or trendy. What's more is that no two chapters concern the same character, and no two chapters are told in the same way. The unifying factor for the novel's large dramatis personae is that their lives are all tied up (either explicitly or tenuously) with Sasha's and Bennie's. Thus A Visit from the Good Squad forms the literary equivalent of the cinematic ensemble piece: several microcosms of literature, all stylistically different, but fused together by the book's chief concerns: time and loss. In recent months, several of the book's chapters have been successfully published as isolated short stories.

Throughout AVFTGS, Jennifer Egan uses every trick in the narratologists' book to tell her tale: each chapter is defined by its own stylistic idiosyncrasy, and these are as diverse as the novel's cast. First person narrators, third person narrators, even second person (the much under-used reader-inclusive `you') pepper the novel's multiple sections. But the diversity doesn't stop here: there're child narrators, chapters consisting of celebrity-gossip journalism, extracts from fictional military histories and psychological journals; there's magical realism, drug-induced stream-of-consciousness writing, even (a highlight of the book) a journalistic movie-star interview which descends into a sinister rape confessional. Chapters are also codified with strange combinations of numbers, letters, roman numerals and long, rambling titles.

Normally at this point, the cynic in me would burst-free of the tight restraints I keep him under and accuse Jennifer Egan of being gimmicky, pretentious or show-offy. Stuffing the pages of one novel with so much narratorial variety is usually a desperate ploy to keep the reader interested and to cover up a lack-lustre plot. Either that or it's the frantic machinations of a debut novelist, desperate to show-off their skill and bag some industry attention. But here, thankfully, this isn't the case: nothing is gimmicky; everything is reasoned and everything works.

I'm not going to go through every chapter, check-list style, and explain why its narratorial quirks are significant and necessary: but here's one example of how form beautifully marries content in this novel. If you know anything at all about A Visit from the Goon Squad, it's probably this: one of the chapters is a Power Point presentation. Literally. The slides of the presentation are printed into the book, one after the other. I'm tempted to start a polemic here about how new reading mediums/devices are finally becoming a significant form rather than just another means of textual transmission: but that's not the point (I'll save it for another day. Possibly a rainy one). Why are there 100 pages of Power Point presentation in AVFTGS? It's because the narrator here is the sister of an autistic teenager for whom the emotional construction of the world is baffling and unintelligible. The graphs and charts of this presentation allow her to communicate with her brother, while simultaneously providing the reader with a psychological insight into the character. It's a refreshing change from the more guffy and sober attempts at portraying autism that have bothered the charts in recent years.

Parts of the novel are desperately sad: characters die young; others go missing and are never found; whereas some grow old without ever reaching the potential they secretly believe they harbour. Time, decay, loss and regret are particularly significant themes; the book's sweeping narrative lets the reader witness the entire lives of some characters, yet just brief, sad snippets of others.

Distance is also a subject: both physical and emotional. A Visit from the Goon Squad is incredibly moving: an effect that Egan achieves by manipulating this theme of distance with considerable skill. The protagonists are always at a remove from where they want to be: Bennie is impotent, Sasha is lonely, Doll's best days are behind her, love is always unrequited and there's constantly the horrifying feeling of time passing too quickly. Words like `echo' and `distance' and `nothing' are common, dominating the narrative in strikingly unusual ways.

But 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' wouldn't be so sad if it weren't so funny. The novel's surrealist humour acts as a balancing counter-point to its gloomy subject matter, and in effect the comedy highlights rather than diminishes the book's sadness: drawing attention to it: loss is all the crueller when it follows laughter. A particular favourite passage of mine occurs around the mid-point of the novel, when an aging Middle East military dictator employs an American PR specialist to re-vitalise his image; with hilarious (albeit morally dubious) results.

The writing is beautiful and fluid (if I wasn't so averse to it, I'd use the phrase `page turner' - oops!). There is the occasionally gaff, for example: some sentences are slightly too saccharine for my tastes `I'll be curled around your heart for the rest of your life'. Similarly, not every stylistic allusion hits the mark - a section of long, scientific footnotes (David Foster Wallace) fails to reach the comic and literary brilliance of the writer they allude to. Plus a chapter with very little punctuation and no speech marks (Cormac McCarthy) doesn't carry the literary gravitas necessary to be a success.

But these are minor niggles, and in no way detract from what is an accomplished, intelligent and highly experimental novel. 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' tackles dour themes with a wry sense of fun and a penchant for formal experimentation which (for the most part) is successful. It leans to the post-modern, and in some places is plain wacky, but it's encouraging that somebody is pushing the novel in a new direction.


Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children's Crusade - A Duty-dance with Death
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children's Crusade - A Duty-dance with Death
by Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Slaughterhouse 5, 22 Mar 2011
SH5 is weird stuff. I readily admit that I struggled though the first 100 pages: really struggled. In modern parlance (for you kids), I suppose you could say that I just didn't `get' it. My recent experiences of historical fiction have all been of the middle-brow, naturalistic persuasion; so when I encountered aliens, time travel and intergalactic zoos in what self-purports to be a serious anti-war novel (Vonnegut's perambulatory opening is explicit that anti-war is his narrative agenda), I was confused to say the least. Are you taking the Michael, Vonnegut?

Well, it turns out that he is. At least in part. By writing about aliens and time travel in a WWII war novel, Vonnegut highlights the difficulty and absurdity of trying to capture something as ungraspable and nonsensical as massacre. Big question: `how do you indentify with the deaths of 24,000 people?' Answer: `You can't'. Solution: `write about aliens instead'. Okay, so that's a gross over-simplification; SH5 is much more than an exercise in absurdism, but satire definitely runs rampant through the novel: Vonnegut's frequent assertion that wars are fought by children who don't know what's going on is funny and disturbing in equal measure.

After being abducted by aliens from `Tralfamadore', soldier Billy Pilgrim comes `unstuck' in time, and randomly lives (and re-lives) events from his past and future. Thus he is forced to live through his death, the Dresden bombings, his childhood etc. over and over. This fractured understanding of time is echoed in the book's non-linear narrative construction - the reader even sees Pilgrim's death somewhere towards the middle of the book. It's an unnerving reading experience: in most historical fiction, the reader has an information advantage over the characters: but SH5 is dramatic irony turned on its head, as right from the off Billy Pilgrim knows how his entire future will play-out; after all, he's been there and seen it.

And an eccentric characterology is one of the novel's most appealing and successful aspects. Roland Weary is a knife-obsessed, über-violent jingoist; Kilgore Trout (star protagonist of other Vonnegut heavy-hitter Breakfast of Champions) is a detached and run-down science-fiction writer, hilariously comfortable with his own lack of success. And then there's Howard Campbell (jr), an American pro-Nazi propagandist and playwright whose vein-bursting fascist tensions are a delight to read.

With zany characters, non-linear narrative structure, alien abductions and an anti-war agenda, Slaughter House 5 is a book that slips and slides uncomfortably between genre spaces. Unfortunately, we still live in a comparative dark age of genre criticism, wherein the moniker `science fiction' is often used as a trivial dismissive. If the sci-fi label didn't carry such critical baggage, I'd be tempted to tag SH5 as such. Ultimately, any attempt to pigeon-hole the novel would be futile and reductive: my best effort would be the somewhat meaningless composite: `post-modern-sci-fi-anti-war-historical-biography'. Trending, moi? Surely not.

But this sense of tension is what makes Slaughter House 5 so brilliant. Vonnegut's wry manipulations of memory and invention keep things interesting, and the novel's deceptively simplistic lexicon makes SH5 a quick book to read. Yet some tensions in the novel are alarmingly harrowing. The constant use of the refrain `so it goes' whenever the subject of death is raised becomes a double-edged sword for the reader, and marked my reading experience with an unsettling cognitive dissonance. By commenting `so it goes', Vonnegut manages to simultaneously trivialise death while drawing attention to the sheer amount of it in the novel. It's an effectively uncomfortable dualism; a kind of nascent fatalism that makes death both insignificant and ubiquitous.

Of course Slaughter House 5 enjoys a plurality of interpretations. I suppose Billy Pilgrim's forced time-travel back to the Dresden bombing could be seen as a metaphor for the flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder. Readers wanting to play-down the novel's post-modern leanings could even crowbar a naturalistic interpretation into the text by asserting that Pilgrim's extra-terrestrial experiences are entirely psychosomatic; after all, he doesn't tell anybody about them until after he suffers a horrific head injury. This isn't how I view things: I'm just throwing it out there as an interpretive alternative.

I love Slaughter House 5; its mix of satire and seriousness creates a tension that really hammers-home Vonnegut's message about the pointlessness, horror and most of all the nonsensical nature of massacre. The horrific and the hilarious are strange bedfellows, but here they marry nicely and things just... work. There's a striking sequence in which Billy Pilgrim watches a war film backwards: explosions and fires are sucked back into shell casings, buildings re-assemble from rubble, blood flows retroactively and wounds heal until they, literally, never were. It's beautiful.


The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?
The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?
by Paul Davies
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Eerie Silence, 9 Jan 2011
As well as being a history of SETI, 'The Eerie Silence' is also a passionate defence of the organisation. To me, Paul Davies' prose carries with it an almost plea-bargaining air of hopeful self-preservation. SETI has come under a lot of fire recently; especially sceptical commentators like to label the project as being an embarrassing white elephant of the science world - after so much money and no results, what's the point? There's also the cynical and somewhat prevailing sentiment that searching for alien life is nothing more than pseudoscience; the stuff of immature sci-fi novels.

However, by far the most damaging (and popular) criticism of SETI is a kind of economic determinism, which argues that if SETI is someday successful in detecting a non-terrestrial, artificial radio transmission, there will likely be no practical, financial or economic gains from doing so. High monetary input with no monetary yield does not make for valuable investment. Concordantly, SETI has suffered from substantial funding cuts in recent years. Of course, being the liberal student of the arts that I am, I take issue with the notion that all human endeavour should be geared towards a financial end-product. Whatever happened to finding value in the journey? Or striving to achieve something not because it carries a large financial incentive, but because it's incredibly difficult and challenging? The frontier spirit, Davies argues, is intrinsic to human experience, and it's a shame that SETI, as endeavour, is no longer considered viable purely because it carries no fiscal (or in some cases military) guarantees. If the current funding trend continues, then SETI will soon be entirely dependent on benevolent private donations: hardly the stable bedrock required by long-term scientific enquiry.

Drawing the reader's attention to the many criticisms of SETI is risky business, but Paul Davies provides convincing and intelligent rebuttals to all of these. His determination to present SETI as a serious methodical pursuit rather than the imprecise hobby child of UFO obsessed sci-fi dorks is commendable, if a tad unnecessary.

Yet the article of contention with which the book is most concerned is scientific, namely: the Fermi Paradox. The paradox's namesake Enrico Fermi became famous for espousing a form of evidential scepticism about SETI: "where are they?" is how he succinctly voiced his concerns. Basically, the Fermi Paradox can be summed up thus: if the universe is so old, and so big and so full of so many trillions of stars, then why is there absolutely no evidence of alien life anywhere? (okay, so it's not technically a "paradox" - but hey, they're only scientists!). It sounds simple enough, but the Fermi Paradox has so far proven to be the foremost prodigal spanner in SETI's otherwise well-oiled works. If the universe is metaphorically teeming, then why does it seem to...empty? There are two possible explanations: either there's something fundamentally wrong with SETI's search methodologies, or we really are alone after all.

Paul Davies plumbs for the former. 'The Eerie Silence' argues that it's time to stop pinning our hopes on targeted alien radio broadcasts and to begin looking for any signifiers of intelligence and life; no matter how alien they may seem to us.

He begins at home, with the concept of a `shadow biosphere'. Put simply, this is the theory that instead of spawning just once on Earth, life may have begun twice, or three times etc... If provable evidence of a `second genesis' could be found (for example, microbes with left-bonding amino acid systems, as opposed to the right-hand amino bonding of all known life) then the probability that life exists elsewhere in the universe would be elevated to a near factor of 1 (100%). If life spawned twice on one planet, then the chances of it happening anywhere else would be much, much higher. Serious experiments to find terrestrial life from a `second genesis' are currently in the planning stages in America. Aliens among us indeed.

Next Davies examines the theory of panspermia, which puts forward the mind-boggling notion that life on Earth was `seeded' from elsewhere in the universe, such as by hyperextremophile microbes hitching a ride in meteorites. Maybe life was bio-engineered by intelligent, unknowable aliens. Self-replicating probes that plant life on habitable `target' planets are also considered by Davies.

His discussion of the potential types of alien life gets more and more interesting as the book progresses. The size and sheer weirdness of Davies' ideas increases exponentially chapter by chapter. By the end of The Eerie Silence, the book is carrying with it all the usual mind-boggle sentiments of high-concept science fiction writing. People who know me also know that I have an irritating tendency to geek-out about this kind of stuff, but I defy you to read The Eerie Silence and say it isn't interesting. I devoured it - the writer has a gift for imbuing his ideas with a sense of wonder and scale. Some of the thoughts presented within filled me with a sense of, well... a kind of readerly vertigo, as if I were standing on the precipice of something vast and unknowable and ancient. Davies clearly revels in immense ideas such as post-biological intelligence, stellar engineering and terraforming:

"I think it very likely that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon. If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature."

Davies even suggests that the best way to find E.T might be to look for evidence of galactic mega-structures, such as Dyson spheres (massive grids of satellites constructed around entire stars to absorb energy) and Matrioshka brains (super-computers so big that they are built as shells around back-holes, and harness energy from within). These super-structures would emit unmistakable infra-red signatures, and so would be easy to detect.
--
Stylistically, Davies is a man after my own heart; he employs frequent parenthetic digressions (that is, stuff in brackets) to express several ideas at once, as well as to make sometimes pithy and wry comments on whatever topic is at hand. Structurally, however, the book has some problems. Barely a page goes by without Davies using the phrase "more about this later". While sometimes tantalising, more-often-than-not I found this sort of referential aside to be irritating, drawing attention to the fact that the book's chapter-structure probably isn't optimal.

'The Eerie Silence' isn't unadulterated popular science either. For the polymaths among you, it's also possible to read it as a strikingly philosophical work. Davies takes time to explore such frighteningly eschatological theories as the so-called `heat death' of the universe; an end-game scenario in which all entropy reactions have expired, leaving no thermodynamic energy to sustain life, matter, motion, anything. The concept that the universe is on a slow, unstoppable march towards nothingness reads like an astrophysics expression of Nietzschean nihilism.

But while I can't fault his science, Paul Davies' understanding of history leaves something to be desired. Davies argues that modern science only came around because Judeo-Christian society has a kind of oneness about it which is perfect for spawning scientific method. I respectfully disagree. Correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression was that the rise of mass-organised religion in Europe culminated in the so-called medieval `dark ages' - a period of retarded scientific progression that was finally transcended by the Renaissance, when radical thinkers began to rediscover pre-Christian modes of enquiry (hence `neo-classicism'). It wasn't Judeo-Christian ideologies that lead to the development of modern science, but ancient Greek philosophy, which insisted that the universe isn't random and absurd, but logical, knowable and ordered. That's my two cents anyway; but what do I know?

This is a minor niggle, however; on the whole The 'Eerie Silence' is complexly wonderful, eminently readable and very accessible (hell, if a certified science reprobate like me can understand it, anyone can). There're a few frivolous passages that engage with aliens in pop-culture (such as basic (though admittedly comic) reviews of Contact and Independence Day), which do nothing to squash SETI's image as an organisation populated by sci-fi loving geeks (the dust jacket's author photograph also doesn't help matters - a black and white snap of Davies in all his bi-focal, thick-rimmed, bowler haircut glory). But the best way I can describe The Eerie Silence is to tell you that it's relentlessly, unremittingly interesting.

And unlike most popular science, this is a humanising and encouraging work. A more cynical reading than mine might label 'The Eerie Silence' as a book that romanticises science. But SETI is an on-going endeavour, and it's admirable (and refreshing) that Davies stresses the value of exploration, curiosity and human progress outside of any financial context. There is science here, there is maths here; but it's also a book with an identifiable, emotional heart. Finally, Davies takes great pains to stress that SETI may never succeed; there are so many variables and so much is unknown that some critics don't even think of it as true science. But Davies insists that SETI press on - "The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search, the probability of success is zero". It turns out that the real sine qua non of SETI isn't money, but hope.
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