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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)

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Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will
Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will
by Julian Baggini
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.49

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exploration of the meaning of 'free will' in the light of contemporary neuroscience, 25 April 2015
In 'Freedom Regained', the philosopher Julian Baggini takes on the popular belief that recent science has demonstrated that 'free will' is a chimera. Baggini's position is a form of compatibilism: the belief that free will and determinism are not, as some insist, mutually exclusive. The essence of this position is that free will, commonly understood as an absolute, is actually an extreme concept that is not necessary and may even be self-contradictory. Lesser degrees of free will suffice for us to retain such notions as moral responsibility for actions.

Baggini takes a slightly unusual line through the subject. Rather than simply argue his case from the outset, he considers real-life instances of competing ways of understanding the idea of freedom of the will: that of the artist, the political activist, the neuroscientist and so on. Occasionally this is a little misleading. The chapter on 'The Psychopath' proves to contain very little about psychopathy as such, but nonetheless is an intelligent and relevant discussion of the way in which the popular mind distinguishes between degrees of responsibility. In general this approach pays dividends: Baggini's conversation with the artist Grayson Perry, for example, leaves little doubt that what we think of as 'free will' - usually conceived as a single, monolithic thing - is a complex and stratified faculty that blends elements of freedom and constraint, consciousness and unconsciousness. The book combines anecdote, conversation and substantial thinking in a fruitful way.

Baggini has his bugbears - the neuroscientist Sam Harris comes in for some rough handling, and the author isn't slow to describe scientific commentators on the issue as "philosophically naïve" - but his treatment of the issue is serious and fair, and his proposed solution has the advantage of not requiring the reader to nail his colours to the mast of some absolute. The result is a useful correction of what the author terms the 'myths' of free will: commonly-held beliefs that are more the product of the tortured and protracted history of the discussion than of any useful understanding. Baggini creates a space in which it is necessary neither to believe that we have complete freedom, nor that we are mechanisms void of responsibility and deprived of the capacity for meaningful self-directed action. This is a humane and valuable book.
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A for Andromeda (Story-Tellers)
A for Andromeda (Story-Tellers)
by Fred Hoyle
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Classic science fiction of the John Wyndham generation, 21 April 2015
'A For Andromeda' was originally conceived as a television serial for the BBC, and was broadcast as such in 1961. The screenplays were written by the astronomer Fred Hoyle and then revised and extended for production by the author/producer John Eliot. This novelisation was commissioned directly from John Eliot and published early in 1962. The BBC had followed its normal practice at that time and junked the recordings of the television series, of which only one full episode and some fragments now survive: so although "A For Andromeda" was not originally conceived as a book, it now survives as such.

Over time the book has come to be seen as a classic of British postwar science fiction, alongside the books of Nigel Kneale and John Wyndham. The central idea is compelling, and at the time represented cutting-edge thinking concerning the promise and danger of first contact with a nonhuman intelligence. Anyone who has seen the film 'Species' (1995) will have a strong sense of déjà vu: the first half of that film effectively recapitulates the central plot device of 'A for Andromeda'.

Hoyle's book is set in an imagined Britain of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This differs from Hoyle's own time only in details: the same Cold War tensions are in play, and the UK is even more firmly under the thumb of the USA in political and defence matters than would actually be the case. Hoyle summons up an authentic atmosphere of tension in which the excitement of scientific discovery is clouded by the machinations of various powers that vie for control of the new knowledge: the military, the politicians, the private sector (in the form of a nefarious company unfortunately named Intel), and ambitious scientific managers.

Hoyle was better on the science than on dialogue and the portrayal of character, where he tended to fall back on cliché: the headstrong young scientist, the young woman torn between love and duty, the politician obsessed with power and blind to the risks being run. There is also a fair amount of period sexism: a lot of hugging, bottom-patting and pinching that is accepted as the norm by all.

But these are at worst distractions. The central idea is so strong that it could survive rougher handling than this. Only at the very end of the book does Hoyle's handling of the plot falter, and improbabilities start to multiply. Some readers may feel that the ending itself was contrived to allow for the possibility of a sequel to the original television series.

Nonetheless, 'A For Andromeda', like Fred Hoyle's other novels, is essential reading for anyone who wants to know what British science fiction was like before the 'New Worlds' writers rose to fame (and before the 'Star Wars' generation infantilised the genre): a time when SF could be both intelligent and popular with a wide audience.

The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
by Masha Gessen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A chilling portrait, 11 April 2015
Published in 2012, Masha Gessen's biography of Vladimir Putin covers events to 2011. Nothing that has happened since invalidates her narrative and the conclusions she drew from events to that point: if anything, later events confirm the accuracy of her instincts and the broad truth of the story she tells.

In 'The Man Without a Face' Putin is the man who - with help, witting and unwitting - snuffed out the Russian Federation's nascent democracy and returned the country to Soviet ways of doing business. An authoritarian with the instincts of a secret policeman and a deep loyalty to the worldview of the institution in which he was trained - the KGB - Putin emerges here as a violent, calculating and vindictive man who has consistently outmanoeuvred those who believed that he was under their control. Gessen never uses the word 'sociopath': but that judgement is implicit in every paragraph.

There is nothing particularly new here, and Gessen is far from being the only commentator to have drawn the obvious conclusions from events in Russia since 1989. But she has drawn a coherent picture of Vladimir Putin from childhood to the Presidency that makes clear the bases of his character and the continuity of his actions from his experiences with the KGB in East Germany in the 80s through his involvement in St. Petersburg politics to his ascent to the pinnacle of a restored authoritarian system. Gessen makes no bones about believing that Putin has used the Russian military, the police, the FSB and a suborned legal system to procure the death, exile or imprisonment of many of his opponents, to steal the wealth of others and to neuter all potentially democratic institutions. She implicates his government in 'terrorist' actions, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Russian citizens, that were used to justify increasingly authoritarian rule.

Apart from a slightly disconcerting habit of jumping backwards and forwards in time, Gessen writes well and manages the balance between facts and interpretation without too many problems, always making clear what is documented and what is informed speculation. Obviously, this is not a book intended for fans of Putin: Gessen's view of the man is clear. Neither would I recommend that anyone depend solely on this book for an account of contemporary Russia. But Gessen's portrait is a grim corrective to the belief, still occasionally encountered, that Vladimir Putin is a necessary evil.

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
Price: £6.99

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting discussion of what we mean by 'freedom', 3 April 2015
John Gray continues to be an oddity among contemporary intellectuals: a poor fit in a world dominated by materialists and mechanists on the one hand, and true believers in technological progress and human self-improvement on the other. In 'The Soul of the Marionette' he has found evidence in imaginative literature and elsewhere of a continuing struggle between a conception of humanity as the puppet of its materiality and a counter-conception of the human as disembodied – and, with the aid of technology, rehousable – spirit: the endlessly perfectible cyborg, which at the extreme recognises no constraints.

The larger argument is part of Gray's ongoing war against the overconfident rationalism that has replaced religious belief for so many. For Gray, to be human is to be permanently divided and flawed: to be a creature that is palpably at the mercy of its biology and environment and yet is constrained to behave as though it believes itself to be free, to the point of acting perversely if there is no other method of asserting that freedom. Gray believes that all schemes, religious or rational, that aim either at expelling the soul – or spirit, or whatever term you prefer - or at freeing the soul from its materiality, perceived as a trap, purely by the exercise of reason must fail, because each path involves throwing away part of what it is to be human. 'Perfected' man is not human: as Kleist notes in the passage take as epigraph to the book, he must be either a marionette or a god. Gray argues that we must forsake these fantasies and accept our limitations as the price of being what we are.

Gray has assembled in this short text an impressive number of references to this dichotomy in other writings. The result is a heady brew that encompasses thinkers from the Gnostics to Stephen Pinker. As a spur to thinking about what we mean when we talk about 'freedom' it succeeds in being both readable and provocative. Readers of Gray will already know that he has an unusually approachable style. He is also prepared to take instruction where appropriate from sources that have been ignored by others, such as the science fictional writings of Philip K. Dick and the Strugatsky brothers, which lends his argument a pleasing balance and breadth. This is an 'essay' in the best sense.

The book has been presented with notes, but no bibliography or index, which is cause for minor regret.

Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One is (Penguin Classics)
Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One is (Penguin Classics)
by Friedrich Nietzsche
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A late text by Nietzsche in a good translation with limited critical additions, 3 April 2015
In 'Ecce Homo', one of the short works of his last productive year, Nietzsche gave the reader a compressed overview of his philosophical journey to date. Since his mental collapse was less than a year away at the time of composition, it has often been read as evidence of the growing unsoundness of his mind. In fact, if one bears with the author through his most dramatic statements, much of the apparent grandiosity makes sense. I see it partly as Nietzsche amusing himself at the expense of his more conventional critics, and partly as a logical termination of the intellectual path that he traces through his books. It was important to Nietzsche that he be seen as a dancing thinker, a man of speed and lightness: this is never more obvious than here.

'Ecce Homo' is neither the place to start with Nietzsche, nor the most important of his works, though it contains characteristic brilliancies. Nonetheless, it is well worth reading after the reader has formed some idea of his central ideas. This Penguin edition, with its deliberately minimal notes and introduction, offers relatively little help to the neophyte, who is likely to need more contextualisation. At the time of writing of this review, the Kindle edition is far better value than the print edition.

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda
Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda
by John Mueller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A useful corrective to apocalyptic nuclear rhetoric, 27 Mar. 2015
In 'Atomic Obsession' John Mueller takes a cool look at the rhetoric and reality of nuclear threat. His conclusion is that the threat from nuclear warfare, nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism or nuclear accident has been persistently exaggerated since 1945. Even the effects of the weapons themselves have been represented as apocalyptic – civilisation- or world-ending – rather than being compared with known threats in scale and severity. As this apocalyptic rhetoric, favoured by the media and politicians, has spread to assessment of biological and chemical threats, the danger has arisen that this rhetoric alone will achieve some of the ends of terrorists and rogue states by frightening citizens and their governments into irrational and antidemocratic actions.

Mueller's book is closely and objectively argued, and leavened with dry humour. Some might feel that his analysis of the possibilities for nuclear accident is cursory: everything else is covered. For Mueller, such problems with nukes as are substantial – in his reading, many are not – are essentially political and cultural, rather than military or technological. Somewhat to my surprise, I found it difficult to argue with his conclusions. Anyone might benefit from a reading of this book: but I would particularly recommend it to the reader hypnotised by talk of megadeaths, who may have thought that the threat to humanity posed by the development and insidious spread of nuclear weapons could be met only by a complete ban.

The book has a proper index, full notes, and extensive bibliography to 2009 ('Atomic Obsession' appeared in 2010).

Notes From Underground (Canons)
Notes From Underground (Canons)
Price: £5.60

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, very recent translation of an enduring classic, 21 Mar. 2015
'Notes From Underground' is one of Dostoevsky's most frequently translated books, and one might wonder why another translation is needed: there are at least half a dozen independent recent versions available, in addition to the original Constance Garnett translation of 1918 and several later revisions. Nonetheless, this is a vigorous and accurate translation that deserves to compete with the others.

Where this edition falls down is in the lack of contextual material and a decent introduction. Because of its relative brevity and deservedly high reputation 'Notes' is often the first Dostoevesky that the English-speaking reader encounters. For the beginner, however, it isn't an easy read. (The much longer 'Crime and Punishment' is actually a better starting point.) Dostoevsky drops the reader without preparation into the seething consciousness of one of the most perverse and idiosyncratic characters in all of modern literature. Some knowledge of the intellectual and social context in which Dostoevsky was writing, and of the audience that he was addressing, is essential to making full sense of this compressed, explosive narrative. Nonetheless, the publisher here has given the reader only the barest of notes. The Introduction, by DBC Pierre, is a brief, passionate recommendation of the book, but does nothing to help the neophyte.

Five stars for the text and its translation: three stars for the edition. Readers who feel they may benefit from more extended guidance should look at the Everyman, Norton, Penguin or Oxford World's Classics editions.

Satin Island
Satin Island
Price: £9.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing book from a writer capable of better, 21 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Satin Island (Kindle Edition)
After 'Remainder' and 'C' Tom McCarthy looked to be one of the better young British novelists. 'Satin Island', at the very least, should put the brakes to that notion.

The book reads as though McCarthy has taken one of Don DeLillo's more abstract novels and systematically filleted it of everything of interest: humour, psychological acuity, original command of language. There is no plot of any consequence – to be fair, the narrator warns the reader early on that this is the case – and the few characters are ciphers, thinly drawn with what seems to be a conscious lack of affect, incapable of involving the reader. The unnamed narrator - "Call me U", ho ho – inhabits the unholy crossroads at which deals are struck between academia and the corporation: but no midnight pact seems capable of bringing this thin material to life.

So one looks for interest elsewhere. Clearly, McCarthy is more interested in ideas than in persons here. (One character suffers a protracted death purely in order to serve as a sort of running illustration of the protagonist's governing thesis.) But the ideas in question are poststructuralist clichés of the most desperate sort: the arid jargon of postgraduate seminars substituted for the living texture of imaginative fiction. For all his protagonist's theoretical name-dropping, McCarthy seems to have little of his own to add to his influences. Every comparison that sprang to my mind – with DeLillo, Ballard and other favourites of the smart young novelist – was to McCarthy's disadvantage. A late dash for significance, when a hitherto minor character relates a Pasolini-ish story of some potential weight, and so briefly assumes a third dimension, proves misleading; and the whole thing expires quietly in a corner, without troubling the reader's heart or mind.

The adjectives that seemed best to sum up this book were 'thin', 'pallid', 'feeble', 'bland' and 'derivative' – not at all what I had expected. 'Satin Island' is only a novella, or short novel of around 50,000 words: that didn't prevent me from wishing it shorter. It's never a good sign when one finds oneself wondering whether a book is a concealed parody, an authorial joke at the expense of over-earnest readers. Even taken as such, it would be a failure. 'Satin Island' is a considerable disappointment, and can't be recommended on any level.

Fathers and Sons (Oxford World's Classics)
Fathers and Sons (Oxford World's Classics)
by Ivan Turgenev
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Turgenev's classic novel in a vigorous modern translation, 17 Mar. 2015
Turgenev's best novel, here in a modern translation (1991). A few readers might object to some of the slang terms as anachronistic, but for me Richard Freeborn has managed to convey the modernity and disruptive energy of the central character, Bazarov, and so to give the English-speaking reader in our time some idea of the shock that he would have presented to contemporary Russian readers. 'Fathers and Sons', as a classic of modern European literature, should really need no further recommendation. It might be worth noting nonetheless that, for the reader new to Russian literature, it is a particularly suitable introduction; its modest length and stylistic similarity to French and British realist fiction of the period reduce the barrier of difficulty. The novel is set in the period 1859-62: some acquaintance with the events of this period in Russia never hurts, but this Oxford edition includes a useful introduction and relatively brief notes.

Crime and Punishment (Penguin Translated Texts)
Crime and Punishment (Penguin Translated Texts)
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb translation of a Russian - and world - classic, 28 Feb. 2015
This is a superb translation of one of the most important novels in the canon. Dostoevsky's story of a shallow-rooted, intellectually fashionable young man who seduces himself into the commission of a horrible crime has lost none of its relevance. The quality of early translations has sometimes been a stumbling block for the English reader of Russian fiction, but no excuses need be made here. Oliver Ready's version captures Dostoevsky's storytelling drive and humour without obscuring his psychological acuity and intellectual seriousness. This is Dostoevsky for our times: essential reading still.

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