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A. J. Cull (London, UK)

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Into the Dustbin: Rajendra Pachauri, the Climate Report & the Nobel Peace Prize
Into the Dustbin: Rajendra Pachauri, the Climate Report & the Nobel Peace Prize
Price: £9.37

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Donna vs the Delinquent Teenager, Round II, 23 Sept. 2013
She's done it again. Two years ago, Donna Laframboise gave us "The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World's Top Climate Expert", shining an uncomfortably bright light onto the doings of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and revealing some rather inconvenient truths about that organisation.

And here's a steady continuation of her thesis - "Into the Dustbin: Rajendra Pachauri, the Climate Report & the Nobel Peace Prize", in which Donna focusses on the extremely well connected and high-profile IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, head of a United Nations body that is meant to be "policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive", yet preaching CO2 mitigation and an ascetic lifestyle whilst relishing the very opulence and fossil-fuelled ease that he professes to despise. Although not a climate scientist himself, as best-known representative of the IPCC Pachauri is able to exert no small influence on the world stage, whenever he speaks ex cathedra.

What he says matters. Whether he is exhorting young activists to help fast-track changes in global consumption behaviour, warning Green Cross International that we have "five minutes before midnight" or jokingly encouraging Richard Branson to send sceptics on a one-way journey to outer space, to his listeners he is the voice of the IPCC. The average politician might not have read all, or indeed any, of that organisation's voluminous reports, but may well have heard - and heeded - Dr. Pachauri's frequent sound bites. When he informs an audience that the role of "the best scientists, thousands of them" is to tell the world, as a labour of love, that the impacts of climate change will get progressively worse "if we don't do something", who will gainsay him?

As the saying goes, the fish stinks from the head, and as chapter follows chapter an unedifying picture continues to emerge, of an institution that is dominated by environmentalists, uses dubious "grey literature" when it says it doesn't, breaks its own ostensibly strict rules when it suits, is secretive and slow to respond to criticism and which allows activist organisations to bestow on some of their members the unwarranted title of Nobel Laureate, aided by a compliant and lazy media. Much of this material will be already familiar to you, if you have read "The Delinquent Teenager" or followed Donna's blog - which I recommend - and in this respect, the new book is not so much a standalone work as it is Part II of a work in progress.

And on that note, very good though it is, if I have given "Into the Dustbin" less than full marks the reason is that I am confident a future Part III will be even better, matching the sheer punch of "Delinquent Teenager" and completing a series in which "Into the Dustbin" will have been, as it were, a worthy bridging episode. I am writing this review in September 2013, on the eve of the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) and as global warming has languished for well over a decade in what some are referring to as "the great hiatus". Crucially, this will be the last report of its kind before the UNFCCC attempts, in Paris, in 2015, to pull off what it tried and failed to do in Copenhagen, in 2009 - secure a binding global treaty on climate change, a successor to Kyoto.

It remains to be seen how the Intergovernmental Panel and Dr. Pachauri will handle - or mishandle - the unwelcome fact of the "hiatus" and the news that global temperatures now seem to be at the lower bounds of earlier projections by computer models. We appear to be approaching a crunch point for the IPCC, when the uncertainties of climate science loom larger than ever, and yet when the temptation to over-egg the pudding must be almost unbearable. Whatever the fallout from AR5 - and fallout of some sort there will be - I am sure that Donna Laframboise will have plenty to write about, in her trademark acerbic, hard-hitting style, and that it, like her existing books, will be well worth reading.

Icarus Rising
Icarus Rising
Price: £2.24

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fast-paced and Exciting, 20 Mar. 2013
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This review is from: Icarus Rising (Kindle Edition)
It's not every day you get to read a thriller which is also about climate change and geoengineering, with a little cryptozoology thrown in, but Icarus Rising by Dominic Carney is precisely that. As another reviewer has mentioned, there are some rough edges that could have been smoother - however, for me, these were more than outweighed by the lively plotting and action, and also the inherent fascination of the subject matter. The story also features a terrific and memorable villain, whose moves provide extra motivation to keep turning the pages. Whatever your stance is on man-made climate change (mine happens to be sceptical) there's no denying it's a great thing to find stories which provoke ideas and spark interest in the topic, and which - like Icarus Rising - are fast-paced and exciting works in their own right.

The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World's Top Climate Expert
The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World's Top Climate Expert
Price: £8.39

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Taken to Task, 19 Nov. 2011
It's an all too familiar story - something that when viewed from a distance appears perfectly fine but on closer inspection turns out to be a mess. The flawless makeup concealing a face covered in blemishes, the smooth paint job disguising a lethally decrepit car, the beautiful mansion later found to be riddled with dry rot, the brilliant and charismatic politician with - alas - feet of clay.

This can equally apply to institutions. Take the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ever since it was established in 1988, the IPCC has been held up as an exemplary organisation, representing a "gold standard" for the synthesis of climate science. Operating with utter transparency and relying only on solid, peer-reviewed material, an army of 2,500 expert reviewers and over a thousand contributing and lead authors from all over the globe have been working tirelessly to build a superlative up-to-date and reliable picture of the science of climate change, which in turn can be used, with absolute confidence, to inform and underpin the policies of governments the world over.

Except - it turns out that this is not exactly the case. Enter Donna Laframboise, Canadian writer and blogger, who, aided by a team of citizen auditors, has painstakingly examined the workings of the IPCC, placed them under the microscope, so to speak, and reports her findings in this very timely book. And what she has uncovered is a picture radically different to the one the IPCC would like the world to see. One by one, she refutes and demolishes a number of key assertions made by the IPCC and its supporters over the years.

The IPCC's material is prepared by the finest scientific minds? Well, no - many of them are little more than activists, who have worked for Greenpeace or for wildlife charity turned climate-campaigning behemoth, WWF. People at the top of their profession? Hardly - quite a few of them have been graduate students in their twenties. The IPCC only uses peer-reviewed scientific literature? No again - many of its sources have been newspaper and magazine articles, press releases and documents from environmental organisations. And authoritative? Some of its bolder claims, for instance that 20-30% of all plant and animal species are at risk of extinction due to global warming, are based on flawed and controversial scientific studies. Behind the crisp, definitive headline statements like Ban Ki-moon's "the world's scientists have spoken, clearly and with one voice", exists something far less clear-cut - a body of work that is more like a perplexing, indeterminate mass of uncertainties, likelihoods, suggestions, coulds, mights and maybes.

In addition, the author describes the IPCC's various underhand practices, its lack of openness, its defensiveness and its arrival at predetermined conclusions. What she reveals is an unattractive picture of an organisation staffed with activists and reliant on "grey material" from partisan lobby groups, an organisation which has been set up to promulgate a certain point of view, and accordingly has employed whatever means it feels is justified, including the frequent breaking of its own rules. An organisation that is meant to be "policy-neutral", but whose chairman is an outspoken advocate for carbon prices, vegetarianism, aviation taxes and, overall, a "radical value shift" in the western world.

The next IPPC report on the state of climate science (AR8) is due out in 2013, and even if a fraction of what Donna Laframboise reports in her book is accurate, an urgent root-and-branch reform of this organisation is sorely needed, at the very least. Whether this will happen in time to make a real difference is another matter entirely.

In The Delinquent Teenager, Donna Laframboise has written a succinct and hard-hitting book, which I think should be read and heeded by those from all sides of the climate debate. It is a product of the sort of methodical investigative journalism the mainstream media have consistently failed to deploy when it comes to climate change, and it arrives at a time when the institutions of climate science, with all their shortcomings, deserve to be under more scrutiny than ever before.

The Hockey Stick Illusion;Climategate and the Corruption of Science (Independent Minds)
The Hockey Stick Illusion;Climategate and the Corruption of Science (Independent Minds)
by A W Montford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucid, thorough and convincing, 19 Jun. 2010
If there was a contest to be the number one emblem of runaway catastrophic man-made climate change, Michael Mann's Hockey Stick graph would be a major contender.

The Hockey Stick Illusion, by Andrew Montford, is about the story behind the graph, and about the efforts of one man in particular - semi-retired Canadian mining consultant Steve McIntyre - to uncover its flaws. Published at the beginning of 2010, it follows the trail of events which started with the publication of Mann's papers MBH98 and MBH99, and with McIntyre's initial 2003 request for information regarding the original datasets for these studies. As the chapters unfold, a complex tale of scientific bungling, whitewash and obfuscation begins to emerge.

Put baldly like that, the book is in danger of sounding just a little dull, but this is actually not the case at all. It reads, if anything, rather like a good detective novel - specifically a police procedural, where the protagonist leaves no stone unturned in his long quest for the truth. Along the way, there's no shortage of statistical detail (which is where the devil is, as they say) but thankfully, for readers who like myself are more comfortable with words than numbers, the author has managed to explain statistical arcana, such as principal components analysis and "short centring", in terms that the layman can readily grasp but without dumbing down the subject matter. Andrew Montford has managed to tell this complex story with a spareness and a clarity that in other circumstances would merit a Crystal Mark from the Plain English Campaign.

This is an important book, I believe, and one which will grow in importance. Not because the Hockey Stick graph is, by itself, crucial to the scientific case for catastrophic man-made global warming - it isn't. The Hockey Stick Illusion is important because it anatomises the modus operandi of the scientists whose work has been used to sound the alarm on global warming and justify the rushing through of ill-conceived changes to the way we all live. And where we would have expected to find scientific rigour and thoroughness, we find (or rather, Steve McIntyre found) laziness, secrecy and corner-cutting instead. It is rather like taking the cover off a shiny new stereo to discover a rat's nest of malfunctioning components and badly soldered wiring underneath.

The Hockey Stick Illusion is a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in the climate debate. Even for those convinced of the case that man-made climate change is a potential threat to civilisation (and this is a category which, I believe, includes Steve McIntyre himself) there is enough here, surely, to lead to some deep misgivings about the way climate science has thus far been conducted. To quote Carl Sagan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and if that evidence is revealed to be sketchy, badly-documented and error-ridden, it does not inspire confidence.

Orbus (Spatterjay 3)
Orbus (Spatterjay 3)
by Neal Asher
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Monsters vs Aliens in the Graveyard, 25 Feb. 2010
This review is from: Orbus (Spatterjay 3) (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
If this was the future, and there existed a desolate, lawless area of space which was a contested no-man's-land between two implacably opposed galactic cultures and which was known colloquially as "the Graveyard", would you ever want to go there? Would you, in fact, want to venture within a hundred light years of the place? I certainly wouldn't, and neither would you if you're as pathetically cautious as I am. Luckily for readers of Orbus, however, the characters in Neal Asher's latest book are not averse to a little trouble now and then. And trouble - in spades - is exactly what they find in the Graveyard.

Ever since reading Neal Asher's The Skinner back in 2003, I have thought that the Prador (a race of enjoyably nasty and warlike crustacean-analogues from deep space) are among some of the best SF baddies to emerge since Terry Nation invented the Daleks. Furthermore I have believed it was high time that they had a whole novel to themselves, more or less, without any danger of the planet Spatterjay's entertainingly horrible and ruthless oceanic fauna stealing the show. Asher's 2006 novel Prador Moon came close to accomplishing this, the one caveat being that it was all too short, but at 438 pages, Orbus hits the bull's-eye.

So, what's to like? Plenty! As per usual in a Neal Asher book, there is no shortage of futuristic mayhem, as Prador engage in battle with one another, and with monstrosities even scarier than themselves, in a flurry of explosions, crashes, laser blasts, rail-gun duels and hand-to-hand (claw-to-claw) fisticuffs. Joining the fray is the eponymous Orbus (a Spatterjay native with superhuman strength and an attitude problem), his rather dim sidekick Drooble, the nautiloid-shaped war drone Sniper (who easily has to be my favourite Neal Asher character) and his own sidekick, the seahorse-shaped drone Thirteen. They find that even a boosted musculature and/or fiendishly advanced weaponry do not necessarily guarantee survival in an environment like this, where sudden death is usually only a fraction of a second away. It is, of course, all excellent, violent fun.

What impresses me in Orbus, and in Neal Asher novels generally (as it also does in the novels of Iain M Banks) is the ease with which the future technology is described, to the point where it becomes difficult to accept that rail-guns, fusion power plants, augs, chainglass and all the other accoutrements don't actually exist right now (although I'm sure DARPA is on the case) and this is a testament to the way Asher is able to make his fantastically and nightmarishly improbable scenarios seem absolutely solid and real.

What also delights is that along the way the reader is treated almost imperceptibly to some of the bigger themes and questions in both fiction and real life. Such as, what makes aliens alien? (Take a while to think about that one.) And if you take most of what defines a person away from him (by reanimating his corpse under the control of an uploaded digital snapshot of his own mind, let's say, or infecting him with a virus that causes him to undergo rapid and irreversible mutation) is what remains the same person? Happily, these thought experiments are not conveyed by long expository passages but occur as by-products of the relentless action-filled story, like a crop of interesting weeds found growing in a bomb crater.

Some reviewers have pointed to the rather lacklustre character of Orbus himself as a weakness in the novel, but my own impression is that, mad as this may sound, he is just about ideal for the role - physically superhuman enough to hold his own in an environment where mere humans wouldn't last more than a minute at most, and at the same time able to act as a perfect foil to the more exuberant or dramatically interesting characters. In my opinion, it works.

As you have probably realised by now, I had a lot of fun reading this novel; and yes, I'm rather a fan of Neal Asher's books, generally. Orbus isn't The Catcher in the Rye, or Anna Karenina, but then it never sets out to be. There are indeed days when I prefer to read something like Anna Karenina. And there are other days, mostly after having done my level best to help prop up this country's ailing economy for another twenty-four hours, when what I really, really want to read about - and nothing else will do - is aliens trying to murder one another with absurdly powerful military hardware.

by Daniel Suarez
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrific bleeding-edge ideas, needs some refinement, 17 Jan. 2010
This review is from: Daemon (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
It's been done before, but never quite like this. Computers that kill, robots running amok, assemblages of inorganic matter that attain a creepy sentience and a will to power - yes, these have been tropes of science fiction for a long time. HAL 9000 from Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Colossus from 1969 movie The Forbin Project come immediately to mind, and the roots of this idea go back, I suppose, via Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the old tales of gods and titans - artificial creatures turning the tables, like rebellious children, on their creators. Daniel Suarez's Daemon is firmly in this tradition, but manages to give the venerable genre an unexpected and welcome twist.

Which is that instead of a malign intelligence arising solely in some hulking central cyber-brain, the evil one is everywhere and nowhere, spread out across millions of computers over the internet - a "distributed daemon" (they do exist.) Operating much like a virus or a weed, the Daemon proves to be a formidable adversary and as difficult to contain as a flu pandemic - at least with HAL you could be sure of disabling him in one go, by pulling all of his modules out of their sockets.

There is much to enjoy in this novel. At times, Suarez writes like Michael Crichton at his best, gleefully displaying his prowess with cutting-edge technology like a demon barber with a shiny new razor and putting to good use some very nice ideas indeed, some new and some familiar - buildings and vehicles that take on a malevolent life of their own, frangible ammunition, MMORPGs and my favourite, the HSS or HyperSonic Sound system (a real device, in fact, the brainchild of American inventor Elwood "Woody" Norris), which can create voices that seem to come out of thin air.

But what impressed me most is how the Daemon operates. Distributed across thousands of servers across the world's continents, it is everywhere and nowhere, possessing no central "brain", and displaying a relentless and manipulative intelligence, despite the simplicity of its individual parts. It is a machine entity created by a human (the late Matthew Sobol, millionaire programmer, gamer and evil genius), which in turn uses other humans like computer subroutines, sending them out to toil and fight for the Daemon like hordes of soldier ants. Truly amazing stuff.

Alas, what lets the author down, however, is his powers as a novelist. Say what you like about Michael Crichton's characterisation, he could put together a rattling good story and give it a proper beginning, middle and end. Not so Daniel Suarez - or rather not yet, this being his debut novel. His beginning is terrific, but his middle drags and his ending... doesn't. His pace is off, with characters and storylines appearing, then disappearing for chapters on end, then briefly reappearing, then vanishing forever. One character is the centre of attention during a big chunk of the story early on, but then is apparently mislaid and forgotten about until he pops up again just in time for the climax.

And talking of the climax - with some movies, you get to the point where there is no more real story, plot development or surprises to emerge, just one long final chase or fight scene. This happens in Daemon too, and it really does come across as a bit of a low-on-brainpower, Hollywood-inspired actionfest. Don't get me wrong, I love fights and chases (in novels, mind you, not in real life) and relish the idea of killer machete-wielding robotic motorcycles as much as anyone; however, after all that Daemon had already delivered, I did want some more story, preferably with a proper ending at the end of it.

But, you know, I probably am going to acquire and devour the recently-published sequel. I have a strong feeling that Daniel Suarez, for all his rough edges, is absolutely one author who will bear watching.

Tokyo Cancelled
Tokyo Cancelled
by Rana Dasgupta
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Imaginative twist on a fine old idea, 26 Sept. 2009
This review is from: Tokyo Cancelled (Paperback)
Tokyo Cancelled is based on an intriguing premise - thirteen people are stranded at an airport somewhere (in Asia, I presume) waiting for a connecting flight to snowbound Tokyo, and to pass the time, they tell stories. It's clearly a modern twist on an old literary device that has been used, in different ways, by - amongst others - Chaucer, Boccaccio and the author or compiler of the One Thousand and One Nights. The stories, in this case, are surreal and bizarre, for the most part, occasionally enchanting, sometimes grotesque and unsettling. They are set among some of the world's biggest and busiest capital cities and are tales of love, sex, ambition, betrayal, loneliness, magic and utter mystery, packaged in a way that is both up to the postmodern minute and as old as the hills.

There are things I definitely liked in Tokyo Cancelled. Apart from his clever reworking of the people-in-unusual circumstances-telling-stories device, the author also displays a wonderful and quirky gift for descriptions, and there are plenty of scenes from these tales that remain in my memory, even after the passing of much time and the reading of many books since. And there is something in the way these are written that remind me strongly of the way dreams operate - they have a compelling illogic and morph seamlessly from one narrative into a completely different one; the most outlandish events occur without the characters, the narrator (or even the reader!) batting an REM-sleep-immersed eyelid. Dasgupta's fictional world is one of odd afflictions and obsessions, animated dolls, dream-activated trees, lover-reuniting wingless birds, memory-destroying plagues, surely the very stuff of dreams - or nightmares.

However, there are also things I thought could certainly have been improved. The tellers of these tales have no individual voice - they could all be the same person and they bring nothing of themselves to the stories. I feel the author has missed a great opportunity here. Chaucer's pilgrims were of all stations in life, and this is marvellously reflected in the tales they tell. Dasgupta's stranded fliers are also a diverse group, and their stories could have been as much about each narrator - a banker, a backpacker, a salesman - as they were about the fantastical events they described. In addition, for all their surreal inventiveness, the dreamlike and disjointed quality of each narrative also left me with some degree of confusion as to what the story, in each case, was really saying. For example, in the midst of The House of the Frankfurt Mapmaker, Frankfurt is invaded by hordes of monkeys, which is a fascinating development, true, but also one that I found irrelevant and quite distracting.

In the end I found myself adequately entertained, momentarily delighted and occasionally irritated by Tokyo Cancelled. It could definitely have been better than it was, in some ways, but could equally have been far worse (says he, damning with faint praise.) Although I was not stuck in some remote Asiatic airport terminal while reading it, this collection of short stories - I wouldn't call it a novel - helped to pass the time, and in that respect at least, it served its purpose with flying colours.

The Sun: A Biography
The Sun: A Biography
by David Whitehouse
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars My 100-word book review, 9 Jun. 2008
This review is from: The Sun: A Biography (Hardcover)
The Sun is an excellent, entertaining and thought-provoking book written for the layperson by astronomer David Whitehouse about our most awesome and mysterious nearest star. Part history, part biography, this book also has enough science to engage and inform, without either getting bogged down in technicalities or coming across as too superficial. Whitehouse follows the efforts of astronomers and physicists who, over the centuries, have been piecing together the great puzzle that is our (still very incomplete) knowledge of the Sun, and after reading this, you may well find yourself taking our vast, incandescent neighbour a little less for granted.

Parable of the Sower
Parable of the Sower
by Octavia E. Butler
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars My 100-word book review, 27 Feb. 2008
Parable of the Sower is a vivid, often harrowing, story of survival, loss and companionship, set in a United States in the near future, where the environment and society have degraded to the point of breakdown. An account of a young woman's journey away from the dangerous neighbourhood of her childhood, and of the perils and the people encountered in the search for a safe haven, this novel is about the triumph and resilience of the human spirit. Although I felt it would have been just as good without its religious element, reading this story was ultimately an uplifting experience.

How to be Free
How to be Free
by Tom Hodgkinson
Edition: Hardcover

6 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars My 100-word book review, 14 Nov. 2007
This review is from: How to be Free (Hardcover)
How to be Free is highly entertaining nonsense, with several grains of truth buried among the contradictions. Like a four-year-old who thinks it would be great to eat nothing but ice cream, the author appears gloriously unaware of the likely consequences should everyone live in the way he proposes. I agree about the value of questioning the power of governments and corporations, yet his ideal society would surely be a descent into miserable and chaotic (albeit colourful!) squalor. One marvellous thing about this book, ironically, is that it has made me more appreciative of our modern world and its benefits.

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