“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas (2004)

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“Paddington Station feels like it should be shut.”

Everyone likes a mystery – or rather, everyone likes solving a mystery. There’s little more infuriating than a mystery that is unsolved. They’re fun, sure, but the real mystery fans like solutions. There is a mystery promised at the heart of PopCo, but in my opinion it fails to entirely materialise. People have raved to be about Scarlett Thomas before, so I was curious to dive in and see what all the fuss was about. Turns out I think I dove into the wrong end of the pool.

Alice Butler works in the ideas and development department of PopCo, the third largest toy company in the world. Her childhood was unusual in many ways. Her mother died young, her father vanished one day, and she was raised by her grandparents who both had a deep love of maths, mystery and code breaking. Something of a loner, obsessed with paradoxes and crossword puzzles, she was headhunted by PopCo to work on their series of products centred around the world of codes and ciphers.

Now, she finds herself in Dartmoor at Head Office, with her and a number of others from the company told they have been gathered to come up with a product that will appeal to teenage girls. The staff members chosen are eclectic and diverse, coming from every aspect of the company including plush toys, video games and advertising. As time goes on and she attends many seminars, lectures and focus groups about the industry, she and those around her begin to rethink their lives. She embarks on a relationship with the quiet and handsome Ben, and then she begins to receive secret messages in a code that only she would be able to understand. Someone is trying to get hold of her, but is it someone from her past, or someone most nearer…

It’s always fair to first talk up the bits I liked about the book, although there aren’t many I can think of that I loved. I liked the grandparent characters, and I do generally find anything about secrets and codes quite interesting, so there is that. I also enjoyed the references to idea creation and the work of Edward de Bono, who I’ve used before too. There are some fascinating asides about how ideas spread and how we are now as a species almost blind to advertising. The big problem is a word I just used there – asides.

Because much of the code breaking plot requires you to know how these codes work, Thomas gives Alice long passages in which she explains how particular codes and ciphers work with explanations that slow the action to a crawl. Certain paradoxes, logic puzzles and riddles are discussed and analysed too, often to make a very small point, if they even have an impact on the story at all. I’ve no issue with it switching between Alice as a child and as an adult, that’s fine, but because of the frequent exposition dumps, it makes for a very erratically paced novel which can never get up to full steam. Every time you think you’re about to learn something new or have something answered, the brakes slam on and you have to read about another cipher.

Without giving too much away, the ending is also something of an anti-climax. Yes, I suppose things are tied up in some way, but not everything is explained to us (not necessarily a bad thing in a book) and there are definitely a few threads left hanging. Indeed, it feels like the story that Thomas actually wants to tell begins about fifty pages from the end, leaving absolutely no time for what, in my opinion, should be the bulk of the story. Alice’s characterisation feels slightly haphazard too, and in another writers hands, her idea of a product to appeal to teenage girls would be the focus, although almost certainly in a dystopian work. Here, the dystopian world is our own, which is somewhat depressing.

I’m reliably informed by many people that this isn’t Thomas’s best work, so I may return to her at some point, but I’m not enthralled as of yet.

“Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve” by Ben Blatt (2017)

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“In literary lore, one of the best stories of all time is a mere six words.”

I am a proper nerd for statistics. I’m not very mathematically minded, but give me a good list, chart or graph and I’m a happy man. The only way I have ever been able to tolerate the Olympics or the World Cup is because of all the statistics that come along with it. Mixing up maths and literature, however, to examine the works of our best-selling authors is almost a dream come true.

Journalist Ben Blatt has allied big data with literature to explore the secrets hiding in the pages of our favourite novels. Is it possible to tell if a novel is written by Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens just by looking at the use of exclamation marks? Are American authors louder than British ones? Are men or women more likely to use the word “something”? Is the content of The New York Times bestseller list proof that we’re getting stupider as a species? Why do so many novels open with descriptions of the weather? And what do Suzanne Collins and I have in common in how we use cliffhangers? Blatt examines all of these topics and many more besides.

While it’s easy enough to tell if something is written by Douglas Adams or Virginia Woolf due to their vastly different content, this book actually focuses on the more general words used, right down to the smallest ones like the or not. Suddenly is an interesting one – for every 100,000 words J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, 78 of them were suddenly. Chuck Palahniuk sits at the other end of the scale, with 2 out of 100,000. The book can even prove that, if it hadn’t already been revealed to us, Robert Galbraith was more than likely going to turn out to be J. K. Rowling than anyone else, and that’s just going on the uses of what and but.

The gender splits are also very interesting. Quite famously, The Hobbit features the word he nearly 1,900 times, but she only appears once. Is there a book that skews quite this dramatically in the other direction? It doesn’t seem like it, with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie appearing as the most she-heavy novel examined (21% he / 79% she). While women are apparently more likely to use words like lace, dress or curtains, they’re also more prone to saying should, since and like. Generally we don’t take in most of this stuff, but to see it all laid out bare, it’s very fascinating. Blatt also has good fun examining whether authors follow their own advice or not. Martin Amis hates cliches and Stephen King loathes adverbs, so Blatt checks through their work to see if they abide by their own rules. There’s also a lot of time spent reading fan fiction. Can you determine whether Stephanie Meyer wrote a particular chapter, or one of her fans? Yes, you can. There’s also a huge discrepancy between the styles of American and British fan fiction based on Harry Potter.

And yes, based on frequency of use compared to others, Vladimir Nabokov’s favourite word is mauve. Some of the others listed can hardly be considered a surprise – inquest for Agatha Christie, dragons for George R. R. Martin, dinosaur for Michael Crichton – some are a little odder. Who could have guessed that Ray Bradbury favours spearmint or F. Scott Fitzgerald used facetious a lot.

For anyone interested in how their writing matches up, I recommend heading to I Write Like, where you can dump in any text and it will tell you which famous writer your style most resembles. Despite my content matching up closer to the likes of Ben Aaronovitch or Neil Gaiman, my writing style can apparently be mistaken for, who else, Agatha Christie. Apparently she is an even bigger influence on my work than I realised. That, or I’m a somewhat unorthodox reincarnation.

Oh, and the link I have with Suzanne Collins? We both frequently end our chapters with one-sentence paragraphs.

So it goes.

“The Humans” by Matt Haig (2013)


humans“I know some of you reading this are convinced humans are a myth, but I am here to state that they do actually exist.”

In the debate about whether there is life on other planets in this universe, I am firmly on the side of those who believe there is. I mean, the idea is terrifying, but even more terrifying is that in this infinite expanse of mostly-nothing, only one planet developed life. I don’t necessarily believe that we’ll meet any other species – the universe is probably too big and too old. For all we know, we were latecomers to the party. Or maybe we’re really early and we’ll be dying out by the time other lifeforms begin to appear.

Because we don’t know about what’s out there (although Doctor Who and Douglas Adams have given us some pretty cool suggestions), most of our fictions tend to focus on the human race, although sometimes we take a lot of the stuff we do for granted. Sometimes someone needs to come along and shake us up a bit, study us from the outside. That is what Matt Haig has tried to do in this book.

Our narrator is a Vonnadorian, one of a hive-mind-like race that has studied mathematics to the point that it can use it to make themselves immortal, control the minds of others, heal themselves instantly and remove any need for war, pain, guilt or sadness. They exist now to love mathematics and keep order in the universe. They discover that on a far off watery spot called Earth, Professor Andrew Martin has solved the Riemann hypothesis, an up-to-then unsolved problem about the nature and distribution of prime numbers. Apparently this discovery would alter the future of humans in a way that would be difficult for them to deal with, so the narrator is sent to take over Andrew’s body, remove all evidence of the solution from Earth and kill anyone who may have been told about it, including Andrew’s wife and teenage son.

He arrives on Earth confused and lost, learning the language from an issue of Cosmopolitan he found in a petrol station, and being agog at the fact that cars can’t fuel themselves and buildings don’t move. After realising that orgasms are the most important thing to the human race – a race that, he has been told by others of his species, is otherwise motivated only by violence and greed – he sets off to find Cambridge University where Andrew was a lecturer. However, he soon has a run in with the police after discovering that wandering the streets of England naked is frowned upon.

He claims to have had a nervous breakdown and eventually is free to go home with Isobel, his unsuspecting wife, and their moody son Gulliver, with whom he has a strained relationship. That is, Andrew had a strained relationship – the narrator has to fake it. As he gets closer to his supposed family, Andrew begins to feel a little bit more human. He learns more about their ways and discovers that maybe the Vonnadorians had it wrong. Humans aren’t only motivated by violence and greed, at least, not all of them. And can a race that produced peanut butter, white wine and Emily Dickinson really be as bad as all that?

Haig may be alien himself as he has a wonderful eye for the absurdities of our lives. The narrator is concerned by the lack of imagination in buildings – all squares, rectangles and straight lines – doesn’t understand why we’d drink Diet Coke or coffee, and is completely incomprehending of why a cow changes its name to “beef” when humans eat it. (I do love the suggestion here though that we use that word that is the furthest monosyllable away from the sound “cow”, because we don’t like to think about it.)

He makes some wonderful observations about things we would take for granted. The alien views pubs as “an invention of humans living in England, designed as compensation for the fact they were humans living in England”, and Catholicism is a branch of Christianity obessed with “gold leaf, Latin and guilt”. One of the most haunting is his notion that to create human civilisation, we had to “close the door on [our] true selves”, which is then why we invented art, to find our way back. He has decided that humans live to hide – lies hide truths, clothes hide bodies, walls hide rooms and laughter hides sadness. He acknowledges that we are a violent, greedy, self-absorbed race, but we understand these flaws and some of us at least are trying to address them. From the outside, humans are a bit weird, but remarkable and fascinating to him nonetheless.

The book allows you to see us for what we really are, highlighting that pain and loss are the prices we pay for life and the joys it can bring. Humans die and, while to the narrator the idea is abhorrent, he becomes curious as to how humans manage to trundle along anyway and mostly ignore this fact that looms over every second of their existence. Towards the end of the novel, he gives a list of advice on how to be a human, and it’s wonderful. The list could probably do more for humanity than any religion ever has if we would just pay attention to its rules like, “5. Laugh. It suits you.” and “39. No one is completely right about anything.” Perhaps my favourite is “67. War is the answer. To the wrong question.”

A wonderful, intelligent and tender novel that can bring out the human in all of us.

“Flatland” by Edwin A. Abbott (1884)


Maths: now in novel form

Maths: now in novel form

“I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in space.”

First and foremost, I am not a mathematician. I believe that people are divided into two types – numbers people and letters people, and I am strictly a letters person. Syllables, words, sentences and chapters, that’s where I am. I don’t get numbers. They’re too … rigid? There’s no ambiguity with maths. I suppose that is what attracts some people to it.

Flatland is less a novel and more of a mathematical-cum-philosophical treatise. It is narrated by A. Square, a charming and intelligent square who lives in the titular Flatland. This is a two-dimensional world where existence is limited to length and width. Rain flows from the north so pentagonal houses are built with their roofs facing that. Men take the forms of triangles, squares, hexagons and circles, while women are all merely straight lines.

One day, our square narrator is visited by a stranger from Spaceland, a world of three dimensions, much like ours. This stranger is a sphere, and attempts to explain to the square the nature of a third dimension, much to the disbelief of the square, until he sees it with his own eyes. He feels compelled to inform his fellow flat citizens of what he has seen.

The novel is split quite definitely into two parts. The first details the world of Flatland and gives a lot of exposition of the world. It explains how everyone can only ever see a line, so cannot see shapes, and must feel one another to determine their shapes. It explains the hierarchy of the world, with isoceles triangle soldiers at the bottom and priestly circles with (for the sake of argument) thousands of tiny sides at the top. The second half of the novel has the square dealing with his visitor and learning about the third dimension.

Not only am I not a mathematician, I am also not a huge reader of the classics, so this book is a step out of my comfort zone in two ways. However, the book has lasted and I can understand why. It is very clever, although Abbott handwaves many aspects of the universe, such as their writing system or how they build houses, merely suggesting that the narrator doesn’t have time to go into it all. This is a very clever book though, masterfully worded to explain the nature of dimensions, to understand how shapes can see one another, and to give food for thought for us in the third dimension that there may just be a fourth dimension above us that we cannot see. And if a fourth, then why not a fifth, sixth or seventh?

It’s worth a look and can be read very quickly, but it errs on the side of “inform” rather than “entertain” in places, and can be quite dry. Still, when the author is a teacher and theologian whose only other books were school textbooks, that can hardly come as a surprise. There are also some parallels with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is also said to be a maths essay in disguise. This is just a little more sane (although not much).