“Other Minds” by Peter Godfrey-Smith (2016)

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“On a spring morning in 2009, Matthew Lawrence dropped the anchor of his small boat at a random spot in the middle of a blue ocean bay on the east coast of Australia, and jumped over the side.”

I’ve always had a fondness for the animals with more curious traits. Skunks are cute, and have that unusual method of defence we all know about. Sloths are sweet and have somehow made it to the modern world without ever feeling the need to pick up their heels. Narwhals are the closest we’ll get to actual unicorns. And chameleons are bio-mechanical masterpieces, with all the latest features. But I’ve always had a particular soft spot for that most alien of creature – the octopus.

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book takes us underwater into the world of the cephalopods, that curious collection of creatures that comprise octopuses, squids and cuttlefish. We parted ways on the evolutionary path some 600 million years ago and our families thus evolved in very different ways. However, both sides evolved intelligence in one way or another, and Godfrey-Smith is curious as to where that began. Using a combination of science and philosophy, the book analyses octopus intelligence and what it can tell us about our own consciousness.

The book covers a number of topics surrounding octopuses (and yes, that is the correct pluralisation) including their evolution, lifestyles and habitats. We explore their curiosity, their ability to use tools, and their incredible ability to change colour and shape to disguise them anywhere they choose. There’s the stunning realisation that despite their unparalleled skill at camouflage, they’re actually colour-blind, and what their short lifespans might say about the cost of having such a highly developed neural system. As Godfrey-Smith says, they are about as close as we’ll get to meeting an intelligent alien.

It’s an engaging and fascinating topic, but this isn’t a book that’ll suit for a bit of light reading. This is science and philosophy at its most intense, talking about sentience, evolution, psychology and intelligence. It’s still interesting to read about these strange animals, and even more so to learn a little more about cuttlefish, a creature I know very little about. One of the most engaging passages has Godfrey-Smith diving with friendly cuttlefish, and one who is determined to ignore him. One things for sure, you’ll never be able to look at any of these beasts in the same way again.

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“Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (1949)

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1984-orwell

This was not meant to be an instruction manual.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I tend to use books as escapism. I think we all do. We dive into fictional realities and live out new lives in new worlds, just for a time, to get away from the troubles and torments in the real world.  But then, sometimes you want to read something that reminds you of the world you know. I don’t think I ever believed, really, that one day this classic and shocking novel would be one we turn to as representative of the world we find ourselves in now.

I first tried reading 1984 as a teenager, but could never get into it. I tried again about five years ago and was immediately hooked. With the news that, last week, sales of the book had climbed 9500%, Amazon had sold out, and the publishers were having to issue a 75,000-copy reprint to keep up with demand, I felt compelled to read it again and see just what exactly I had forgotten and why it was more relevant than ever. I came out the other side shocked.

Our hero is Winston Smith, a thirty-nine year old member of the Outer Party who lives in a totalitarian society where cameras and microphones in every house and street mean that privacy is now a thing of the past. People are arrested and disappear for even thinking bad thoughts about the Party (the ruling authority) and its leader, Big Brother. People are expected to display unwavering loyalty to the government and any hint of rebellion is quashed before it can get started. Winston, however, has noticed that there’s one corner of his flat that seems to be out of sight of the telescreen, and inspired by this and his sense that there must be more to life than what he sees, he begins writing a diary.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, the department of the government responsible for all media output, ensuring that whatever is said matches up to the Party wants it to say. Winston is employed to make changes to old newspapers, books and reports to literally rewrite history and show the Party to be infallible. Everyone knows this happens, but through a new process called doublethink, they are made to convince themselves that no changes were ever made. Anyone who has listened to the quotes coming out of America this week regarding “alternative facts” will find this chillingly real.

Winston has found himself the focus of the desires of a young woman named Julia, and they must secretly plot to find some privacy in a world where even loving someone is an act of rebellion. Together they seek out any truth to the rumours that there is a Brotherhood; a movement of people who are ready to overthrow the government and bring about a new way of life. However, Big Brother is always watching, and trust is very hard to come by these days.

I remembered easily from my first read of the book the appearances of Big Brother, Winston’s awful life, the ongoing war with the two other superstates, Eastasia and Eurasia, the telescreens, the ill-fated love affair and his experience in Room 101, but there were many things I had forgotten, such as what Winston’s job actually was, and how he finds out the truth of what’s going on via a book written by an earlier rebel. With the current state of the world, the novel takes on a whole new hue, as we start to look at what the media are actually telling us and politicians seem quite content to simply make things up rather than rely on empirical evidence.

There’s a long period in the second act in which we learn a lot about how the world got to this state and how it actually works behind the scenes, which is quoted from a textbook and drags a little, but otherwise the book is pacey, engaging, shocking and very powerful. Winston is a flawed hero; Julia, a flawed heroine. They are both trying to eke out a little happiness in this horrendous new world but with the Thought Police potentially around every corner, ready to arrest you for daring to think something that goes against the Party, it’s nigh on impossible. Particularly haunting are the scenes involving children who are already being taught to act as spies and rat out their parents if they ever have an improper thought, and the whole time Winston is imprisoned. (These don’t count as spoilers, not for a book nearly seventy years old.)

The book is also very familiar if you’ve never read it before. The TV shows Big Brother and Room 101 both take their names from here, and concepts of doublethink, Newspeak, thoughtcrime and the Thought Police have all passed into the language. This is a staggeringly important book, and one that may change the way you think of politics and how we are treated. If nothing else, it should make you wonder just how trustworthy some news outlets are, especially the ones that seem to lack an unbiased stance.

Everyone should read this book. I know it’s considered a negative of the liberals to go and hide in a book when things get tough, but books contain a multitude of answers. This is an extreme example of a world that could exist, but at times it feels like one we may just end up sleepwalking into. Rise up and challenge the government. Question them, don’t take their abuses, don’t let them spread lies as if they’re truths, fight the good fight.

“Life After God” by Douglas Coupland (1994)

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life after God“I was driving you up to Prince George to the home of your grandfather, the golf wino.”

For centuries, religion and faith in an almighty were central factors of the way life worked. Church was important, prayer was necessary, and no one had come along yet that had really had a convincing enough alternative. However, over the last couple of hundred years, and in the last few decades in particular, things have changed. Society is less interested in organised religion and is more enthralled by blockbuster movies and bargain stores. So what happens to us in a world that is now run by Hollywood rather than the holy word? Coupland is back with a few short stories detailing some struggling people.

In these eight short stories, Coupland gives us a collection of nameless narrators, each struggling to cope with loss, loneliness and a lack of emotion. Many of them lament the loss of God from their lives, while others are simply struggling to come to terms with growing up and the modern experience. They’re all seeking out something they’ve lost, or simply trying to escape.

Stories cover a man whose wife has fallen out of love with him, a man lost in the desert trying to hide a stash of illegal steroids, a man who has found himself in a tent in the middle of the forest, and a whole group of people detailing where they were and what they were doing during the end of the world.

Like all of Coupland’s stuff, he’s right on the money with how the world works. He is phenomenally smart and can get some truly profound thoughts out that others can only dream of imagining. As I’ve quoted his work in my other reviews of his books, it would be a shame not to here as well, although narrowing the quotes down to just a few is nigh-on impossible.

“Sometimes you can’t realise you’re in a bad mood until someone else enters your orbit.”

“The only activities I could think of that humans do that have no other animal equivalent were smoking, body-building and writing. That’s not much, considering how special we seem to think we are.”

“…I realized that once people are broken in certain ways they can’t ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young, and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older, as you see the people in your life break one by one.”

While this isn’t my favourite Coupland – wasn’t after the first read and still isn’t now – it remains a beautiful, hopeful breath of air and is a vital part of his catalogue. If ever you feel that you life has lost its meaning, read this and you’ll immediately feel less alone.

“Skios” by Michael Frayn (2012)

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skios

Grab your hat and sun cream, it’s holiday time!

“‘I just want to say a big thank-you to our distinguished guest,’ said Nikki Hook, ‘for making this evening such a fascinating and wonderful occasion, and one that I’m sure none of us here will ever forget…'”

The name Michael Frayn was an unfamiliar one to me, although I have heard of one of his most famous works, the play Noises Off, probably the most notable farce in the history of theatre. The play, as I understand it, is all about mistaken entrances and wrong exits, people getting confused among themselves and no one quite being in the right place at the right time. This is the basis for Skios.

Skios is the farcical story of Oliver Fox. He has arrived on the Greek island of Skios to spend the weekend with someone else’s girlfriend, but has a crisis of faith and identity, becomes sick of who he is. He becomes further messed around when the woman he’s meant to be in Greece with has missed her flight and won’t be able to get another one until the next day. With twenty-four hours to kill in paradise, he heads to the arrivals lounge and, on a whim, selects another name from the signs being held up and steps into the role of Dr. Norman Wilfred. He is rushed off with the most efficient PA this side of the Mediterranean, Nikki, to the luxury compound where, the following day, he will be delivering a speech.

The real Dr. Wilfred is on the same flight and things aren’t looking so great for him. His suitcase has gone missing and he’s ended up with one beloning to Annuka Vos. He becomes enraged with the airport staff and then confused by the taxi driver who has a limited understanding of English, but is eventually sure that he has managed to communicate his desire to get to the Fred Toppler Foundation. He is instead whisked off to the villa where Oliver should be staying.

And then Oliver’s new lover, Georgie, gets an earlier flight and finds herself in Greece and heading to the villa right on time.

The novel is a farce from beginning to end, with the central characters all entirely mistaking one another’s identity, and everyone jumping to conclusions about everyone else. Oliver barely struggles to convince people that he is the speech-giver, even though he looks nothing like the photo on his CV, and his passport has his actual name on it quite clearly. The real Dr Wilfred, however, is having a much more difficult time in a villa with Georgie.

There’s a lot here about our attitudes to identity – we act differently around different people and, if we just change our names and tell a few white lies, can we completely change who we are and pass of as someone else? Are we really who we say we are, or is everyone lying? There’s also a good deal of discussion on the nature of coincidence and fate. Have the events in our lives been inevitable since the big bang, with the universe working to get everything into position, or does it all happen on the spur of the moment by sudden decisions? The ending could’ve been incredibly predictable, but there’s a twist and it seems to resolve itself satisfactorily.

I become instantly wary of any book that is covered in quotes saying how funny it is. Yes, there are a few titters and smirks to be had here, but I didn’t laugh out loud at any point. It is quite funny but in a theatrical sort of way, which is Frayn’s background anyway, and by no means a bad thing. It would work well on stage, and it’s not a terrible book, but it has a tendency to get bogged down in itself and can be as stifling in places as the weather we’ve got at the moment. I recommend it for a quick summer read, if you’re off on a beach holiday and need some light entertainment.