“The Accidental Time Machine” by Joe Haldeman (2007)

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“The story would have been a lot different if Matt’s supervisor had been watching him when the machine first went away.”

The way things are right now, I wouldn’t mind a time machine. Forwards or backwards, I’m not really fussy, just somewhere other than here. If we ever do get around to inventing time travel, I would imagine 2020 will be a no-go area. But let’s not get bogged down in reality – we’re here for the fiction.

It’s the 2050s, and Matt Fuller is working with little to gain in the physics department at MIT. That is, he thinks he has nothing to gain until the calibrator he is using to measure quantum relationships between gravity and light disappears, only to reappear a second later. Indeed, every time Matt presses the button, the machine vanishes for twelve times longer. Matt, it seems, has become the world’s only owner of a functioning time machine. Deciding to test it further, he borrows a car from a friend and catapults himself into the following year, only to find that he’s wanted for the murder of his friend, who died of a heart attack upon seeing the car disappear.

With the police after him, Matt has little choice but to keep leaping forward into an unknown future, each time getting further and further away from the world he is comfortable with. He is desperate to find somewhere he can be safe, but as he leaps through a deeply conservative Christian future, another where everyone is rich from birth, and on to even stranger worlds, he wonders if there is in fact anywhere he will ever be safe again.

Although the pacing is somewhat uneven and some of the later events don’t feel like they’re explained enough, it’s an enjoyable romp anyway and that’s about all you can hope for from a time travel story. The first leaps don’t take him far into the future, so the world is recognisable, but then once he begins leaping hundreds or thousands of years at a time, some changes become more pronounced. I say “some” because even 4000 years into the future, language seems to have changed little. The people of that time say that that’s because they still watch 21st century films, but let’s be honest, if we leapt back 4000 years, language would be entirely different. This is pointed out by some of the characters but we never get a fully satisfactory answer.

Nonetheless, the characters are fun and some of the future technologies and scenarios are interesting, although sometimes feeling like alternate Earths rather than future ones. Two hundred years into the future, Matt meets Martha in a USA that has seen the Second Coming of Jesus, eradicated most science and now operates on mostly medieval technologies and belief systems. For a while, we may even be dragged along in believing that Jesus did return, but we soon see the truth. I also like the idea that wherever he goes, he ends up in trouble with the police, because some things never change. The final chapter, too, is more satisfying than I thought it might be, and brings the story to a decent conclusion. Not everything is tied up, but it works perfectly well enough for me.

A fun exploration of some potential futures for us, and a very pleasing escape.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

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“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

Kurt was not the only famous Vonnegut sibling. His brother, Bernard, was a successful atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodine could be used in cloud seeding to produce rain and snow. Weather manipulation feels like something that belongs to the realm of superhero tales, or science fiction, but it’s genuinely happening now, with clouds seeded to produce rain for crops, or even to disperse fog and hail around airports. I mention this not because I’ve suddenly become a science blog, but simply because this technology almost certainly influenced Kurt Vonnegut in the writing of Cat’s Cradle.

Our narrator, Jonah (or John, depending which name you want to give him) begins the novel by telling us he was writing a book about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. He becomes fascinated by Dr Felix Hoenikker, the now-deceased scientist who was one of the founding fathers of the weapon and visits the man’s hometown to learn more. He discovers that Hoenikker had potentially been working on something called ice-nine, a chemical that would freeze any moisture it touched. Little to his former associates know, he was successful, and the chemical has found its way into the hands of his three eccentric children.

Drawn to the sun-drenched island of San Lorenzo in search of answers, the narrator meets these children, now grown, as well as getting to grips with San Lorenzo itself, a place where the religion of Bokononism is both forbidden on pain of death and practiced by the entire population. The narrator finds his original goal vanishing as now he has to deal with the very real threats of being declared President of San Lorenzo, and ice-nine being released into the world, bringing about the apocalypse.

Like everything Vonnegut wrote, the book is written with the driest humour imaginable, but relies heavily on truths of the human condition that we try not to think about in too much detail. Here, he tackles environmental collapse, the nature of pure research, free will, nuclear destruction, and humanity’s reliance on technology, dealing with them all with his trademark balancing act of humour and horror. The greatest contribution to society from this book, however, comes from the religion of Bokononism, which has the central tenet that everything is a lie, so one must live by the lies that make one “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. We get many interesting words and concepts from the religion, including karass (a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner), wampeter (the central theme or purpose of a karass), zah-mah-ki-bo (inevitable destiny) and of course boko-maru (the supreme act of worship which involves pressing the soles of your feet to those of another).

I’ve read Vonnegut a few times now, and every time I find him more and more bizarre. That’s not really a complaint. No one else writes like him and is unlikely to ever do so, and he has a way, much like Douglas Coupland, of making us look at ourselves and the world we’ve created and start asking questions about why things are the way they are. As J. G. Ballard said, “Vonnegut looked the world straight in the eye and never flinched.” As with all the truly great books about science fiction concepts, the characters humanity still shines through, and they feel real, despite the insanity and fantasy going on around them. They fully exist in their world, and you believe in the story, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.

A great little read, and one that still burns with relevance.

Dexter is frustrated. Everywhere he turns he finds wedding invitations, housewarming parties and tables for two. While all of his friends have now coupled up, he remains single, not believing in society’s insistence on finding “The One” and just wishing his friends were available to hang out more often. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available from Amazon and Waterstones. Being single isn’t the end of the world.

“A Morbid Taste For Bones” by Ellis Peters (1977)

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“On the fine, bright morning in early May when the whole sensation affair of the Gwytherin relics may properly be considered to have begun, Brother Cadfael had been up long before Prime…”

Detectives seem to have it easy these days. CCTV, fingerprinting, banking data, DNA evidence, tracing of mobile phone locations … there are any number of ways they can reach their conclusions and solve crimes. We forget how recent a lot of this is. Miss Marple didn’t have any of it in the fifties. Sherlock Holmes would have dreamed of DNA testing in the Victorian era. Miss Gladden would have longed for GPS. So imagine now we strip this back even further. This book takes us back to the year of 1137. King Stephen is on the throne of England, and religion reigns supreme across the island. Things might look a bit different, but people are still people.

Brother Cadfael is a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, responsible for running the herb garden. This is little about plants and their properties that the wise monk doesn’t know. There’s much more to him than life in the church however. Before he took up residence in the monastery, he travelled much of the known world and is very educated. When another of the monks has a vision that Saint Winifred has called for the Benedictine order to uncover her burial ground and move her bones to the safety of the abbey.

Convinced that this is the right thing to do, Prior Robert declares this to be a great idea and so sets off to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to ask for the relics of the long dead saint. They are met with suspicion and caution, with the Welsh not sure whether they are ready to sacrifice Winifred to the arriving Englishmen. Things become even more fraught when Prior Robert offers monetary compensation and it is taken as a bribe. With the Welsh villagers divided on what to do, tensions rise, and then it all comes to a head when the the leading opponent to the grave’s relocation is found dead. Some say that Winifred herself did it, but Cadfael is sure that there is a much more earthly solution. Using his intelligence and skills as a detective, he must solve the murder and restore trust and order to the community.

I had worried that a cast of monks would lead to a book that gave us a set of boring, pious characters, but fortunately twelfth century monks are still human and you can give them a habit and tonsure if you like, but they’re still going to express lust, pride and wrath. Cadfael is an intriguing addition to the pantheon of literary detectives and feels like a man out of time. He is cunning and clever, gentle with those he likes and impatient with big-headed superiors. Many of the other characters – and there seem to be a lot – bled into one another, however, and only the ones that were really pivotal to the story stood out to me. It took me a while to unpick who was who, which isn’t necessarily what you want when you’re trying to solve a murder.

Throughout history, death is often suggested to have been quick and cheap, so it’s actually nice to see someone caring about a specific death and realising that there’s something suspicious about it. Brother John, a fellow monk, seems at first to take on the role of his Watson, but by the end it seems more fulfilled by Sioned, the victim’s daughter. Naturally as a book centred around a Benedictine order, there are very few women in it – I think there are three with any dialogue – but she does good work and is a strong character. At one point, when someone comments on the weakness of women, Cadfael steps up to point out that there are just as many weak men and women are capable of great emotional strength. It’s a small touch, but it’s appreciated.

It’s an interesting concept for a novel and it’s definitely a unique motive for murder, but I can’t say I’m enthralled enough to continue with the series. The writing style doesn’t suit me, which is not to say that it’s bad. People may be people wherever they are in time or space, but this felt just a touch too removed for me.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Management Style Of The Supreme Beings” by Tom Holt (2017)

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“Dad, as is tolerably well known, is omnipotent and can do anything.”

And I return to Tom Holt. This is the third time I’ve delved into one of the extraordinary books that his unique brain has produced. I don’t know all that much about the man, but I do know that I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. He’s the sort of writer, though, that I don’t want to hurry through. He is to be savoured. Still, it was time to explore one of his more recent works, this time dealing with the bureaucracy involved in running Earth.

Dad and his son Jay are beginning to tire of being supreme beings of a planet that doesn’t seem all that bothered if they’re present or not. With plans to take retirement and fish for the rest of eternity on Sinderaan, they explore their options and end up selling the planet to the Venturi brothers. These keen and cunning businessmen have come a long way from humble beginnings growing up on Mars, but now own all several galaxies, and this Earth seems like a decent addition to their portfolio. The old guard head off, all except for Dad’s other son, Kevin, who decides to take his place among the humans he’s grown to admire.

Immediately, they make sweeping changes. Reincarnation replaces an afterlife, meaning Hell and all the current staff and residents are left to their own devices (quickly deciding that they should become a theme park), belief is total and the Venturi brothers get rid of that tiresome old “Good/Evil” dichotomy that seemed to cause so many problems. Now, you can sin as much as you like as long as you can pay for it. Blaspheming will cost you a few hundred dollars, but if you want to start a war you’re going to need billions. Faith is shaken and society is changed overnight.

But Dad didn’t give the Venturi brothers all the salient facts, because there is another god lurking on Earth. He’s ancient, something of a trickster, and no one really believes in him – at least, no adult. But take care – this mysterious figure is compiling a catalogue, checking it twice over and pretty soon, he will be coming back to town…

Whenever I’ve been asked (and it has happened occasionally) which author I most aspire to write like, I often name Neil Gaiman, Jasper Fforde or Douglas Adams, but really, I think it’s Tom Holt. He doesn’t waste an opportunity to throw in a joke, a pun, a ridiculous (but always startlingly accurate) metaphor, or throwaway concept that could have been a whole novel in itself. One of the giants of literary comedy, he takes a simple if far fetched premise and twists it all out of shape and into something staggeringly original. Many books have been written about God and what he really thinks of us lot down on the planet, but never before have I seen it all played out like this.

The human characters, while interesting, pale in comparison to the more supernatural ones. The gods, angels and demons and their relationships are great fun to watch play out, and they’re dealt with in daft – and yet totally acceptable – ways. The Devil (known as Uncle Nick) doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of Hell anymore, and so the whole place is run by his human assistant, Bernie. Kevin is a brilliant also-ran to “Jay”, never quite matching up to what his brother achieved, but not for the reasons you’d seem to think. The universe in general though is dense and rich like a chocolate gateaux and full of information about alien species and bizarre biologies that even Douglas Adams would have struggled to dream up, and he had sentient shades of blue and species that invented deodorant before the wheel. The whole thing is a laugh a minute.

I can’t say much more without ruining great swathes of the novel – I’ve hinted at what else is to come already – but all I can do is advise you to buy this book immediately and join me for a swim in Holt’s imagination. There’s loads of room.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986)

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“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Three dystopian books in a row are enough for anyone, it seems, especially when I was meant to be cutting back on the genre. Nonetheless, some books just have to be read. This one has been bouncing around my consciousness for the best part of a decade, dating back to when I was working at a bookshop and my colleague was a huge fan of it. Somehow in the interim I only managed to read one other Margaret Atwood book – Oryx & Crake – but have long had an affection for her and her ability. Anyway, I got here in the end.

In a not-too-distant future a deeply religious sect took over the running of the American government and thus was born the country of Gilead. Following on from a declining birthrate, and massive environmental damage, the population is in crisis and so people turn to religion to find the right way to repopulate. Fertile women are sent to live with married couples who cannot have their own children and must live a life of servitude with no freedoms or rights. Their only purpose is to have a baby.

Offred is one of these Handmaids, retrained and condemned to a life of purely functional sex with a man she hardly knows, her only chance at any sort of better life would be to get pregnant and help continue humanity. But Offred has not fully adjusted to this new world and still has hopes and dreams of an earlier time. No matter what the governments of the world do, you cannot suppress desire, and Offred soon finds her whole future resting in the hands of two men who could destroy her in a heartbeat, or provide some kind of salvation.

This is another of those novels that I thought I knew all about because of cultural osmosis. As it turned out, all that had really penetrated was the the vague setting, the repression and the outfits. I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and it was nothing quite like I had expected, although that’s not a complaint. I think the biggest shock was how far into this new world the novel was set. I had assumed that this was deep into a dystopia and focused on its dismantling when actually it turns out this new world order has only been in place for a matter of years, maybe seven at most, it’s not quite clear. This makes the whole thing much, much more terrifying, as the Handmaids – and indeed everyone else – all remember what life was like before and what freedoms they had. Freedom plays a huge part of the story’s themes, as any story about slavery does. The women, it is said, used to have “freedom to” and now they have “freedom from”. It’s such a small change, but an incredibly notable one. Consider the difference between women being free to date openly and with whomever they choose and being free from having to go on dates with unpleasant men and risk abuse or assault.

Many people may read the book and have thoughts along the lines of “Well, this couldn’t happen here”, yet the core of the book is based on the true events that befell Iran in the 1970s. Until then, it had been quite a modern, Westernised country, but then a very religious party got into power and women lost many of their rights and were told how to behave, right down to what clothes they should wear. I can’t profess to know very much about Iran, so I assume that Atwood is dialling everything up to extreme levels to make a point.

While the world and the unseen governmental body are scary, the real fear comes from those characters who have totally bought into the new setting. Like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, true terror comes from those who are doing their job without questioning whether it is right or wrong to do it. Here, many of the women seem to have settled into the new regime and appear happy. I can’t understand these women, just as I can’t understand women who claim not to be feminists. Or any person of colour or homosexual that votes Conservative. There’s an irony present when Atwood discusses radical feminism and the women in her timeline who previously wanted a world for women – be careful what you wish for, indeed.

Surprisingly, the book also features a fascinating epilogue that takes the form of a lecture at some future point of the timeline in which Offred’s account has been discovered and studied as a historical text, which adds a whole new layer to the story and, in fact, can change how you view a few of the events. This is an excellent and unique take, but I won’t say anything else about its contents so as not to ruin some of the things it reveals.

Overall, I think the story is summed up by the line that Offred uses occasionally while narrating: “I don’t want to be telling this story”. In the current climate of #metoo and Weinstein culture, there are many stories that people don’t want to tell, and yet there are many that need to be told. There’s a firm difference between a want and a need, but one trumps the other – sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s important to share our experiences and help other people going through the same things. This story is one that needed to be told, and as Atwood herself says, perhaps a world that can be described thoroughly like this can never come to fruition. I, like her, trust that it will not.

It’s a chilling but fascinating look at a world gone mad, showing that humans will always be our own worst enemy, and that it’s far easier to launch a despotic regime than it is to maintain it.

“Veni, Vidi, Vici” by Peter Jones (2014)

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“Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded.”

So far this year, I noted that I’d been pretty low on non-fiction fodder, having worked my way through just three non-fiction books based on the future, economics and poison. Part of this is because I’ve been going through some stuff this year, and my default position is to hide inside fiction, and I’d made myself very comfortable there, escaping into imaginary worlds. However, I decided to step out and headed back in time to learn about the Roman Empire.

Peter Jones provides us with a whistle-stop tour of Ancient Rome, from the mythical Trojan War that started the whole thing in 1150 BC to the empire’s fall in 476 AD. He covers almost every aspect of the time, including politics, religion, entertainment, economy, hygiene, architecture, war, literature, discovery, mythology and diet. Each chapter is divided into bite size chunks of information regarding a particular aspect of the time period.

This is probably where I fell down with this book. It seems to be designed to be dipped into, not read all in one go, as I’ve spent the last week doing. It’s interesting, for sure, and Jones has an engaging writing style, but in places it’s really quite dense, and there are so many names in here, most of them fairly similar, that before long I found I couldn’t keep up with the rotating cast list of emperors, politicians, philosophers and writers. That’s all on me though, and I don’t claim the book to be boring at all. It’s just rather a lot to take in.

I think Ancient Rome for many people means Julius Caesar, public baths, slavery, Pompeii and gladiatorial fights. All of these are discussed in detail here, of course, but there’s also a lot regarding some of the more obscure or nasty emperors, the role of women in society (they had no power and were generally believed to be sex-crazed) and the fact that sexuality was defined entirely different here than it is today. There’s no distinction between “gay” or “straight”, and men had sex with men as a matter of course, just as women slept with other women. Heteronormativity was right out the window with the ancients. It was also great to learn more about Hadrian, whom I know for building a wall and not much else.

Other historical figures also make appearances, emphasising just how long the Romans ruled for. Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, Jesus Christ and Attila the Hun all play pivotal roles in the story of Rome, and there’s much to be made of the fact that in 1000 BC, Rome was just a small collection of huts on some hills. It is remarkable that the small town ended up dominating much of the known world at the time, and the ramifications of that dominance are still in evidence today, found in our calendar, language and architecture.

If you want a quick introduction into the world of the Romans, this is the book for you.

“Lagoon” by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)

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“She slices through the water, imagining herself as a deadly beam of black light.”

It’s always seemed odd to me, when I choose to not play along with the suspension of disbelief that films require of us, that whenever an alien invasion occurs on Earth, it seems to centre around New York or London, as if the aliens seem to know that those places are important somehow. When you think how big the planet is about how there are great swathes of land in, say, Siberia or Patagonia that are entirely devoid of life, it seems remarkable that aliens always somehow hit on a capital city anyway. Therefore, if nothing else, it’s refreshing to see it happen somewhere else.

What appears to be a meteorite slams into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, and water begins to encroach the beach. Caught in the ensuing tsunami are marine biologist Adaora, famous Ghanaian rapper, Anthony, and a solider, Agu, three strangers who all possess strange and unusual abilities.  Once the water has returned them to the sand, they meet the first of the aliens, who looks human and Adaora names Ayodele. She insists that her people have not come to cause harm, but merely to cause change.

Adaora rushes Ayodele and the men back to her house where the sets about studying the extraterrestrial with her scientific equipment. It seems she’s not even made of cells and is capable of taking on whatever form she chooses, and apparently reading the thoughts of people in close proximity. When Adaora’s husband appears with the local bishop, word begins to spread about the nature of the visitor, and soon Lagos is plunged into chaos as Ayodele and her people are greeted with hostility by the general population. Our heroes set about on a mission to hunt down the missing President and bring him to meet Ayodele’s people, at which time, perhaps, a new era will dawn.

It might just be me, but I found the whole book somewhat disjointed. There are a lot of characters here and most of them get at least one chapter from their point of view. Aside from the three primary characters of Adaora, Anthony and Agu, we also have Adaora’s husband, their nanny, the nanny’s boyfriend and his friends, two witnesses of the rising tide that stole the heroes temporarily, the bishop, the President and occasionally a nearby animal, such as a bat or a spider. Among this are bits from a character that appears to be some kind of spider-god (it mentions Anansi as being a relative) which feels particularly weird given the rest of the novel seems to be science fiction.

One of the more interesting groups of characters are the Black Nexus, an LGBT group who begin to show themselves for who they really are just as the chaos really breaks into the streets of Lagos. Nigeria is not a country that deals well with homosexuality, so the inclusion of these characters is rather fascinating, but they disappear about halfway through and we never really find out what became of them.

I’m not writing the book off as bad, not at all. The prose is delicately beautiful at times, although the lapses into Pidgin English are distracting and if I had to flip to the provided glossary for every other word when they’re used then I would’ve never properly engaged with the text. You can get the gist of what’s going on, anyway. Some of the characters are too immediately accepting of the alien presence, which feels unrealistic, and the primary reason for reading this book, probably, comes down to the setting. I know very little of Nigeria, and even less of Lagos, so whatever else, it was fascinating to explore part of it and its culture.

It ends on a note that suggests a cliffhanger, but for a novel that’s very different to the one you just read. It’s one of those novels that is middle ground in the extreme for me – I enjoyed it enough, but I won’t remember anything about it in a year’s time.

PODCAST: “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”

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podcast 11Earlier this month, on my podcast review I included this new podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. However, I was so taken with it that I since pestered the creators with some questions and have written a whole entry for it. So, without further ado, here is my first full length podcast review, complete with interview with the creators. Enjoy, and please download this podcast!

People take comfort from any number of sources, be it relationships, religion, food or literature. But sometimes if you combine some of those things in surprising ways, you find a whole new way of looking at the world. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text combines religious thought with one of the most popular book series of all time to bring joy and comfort in a new way.

Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, a Harvard chaplain and minister respectively, along with producer Ariana Nedelman, started the project as a reading group, but it has recently expanded into a podcast with wonderful goals. The idea is that each week takes a chapter from the Harry Potter series and explores the text with the fervour and depth that one may explore the Bible or Koran. They’re not comparing Voldemort to Herod, or declaring Dumbledore’s words to be direct from God, but merely seeing what the text can teach us about our own lives through a number of themes. The episodes also include thirty-second recaps on the events of each chapter, blessings for the characters, and the use of religious practices to get more out of the text.

The pair teamed up at Divinity School, where Vanessa was trying to come up with ways to use secular   texts in sacred ways, just to prove that that religion didn’t corner the market on treating things with reverence, and Casper was trying to create spaces of joyful belonging. They teamed up and, joined by their love of all things Potter, began a reading group at the Humanist Hub of Harvard. Word spread globally and soon people across the world were asking for the material. They got Ariana on board and the whole thing just fell into place.

hpst team

L to R: Vanessa Zoltan, Casper ter Kuile and Ariana Nedelman; the brains behind the podcast

“We hope that people will gain two main things [from the project],” said Vanessa. “Firstly, they will learn how to treat the world around them as sacred. Secondly we want people to feel as though they are part of a wide community of people beyond their immediate sphere.” Harry Potter already has a massive communal following, so it seems a natural starting point for a project like this. Vanessa also notes that it’s best to practice these activities on something you love. “If you want to learn how to have good table manners, might as well learn with cake!”

Vanessa has previous experience with this sort of project, having done something similar with Jane Eyre. When asked if she had come across comparable findings with each project due to their having plots that seem to echo one another – both are about young orphans thrust into a new world and trying to find their own way – she says that she hadn’t thought how alike they were, but that both held a big space in her heart. “The big similarity I see between Harry and Jane is that they are both young people on a journey to define their adult identities. The big difference […] is that there is a real evil in the Harry Potter series, whereas the evil that is in Jane Eyre is more implicit and insidious.”

Casper also seems to have an interesting career in the works, calling himself a “minister for non-religious people”. He says, “I grew up without a faith tradition at home, so I’ve never really felt comfortable using the language of religion – even though I’ve been through Divinity School! I see my work, including our podcast, as offering people an opportunity to connect, make meaning and be part of joyful belonging. And as that is ministry in my eyes, I thought why not call myself a trainee-minister for non-religious people! Ironically, I am now seeking ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister, […] but I don’t expect to serve in a parish or church setting.”

Religion seems less and less prevalent in many people’s lives these days, but this is a way of bringing something like faith back to secular people. The hosts have such soothing voices and you feel comfortable and safe in their audio presence. Each episode lasts about thirty minutes, but they pack so much into that time. Some people might dismiss the project as frivolous, but I think there’s something a lot more interesting and important going on here. It’s already been shown countless times in the last twenty years that so many people turn to the Harry Potter books when sad or in a bad mood. They have changed the face of the literary world so quickly that perhaps it only seems right that they be treated with reverence.

When asked if there were plans afoot to study anything else through this method, and what would be particularly good for it, Vanessa said, “I think that there are infinite things that can be treated as sacred, but we are focusing on Harry Potter for now.” Maybe, then, even if you’re not into this series, it might inspire you to pick a favourite book, film or album, and study it in a new way. Perhaps it can teach you something new about commitment, betrayal or love.

The podcast is still relatively new, but all the episodes so far can be found on iTunes by searching the podcast store for “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”. The team can also be reached at http://harrypottersacredtext.com or followed on Twitter at @hpsacredtext.

Podcasts: Part Three

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OK, so according to the views of this blog, people like reading about podcasts. Here are four more of my favourite podcasts and why I think you should get hold of them if you haven’t already. For more, see parts one and two.

podcast 9Podcast: The Message
Number of Episodes: 8

This is a really short one, but it’s completely worth it. It’s a story that follows Nicky Tomalin, a podcaster who is following a team of cryptographers as they try to decode The Message, a noise that arrived on Earth from somewhere far out in space in the 1940s. But as she and the team look into the history of the sound, which definitely seems to have extraterrestrial origins, it becomes clear that something is very wrong with it. Bad luck and worse follows those who’ve listened to the noise, and it isn’t long before disaster strikes closer to home…

I’m not going to say anything else about the plot because you need to listen to it to get the full impact, but it’s a punchy, well-performed piece of work and intensely creepy. Although there are only a handful of episodes, and each of those is only around fifteen minutes long, it’s enough to get across a story that grips you from the start and has you terrified by the end. It’s hard to say much else – this is just one of those one’s where you’re going to just do it, as my words can’t do it justice.

podcast 10Podcast: Desert Island Discs
Number of Episodes: 1000s
Release: Every Sunday

If you’ve never heard of Desert Island Discs then I worry for your sanity. It’s a radio show where every week (for the last sixty years) a celebrity guest is interviewed by a charming, affable host, currently the sultry-voiced Kirsty Young. The interview is built around a simple question; “If you had to be sent to a desert island, what 8 records would you take with you?” Then, a longform interview takes place about the interviewee’s life and career, interspersed with the eight songs that mean the most to them. At the end, each castaway can also choose one book to take (they all get the Bible and the works of Shakespeare automatically) and one single other luxury to make things more bearable for them, as long as it isn’t too useful (i.e. no speedboats).

Most episodes have now been converted to podcast form. All the ones of the last few years are there, and then there’s a selection of others dating right back to the forties. Guests range from musicians and actors, politicians and ambassadors, scientists and explorers, astronauts and soldiers. There’s nowhere easy to suggest you start from, so your best bet is to find some names you’ve heard of and download those. I’ve found that even with people I’ve only vaguely heard of, I find the episode hugely fascinating. Kirsty Young is a wonderful host and can get some really interesting stories out of her castaways, providing an interview that is often funny, tragic and fascinating all at the same time.

It’s also always quite interesting to see what luxury people pick at the end. Recently, Tom Hanks has gone for a typewriter and paper, Berry Gordy took a cellar of wine, Chris Hadfield opted for his guitar, and Kylie Minogue went for a family photo album. One of my favourite luxuries ever belonged to John Cleese who wanted to take Michael Palin. Since other people are forbidden, he was given the option, “You can have him as long as he’s been stuffed.” Cleese accepted.

podcast 11Podcast: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
Number of Episodes: 7
Release: Every Saturday

OK, so I admit that suggesting a podcast when it’s not even got ten episodes up is perhaps jumping the gun, but I’ve never fallen for a podcast so quickly. Part of me wishes I hadn’t discovered it so early so that I could have a good binge, but at the same time I’m pleased to be able to one of the people who can count themselves as a fan from the beginning.

The concept of this podcast is simple. Hosts Vanessa and Casper, a Harvard chaplain and minister respectively, are reading the Harry Potter books chapter by chapter as if they were a sacred religious text on par with the Bible and its ilk. I’ll stress that they’re not declaring Dumbledore’s dialogue the word of God or anything, they’re just examining the text through themes and seeing what it can tell us about our own lives. Each half-hour episode features one chapter and explores a theme. For example, “The Boy Who Lived” is looked at through commitment; “Diagon Alley” explores the idea of being a stranger. Each episode delves into examples from the text, followed by more intensive readings of certain passages, and then ends with a blessing for two of the characters in the chapter.

It’s really beautifully done. I’m not religious in the least, but these books do hold a real magic for me, and for millions of others, so it’s interesting to see them studied in a slightly different way. Perhaps one day, hundreds of years from now, future humans will find this podcast after the apocalypse and a new religion will begin. We can only imagine.

podcast 12Podcast: Talking Simpsons
Number of Episodes: 50
Release: Every Wednesday

By now surely everyone in the Western world has seen at least one episode of The Simpsons. Since December 1989 the show has had people hooked and it’s still enjoyed across the planet. But perhaps the biggest fans of all are the guys on this podcast. They’re responsible for several other podcasts in which they found they made a lot of Simpsons jokes and references, so started a new podcast where they could talk about nothing else.

Each episode of the podcast zones in on one episode of the series, and at time of writing they’re midway through season three, so there’s hundreds more to go. Each episode contains a rundown on what was happening in the world the day the episode was released (just to hammer home to point that this show has been running for a looooong time), anecdotes regarding both the series and the presenters, information from the writers and creators, explanations of jokes that went over our heads the first time round, audio clips from the episodes themselves, and a lot of really nerdy issues with continuity and character appearances.

Episodes run between thirty and fifty minutes, generally getting longer it seems as the show improves. If you’re looking for their analysis of season one, you won’t find it on iTunes, as it’s hidden behind a paywall, so while really die-hard fans might want to get their hands on it, there’s plenty enough for everyone else here. It’s really funny and brings back memories of some of the classic episodes and their greatest moments, all lovingly bundled up with new information and gags.

“Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes” by Cory O’Brien (2013)

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zeus“So everybody knows Zeus is the king of the gods right?”

Some people look at the myths and legends of old and go, “I can’t believe anyone used to believe that!” But be wary, because two thousand years from now the people of the future could well be saying that about the religions we’ve currently got going on.

Most people have some knowledge of a couple of the myths of old, because they’re still with us all over. Two major film characters at the moment are called Thor and Loki; the Mayan calendar messed everybody up a few years ago (how’s the end of the world going, by the way?) and the names of Greek and Roman gods are on pretty much everything – we even named our planets after them. But the reason they’re still not common knowledge to all is, I think, because in their original style and language, they aren’t exactly accessible. Enter Cory O’Brien and Zeus Grants Stupid Wishes, a fully modern update of some of the more famous tales of world mythology.

O’Brien takes us through a whistle stop tour of the myths of many cultures including Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Mayan, Judeo-Christian, Hindu, Japanese, African, Chinese, Sumerian, Native American and even those that the modern USA have already invented for themselves. I will also say at this point before anyone turns against the book for assuming, say, “African mythology” is one single thing, O’Brien notes that there are many, many mythologies of Africa, and he’s just picked the stories he likes best.

But these are very, very modern retellings. They’re full of swearing, slang, tangents, modern references and sheer insanity. He laughs at names like Uranus, calls out characters on their stupidity, and isn’t afraid to get filthy quickly. For example, Zeus is introduced as “just cruisin’ around, right, pickin’ mortal women to bone”, and Loki is referred to as “the god of being a needless prick all the time”.

The story titles are also wonderfully descriptive. How spider god Anansi beat Death has the clickbait title, “Local Father Discovers Immortality with This One Weird Tip!”; the Greeks get stories like “King Midas is: GOLDFINGER” and “Narcissus Probably Should Have Just Learned to Masturbate”, and I don’t think I even need to describe the content of, “Noah Is on a BOAT”.

The final chapters bring it right up to date, with tales of America’s founding fathers, Scientology, and the current scientific theory of how the universe began.

Probably the most interesting thing about it is simply that you quickly realise that a lot of the early mythologies have a surprising amount of things in common. Both the Greek and Japanese tales involve a woman getting trapped in the underworld after eating pomegranates, trees of life are plentiful, and most of them have a great flood at some point or another. Are these coincidences, or was there early contact? Or, perhaps, there is some truth in what is said…

The style is fun, but the novelty wears off fairly quickly, although I must admit that all the creation myths are pretty interesting, and it’s fun to compare and contrast. It’s also great to see some of the lesser known mythologies like Sumerian and Mayan be played with. Also refreshing is the inclusion of Judeo-Christianity, showing both that it is merely a mythology and, particularly when written in this style, just as insane and unbelievable as what the Greeks came up with.

A fun and peculiar introduction to world mythology that is definitely not safe for anyone with a nervous disposition. But, then again, the myths never really were.

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