“All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai (2016)

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“So, the thing is, I come from the world we were supposed to have.”

I like the themes of alternate histories. Everything that has happened, had it happened another way, would probably have set the world off along a path unlike the one we currently have. Some of those would turn out better for us, some not. Interestingly though, we focus a lot on the what ifs of the past, not really considering that every single thing we do in the present is changing the future. This is all the past to someone, after all. But before we get too bogged down in the philosophical aspects of this, on with the review!

Tom Barren lives in 2016, but not the one we are familiar with. In his timeline, on July 11th 1965, the physicist Lionel Goettreider unveiled a machine that produced unlimited energy. Over the next fifty years, humanity had developed the future that our ancestors dreamt off, complete with moon bases, flying cars, food pills, teleportation, eternal peace and universal comfort. Tom’s father, the remote and rude Victor Barren, is now proposing the first experiment with time travel, sending a team back to the very moment that the Goettreider Engine was turned on, the most important moment of human history. But when Tom sleeps with the lead chrononaut, Penelope Weschler, the night before the mission and she is discovered to be pregnant, the plans are ruined and Penelope kills herself. Faced with heartbreak and access to a time machine, Tom does what anyone would do – something very stupid.

However, upon arriving in 1965, his visit does not go unnoticed by the universe, and he boomerangs back to 2016 to find that everything is changed. His father is much friendlier, he has a sister he never knew, and he’s now apparently a notable architect instead of a walking disappointment. Gone are the technological advancements – he’s landed in the universe we would recognise as our very own. He seeks out Penelope and finds her, although it’s not the same her, and now he has to make a difficult choice. Should Tom stay in this imperfect world where he can experience love and be a success, or go back to the perfect utopia where the world was at peace, but he was miserable?

Uniquely among time travel fiction, to my knowledge at least, Elan Mastai deals with the real issue of the science. Travelling in time also requires travelling in space, as not only is the world rotating on an axis and orbiting the sun, it’s also tearing through the vast expanses of the universe so if you travel back to the same spot, the planet will be miles away. Hell, misjudging your landing by a few inches can render you embedded in a sofa or solid ground. Mastai could easily handwave this, but he has a solid bash at explaining the science on how to solve these issues. How accurate they are or how likely it is that they’d work, however, I don’t know for sure – I’m an arts student – but the science feels solid enough that I’m happy to accept it. The whole thing becomes a lot more believable, even more so because explanations are given in too much detail to make you lose interest. As Tom says, he doesn’t understand the mechanics behind the time machine or the Goettreider Engine anymore than most of us would be able to build a microwave or television from scratch.

Like pretty much all of my favourite writers, Mastai’s real skill lies in his ability to build a world. The alternate utopian 2016 is explored in vivid detail, with Tom explaining how he takes for granted that absolutely everything is recycled, there’s no need for war or even, really, to break any laws, and he’s never eaten an unripe avocado. When he arrives in our timeline, there are a few scenes of him struggling with the mundane, such as actually having to open doors with a handle, or having to remember how to write by hand. Mastai could easily have spent far too long exploring the specifics of our world and explaining why they’re shit, but we already know about our world, so he skips playfully over it and lets us imagine Tom’s views over the rest. Towards the end of the novel, we also see a third timeline and while it only appears for a brief chapter, it too is incredibly evocative.

While it’s fun to read about time travel and alternate dimensions, it is nice to come up against something that asks, “No, seriously, how would this work?” Despite being on the hard end of the science fiction scale, it still retains a sense of whimsy and it’s good for a chuckle, despite some of the events being really rather harrowing. It’s nice to have my faith in the genre bolstered every once in a while, and this has certainly done that.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“Of Men And Monsters” by William Tenn (1968)

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“Mankind consisted of 128 people.”

Earth has been invaded by aliens so many times in fiction. On most of those occasions, whether first contact is friendly or not, we are equals of a sort, in size, shape and intelligence at least. But what if aliens were to come to Earth that were so enormous, they didn’t even notice humans were here, and just dominated the planet thanks to sheer size alone. What would happen to humanity then? Of Men and Monsters explores this idea.

Eric the Only is a boy in his society of Mankind, but today is the day of his Theft, and if he’s successful, he will come back to be declared Eric the Eye, meaning he’s a full man and able to mate. Under the guidance of his uncle, Thomas the Trap-Smasher, he pledges to steal not food or an item usable by Mankind, but a Monster souvenir. He flees the burrows for the first time ever and makes his way across the treacherous landscape inhabited by the giant Monsters to complete his task.

But when he gets back home to safety, he finds that a rebellion occurred, led by his uncle, as those who want to use Alien-Science tried to rise up against the traditional methods of Ancestor-Science. Now an outlaw, Eric the Eye goes on the run, stumbling across another tribe in another burrow. He joins their number and soon he begins to learn the truth about who he is, where he lives, and what the Monsters are.

You can’t help but think about The Borrowers with this novel. The difference is, of course, that humans haven’t actually changed their size, it’s just that the aliens that invaded were so huge that, to them, humans are merely vermin, living in the walls of their houses like cockroaches or mice, stealing food and potentially spreading disease. The use of scale is impressive, but it’s difficult to imagine something like this. I kept imagining the Monsters to be our size and the humans to be small, but then you get a reminder that if the humans were to go outside, rain or trees would also look tiny compared to the invaders.

It’s clever in it’s use of detail, or rather lack of it. Because the humans can only see on a different scale, they cannot adequately describe the Monsters – we know they are grey, with six legs, tentacles around their necks and small heads – and their technology seems bizarre. Human technology is now quite primitive, with people using spears, but there is evidence of higher technology. For example, when Eric’s name “the Eye” is chosen, it is done so via a mystical Record Machine, which seems to be a television displaying old infomercials.

The human societies that have built up are the most interesting aspect of the novel, even if the individual characters are quite flat. Eric’s tribe, Mankind, call themselves that because they believe they are the most superior of all the tribes. The men are all warriors and thieves, the women have knowledge of healing and history. Days and nights are measured simply by when the tribe’s chief goes to sleep and wakes up, and there is a strict hierarchy. We meet other societies living in the same wall (that’s how huge these buildings are) who have different ways of doing things, and at one point we see humans who have come from the building next door, and they may as well be a whole new species.

It feels like it should be a quick read, but I got bogged down in it trying to work out what some of the technology was, before realising that the Alien-Science is a lot like Gary Larson’s “Cow Tools” – there is no human equivalent. Or maybe there is but it’s being described in such an unusual way that we don’t notice? There’s a satisfying ending, at least, with the realisation that of all the species of vermin on our planet, humans may just be the most successful of them all…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet an entirely different race of aliens as Dexter, who sees himself has the last single person on Earth, flees his home, along with his friends, to escape the invasion. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Superfreakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2009)

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superfreak“Many of life’s decisions are hard.”

There are many questions in this life that still need an answer. We can turn to all manner of scientists and assorted experts to give us some of the answers, but sometimes the right answers are much harder to find than we may first think. It may be that we’re looking in all the wrong places, and applying the wrong rules. In some of those cases, it might be time to bring in the economists.

Superfreakonomics is the sequel to the popular Freakonomics, written by journalist Stephen Dubner and rogue economist Steven Levitt. Instead of looking at money and banking, the area you’d expect economists to deal primarily in, these guys tackle apply the rules of economics to everything else and see what they can come up with. The argument is, of course, that we might be getting the wrong answers because we’ve been asking the wrong questions.

This book covers such diverse topics as prostitution, global warming, altruism and whaling, exploring each with a strange, sideways glance and seeing what we can learn from one industry about another. Dubner and Levitt explain why a prostitute is like a shopping mall Santa, whether drunk driving is safer than drunk walking, how to track down suicide bombers using their bank accounts, how we can engineer the oceans to stop hurricanes, what Al Gore and volcanoes have in common, and whether people are willing to give up money they haven’t worked for to a total stranger.

Perhaps the most controversial chapter is about global warming. While studying different ways that it could be halted, the pair find out that, in truth, we might not even need to halt it. It might be completely normal. It might not even be happening at all, and our efforts to cool the planet down are actually doing the opposite. The book is actually packed with controversy, as they point out that children’s car seats might not actually be that effective, that the supposed witnesses of Kitty Genovese’s murder weren’t as useless as psychology textbooks like to make out, and that a sex change can affect your standing among your peers.

It’s a quick read, easy to digest and utterly fascinating throughout, packed with the sort of trivia it’s nice to have on hand to trot out at cocktail parties, even if most of it is about car crash victims and hand washing in hospitals. If you’re the sort of person who likes spotting the links between entirely unrelated things, then this is for you. If not, then come along anyway. You won’t be disappointed.

“Progress” by Johan Norberg (2016)

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progress“Terrorism. ISIS. War in Syria and Ukraine. Crime, murder, mass shootings.”

I’ve said enough along these lines on this blog already, but 2016 was a big pile of crap. All around us the news is full of doom and gloom, always telling us that humanity is going down the drain, becoming more intolerant, stupid and lazy. The rich get richer, the fat get fatter, the poor get poorer. It’s the same old story. But what if I was to tell you that, actually, it’s not all bad? Would you believe me? Try this book.

My friend gave me this book for Christmas with the statement, “You worry about this stuff more than us”. Given I’ve been in rather a black mood for the last few weeks, I decided that 2017 wasn’t going to push me around and I’d begin the year by looking at things a bit more positively. In this book, Swedish academic Johan Norberg takes a look at ten aspects of the modern world and shows that we’re actually improving on pretty much all fronts. He looks at food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the next generation and concludes, with the help of graphs and endless statistics, that things are improving left, right and centre.

Despite what we see on the news – and Norberg argues well that the main reason we think everything is so awful is because of news media – violence and poverty are down, and literacy and life expectancy are up. It may look awful when you see that there are still millions of people living in poverty, but when you consider how many more of us there are now, the proportions show that we’re actually doing fine. Of course, not everyone is rich or free or safe from disease yet, but the trends are looking good, as long as we take the current issues as a blip and focus on keeping everything moving forward. Humanity has advanced further in the last 100 years than it did in the first 100,000.

Norberg is blisteringly positive. He does concede, as I said, that only if we continue to fight the bad things will we continue to see progress, but this is a man who manages to even put a positive spin on the increase in the number of robberies in developing nations (they are proof that now even the poor have something worth stealing) and cancer (people never used to live long enough to develop it, which is why we’re now seeing an increase). He’s not saying that cancer itself is a good thing, it obviously isn’t, but it’s an interesting way of looking at things.

So while it may not be the lightest book to delve into first thing in the year, it’s definitely worthwhile and positive. Norberg is a skilled writer and weaves statistics and anecdotes together to create a readable book that might just remind us that things aren’t as bad as all that. Onwards and upwards, everybody.

“The Knowledge” by Lewis Dartnell (2015)

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knowledge“The world as we know it has ended.”

Twenty sixteen. The year that keeps on giving. The Mayans said the world was going to end in 2012, and maybe it was meant to and we’ve been on borrowed time since. After all, it’s not like things have gone smoothly since 2013 started. In fact, one of the few constants has been this blog, and I doubt that’s holding together the fabric of the universe in the way David Bowie was. The planet seems to rarely have been in such turmoil, and so my eyes found themselves drawn to this book that has sat on my shelf for a few months. It is, after all, best to be prepared.

The premise of the book focuses around the idea of the end of the world, which is common enough in fiction but I’ve seen explored little in non-fiction. Lewis Dartnell has written this book for the pockets of survivors who have clung on through whatever destroyed civilisation, realising that most of us, indeed none of us, will be able to build society back up again. Humans have invented such complicated devices and evolved such deep theories and practices that we don’t know the basics that have got us to this point. Never mind being unable to use your iPhone, how does one go about building one? Would you know how to mine the metal for it? I very much doubt you would.

Taking humanity back to basics, Dartnell teaches us how to get farming and make fertiliser to reboot agriculture, develop basic medicines, extract metals from rocks, produce paper and ink, get electricity, tell the time and make clothing all using the first processes that led to the world we have today. While he says that at first we’ll be able to make use of what has been left behind, it won’t be long before we can no longer rely on the stocks of food and materials that humanity left behind.

While, I won’t lie, parts of the book are rather dry, especially those going into intricate chemical processes which make me realise just how long ago it was that I did my Chemistry GCSE, but it is absolutely full of amazing nuggets of information that I’ve been throwing at people all week while reading this. My three favourites are probably:

  1. Humans inherited the common cold from horses.
  2. Popcorn was invented by a South American culture 6000 years ago.
  3. A woman didn’t survive a C-section until the 1790s, despite the practice being as old as the Romans.

While it would naturally take more information than can be held in this book to restart civilisation properly, it’s a great thought experiment and full of some genuinely useful and interesting science. We have become so detached from the processes that govern our daily lives that it’s almost humbling to get a refresher course like this. Dartnell also stresses that just because society did it one way last time, there’s no reason that the world will come back the same way. Maybe, if we go so basic that we lose everything, we’ll develop different measurements, never invent telescopes to discover the planets, or invent buttons. But if we know a little, we may be able to leapfrog the dead ends that science had to struggle through last time. It’ll also naturally have to be an entirely different reboot, as this time we don’t have massive coal, oil and gas reserves to allow an Industrial Revolution like last time – the next civilisation will undoubtedly be a lot greener.

A fascinating, exciting look at the world we take for granted that, with things as they are right now, is never leaving my side again.

“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (2013)

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The circle must be completed.

The circle must be completed.

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

The Internet has changed the way we live in ways and to degrees that no one could ever have predicted. With a few clicks and taps, we can go shopping, share information, review products, communicate with people on the other side of the planet, tell the world about ourselves, pay bills, check our accounts, research topics and a myriad other things. Social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like, allow us to tell everyone what we’re thinking at any moment. Even more remarkably, we don’t even need to be in front a computer to access these powers now – we can be almost anywhere. But, really, is all of this for the good?

Mae Holland has just got a job – thanks to the string-pulling of her friend Annie – at The Circle, the vast corporation that controls most of the social media and online facets of the world, having subsumed Facebook, Google and everyone else sometime in the last six years. Users sign up using bank details and therefore there are no fake accounts anymore, and everyone can share their thoughts 24/7. Mae is employed at the campus in customer support where she must respond quickly to any of the advertisers who require help. But while she’s doing that, she’s got to attend all the non-mandatory but community-building events of the campus, share her own thoughts on everything, answer a constant stream of survey questions and read everyone else’s news feeds too.

While getting acclimatised, she meets two men who are curious about her, and she is fascinated by them. One is the clumsy but caring Francis, with a tragic past that has inspired his future goals, and the other is the strange, ethereal Kalden, a man who doesn’t even seem to exist anywhere in the Circle networks, but has access to everywhere on campus and is adamant that the circle must not be completed. Mae is enjoying her time at the campus, but when it comes to the attention of the bosses – the Three Wise Men – that she isn’t sharing quite as much as she could be, she becomes a cause for concern. As the Circle develops more and more ways to chip away at people’s privacy – all in the name of safety and community – Mae stumbles deeper into a network that is far greater than anything she could have imagined.

So, there is a lot in this book that owes itself to 1984, and probably Brave New World as well, and while I’ve read both, I remember more about the former. Like all good visions of the future, it brings into play our fears and concerns of the modern day. Already Fitbits and health trackers are worn by many, but in this book they become mandatory, measuring your heart rate, calorie intake and stress levels at all times. When the head honchos at the Circle develop SeeChange, tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere in the world without causing a distraction, the book really shows off its main conceit – that “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”.

Mae begins as slightly unusual in this setting, as she doesn’t feel the need to share every waking moment of her life, which causes her colleagues and bosses some consternation. After discovering that Mae occasionally goes down to the bay to kayak by herself, they show genuine distress that there is absolutely no mention of this hobby on any of her networks – not one photo, zing (their version of a tweet), video or joined group that shows her interest in this. Why didn’t she tell anyone what happened when she visited her sick father that weekend? Could her experiences not help someone else who is dealing with a parent with MS? Determined to make her bosses happy, Mae quickly comes round to their way of thinking.

This book is terrifying. This is a world where secrets are seen as evil, and people believe that if anyone has a secret then they must be bad, because if all your thoughts and feelings were good, then why would you hide them? The Circle runs under the guise that knowing everything will lead us, as a species, to be our best selves, as there can be no crime or dishonesty when everything is known. It all makes perfect sense too, if you use that logic, but it’s misguided, and these people are in so deep that they might not be able to see the problems of this new technology.

The parallels between this and our world are also hammered home, but enjoyably so. The man behind the Circle’s foundation is Ty Gospodinov is a hoodie-wearing, rarely-seen expy of Mark Zuckerberg. The Circle campus, too, seems to be parodying Google’s campus, the Googleplex, with its laissez faire attitude – parties every night, thematic offices and general sense of “cool”. The company itself, while possibly having begun as a Facebook-like social network, now encompasses all areas of the Internet, and, like Google, is investing money in a myriad of other fields, such as self-driving cars, deep-sea exploration and crime prevention. Money makes the world go round.

As reality becomes more and more connected, we are perhaps not taking into account the issues of this level of information overload. Do we need to know everything? Are people’s opinions really that vital? Are secrets and lies necessary, even?

Far and away, this is the best book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a while since I read something that I could hardly put down, and even though it clocks in at around five hundred pages, it somehow didn’t feel long enough. Mirroring the issues the characters face, the information comes thick and fast, with speedy pacing, great narration and characters who couldn’t belong anywhere else, but fit this universe like a glove. It’s not just a novel – it’s a warning. This is the future, and it’s much closer than we think.

“Think Like A Freak” by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2014)

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freak“After writing Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we started to hear from readers with all sorts of questions.”

Once I’m done in the fiction section of a bookshop (which can take upwards of several hours), I do often go and look in the popular science section. I’ve even taken a shine to popular psychology and popular philosophy once in a while. But popular economics? That was one that really came out of nowhere. I hear “economics” and I think “global banking crisis”, recall that at school it always seemed like the nerdier and harder big brother of Business Studies, and generally want nothing to do with it.

But a few years ago I read Freakonomics and loved it. It changes the way you see the world and gives explanations for things that you’ve never thought about before. It established why most drug dealers still live with their parents, how much your name can affect how well you do in life, and why the legalisation of abortion in the USA made the crime rate drop. With that last one in particular, you may be wondering not only how such a link exists but why the question was even asked. It all just suggests that maybe we’re not getting the answers we want because we’re not asking the right questions.

Think Like A Freak is a guide for people who want to be able to think in this same way and make the right decisions by asking the right things. Levitt and Dubner cover such topics as how to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded, why quitting isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, why we believe things that are patently untrue, and which incentives work best.

Along the way they talk about Van Halen’s rider and why it famously specified no brown M&Ms in the dressing room, how one man doubled the record for the most hot dogs eaten in twelve minutes, what possessed a man to try and give himself ulcers, how the Chinese ping pong team brokered peace between China and America, what happened when the authors met David Cameron, and why people find it impossible to say “I don’t know”.

It’s a quick read and will give you plenty to think about, but short of quoting from it, there’s little I can say in a review. Granted, Freakonomics is better because there are a lot more stories there and this is more the theory of how it all works, but nonetheless it’s still very interesting and gives you a new way of looking at problems. And if nothing else, you’ll know how to eat hot dogs really quickly by the time you’ve finished it.

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