Decline and Fall

By Evelyn Waugh

Rating: 3 stars

Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Oxford after a terrible scandal and takes up teaching in an obscure public school in Wales where he becomes attracted to the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde but falls down over some of her shady dealings.

I’m really not sure what to make of this book, to be honest. I certainly enjoyed the first part, detailing Paul’s time in Llanabba school and the weird and wonderful characters he meets there. The second part, the romance, is somewhat more conventional but things pick up again in the third part after the inevitable disaster. The first part ends on a somewhat jarring note that didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of it, but this is dealt with later. I didn’t feel that the middle third lived up to the expectations created in the first, with the wonderful, almost grotesque, characters that Waugh had created feeling somewhat wasted.

The tone felt almost Wodehousian, but in a more passive sense, without Wodehouse’s active absurdism. I felt indignant on Paul’s behalf at times, as he suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but he just glides through everything and although the book is entitled Deline and Fall the end of the book isn’t quite so bleak as that title would imply.

I suspect this probably needs re-reading to get the most out of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781417920761
Publisher: Kessinger Publishing
Year of publication: 1928

Time Ships

By Stephen Baxter

Rating: 4 stars

This is an authorised sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and follows the Time Traveller’s journeys after he vanishes from his home in 1891 as witnessed by his friend. In this book, the Traveller is determined to return to the far future to try and rescue his companion Weena, who he left there after the attack by the Morlocks. But he never gets there. The very act of visiting the future and returning to the past to relate the fact has changed history!

I really like this book. Baxter has captured Wells’ voice remarkably well, particularly in the early segments of the book. Later, as the Time Traveller is buffeted between a Multiplicity of realities, we can follow what’s going on as events are filtered through the understanding of a (very bright) Victorian gentleman scientist.

Baxter has another hundred years of science to draw upon when crafting his story and the finale is truly breathtaking in scale and imagination, and his final message is somewhat more hopeful than Wells’. An excellent book, full of Baxter’s trademark huge ideas and vast canvases, definitely worth reading and re-reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006480129
Publisher: Voyager
Year of publication: 1995

The Time Machine

By H.G. Wells

Rating: 4 stars

One of the great classics of SF, this remains a gripping and moving novel. The unnamed Time Traveller tells his story of his visit to the far future in a style that still feels eminently readable. The future he visits is, upon first glance, a Utopia, but it hides many secrets. The Eloi who live in what appears to be a Garden of Eden have lost the intelligence and cutting edge that made the Human race masters of the Earth. The Morlocks who live underground, tending the machines have devolved into cannibalistic monsters, the serpent in this Eden.

Wells has extrapolated his (and our) society to the nth degree and yet it’s plausible enough to be uncomfortable. Wells’ musings on the future of society are interesting but never get in the way of the story, which is well-paced and easy to read.

Aside: It’s mildly amusing to think that if someone left the house today with the stuff that the Time Traveller (or indeed, any hero of a book written up to the second half of the last century) carried routinely, matches, pocket knife etc, he’d probably be regarded with great suspicion.

Book details

Publisher: Signet Classics
Year of publication: 1895

Things Snowball

By Rich Hall

Rating: 5 stars

This is an excellent collection of shaggy-dog stories, anecdotes, travelogues and annotated letters (okay, just the one letter) penned by Rich Hall. From his recollections of being allowed to work his granddad’s nuclear reactor when he was a kid (just a small mom-and-pop affair) through an anecdote about the invention of the spatula to his fond recollections of his New Zealand tour, Hall’s dry wit and deadpan delivery (even on paper!) make this a joy to read.

The couple of travelogues covering the American West are the only bits of the book which I think might be true. An excellent book, definitely worth reading.

Book details

ISBN: 9780349115108
Year of publication: 2002

The Long Result

By John Brunner

Rating: 3 stars

Even in the future, racism is alive and well. The Stars are for Man League is determined to use any means to keep mankind supreme in the galaxy. This book examines galactic politics, racism and bureaucracy and still manages to be a page turner! It’s got that very 1960s positive attitude towards large government, the hero here being the head of a department in the Bureau of Cultural Relations (basically the alien contact agency of a united Earth) who has to deal with the League as well as with various Human colony worlds.

I managed to spot most twists well before the protagonist (only missing one big one that I should, in hindsight, has totally seen) but it was still an enjoyable read, showing a future Earth that is mature and comfortable with itself and its relationship with the rest of the galaxy.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345218872
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Year of publication: 1965

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

By Charles Seife

Rating: 4 stars

This was a book about the history of zero and infinity. From its invention in Babylon, through its suppression in Greece and in the west during the Middle Ages to its flourishing in India and the Middle East and reintroduction in Europe in the Renaissance. Seife covers the history of the zero with an admirable narrative, showing how it is intimately tied with infinity before going on to discuss the most important occurrences of zero in maths (including calculus) and physics (the big bang, zero point energy, black holes).

Most of the book is very accessible to the general reader, particularly the history sections, but during the bits in the middle that were directly related to maths, I was very thankful for my own A-Level maths background, which helped me follow the equations and the calculus (even if some of it did involve dusting down some very old memories 🙂 ).

It was a very interesting read about something that most of us don’t think about very much at all. The history of zero in particular was very interesting, especially fear that the Greeks had of it, removing it from their universe entirely. Seife shows how they constructed their world around geometry and how the fear of zero follows on from that.

Interesting and very enjoyable. Just dust up on your algebra and calculus before you get to the middle chapters.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140296471
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2000

The Queen of Air and Darkness and Other Stories

By Poul Anderson

Rating: 4 stars

This is a small collection of short stories from the prolific Mr Anderson. There is no real unifying theme to them other than the idea that the universe is stranger than our science yet knows. All the stories are set in relativistic universes, so FTL is a no-no, and in at least one story (Time Lag) this is used to good effect.

The title story is eerily moody, evoking ancient myths on another world in the far future while most of the rest deal with colonisation in a universe where the speed of light is the absolute speed limit and how different worlds might react and change the people that went out to colonise the stars.

A very enjoyable read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780839824336
Publisher: Gregg P, US
Year of publication: 1971

Monstrous Regiment (Discworld, #31; Industrial Revolution, #3)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 2 stars

Polly Perks cuts off her hair, learns to pick her nose and fart in public and goes to join the army to try and find her missing brother. In the regiment, she finds a vampire, a troll and the army’s best sergeant. And hilarity ensues.

Actually, no it didn’t. I didn’t find this book particularly engaging. There were few, if any, laugh out loud moments, and even bits that made you smile to yourself were thin on the ground. The sparkle was missing from the writing, I didn’t find the plucky heroine particularly interesting or to have much character, and the message seemed mixed: war is bad, but after living through it, when your country needs you, you should jump back into it. Eh?

I wouldn’t bother with this one.

Book details

Year of publication: 2003

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