Joystick Nation

By Joystick Nation (Paperback)

Rating: 3 stars

I found this going cheap in the perpetual book sale in my University Library. It’s a pop-history of video games that was published in 1997 which, given the rate of development of computers, makes it practically medieval. Even so, it was an interesting read, covering the development of games from the very early mainframe games through the arcades of the ’80s right up to the newest consoles of the time (the N64 and Sega Saturn).

The book was written by an American and so focusses very much on North America, missing some of the developments that happened on this side of the Atlantic, particularly, I feel, in the ’80s when the 8-bit computers such as the BBC, C64 and Spectrum were so popular here. It covers several sociological trends that were probably transnational and still makes for interesting reading, even if it is heavily biased towards the US.

What I found slightly odd about the book is that the author did seem to mostly consider gaming to be an occupation for children, but then the 20- and 30-somethings who play games now were kids when the book was written and the games industry itself wasn’t as mature as it is now, when it caters to all ends of the market (the best example of a girl-oriented game that the author could come up with was Ms Pacman!).

Also, the book came out just when games on CD-ROM were starting to become popular for PCs, but the PC gaming market still hadn’t really taken off, so focussed a lot on consoles, although the chapter on the “military-entertainment complex” was interesting (basically suggesting that most of the development into game graphics and complexity came from the military).

I found the tone of the book quite odd. It had footnotes and references to academic papers all over the place, but the narrative tone was distinctly personal and popular, even throwing in the odd swearword, perhaps to be ‘edgy’. It mostly worked but sometimes the juxtaposition was somewhat jarring.

Overall, this was an interesting, if somewhat dated, history, from a trans-Atlantic point of view. I’d be interested in reading a more up-to-date edition, and one written from a British perspective.

Book details

ISBN: 9780349107233
Year of publication: 1997

The Machineries Of Joy

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 5 stars

I loved this collection of short stories. What can I say, Bradbury’s writing just hits the right spot in my brain. I was hooked from the first paragraph of the first story. The style and use of language just press all my buttons. In saying that, there was one story, El Dia de Muerte that just completely failed to gel for me. I read a few pages but I just didn’t care for or about it at all. It’s difficult to describe but it’s like not being able to focus on a magic eye picture. With Bradbury I can mostly ‘see the picture’ from the first sentence or two and get completely entranced, but that just didn’t work for me.

The cover bills this as a collection of horror stories, but it’s really not. Some have an aspect of horror, some are plain science fiction, some are fantasy, several are actually non-genre and some are just immensely sweet. The last story in particular, The Anthem Sprinters was one that I read just before going to bed and I was able to turn out the light with a smile on my face that didn’t fade for several minutes. A wonderful way to end a brilliant collection.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586043615
Publisher: Granada
Year of publication: 1964

Moby Dick

By Herman Melville

Rating: 2 stars

I found this a difficult book to read. Really, it’s two books in one cover. One of the books is a story of obsession and revenge, telling of Captain Ahab’s obsession with killing the whale that stole his leg. The other is the Encyclopaedia Leviathanica – a complete encyclopaedia of whales, whaling and whaling ships, with the latter being the larger of the two components of this book.

The thing that got me through it was the fact that each chapter was very short, often being no more than 3-4 pages, so I could sit down and just read one or two chapters at a time. If you took out all the chapters talking about the taxonomy of whales, their history, how to cut them up and so forth, this could be a riveting slim volume but as it was, it was really a slog. The story was great, but all the details about whaling, I could have done without.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853260087
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
Year of publication: 1851

The Thirty-Nine Steps

By John Buchan

Rating: 3 stars

I had read this short novelette many years ago in school but picked it up recently for the first time since. I actually really enjoyed it. It’s an early spy thriller in which Richard Hannay returns to the Old Country from the colonies and finds himself caught up in a plot to bring the whole of Europe to war.

I found myself smiling at some of the period setting in the book, so unexpected for the genre, and Hannay not only had a lot of skill, but a lot of luck to help him throughout. I enjoyed some of the descriptions of Scotland, where much of the book is set, while Hannay is trying to avoid both the gang and the police, although it’s a very different Scotland to that which I’m familiar with, of course.

A short book that can be read in in just a few hours, it’s still great fun. I only discovered that Hannay went on to star in several other books as well and will have to look out for some of those.

Book details

Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Year of publication: 1915

Devil’s Advocate

By John Humphrys

Rating: 4 stars

In this book, John Humprys steps down from his usual role as devil’s advocate in the interviewer’s chair to take a look at the course of society over the last forty or so years and look at how it has changed, often, in Humpreys’ view for the worse. The two major trends that he discusses in his book are consumerism and populism, both of which, he argues, have infantilized us and changed us from being active citizens to being passive consumers, avoiding any sense of responsibility, offering examples from responses to Hillsborough and the death of Diana to teenage magazines and the way that rating-chasing has dumbed-down television.

In some ways, parts of the book read like a grumpy old man having a rant at the modern world, but there’s a lot in what he says and it makes for some depressing reading. Populist consumerism has penetrated every area of our lives, from how we raise our children to how we perceive our politics. While Humprys can offer no magic bullet to the problem he can make us aware of them. It’s unfortunate that the people most likely to read this book are the ones who are already most likely to be resistant to (or at least aware of) the populist consumer culture anyway.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099279655
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1999


By Rudyard Kipling

Rating: 4 stars

Kipling gets a bit of a bad rep these days but I enjoyed this collection of children’s stories. The stories all come from Kipling’s other work, including both Jungle Books and The Just-So Stories and often have a moral at the end. I’ve not read much Kipling so I hadn’t encountered that many of these before (only the ones from the first Jungle Book). There is also some poetry in the book, including His Apologies, a lovely, sad poem about a dog.

I think Kipling needs to be seen in the context of his time and I get the impression from the stories set in India that he really loved that country, and had learned about the people and its history. I can’t see the arrogance and condescension that is often attributed to him.

Book details

ISBN: 9780060587857
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1894

Saturn’s Children

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

This is a post-human novel. Not a novel set in a world where Humanity has evolved into something more than human, but a world where Humanity has become extinct. Not a very interesting place, you might think, but we have left a legacy in this world: AI robots. These self-aware descendants have colonised the solar system and even begun looking to the stars. Our heroine is Freya, a robot who was obsolete before she was even ‘born’: a sex robot activated just after Humanity became extinct. However, when she has a nasty run-in with an aristocrat and has to leave Venus in a hurry and receives a ‘soul chip’ with the memories of one of her sisters things suddenly start getting interesting for Freya.

Yes, I did use the word ‘aristocrat’ in that summary. In this world, humans never figured out how to create AI from scratch, so they used their own neural patterns as templates, which comes with certain… baggage, including the desire to be free. In the fear that that their servants would revolt, the humans ensured that each robot would have an override slot, and once a chip was inserted, their free will would be entirely disabled. Once the first robots started gaining legal freedom, they followed the patterns of their creators and started buying their own slaves, ensuring they were chipped and thus a new aristocracy was born.

I love the idea of a post-human solar system and the things that flow from that, but Stross doesn’t just spend all his time on that (although the world is very well fleshed out), but there’s a cracking story in there too, hinging on the ‘soul chips’ that allow siblings of the same ‘lineage’ (ie created from the same neural template) to record and share their personality and memories, usually when one of the siblings dies. There’s a lot of twists and turns here and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with, but there’s a lot to it and I certainly enjoyed reading it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841495682
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2008

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