Some Remarks

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

Neal Stephenson is mostly known for writing big books, so the idea of a set of essays (with a couple of short stories thrown in for good measure) was attractive. To be honest, it’s a mixed bag. I really found myself floundering in Metaphysics in the Royal Society which (I think!) was about Newton and Leibniz and their differing philosophies.

On the other hand, the longest piece in the book, the Wired article Mother Earth, Mother Board is excellent, compelling and well worth the read. That is about the laying of what was, at the time, the longest undersea cable in the world, a project called Fibreoptic Link Around the Globe (FLAG), as well as delving into the history of undersea cables in general (something which it turns out that Glasgow’s very own Lord Kelvin had a fairly major role in).

A couple of the other pieces rail against a perceived stalling of progress and the corporate timidity that now means that we no longer take the sort of risks needed to, as Stephenson says, delve into the valley past our local maxima to climb new heights. Personally, this is something I wholly agree with him about.

And I certainly have to thank his article Innovation Starvation for bringing Project Hieroglyph to my attention. This is his attempt to do something positive about this stagnation, by helping to curate the sort of positive, forward-looking science fiction that inspires and encourages scientists and engineers to dare to imagine a better future for all of us (the first anthology from this project is Hieroglyph Stories and Visions for a Better Future).

Book details

ISBN: 9781848878549
Publisher: Atlantic
Year of publication: 1994

New Ceres Nights

By Alisa Krasnostein

Rating: 3 stars

I am a child of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, and I love living in the future. The idea of living at any point in history other than now fills me with some horror. The idea of not having painkillers, antibiotics, functioning medicine and surgery, not to mention missing instantaneous worldwide communication and an ether surrounding us that we can tap into with a hand-held device that allows access to the sum total of human knowledge fills me with horror. So I really don’t understand why the colony world of New Ceres decided that the 18th century was a good time to go back to.

Not just the aesthetics, but the whole shebang. Apart from the spaceport, which keeps them in touch with the rest of human civilisation, the populace (are supposed) to have no technology beyond that of the Enlightenment period. This is something which mostly doesn’t happen as just about every story in this collection is about the use or misuse or suppression of some forbidden technology by the semi-religious guardians, the Lumoscenti.

The first story in the collection tries to offer a rationale for this, but it wasn’t convincing to me, and the fact that so many of the stories are based around the tension around the use of illegal technology suggests that the authors aren’t entirely sure where to go as well.

This is a shared world (although the website seems to be dead, although archived by the Wayback Machine) where multiple writers and artists could collaborate on the world and its history. You can see that in this collection, where characters in one story may turn up as myths or legends in another, providing a pleasing sense of continuity.

The stories themselves were mostly entertaining, although I hadn’t heard of many of the writers involved, with Aliette de Bodard being the only exception. My favourite stories were probably “The Sharp Shooter” by Sylvia Kelso about a native beast terrorising a farmstead and the man sent out by the local aristocrat to deal with it; and Smuggler’s Moon by Lee Battersby, once again bringing into sharp relief the tension between the ideals behind banning technology and the effect that has on the real populace.

So a decent enough collection, but I have no real urge to dig up more about New Ceres.

Book details

ISBN: 9780980484120
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Year of publication: 2009

Dandelion Wine

By Ray Bradbury

Rating: 5 stars

It took me a while to get into this beautiful fictionalised memoir of life growing up in small-town midwestern America. I started it in fits and starts, but once I settled down and spent a whole afternoon on it, Bradbury’s writing worked its usual magic on me and I was drawn in to his descriptions of a world very different in space and time from my own. Our guides to Green Town, Illinois, are Douglas and Tom Spaulding, and this story is told mostly through their eyes during the summer of 1928.

Summer means that school’s out so the kids get to play, and they play as we children of the late 20th or early 21st centuries can hardly imagine. Climbing trees, kicking cans, busting each other’s noses in the presence of adults, all while glorying in being alive and young. Early on in the book, Doug Spaulding really realises that he’s alive, and later that one day he will die. He buys a pencil and tablet to write down all the best things about life: the rites, the ceremonies, and the revelations. It’s little touches like this that really make Bradbury as a writer, in my eyes.

We meet such characters as the boys’ grandfather, who makes wine from the dandelions that grow in their garden; Leo Auffmann, who makes a Happiness Machine; the newsman William Forrester and his tragic love affair and on it goes. Each character is drawn with Bradbury’s usual assurance and comes alive on the page.

Bradbury’s writing is as seductive as ever, drawing me in with its poetic grace. He made me laugh and he made me cry, especially the latter. This book is all about nostalgia, it’s about treasured memories and the formation of such memories. About bottling these up with the home made dandelion wine. About old people remembering their youth and having no regrets as they move on into the undiscovered country, about young people creating the memories that they will tell to their children, about love and loss. The loss of a dear friend who moves away or a treasured elderly relative who’s ready to die. In sum, it’s about life, and a life well lived, and a window into a life that was.

I don’t know what I would have made of it, but I wish I had read this book when I was young. It’s possible that I would have scoffed at it, but it might also be possible that I would have fallen in love as only a young person can fall in love with a book. Either way, I’ll just have to make up for it now. This book will definitely be re-read, I hope, again and again.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007284740
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Year of publication: 1957

No Destination: An Autobiography

By Satish Kumar

Rating: 2 stars

I stuck this book on my wishlist after hearing about the author’s peace walk around the world on Radio 4 as it sounded pretty interesting and I wanted to find out more. The early part of Kumar’s life was pretty interesting and I was hooked probably up until he settled in Britain. Hearing about how he was trying to learn Welsh and raise a family were less interesting. However, I think the problem is that I fundamentally disagree with Kumar’s basic philosophy on life. Despite some good points about using fewer resources, his philosophy is what I would call woo. He’s happy using homoeopathy and crystals and all that jazz, and that distracts from his other points.

In saying that, I’m also fundamentally in favour of our high-technology civilisation and understand that things like intensive farming are a requirement for that. Indeed, the green revolution that underpins it is what is keeping most of the world fed today. I’m happy that he’s content with a simple life, milking his cow and lots of manual labour, but frankly that sort of life sounds like hell to me.

He also seems to have a very idealised view of country life and while I agree with him that closing country schools in the name of “efficiency” is a terrible idea, I disagree with his implication that it must be the only way. Centralisation has its benefits, meaning that, at its best, wider ranges of subjects and more and better teachers can be found than would be available in a small community.

On the positive side, the book is well written and mostly engaging. The writing style is the simple and careful style of someone for whom English isn’t his first language, making the book very easy to read. The only exception to this is the last (real – there’s another chapter after it, but since it consists of a single page, I don’t think it counts) chapter, where he stops talking about his life and starts talking about the principals of his beliefs. This was quite dry, academic and somewhat pompous in tone, very unlike what had gone before.

So an interesting read by someone who has a very different outlook on life to myself but worth it for the chapters on his early life in India and the peace march.

Book details

ISBN: 9781870098892
Publisher: UIT Cambridge Ltd.
Year of publication: 1992

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