Linked reviews: ‘The Bone Clocks’ and ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ (part 2)

March 22, 2016


Part 2 of a linked review looking at these two hybrid genre novels, this time focusing on The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. As before, some of what follows could be considered spoiler-y.

In short: it’s rather special.

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Linked reviews: ‘The Bone Clocks’ and ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ (part 1)

March 15, 2016

I’ve not read much ‘proper’ fiction in recent months (or years, come to think of it) but recently, in the space of a few weeks, I finished a couple of excellent novels published in 2014: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. They have some interesting similarities — and some interesting differences. In the UK at least, both can be found in the main ‘literary’ fiction section of your local bookshop, but both defy easy genre classification and stray into science fictional territory (and in the case of The Bone Clocks, fantasy as well). Caution: what follows may be spoiler-y.

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“Payback Time” cancer campaign mis-step

September 12, 2014

Here’s the video and some background.

It’s a two minute animation currently showing on British TV, in support of an upcoming Channel 4 cancer research fundraising evening, which will be held on 17th October 2014.

The cause is impeccable and I’d urge people to support it. Furthermore, the animation is well made and quite striking. If it gets circulated widely and discussed and some of this buzz translates into increased donations to cancer research, I’m sure the makers will fairly say “job done”.


[spoiler follows]

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Mt Etna

November 4, 2013


A couple of weeks ago I saw a volcano erupt for the first time. A lifetime ambition achieved- and it wasn’t even the best thing about last month…

Badgers ‘moved goalposts’ says minister

October 9, 2013


BBC story here.

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Iain Banks: In Memoriam (and review of The Bridge)

September 1, 2013

My favourite author died  nearly three months ago, on the 9th June 2013, at the devastatingly under-ripe old age of 59.

I’ll get the provisos out of the way first. I don’t claim he was the best writer in the world ever, but his mix of humour, creative wordplay, blisteringly imaginative settings, likeable and less likeable characters, mainstream literary fiction and science fiction— and several gradations between— and his sometimes bleak and rather twisted view of human relationships, combined with a strong moral sense, clicked with me in a way no other author’s work has done. I have all his paperback books, and will buy The Quarry and The Hydrogen Sonata when they come out in softcover form. I’ve read several of his works more than once. I can’t say that about any other author.

I don’t unreservedly like everything he wrote. Read a few of his books and you’ll quickly notice recurring themes— fascinations, even. And some of the weirder/more  unconventional ones don’t really work for me.

Maybe much of it was just a clever joke— see the Wasp Factory— but that didn’t make it any easier or pleasanter to read.

Call me a prude.


He is best known for his Culture Universe, but generally I prefer his non-Culture books, both mainstream and SF. Somehow everything was just too perfect in the Culture, and setting his stories in non-Culture parts of the Galaxy always felt like  a cop out. Even if it’s all going to hell in a handbasket on one particular planet, we still know that Utopia is out there somewhere, and that in the long run, thanks to those implacable benign machine intelligences, Everything Will Be Boringly All Right.

Enough negativity. Onwards, to the positive.

Everything I love about his writing is in his third (I think) published novel, The Bridge, which I read again recently. For the fourth time, I believe.

It has everything in the list above, in spades. It’s dazzlingly clever and well written, but has a heart of the yellow metallic stuff. It’s an unconventional love story set in 1980s Scotland, with a kind of a steampunk/ fantasy-SF overlay, or underlay, with multiple storylines and crosscutting allusions and puzzles which the reader can choose to explore, or allow to just wash over them, as they see fit. It can be as hard or as fun or as moving as you want or allow it to be. That’s probably why I’ve read it so many times, and will read it again many times more.

The fantastical elements both fade— while also becoming more extreme (I know, I know, you just have to read it)— as the story progresses. The focus shifts to the “real” life of the protagonist, Alex, a Scottish engineer, and the love of his life, Andrea. For a book so outwardly unconventional, The Bridge is strikingly life-affirming and well, human. At one point Alex is overwhelmed by feelings of love and happiness: “If my life was a film he thought, I’d roll the credits now”.

I’ve been fortunate to have had moments like this— the joy that comes with the realisation of being alive and contented— and it is always followed by this same thought. Thank you Iain. What a pleasure to have one of your turns of phrase return at all the most pleasant intervals in my life, like an old and welcome friend.

There are several other nuggets in there, and of course there’s the trademark Iain Banks weirdness too— but in The Bridge he’s adjusted the twisted setting to ‘just right’ (for me, at least). Just enough to cause an occasional thrill of discomfort, without being a big turn off.

In summary: I still really, really, really like this book. The fact that the author always thought it was his best makes me even more sad that he has gone, and that there’s no chance we’ll get another like it. In much of his work, and with The Bridge more than anywhere else, Iain Banks seems to write with a narrative voice that seems eerily close to my own internal voice. (Given that he wrote some pretty weird stuff, I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing, but there you go).

RIP Iain (M) Banks. I never met you, but you are missed.

Earth Day ambivalence

April 22, 2013

Never quite know what to make of Earth Day.

Eyebrows would be raised if the International Space Station had an annual “CO2 Scrubber Day” or submarine crews celebrated “Pressure Hull Week” every April.

I should say, I have a general disquiet about the whole concept of annual awareness time intervals. I’m certainly not against the idea for every good cause, but often they trivialise the thing they’re trying to promote. Not saying they don’t work, but somehow Earth Day, like Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, has a touch of absurdity and mild desperation.

Peak health?

April 11, 2013

Something I’ve often wondered about before, and now a paper’s been published that touches on it (in terms of cardiovascular health, at least).

What happens next, in terms of life expectancy, in the developed world? First of all there was sanitation and better housing to reduce the disease burden from infectious diseases. And immunisation, of course. Then economic development and societal changes drive gains from the third stage of the demographic transition (ie better maternal and childhood nutrition reaps more healthy years of life decades later in the lifecourse). And we start to identify some of the big risk factors for disease, and belatedly, deal with them in a meaningful society-wide way (eg smoking bans).

Some of the benefit from these changes is yet to filter through to the life expectancy figures of course, but the era of big improvements is probably drawing to a close. Meanwhile, an overweight younger generation is coming through which is steadily accumulating a hefty burden of future cardiovascular risk.

So how are we going to sustain those improvements in life expectancy in the future?

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Margaret Thatcher

April 9, 2013

If you hadn’t noticed, she died yesterday. If the media (yes, them again) are to be believed, here in the UK we should all divide neatly into two groups: those huffing and puffing about how disgraceful it is she’s not going to have a state funeral— as if St Paul’s cathedral, gun carriages and military salutes are not enough— and those who broke out the champagne and partied hard all last night.

So when I try to decide what I think about her passing, it’s with half-hearted surprise that I conclude— pretty much nothing.

It’s not that I don’t think she was a hugely influential figure in national, and arguably global, 20th century politics, society (yes, it does exist) and culture.

It’s just that she was in power through most of my childhood, and like most background things you grow up with, she was just there. Being brought up in a middle class household in the south of the country, her policies didn’t appear to have any direct, immediate impacts on my family. According to my understanding, she did some necessary things early in her premiership, such as facing down the unions— although she did them in what appears to be a notably divisive and compassionless way. And much like an over-ripe cheese or Tony Blair, she stuck around far too long at the end.

In all, I struggle to marshal any strong feelings towards her one way or the other.

It’s always sad when a family member or friend dies, even when peacefully at the ripe old age of 87. So my condolences go out to those who knew her personally. As for her long term impact on the world, history will pass judgement in due course. I suspect it will be a mixed verdict.

That’s it really.

Media Chaos and measles outbreaks

April 7, 2013

After the MMR scare comes the inevitable measles scare: there’s now a big outbreak in Swansea, Wales.

BBC report

What Wakefield et al sowed is now being reaped. No reports yet of deaths or serious disability, but unfortunately the odds of getting through the outbreak without them are poor.

Why Swansea? It has been suggested that an anti-MMR campaign spearheaded by the local rag in the 1990s may, in part, be responsible for lower MMR uptake in the region and loss of herd immunity.

Now, I heard/read about this somewhere in the media in the last couple of days, so it’s not as if there’s a big conspiracy to keep it quiet. But in other circumstances,  if the actions of a named individual, organisation (eg hospital), or even another professional group (eg doctors) could be deemed even part-responsible for an outbreak of potentially serious harm to a large group of people, I’d expect to hear a lot more about it in the news. But maybe the fact that the media aren’t saying much about their own failings shouldn’t be a big surprise.

Anyway, here’s a pretty good account of it on “the home of UK regional journalism and jobs”.

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