Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith
A mixture of science and philosophy about consciousness, I found this book really fascinating. The joins between the two are pretty seamless, so they lead into one another and contribute to one another — if you hate philosophy, this would probably still be okay for you, because it does lean a little toward the science end. To my mind, anyway. If you don’t have a strong grounding in either, it’s still accessible and fascinating, as long as you have some level of interest in the subject.
What we know about cuttlefish and octopus minds is just astounding — their intelligence is almost uncanny, and yet we know very little about how they experience the world. There were a few surprises here for me — their typically short lives, their decentralised control of movement, the seeming personalities of the animals the author observed…
There’s a lot of anecdotes and such, so if you’re looking for hard science, this isn’t really what you want. But if you’re casually interested, then I recommend it. And if you can end it without wanting to dive and meet some cuttlefish and octopi for yourself, you must be made of stone. (Not really, but. I’m left so curious! That’s a thing I love in a book.)
Radiance, Catherynne M. Valente
What can I say about this book? I just finished it and I feel a little dizzy, drunk on words and possibilities. I don’t know what to make of it, and I don’t even really care. It served up so many questions, so many mysteries, and yet I found it entirely satisfying anyway — even though the ending still leaves a question mark.
Valente’s writing is beautiful, as ever. The mixture of media she uses — scripts, transcripts, diaries — let her really indulge in it, play with words and throw ideas around like splashes of colour. It rubs off on you; I’ll be writing like Valente for at least a week now, like a kid trying on their mother’s high heels. Not sure it really suits me, but playing with the idea all the same.
I can’t tell you about this book; I can’t explain it with anything other than a handful of impressions. I think I want to read it again. It worked for me; it might not work for you. I’m sure there are people it will leave entirely cold, and I might’ve been one of them, on a different day. Today Valente drew me in and had me eating it up: her black-and-white movie world, her sparkling and astonishingly fertile worlds out there in space, the Mars and Venus and Jupiter of bygone sci-fi. Another day, the profligacy of plot and imagery and illusions to mythology and imagination might have turned me off.
Try it and see.
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
The first time I read this book, I was very conscious of everything people were saying about it in terms of how it treated gender, how it was feminist, etc, etc. I think reading it with those expectations did it a disservice — the way it handles gender is fascinating, and it’s definitely intriguing to get this look at another world where gender isn’t indicated grammatically or socially. But that’s not all this story is. It’s also an adventure, a thriller even; it’s about political machinations when you’re a being who can be divided against yourself in your opinions. It’s about AI and how to control them, about empire and how it functions. There’s a little bit of Rome in it, but there’s a lot of other influences as well.
Which is to say, it’s not about gender. If anything, the most powerful aspect of this book this time round was Breq’s repeated refrain, the closing words: “Choose my aim, take one step and then the next. It had never been anything else.”
When you’re not worried about figuring out who is what gender, and whether that’s clever or subverting your expectations or what, it’s a smoother read, and one in which you can become attached to the characters. Lieutenant Awn — I don’t know what she looks like, nor do I care. I care what she does in the moment, and about her regret for acting or not acting. I care about Breq’s determination to be worthy of the person Awn was. Despite myself, I even care about Seivarden — a snob, a jerk, but also someone who begins to try to be something more.
Going into Ancillary Justice at a remove from the buzz, just because I wanted to reread it and enjoy it, was an excellent decision. I don’t expect my experience of Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy to change in that way, because I already knew what to expect at that point — but I’m quite prepared to find more depth there than I saw the first time.
Good morning! How’s everyone? My exams are still approaching, but I got a bit more reading done this week, hurrah.
Received to review:
It’s been a while since I read anything by Sean Stewart, but I remember enjoying his work!
I’ve been meaning to read Chameleon Moon and Sunbolt for ages, and they were each 99p on the Kindle Store. So, grabbed ’em. As for Reinventing Darwin, it was recommended to me, and I can’t help a satisfied sigh at the words brazenly quoted on the back cover: “No one doubts that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is correct.” Overly optimistic, perhaps, but a delightful window into a world I’d like to inhabit, where no one does doubt evolution.
Finished this week:
Technically I’ve read parts I & II of Dangerous Women, with part III still on the pile, but I’m not going to upload the identical-but-for-colour separate covers!
Five stars to… Ancillary Justice.
Four stars to… Radiance.
Three stars to… Dangerous Women: Part I & II.
Two stars to… The Soul of an Octopus.
Reviews posted this week:
–The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi. Don’t think too much about how this would work! If you ignore that, it’s an interesting setting for a mystery. 4/5 stars
–Byzantium, by Judith Herrin. A labour of love — too much love, perhaps, to be objective and to pick the right incidents to discuss for a non-specialist audience. 3/5 stars
–Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel. This really hooked me despite, or perhaps even because of, my qualms. Must. Know. What. Happens. 4/5 stars
–What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology, by Addy Pross. What it says on the tin, and hardly revelatory for me. 3/5 stars
–The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery. Touching, but more of a memoir than a scientific book, even a pop-science one. 2/5 stars
–The Drowning City, by Amanda Downum. A reread, and one I enjoyed maybe more than I liked the book the first time! 4/5 stars
–Top Ten Tuesday: Cover Love. Some covers that have really struck me.
–What are you reading Wednesday. An update on what’s been crossing my bookshelves this week.
The Drowning City, Amanda Downum
I first read this ages ago, and quickly followed it up with the second book, but then didn’t get onto reading the third book. So I felt like I needed to refresh my memory. The first book wasn’t my favourite, and I still think the second is probably stronger, but the idea of a spy necromancer running around fomenting rebellion remains pretty darn cool. The cultures are a little bit… umm. They feel like very obvious analogues. But I give Guy Gavriel Kay a pass for that, so Amanda Downum can have it too — and mostly her mythology hangs together and everything works, so that’s fine.
Issylt is a pretty awesome main character, though her relationship with Kiril still… doesn’t entirely make sense to me, and I don’t feel like I can root for her to actually get what she wants in that regard. He’s older than her, and they probably shouldn’t have been in a relationship at all. Still, there’s something to be said also for her perspective that it’s her decision, and he shouldn’t shelter her from the consequences of it. People do that with women, real and fictional, far too often.
Zhivrin is less appealing as a character, but her arc works well, and her ending has a perfect bittersweetness. I love how it’s foreshadowed, as well. Xinai, well, I feel like she more or less got what was coming to her — I can sympathise to some extent with anger at imperialism and the damage it can do, but I don’t understand fighting back against that at any cost. Particularly not when the cost is your own people.
Both times I’ve read this book, I’ve finished it in almost one sitting, so that’s something else to be said for it. But now, onwards!
The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
This is more of a memoir about experiences with octopuses than a popular science book about them, despite where Waterstones shelved it (at least in Brussels). It can get a bit woolly at times, since Sy Montgomery seems pretty preoccupied with how she experiences her meetings with octopuses, and what it does to her soul, but there are some interesting bits and I did enjoy reading about the individual personalities of Athena, Kali, Karma and Octavia.
Sometimes I’m not sure at all how well founded her speculations are — for example, she mentions a theory about an octopus taking a dislike to someone because it could taste the fact that she was on medication. Theoretically, I guess that’s possible, but practically, I’m not sure it’s true — or how on earth we could possibly know what an octopus senses, and whether it likes or dislikes what it finds.
Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds is the better book about octopuses, I think, and goes more into a philosophical examination of their consciousness. This is mostly about Sy Montgomery — which might be your thing, but isn’t so much mine. The more I think about it, the less I rate it.
What have you recently finished reading?
I just finished a reread of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, yesterday. I actually liked it more this time — I think because I wasn’t thinking about the clever treatment of gender as much, but just about revisiting the world and story. And it did help that I knew what to expect; I’m one of those people who likes spoilers.
What are you currently reading?
Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. It’s my book club read on Habitica (in the Legendary Book Club guild, if you’re a member). I didn’t actually expect to get sucked into it so quickly — I tend to struggle with Valente’s work because the imagery is just so dense and I’m not visual at all. I thought that’d go double for a book revolving around cinema. But no, I’m intrigued and eating it up.
What will you read next?
I’d like to read Within the Sanctuary of Wings, and maybe start rereading City of Stairs and City of Blades, ready to read City of Miracles once I get back to Britain and my copy has arrived. But knowing me, I might get distracted by something else. I have some books due back at the library, after all.
What is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology, Addy Pross
I’m rather underwhelmed by this book. Though it is praised as “uncover[ing] the chemical roots of Darwinian theory, thereby opening a novel route connecting biology to chemistry and physics” (and by a Nobel prize winner, no less!), I think this route is far from novel. It’s always been obvious to me that biology is chemistry in living cells, that all the rules of chemistry derive from properties described by physics, and indeed that physics is based on mathematics and mathematics on logic. This just doesn’t seem revelatory to me — it’s apparent from the first time you understand that enzymes are simply manufactured catalysts and that RNA can replicate itself. And I understood that when I was doing my AS Level in biology, if not before, so that was 2007. This wasn’t published until 2012! So I can’t have unconsciously absorbed the conclusions of this book via somewhere else.
As a survey of exactly how the subjects link up, it works relatively well. The writing is clear and the logic works, and if you didn’t connect the dots for yourself, it allows you to do so. It’s perhaps a little more specific than my 2007 understanding, referencing RNA experiments I hadn’t heard of, but the basic theory has always been apparent to me. I don’t understand how it is considered controversial or groundbreaking.
Perhaps this is more surprising to scientists who have been stuck within their own segregated area, though. As an outsider whose contact with science was limited to New Scientist and popular science books from 2007 to 2014, perhaps my simpler view of things helped me to connect the dots, where an actual biologist just couldn’t accept that biology is simply chemistry when it seems so much more complex. It seems odd to me, but it’s all I can think of. And it’s not as though I’m a chemistry or physics superfan — I’m happy to stay on the level of biology!
Sleeping Giants, Sylvain Neuvel
I was hooked by the premise of this right away, and though I have some reservations about the transcript/extract format, I think that was part of it as well. It made each section really quick to read, and tantalising as well; the limited nature of each snippet gave as many questions as answers in most cases, and leads on to the next bit — and the next, and the next. Perhaps the best way to sum up my experience with this book is to say that I read a chapter… and then accidentally read another, and another, and then the next morning I got a copy of the book to my wife so we could read it together. (And at one point in the middle of the night, I uttered the words “shit!” loud enough to disturb her. Oops.)
The transcript format doesn’t quite work for me all the time; it does introduce rather a distance between the reader and the characters, and some of the action scenes are extremely awkward because of the way they’re narrated. But overall, particularly for the more static scenes, it worked — I found it tantalising, rather than frustrating.
The characters are not all exactly lovable, but I got wrapped up in them anyway — perhaps most in the one we know least about. Clark Gregg, as he played Phil Coulson, would be my fancast for the unnamed facilitator. And I really, really want to know what’s up with his personal situation, as alluded to by Mr Burns.
(Sorry there’s so many vaguenesses in this review. I tried to preserve as many of the “oh shit!” moments for people who haven’t read it yet, while giving an idea of how intrigued I was.)
Onto the sequel, with great haste.