Machine, Jennifer Pelland
I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m still not quite sure what to say. Machine is a powerful exploration of body dysphoria, set in a world where your consciousness can be downloaded into a medical android body replacement, while your human body is cryo-frozen to prevent the progression of disease. It reflects on body dysphoria in general, of course, and it’s pretty inconclusive about the answer — should you modify, should you learn to live with it, how will people around you react…
There are parts of this which are frankly disturbing — the erotica parts didn’t interest me, obviously, but I actually found them actively discomforting even to skim past. That’s 100% intentional, and that’s obvious, so that’s not meant as a criticism. It’s just something you might want to bear in mind if you find the book interesting.
I found it difficult to believe in the central couple, whose separation sparks the whole plot. Rivka doesn’t seem like a great person, if she couldn’t even tell her wife that she wasn’t happy with the medical replacement body before she went through the whole procedure. Character-wise, no one really shines — even the main character’s closest friend and people who are sympathetic to her do stupid things which out her to the world (which is fairly anti-robot), things which I wouldn’t tolerate in a friend even in the less fraught environment nowadays for queer people.
It was interesting and powerful, but not something I was willingly emotionally involved in, or emotionally involved in for the reasons I’d usually enjoy. The ending… it was what I wanted, in a sense, but it felt like a cop-out as well. Consequences-be-gone.
Star-shot, Mary-Ann Constantin
Star-shot is… weird. Fascinating, though. The first section, for example, features a woman in love with a building. And right across Cardiff, in the places I know so well, a strange silence is descending — you can lean into it, and the world goes silent and cold; lean back out, and you’re back to reality.
The novel follows various characters whose lives intertwine, as they eventually come together to solve the problem as best they can, and help each other along the way. Connection and communication is a big theme, obviously.
It’s hard to describe exactly what goes on; each storyline blurs into the next, and you can’t always tell which character a section is following at first. That’s very intentional, though; same as the way the speech blurs into the narration, because there’s no speech marks. (Worry not, though, there’s other punctuation.)
There’s some really gorgeous bits here, crisp writing, etc. Not quite my thing, in the end, but still a worthwhile read.
Genomes and What To Make of Them, Barry Barnes, John Dupré
This book is from 2008, so in terms of the science and its impact on the world, it’s a bit behind the times. It’s still a good primer on how the world was changing from a fairly monolithic view on genes to an understanding of the whole genome, “junk” DNA included, and it covers some worthwhile discussions. I found it a bit dry and pedantic at times, though it doesn’t help that the science was well below the level I understand now.
It’s most worth it when it focuses on the implications of the new genomics and the technologies involved. But I might be inclined to say skip it and look for something more modern if you’re not super interested.
Killing Is My Business, Adam Christopher
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 25th July 2017
I’ve enjoyed the other books and stories in this series a lot, and this is no exception. Take a Raymond Chandler-esque world, and apply one robot trained as a PI who has been somewhat repurposed as an assassin. Add the complication that he runs on limited tapes of memory — 24 hours at a time, no more storage than that. Add his AI handler, Ada, who very clearly has her own agenda — one which doesn’t always align with what their creators envisioned for them.
And, in this book, add the mafia.
I started it when I couldn’t sleep, and finished it an hour and a half later, without stopping once. Adam Christopher writes crisply, precisely; there’s no dead patches where you feel like you can put the book down, because if you did, well; something interesting might happen while you aren’t looking. I love the way Christopher uses Ray’s limitations to create parts of the mystery. This isn’t just a book with a detective/assassin who happens to be a robot; the fact that Ray’s a robot is vital to the whole thing.
Raymond Chandler’s probably rolling in his grave at the comparison, given he had no great opinion of sci-fi, but I’m not going to worry too much about giving him an unquiet rest.
Caesar’s Last Breath, Sam Kean
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 18th July
Sam Kean is an entertaining pop science writer in general, and though this isn’t as perfectly up my street as The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, it’s still fascinating and very readable. It starts by reminding us that we’re breathing the same air as everyone who has ever lived — including Caesar, hence the title — and that there’s a high chance we’re breathing in some of the same molecules that bounced around their lungs. Then it goes on to talking about the foundation of Earth’s atmosphere, the power of gases and the road humans took to discovering that, and finishes with a look at how life affects its environment — of course, the changes in the composition of our atmosphere that we cause, but also how we might spot other species on other planets doing the same.
As you can see, that’s a lot of ground to cover, and Kean manages to string everything together into a pretty logical narrative. The longer chapters are leavened by interludes covering events that illustrate some part of what’s under discussion, like using hot gases to cut into a bank vault…
Overall, entertaining and interesting, especially given that Earth sciences and the study of our atmosphere has never been a great interest of mine.
Reality 36, Guy Haley
Many, many moons ago, I think this is one of the books I got free from Angry Robot when I visited them as a contest winner. But I’d been meaning to read it before that; I love the idea of cyberpunk and virtual realities, love messing around with the idea of AIs. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on with this too well; first off, it felt unfocused because it took so long to figure out who the protagonists are. Okay, you get Richards in the two-page prologue, but then not again until fifty pages later. Veronique might be cool, and feels at first like a potential protagonist, but it’s clearly meant to be Richards and Klein — given the book’s called a Richards & Klein investigation.
I got a little further in and wasn’t a fan of Otto at all; he’s brutal, makes homophobic jokes about rape (there’s a whole scene with him taunting someone he sent to prison about how he must’ve been raped there, seriously), resorts to torture, etc. Just… not the sort of character I enjoy spending time with. So I skimmed from that point on, and didn’t really find anything that hooked me back in. The story very obviously continues in Omega Point, but I’m not interested enough in reading it. I get that a lot of the unpleasant stuff is part of the genres Haley’s playing with, but… it’s not the good stuff about those genres.
Disappointing, especially as I came back to this to give it a second chance after enjoying The Emperor’s Railroad by Guy Haley.
Personality, Daniel Nettle
I don’t quite see why this is part of the Oxford Landmark Science range. To me, it’s a relatively low level analysis of the factors that go into personality, much of which I’ve read elsewhere in other popular science books which aren’t so tightly focused. It’s not that it’s a bad book, or uninteresting; there are some things I didn’t know, and it’s interesting to see how Nettle explores the two sides to each of the main personality factors identified — the downside to being extroverted, for example, and the downside to ‘openness to experience’.
Still, none of it is revelatory, and he doesn’t spare much time for the criticisms of the whole idea of studying people’s personalities as if they’re a real thing you can test and measure. His conclusion is basically that of course you can, because you can obtain consistent data that falls into particular trends. I don’t think I disagree, but I’m sure there are more criticisms.
It’s an easy enough read, surprisingly light even for pop-sci.
Nova, Samuel R. Delany
I’ve meant to read this for so long, because it’s a total classic and everyone seemed to expect me to love Delany’s work. Although the writing is clever, the way some of the characters speak (verb last) just got infuriating, and I don’t think any of the characters are really there to be liked. As for the grail story narrative that’s supposed to be there, well; knowing the grail story as well as I do (clue: very well, thanks to Cardiff University’s medieval lit tutors) it didn’t really feel like a grail story. Moby Dick, perhaps; that’s a comparison that does feel apt.
There are some gorgeous bits of prose and intriguing ideas, and I did want to read it all and find out how things turned out, but… it just didn’t blow me away. Possibly the fault lies in me, since Delany is a classic SF writer; I’ve still got Babel-17 to read, and we’ll see if I like that better.
Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, Philip Ball
Although this is classed as ‘popular science’, more than half of it is essentially literary criticism. It’s all relevant to the kinds of anxieties humans have about artificial people, but if you’re here for cloning, IVF, gene editing, etc, then it’s pretty thin on that. I hadn’t thought about a lot of stuff in the way this book opens it up, but there was far too much waffling before it got to the actual science bit — I’d have enjoyed it more if it’d been marketed as literary criticism/history, or if there’d been more of the science stuff.
At the very least, Philip Ball writes clearly, and it’s not a chore to read except in that it wasn’t what I was hoping for. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more holistic about the modern science around ‘making people’, including the myths and literature that inform and reveal our anxieties about it, then you’ll probably enjoy it.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, David Whitehouse
This book uses all kinds of insights from mineralogy and seismology to put together a picture of what the Earth’s composed of, layer by layer. Despite the author’s obvious enthusiasm, this isn’t one of my primary interests, and I did find my interest flagging at times — it seemed like some chapters were just unnecessarily dragged out and like he got off the point some of the time. Nonetheless, if this is the kind of science that enthuses you, it’s worth reading — it deals with the history of the study of our Earth as well as the straightforward facts about the composition of each layer.
The more I learn about all kinds of science, including Earth science, the happier I am. Even if it’s not my field, I’m glad I read this.