Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Links & Connections (3)
I’m enjoying this idea of linking sometimes very different books due to titles or close title matches. So here’s a few more from the last few months…
Dominion by C J Sansom
Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland
[Two VERY different if almost as large books]
WTF? By Robert Preston
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – A Memoir by Kim Barker
[I think WTF is going to be the slogan of the decade!]
Munich by Robert Harris
Munich – The 1938 Appeasement Crisis by David Faber
[Two very interesting and highly entertaining reads surrounding a pivotal event]
Although there’s nothing similar in the review pile ATM there will be more coming. Plus I really liked the idea of reading the two Munich books back to back. It WAS very ‘on point’ but I think reading a fictional account and then a non-fiction account of the same incident added value to both reads. Far less ‘on point’ was further reads on the uses/abuse of history from two perspectives, two tales of British political sex scandals (one fiction and one non-fiction separated by 50 years) and a Sharpe novel based in India involving the East India Company followed by a detailed history of the same institution that both ended around the same timeframe. Definitely MUCH more of that sort of thing to come!
Monday, October 25, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Fall of The Towers by Samuel R Delany (FP: 1965) [416pp]
500 years after the Great Fire fell from the skies and destroyed the world the last human city – Toron – was beginning to fail. Hemmed in by a still dangerously polluted ocean and prevented from expanding into the radioactive wastes inland they could only build up. But after centuries of restrictive growth there is nowhere left to go. As the city’s economy grinds inexorably to a halt the malcontents in the lower city riot. With civil unrest on the rise there is only one hope – War! As the army gathers to attack the Barrier between the City and the Wastes a recently sentient AI dedicates itself to stop them. Meanwhile, in deep space, a malevolent evil presence, devoid of a physical body, approaches Earth looking for a body to inhabit and new worlds to conquer. Time is running out for humanity and the last city that holds them.
This is trilogy of shorter novels in a single binding: Captives of the Flame (aka Out of the Dead City) , The Towers of Toron  and The City of a Thousand Suns . I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever read (or more accurately completed) a Delany novel before. I had a ‘go’ at ‘Dhalgren’ in my teens but it didn’t stick. I think I gave up on that pretty quickly. This I read because of the reference to a “berserk computer” prompted me to add it to my Man Vs Machine ‘series’ I’m working my way through presently. Unfortunately said AI didn’t really appear in the book(s) very much or have great an impact when it did. Despite the fact that I completed this I can’t say that I enjoyed it overly much. The stories haven’t dated very well and although they had some interesting plot lines and reasonable characterisation I lost interest in the story about half way through. The original idea was a good one I thought but the author managed to add in a series of (what I considered to be) irrelevant sub-plots – like the non-corporeal alien – that didn’t really move the story on that much as well as a ‘virtual’ war that quickly descended into farce. I did think that this might just be a comment on the Vietnam conflict but on second thought considered the publication date(s) to be a bit early for that sort of thing. The idea of the (potentially at least) last humans refusing to die off after surviving a nuclear war for so long could have been – indeed should have been – a great read of humanity triumphing over crushing adversity. Unfortunately this novel/novels was nothing of the sort. Definitely a missed opportunity there. Not recommended.
Sunday, October 24, 2021
Thursday, October 21, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Anarchy – The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple (FP: 2019) [409pp]
It was not exactly an auspicious start to the enterprise. Fewer than expected investors had signed on to the undertaking. Certainly nowhere near the investment capital had been raised compared to their Dutch and Portuguese rivals. From the very start it was going to be an uphill struggle to survive. As if that wasn’t enough the first trading missions went badly – so badly that a significant number of trading ships simply vanished never to return. Only the interception of an already laden Dutch ship saved the company from going under in those early days. But Luck, as she has a tendency of doing, changes. Settlements were agreed with local princes and trading started flowing back – in a trickle at least. But the opportunities were truly immense. The British who landed in India, at Bengal, were astonished at the wealth seemingly there for the taking – if they could hold onto it. Security was, naturally, a problem. Months away from any relief they had to be able to defend themselves. The British navy was available in time of war – in other words quite often – but could hardly be prevailed upon to protect assets inland from the trading ports. But the Company did have something in its favour – money – and with money the ability to buy security in the form of mercenary captains and hired local soldiers trained to fight in the European way. A private Company hired itself a private army. They were not alone of course but gradually the Portuguese, the Dutch and even the French left the sub-continent effectively leaving it to the British to gobble up piecemeal. The Company and its plans were not without opposition however. The local leaders had been fighting amongst themselves for generations and knew a thing or two about warfare. They were even aware of European fighting styles and could afford European arms and European captains just as the Company could. But the local leaders had other things too – deep seated rivalries that could not just be set aside in the face of a common enemy, an overpowering sense of power and entitlement that had little foundation in reality and a mistaken belief that one or two lost battles would send the Company scuttling home to Britain. Things had gone too far for that. The Company was now so successful that it was FAR too big to fail. The revenue it generated for the British economy outweighed every other money stream by far. If the Company failed, some argued with a great deal of reason, then Britain itself could fail. So, gradually, reluctantly, the British government (whose Ministers already invested in the Company and who were loath to see their investments in peril) became more and more entangled in its operation and more and more dependent on its survival.
Before reading this excellent history I had no real idea just how important the East India Company was in the history of the British Empire, Britain herself and indeed world history of that period. Not only did the Company provide – by essentially asset stripping an entire sub-continent of its natural wealth – a HUGE capital influx to the coffers of the British economy for decade after decade but it gradually took over the administration of more and more of India and placed the British government in the position of having to ‘take charge’ when the Company was faced with bankruptcy. If you have ever wondered, like me, just how the British ‘acquired’ India then look no further that the history of the East India Company. It’s actually incredible that a private company answerable only to its shareholders was generating a significant percentage of Britain’s GDP and, at least for a time, had more armed forces at its command than did its mother-country. I wonder if that’s a sneak-peek into the future of multi-nationals. Covering several hundred years from its inception to its crashing down in flames this is a fascinating look at a company out of control, a continent being ransacked and the fight over what should be done about it. A definite must read for anyone interested in India, the British Empire and the possible future of BIG business.
Wednesday, October 20, 2021
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Monday, October 18, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Sharpe’s Triumph by Bernard Cornwell (FP: 1998) [293pp]
India, 1803. Guilt is not something Sergeant Richard Sharpe deals with easily. His tools are musket, sword and fist and none of these are worth a damned thing against the guilt he feels at losing his section. But as the only survivor of an act of treachery by an East India Company deserter Sharpe has something else he can work with – a thirst for revenge. The opportunity to do so arrives in the shape of Sharpe’s friend Colonel McCandless. Tasked with tracking down the traitor and bringing him to Company justice, Sergeant Sharpe becomes involved in the growing revolt to British rule in India. The Company with its powerful mercenary army is a threat to Mahratta rule and finds itself faced by a mercenary army just as professional, just as well armed and much larger. Paid for by the seemingly endless Indian wealth both the Company and the British forces headed by the inexperienced Sir Arthur Wellesley have got a fight on their hands. Meanwhile, Sharpe’s old enemy Sergeant Hakeswill has got something very unpleasant planned for him and, with the promise of a king’s ransom in gems he’s not alone. With the fighting heating up all around him Sharpe has his work cut out just to survive the next few months with his hide and his jewels intact.
This is my 19th Sharpe book (I think!) and the series continues to entertain mightily. It was interesting seeing Sharpe in his pre-officer days (not spoiling anything here!) and, of course, without his seemingly permanent sidekick Sergeant Harper who he has yet to meet. As always, despite his lowly birth Sharpe has a habit of making friends in high or at least higher places who can both help and shield him along his road. Here it is the bluff Scot Colonel McCandless who provides this support. Sharpe is here very much at the earliest stages of his fighting career and even wonders if he can stomach the inevitable death and destruction he is riding into. As any reader of the series already knows Sharpe need not have worried overly much. Dropped into a life or death situation he chose life – passionately, bloodily and (almost to his own astonishment) joyfully. As pretty much always with Sharpe novels this follows the formula of initiating event (the, in this case fictional, massacre), small battle (the siege of Ahmednuggur), large battle (Assaye) and complicating sub-plot (Hakeswill). Apart from the existence of Sharpe himself and a few other minor characters the story follows actual events and the battles happen pretty much as they did in 1803 including some of the more minor but memorable incidents. Naturally there is a woman, French this time, who falls into Sharpe’s bed (at least briefly) but I didn’t find Simone Joubert a particularly memorable character. Overall this was a good solid read and I enjoyed it greatly. Naturally, being me, it piqued my interest about Britain’s role in India during that time and especially the role of the East India Company in the events portrayed in the book. Luckily for me I had just the source to feed my need to know such things – and that’s coming next. One more thing which interested me. At one point a group of British cavalry approached Sharpe carrying the ‘new’ Union flag (only called a JACK when it’s on the back of a boat as I keep reminding people!) which, in its present form, was adopted in 1801. I do love details like this. Recommended for all historic combat buffs.
Sunday, October 17, 2021
Saturday, October 16, 2021
The Evolution of My Reading (Part 3) – A Meme stolen from abookolive on YouTube
This is the 3rd (and final) part of the meme stolen from the ever interesting Olive. As before I’ve lifted the questions that I thought would interest my regular readership and ones that I thought would also be interesting, from my PoV, to answer. So……
Do you ever mark or dog-ear your books to ‘make them your own’?
Absolutely not. I’ve lost count of the number of times people pick up a book that I’d read and were astonished that it looked pristine. Very occasionally a book might get damaged due to my carelessness but apart from that they escape largely unmarked.
What trips you up in a book to the point where you consider DNF-ing it?
I really try not to DNF books. A good way to achieve this is to pick the type of books or authors I know I like and give the blurb on the back a good read. I’m pretty good, after decades of experience, at picking books I’m unlikely to DNF. However, even I make mistakes. It’s not totally unusual for me to DNF one book per year. This year I DNF’d TWO and, to be honest, almost DNF’s a third! Simple bad writing is enough for a rejection. If I can see it going badly or just can’t stand the thought of several hundred pages ahead of me then out it goes. Life is just far too short for bad books.
How do you deal with the overwhelming knowledge that we’ll never read all the books?
As with inevitable things like death you just deal with it. I certainly wouldn’t like to have lived in an era when it WAS possible to read everything in print. What a limited world that would have been. Given a discriminating mind you should be able to instantly ignore a huge proportion of books published each year – at least 50% and probably nearer 80% can simply not even be considered. That helps tremendously. BUT that still leaves at least hundreds of books each year that are (at least potentially) worth reading. You just have to read what you can and hope you don’t waste too much time reading average stuff.
Are there any genres/categories of books you’d like to try out or prioritise more?
As I’m ‘cursed’ with a butterfly-mind I have core interests which I’ll always return to and then sudden or circumstantial interests that I might focus on for weeks, months or even years before finding something else to become obsessed about. There are a few areas that I’d like to spend more time on presently – Espionage is one of them (I’m actually expecting to finish a book about the early history of MI5 today) and I’m developing a bit of a hankering for traditional Fantasy novels which is a bit odd…. We’ll see!
What are your favourite Top 5 non-fiction topics to read about?
British History – almost any period.
Both World Wars
The Ancient World
How do you feel about autobiographies?
If done well they can be pretty good – except that they too often suffer from being both blinkered and prone to self-publicity. I’d much prefer a more distanced biography.
What is your favourite non-fiction book that has been adapted to the screen – large or small?
What is your favourite genre of books outside non-fiction?
Science-Fiction and Historical novels.
What is a Classic you wish you could read again for the first time?
War of the Worlds by H G Wells or Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. Both excellent books.
What has been the fiction book that surprised you the most this year?
Quite a few did actually by their excellent quality. The last one to surprise me a lot was A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. Mostly definitely a highlight of the year so far. See my 'Best of 2021' to be posted in Jan 2022.
How many books do you own and what is your read/unread ratio?
I have no realistic idea of how many books I own. If I had to guess it’d be in the region of 5-6 thousand….. Probably….. Read/Unread is somewhere in the region of 60/40, but that’s very much a finger in the air guess.
Would you ever try for a zero TBR?
Even if I only read the books I physically own (to say nothing of my Amazon Wish List) I’m not sure if such a thing is actually possible – unless I live well beyond the average life expectancy. Still adding books as I go makes the very idea of a zero TBR quite laughable!
Friday, October 15, 2021
Thursday, October 14, 2021
Just Finished Reading: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (FP: 1950) [351pp]
It seemed like the ideal solution. With her knowledge of the region and ability to speak the language well her recruitment was almost certain. Then, of course, there was the war. Being thousands of miles away in Malaya would not only remove Jean from the bombing and privation of London under German bombing but would be safer all round. No one thought that the Japanese posed any great threat to British holdings in the area. No one thought that they could move that fast or that the British and other European holdings in the area would fall so swiftly. Once the wave of Japanese conquest washed over Jean and her fellow female refugees there was only one thing uppermost in everyone’s mind – survival. To survive they had to adapt and some just couldn’t do that. As much as she tried and as much as she would have wished to Jean couldn’t save everyone. But wars end and with peace comes a new reality. Back in England Jean discovers that she has been left an inheritance that could transform her life. What she wants, what she needs to do, is to give something back to those who helped her and her fellow refugees survive in Malaya. Her journey back is both painful and healing in ways she could hardly have imagined from her office in London and it is in Malaya that she discovers something else – something that will change her life and the lives of so many others – the man who might have made the difference between hope and despair is alive. Her only thought, her only wish, is to find him.
Rather weirdly I thought this was a completely different story – actually TWO completely different stories – than the one it actually turned out to be (yes, I’m that switched on with Classic literature!). First I thought – for some reason – that it was Ice Cold in Alex rather than the actual title. Then, when I realised my mistake, I thought it was going to be a story of hardship and survival in a women’s PoW camp much like one of my mother’s favourite 1980’s TV series ‘Tenko’. What it actually turned out to be was a brilliantly told love story between Jean Paget (who I honestly fell in love with myself) and her Australian ‘saviour’ during the war. Told partially through the eyes of an English lawyer overseeing her financial affairs (who ALSO fell in love with the delightful Jean) and then mostly through the eyes of Jean herself this was a story of an amazingly resilient young woman who never took ‘no’ for an answer – and who certainly never assumed that something just couldn’t be done without a bloody good reason (and she’d give it a go anyway!) – changing lives for the better wherever she went because of her sheer dogged persistence. Not only was this excellent novel a delight to read from the very first page it also gave fascinating insights into Malaya (both from the PoV of the colonial administration and the local people) and into 1940s/1950s Australia. You could learn a lot about ranching in the outback from this book! Needless to say I was VERY impressed by this book. This is only my second Shute novel (the first being the end of the world classic ‘On the Beach’) and it most definitely won’t be my last. After this experience I want to read everything he’s written. Don’t be put off by the fact that this is essentially a love story, it’s quite brilliant. Highly recommended if you want to be completely immersed in a deservedly classic novel.
Wednesday, October 13, 2021
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
Monday, October 11, 2021
Just Finished Reading: An English Affair – Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines (FP: 2013) [345pp]
When the Profumo Affair burst into the headlines in May 1963 it passed me by. As I’d just turned 3 years old at the time this is hardly surprising. No doubt my mother, seeing the headlines and maybe even reading further in the Daily Sketch stopped for a moment to ‘tut’ and maybe say something about “London people”. It was only much, much later that I was introduced to the scandal that was fully expected to bring down a government and tarnish ‘the establishment’ for years to come. Despite the fact that the ‘affair’, as I discovered in this often riveting book, was pretty much a storm in a tea cup (Earl Grey no doubt!) and a largely manufactured one at that, books have been written, documentaries made and movies produced laying out in great detail the seedy demise of respectable 50’s Britain and the start of the so-called ‘Swinging 60’s’. As nearly always with such historical ‘myths and legends’ the reality is somewhat different from that portrayed in the tabloid press at the time and in the subsequent sensationalist TV and movie adaptations.
Britain in the late 1950’s was still recovering from the Second World War. Despite the Prime Minister’s famous (or infamous) quote about the British people ‘never having it so good’ they clearly wanted more. Women especially had restricted lives, in the workplace, in public and especially in the bedroom. In an era before The Pill or easily obtainable abortions women were expected to be chaste before marriage and (re)productive afterwards. Motherhood was to be their primary role – or at least that was the expectation both from the general public and the Establishment. Naturally women, especially young women, would have none of that. Like youth everywhere they wanted fun and they wanted to have good times as often as possible. As always there were enough men, in both high and low places, who were more than willing to show them a good time. One of those men, in the early 1960’s was Jack Profumo who most definitely had an eye for pretty girls. Indeed he married one – film actress Valerie Hobson – in 1954. Not that this stopped him looking further afield. Enter Christine Keeler, an attractive 20 something brunette, who wasn’t bothered at all by Jack’s married status. One thing led to another and, as things do, they ended up in bed together. So much so sordid and little of national importance. Until that is it came to light who else Miss Keeler was sharing her favours with - Yevgeny Ivanov, the Soviet naval attaché. On its own even this wouldn’t have raised very many issues or eyebrows except for one very important factor: Jack Profumo was the Minister of War (back in the days when we had a War Department rather than a Ministry of Defence) so Miss Keeler’s sleeping arrangements had suddenly become a matter of National Security.Interestingly, I was surprised to discover, it was nothing of the sort. Keeler (and her more flamboyant friend Mandy Rice-Davies) were what was known as ‘good time girls’ – young women out for fun and what they could get in a culture that artificially constrained their ability to do so. Keeler might very well have slept with both men but nothing in the way of classified pillow talk took place and, apparently, the Soviet’s either knew nothing of Christine’s other lover or made no attempt to use her to gain an edge. The whole ‘scandal’, such as it was, was created almost out of whole cloth (with a strong dose of ‘no smoke without fire’ thinking) in order to drive sales and settle scores with the incumbent government. What the affair did do – in spades – was to expose the depths of hypocrisy in the British establishment whose public face portrayed probity and yet, in private, was anything but. The ‘Affair’ itself, had the unfortunate fate of breaking in that brief ‘grey zone’ between the austere 50’s and the ‘swinging’ 60’s soon to break in Britain. As a prime example of a culture just about to change radically the Profumo scandal deserves the attention it has received and this detailed (sometimes too detailed to be honest which is just about the only fault I found with it) look at the events and people involved gives an excellent insight into an age when ‘everything was a-changing’. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the Affair itself or the British transition to the 60’s.
Sunday, October 10, 2021
Saturday, October 09, 2021
The Evolution of My Reading (Part 2) – A Meme stolen from abookolive on YouTube
Are you a morning reader or night reader?
When I was working I was a lunchtime (often interrupted) and evening reader. These days, which MUCH more time on my hands I’m an all-day reader until around 6-7pm. Evenings are usually for gaming, chatting to the guys online & Blogging & stuff (and spending FAR too much time on YouTube!).
How quickly do you read and how much time do you devote to reading on a daily basis?
Pre-retirement my aim was 50 pages a day (on average). I’d read far more at weekends though so it spread out over the week. These days I aim for 100 pages a day and usually exceed that. Once I hit my target for the day I tend to slack off and do other things.
How many books do you average reading in a month?
Generally 8-10 depending on size and what else is going on. As I’m generally reviewing 8 books a month now I like to keep a reasonable review pile so I’m not in any great danger of running out of books to review here.
Do you read multiple books at the same time?
Often, yes. I have a weird ‘rule’ I brought in a while ago called Non-Fiction Sunday’s in order to increase my non-fiction reading (that was back in the day when most of my reading was fiction). This means that if I’m already reading a novel I put it to one side on Sunday and pick up a non-fiction read, then back to my novel on Monday until I finish it – then I’ll (generally) finish the non-fiction before moving on.
Do you challenge yourself to read a certain number of books per year?
As long as I have enough to review I’m pretty cool with numbers. Pre-retirement I aimed at 60-70. These days my aim is 100 per year.
How do you choose what to read next?
LOL- That could be a VERY complicated answer. I’ll give you the short version otherwise this could be a whole Blog post. Presently I have two stacks (or around 40 books total) on my sofa – I get one seat, the books get the other. This is my ‘read next’ pile which is the confluence of other book piles coming together to inform what I’m reading next. In addition to this I roll a dice after each finished book to see if I’m adding a ‘random’ other book to make things ‘interesting’ and keep things fresh. On top of this I do get hankerings for particular books or types of books which I sometimes give in to. Presently my brain is voting for Espionage and Fantasy. I’ve added an Espionage non-fiction to be read soon and am musing the possibility of some Fantasy.
How do you find new books that interest you?
Bloggers I visit, Amazon recommends, shop visits, various websites around the bazaars…. LOTS of places really. I’m always on the look-out for something new.
What is your favourite resource for hearing about new (to you) books?
Fiction-wise probably ‘Fantastic Fiction.com’. It’s FANTASTIC.
Do you listen to any book podcasts?
No, I prefer to read physical books.
Do you listen to any music when you read?
There’s always music playing in my house. Presently listening to Bjork.
Do you read a lot of older classics (in fiction) and non-fiction or mostly more recent published reads?
The vast majority of my reading throughout the year post-dates 2000 publication date. I do, however, also read a significant percentage of books from the 20th & 19th century. I certainly have no great objection to old books – even old non-fiction as long as it looks interesting or relevant (not TOO out of date) – but even older non-fiction can teach you about how knowledge or attitudes to things have changed over time.
How do you feel about judging older books by modern standards?
Judging older books my modern standards is inevitable. As readers we (generally) HAVE modern standards so can’t really switch them on and off like lightbulbs. People in the past often had different ideas, different experiences and different levels of knowledge than we ‘moderns’ do. We also, inevitably, have the benefit of hindsight so we can see where some ideas or attitudes led. Likewise future generations will be judging us by THEIR standards and, no doubt, finding us as wanting as we find writers and thinkers of centuries past. But one of the positive things I often take from when standards clash is just how far we’ve come since the days when people were judged (without comment from others) on things like race, sex and orientation that would literally be unthinkable for many today. I don’t primarily see ancestors at fault, I see progress.
Friday, October 08, 2021
Thursday, October 07, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The New Machiavelli by H G Wells (FP: 1911) [396pp]
Even as a child he could see it – chaos everywhere he looked. The world was like an anthill without the co-ordinating effect of the queen at its heart. With each progressive step the world became a little grubbier, a little more poisoned, and a little less pleasant. Considering his future, especially after his father’s accident, there was only one career to pursue – politics. Not that his uncle approved. Oh, no. There was no money in politics and no real influence either. The future belonged to the businessman, the risk taker, the shaper of things in the real world. But Richard Remington was adamant and so, grudgingly, his uncle paid for his education. Making something of a name for himself Remington was elected to parliament for the Liberal party. Now, he thought, he could achieve things and start to fix the fundamental problems he saw that were deeply embedded in society. But politics, he discovered, is a slow process. He needed friends, political allies and, almost as important, a wife to support him. Slowly the contacts arrived, his articles gained approval and his reputation began to climb. Around the dinner table and in his London club the ideas still being formulated in his head began to take concrete shape – education above all else needed reform, the best of the best needed to rule, to guide the country forward into the modern age. But he was frustrated, with the speed of the political wheels, with the shallow nature of his fellow Liberals, with polemics and speeches that led nowhere. Then there was Isabel Rivers. The contrast with his wife, Margaret, couldn’t have been starker. Isabel was Richard’s biggest supporter, a tireless worker for his original election, vivacious, smart and both willing and able to argue the point with him late into the evening. Love and the subsequent affair seemed inevitable. Equally inevitable was the political fallout if the affair was discovered. They would have to end it – if they could.
I think this is only the 2nd non-SF Well book I’ve read. I knew that it was (kind of) semi-autobiographical in that it was about a scandalous affair (of which Wells was very familiar with) but apart from that I had very little pre-knowledge. I had assumed from the title that it was more about political manipulation (House of Cards style) than the affair itself but I was dead wrong. The only link between this novel and Machiavelli was that both he and the main protagonist here retired to Italy after losing office to write a book. Such a lacklustre start didn’t fill me with a huge confidence for the rest of the book. But, as you can see, I finished it. Although it was a bit slow at times – I honestly skimmed several of the political monologues which stopped the narrative dead – overall I did find much of it interesting. The story itself was pretty straight forward – the politicians fall from grace because of a pretty face – but it was handled well. The main and many of the subsidiary characters were well drawn and especially so for Remington himself, his wife Margaret (who I did feel sorry for) and, of course, Isobel herself who was a complete delight. That alone would have made the novel at least readable (which it was). Whilst most of the Edwardian politics can be safely ignored this novel does provide some interesting insights to the thoughts of the upper echelons and to some of the major questions of the day – the place/future of women and the prospects of a future war with Germany. I found the debate around a future war particularly interesting. Not only were characters in the book actively discussing the possibility at least 3 years before the event itself – largely because of the diplomatic friction caused by the ongoing arms race of competitive ship building – but the main character thought that we’d be fighting in Europe alongside our French allies and that we would LOSE – and deservedly so! But the lost war would be a GOOD thing because it would wake up England from its present complacency and, therefore, propel the country into future greatness (once all the existing problems had been, of necessity, corrected). Overall this was an interesting experience. Naturally this is very different from his other SF works but might be worth a try to see how his more political novels compare to them. Reasonable.
Wednesday, October 06, 2021
Tuesday, October 05, 2021
Monday, October 04, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Life’s Grandeur – The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould (FP: 1991) [230pp]
I tried reading this some years back and failed miserably. Part of the reason for DNFing it back then was that I quickly discovered it wasn’t the book I thought it was. I actually have no clear recollection of *what* I thought it would be but it wasn’t that. The other issue was my confusion about Baseball.
The first section – which is, I think, one reason why I didn’t get too far into this slim volume – is called: A Baseball Primer for British Readers. Not being a sport person in general and having no knowledge (or interest) in Baseball I pretty much baulked at that point. But on my 2nd attempt I actually found the baseball bit to be at least readable. I was more than a little curious where the author was going to go with this so read on…. SJG is not only a self-confessed Baseball fan but, like so many other fans, he’s a stats freak too. Of course he’s also a scientist whose oeuvre is Evolution. So, what’s the connection? One of the questions that SJG gets a lot is about complexity and the seemingly purposeful direction of Evolution over the eons of producing more of it. Complexity is, it seems, a good thing and is being actively selected for. The ‘direction’ of Evolution is, again it seems, for steadily increasing complexity – ending up with, ‘naturally’, US! Which means that human level complexity was pretty much inevitable – right? Nonsense, says SJG, and here’s why – BASEBALL.
Apparently (although this had definitely passed me by), there is MUCH debate in the world of Baseball statisticians about the demise of the 0.400 batting average. Personally I’d never heard of it but I was willing to be educated on the point. This proved to be unexpectedly fascinating. It seems that in the early decades of baseball it wasn’t completely unknown for exceptional (and not always exceptional) players to break 0.400 in any given season. [Side note: I was impressed by how many famous baseball players mentioned in the book were familiar to me – at least by name] However, in modern times such a score has become little more than a nostalgic twinkling in even the best batters eyes. Why? Without going into too much (and surprisingly fascinating) details it’s all about skewed distribution curves. Standard distribution curves it seems do not stand in naked isolation divorced from reality. Not only can they be skewed left or right they can come up against walls at either end. The seeming death of the 0.400 batting average is a result of a right hand wall reflecting the limits of human excellence – in batting, fielding and much else besides. This is not unlike achievements in other sports which begin with records broken seemingly every day and then after months, years or decades until you get to a point where previous records broken by minutes are sliced down to tenths of a second. Once you hit the right wall the only way to go is backwards. But what does this have to do with the evolution of complexity.
It seems natural, looking out at the world, that biological complexity is everywhere and everywhere it is dominant. Looking from our perspective, looking back down the evolutionary and fossil record, our signature hubris sees countless pieces of evidence for increase complexity over time culminating in the very species looking back in time. What could be more satisfying? Except, as SJG explains brilliantly, it’s simply not true. For one thing we forget that the VAST majority of Earth’s history has been dominated by the humble bacteria. Worse, even today it’s estimated that the VAST majority of life on Earth – however you cut it – is still very much bacterial. Being relatively simple creatures it’s understandably difficult to produce anything significantly LESS complex. Which means that bacteria are pretty snuggly against the far left wall. The ONLY way to go on the drunkard’s walk of random mutation in increased complexity. Once more complex creatures randomly appear there will be, again through random mutation, a slow creep towards the right side of the graph – increasing complexity – as part of the natural process. Most of the mutations will stay around the centre of the distribution curve, some (where possible) will become less complex and some will become more complex. No plan, no direction, no inevitability of humanity. Just the random drunkard’s walk of mutation and natural selection at work.
Although it did take a little effort (being a Brit!) getting into the whole Baseball themed metaphor I did find both it and the description of how Evolution produces a thin rightward ‘tail’ of complexity compelling and elegant. It’s reassuringly easy to see direction or a plan in the apparent chaos of Evolution and take comfort from it. Such is, unfortunately, a kind warm illusion that, as SJG explains, is actually nothing of the sort. Overall a VERY interesting read. The only downside is that now I’ve become interested in the history of Baseball and have already added a few books to my Wish List!