Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

I do love a good popular science book. I spent many a teenage year devouring books about the bizarro world of quantum physics and the magical future of nanotechnology, always fifteen years away with its promises of wondrous microscopic self-replicating devices and a planet eaten by grey goo. Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt, and Remember reminds me very much of those books.

The premise is simple: what should we learn from past mass extinctions to help prepare us for the next? What do we need to know, as a species, to ensure the descendants of humans are still around (in some sense) in a million years?

To editorialise for a moment, it seems to me the status quo won’t get us further than another century or two. For as long as economics trumps all — growth at all cost, drill, dig, mine, chop — the planet suffers, grey goo or not. And as someone said, there is no planet B. We need to change our ways, sooner or later, or we’ll perish as a species and leave our world to whichever organism is adaptable enough to fill the niche. Life finds a way, as someone else said mumbled while gesticulating.

Traditionally cockroaches are next in line, but I’d put my money on birds making a bid for a return to the good old days — crows are a lot more intelligent than they look. Perhaps birds and cats will settle their differences and divide the planet between them, waging war on the fish. The insects will adopt a neutral position, like a segmented Switzerland making decisions through emergent behaviour/referenda. The plants will just sit there and tut, as ever, and the bacteria will still be the ones actually in charge.

Anyway.

If you’re unfamiliar with the many hilariously close calls Earth has had with sterility since the solar system was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, Newitz’s book will be an eye-opener. She gives us a great potted history, starting with the oxygen apocalypse early life brought upon the planet. About 2.5 billion years ago, mats of algae — cyanobacteria, the first life to photosynthesise — farted out oxygen in such quantities they converted the planet to an oxygen-rich atmosphere, killing off all life that couldn’t adapt quickly enough. (They remind me of someone.) Moving on through snowball earth and other ice ages, meteorite impacts, megavolcanoes, and of course the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs — if it was an asteroid — you get a real and unnerving sense that we’re incredibly lucky to have made it this far, and the luck is certainly going to run out. We just don’t know when.

Then Newitz comes closer to home: migrations out of Africa by our recent ancestors. Seemingly successful, since there are now over seven billion of us. But these billions descend from a group of a few tens of thousands. Our “effective population size”, as geneticists call it, is tiny, and hints at a bottleneck we don’t yet fully understand. From there it’s a dash through Neanderthals to the medieval Black Death and modern disasters such as the Potato Famine in Ireland and the Spanish Flu outbreak at the end of World War One. Plus present-day humanity’s amazing ability to stomp on itself, every living thing it encounters, and the climate — the book talks about whether or not we’re currently undergoing a mass extinction, one caused by ourselves.

The rest of the book — over half — shows us what we can learn from those near-death experiences and how we can apply that knowledge. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot about scattering, adapting and remembering, and as in the first sections much history is mixed in with the science. For example, the chapter Using Math to Stop a Pandemic touches on how John Snow (not that one, or that one) found the source of an epidemic of cholera in 1850s London, and also talks about modern vaccination programmes. This section also discusses how we might defend ourselves from extreme radiation events such as gamma ray bursts — rare but catastrophic — one of which might have caused an ancient extinction.

The final part looks forward — a long way forward. For example, at some point we will have to get off this planet. Our luck will run out eventually. And what might we be like after another million years of evolution, combined with the inevitable technological advances?

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember has made me want to read more about many of the areas it covers — such as human migration out of Africa — which is undoubtedly a good thing. It’s engaging and readable even with the not usually cheerful subject of mass extinction, and ultimately, like human survival against all the odds, it’s a hopeful, optimistic book.

Review: Rivers of London

I’m scandalously late to the Peter Grant series from Ben Aaronovitch. As I write there are five books, and after making short work of book one – Rivers of London – I plan to read them all.

When Rivers came out I remember spotting it on the shelves and thinking, like everyone else: it’s Harry Potter in the Metropolitan Police (“The sorting helmet has assigned you to the Vice Squad, Peter”, “Buy your truncheon from Inspector Wallander’s on Letsby Avenue”, etc). I suppose I labelled it as interesting but likely derivative-bordering-on-knock-off, and lengthy calculations indicated it didn’t then merit a place in my teetering stack of unreads.

Since then, something has changed. Perhaps it was the end of the Potter hype cycle, perhaps the sight of multiple sequels to River. Most likely a sneaky read of the first few pages in the back of Waterstones: it’s effortless, funny first-person writing, with the protagonist Peter Grant – a newly qualified police constable – finding himself deep into the plot within a page or two, interviewing a ghost after a gruesome murder in Covent Garden.

I plonked it onto my Christmas list, top of the pile for 2015. And here we are.

There’s no denying it: from 10,000 feet it is Constable Potter – just as from the same height, Poirot is Sherlock. There’s plenty of room for both. Aaronovitch’s world of magic is vastly different than Rowling’s. It’s more grounded in reality, if that doesn’t sound perverse for a book where the Goddess of the River Thames is real and Nigerian. As in Potter, magic isn’t common knowledge in Rivers – but those at the top of the Met certainly know it exists, even if they don’t like it. It’s a handy source of extra tension, though I couldn’t help thinking the secret would never be kept with so many people in on it.

Essentially Rivers of London is a police procedural with wizards. The usual pie – violent crime, bunny suits, grizzled old coppers driving classic Jags the wrong way up one-way streets – with a creamy topping of spells and haunting. The plot’s engaging and coherent, and I suspect much shoe leather died in the service of its research. In brief: Peter Grant must come to terms with this new reality, start on the path of wizardry with the help of his mentor Nightingale, and solve a murder or two – while keeping on good terms with London’s bickering waterways.

London is a strong supporting artiste in the book. Aaronovitch clearly loves the place. If you’re a fan of geography in books, Rivers is for you. Descriptions are true-to-life and vivid, albeit marginally too generous for my tastes on occasion – though never approaching get-on-with-it levels.

Our hero Peter is nicely drawn and feels real: a decent but inexperienced copper with a brain and a ready wit. And, great to see, he’s mixed race. In my head he’s Samuel Anderson (The History Boys, Doctor Who) or Daniel Anthony (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Casualty). (On that topic, Rivers adapted for TV could be damn good. The internet tells me it was optioned for TV a few years ago: hopefully it’ll turn up on screen at some point.)

In summary, I’m a fan. Book two will drop onto my unread stack in a couple of months (I don’t want to binge-read all five).

PS One day I’ll review books published recently. I fear this day will not come soon.

PPS The next book I’m reading is non-fiction: Scatter, Adapt and Remember, by Annalee Newitz. If you want to giggle at what else is on my shelves, here I am on Goodreads.

Review: The Rapture of the Nerds

Well, isn’t this bonkers? The Rapture of the Nerds is 330 pages of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross battering away gleefully at their keyboards about life on and off Earth at the end of the twenty-first century, post-singularity: when most of humanity has uploaded itself to the cloud, with the rest able to modify their bodies and other aspects of their existence at will.

As I read, knowing nothing of its genesis, I formed the impression they wrote alternate scenes and tried to out-bonkers each other. I’ve just found a note from Doctorow saying more or less exactly that. The note also says the novel started life as two novellas, with a third – plus connecting tissue and fixups – bolted on to form the finished work. I didn’t spot that: it doesn’t show.

What does show in my copy, sadly, are an extravagant number of typos. I’m one of those unfortunates for whom typos blink neon on the page, ejecting me from the Cone of Reading back to the humdrum pre-singularity world. Suffice to say they hampered my enjoyment of the book only by delaying it briefly while I ranted to an empty room.

The danger of a post-singularity story lies in the potential for anything to happen. Absolutely anything. It’s all within plausible reach of the premise – maybe with some par-boiling in advance, but not necessarily. Stross and Doctorow get away with it because they know their tech, and their natural audience knows they know their tech. To a certain extent we give them a licence to fool around.

Stross in particular is a dab hand at futurology. Put them both together, bouncing off each other, and you get a riot of ideas and geeky jokes and extrapolations. Gender-swapping on a whim, repeatedly. Technoviruses lurking within the body. Lamps you rub to summon an AI genie. A United States that— oh, but I won’t go any further.

Occasionally they take things a trifle too far: there’s a conceptual overdose, a pile-up of riffs and fancy-dancy verbiage suggesting the pair were having a fraction too much fun on that bit. Push on, and let the bonkers wash over you. The story – for there is a story – is an interesting one. You wouldn’t think that about a plot that kicks off in a patent court, but it’s true.

Trying to summarise Rapture, I keep coming back to the word “panto”. It feels like a post-singularity pantomime, Jack and the Techno-Beanstalk. I’d certainly go to see it. [Chorus: oh no you wouldn’t etc]

BONUS TRUE CELEBRITY STORY: In 1994 Charlie Stross and I worked for the same company, though in different offices. Our paths crossed only once, when he visited my office and taught me how to write UNIX man pages.

BONUS ALSO TRUE NON-CELEBRITY STORY: After that day I wrote exactly zero man pages.

Review: Ready Player One

Next on my book pile: 2011’s debut novel from Ernest Cline, Ready Player One. It’s a few decades into the future, and as real life is far from ideal most of humanity prefers to spend its time in a haptically enhanced virtual universe created by a now-dead reclusive videogame genius billionaire. Somewhere in this virtual universe is an egg, hidden by the genius, and whoever finds it – by following clues and solving puzzles – inherits the billions.

A pixellated quest story, then, with the usual heroes and assorted villainy. The virtual setting lifts what might otherwise be a standard boy-meets-sword, boy-faces-impossible-odds fantasy tale into something new: where magic and technology coexist (or not, according to the rules of that part of the game), where trudging and poetry are abandoned in favour of teleports and 80s cultural references, and where danger exists in both virtual and real forms.

The lurking menace in a story of this kind is the deus ex machina – with in this case the machine an actual computer, and the god its programmer. They give the story world an easy malleability making it trivial for heroes in apparently inescapable peril to survive thanks to a magical artefact they happen to carry in their infinite virtual backpacks. Always a problem in any fantasy tale – Chekhov’s spell, if you like, taught in act one to be cast in act three – but enhanced here in a world whose rules could change at any moment or location according to the whim of our deceased coder to get Cline out of a plot pickle. The author just about gets away with it, I’d say. One scene springs to mind which klaxons “I am important later” in a way I found rather too unsubtle.

A few scenes also suffer from backstoryitis: the suspension of plot progress to allow for a couple of paragraphs or a page of exposition. Perhaps these infodumps would have been better woven into the ongoing text – or deleted entirely. It’s tricky, I know. (I deleted several paragraphs of backstory from The Pauline Conversion. Ultimately it was there for me to better understand the characters: it was irrelevant for the reader.)

But these are nitpicks: minor bugs in the Ready Player One meta-universe, I suppose, if I’m being poncy. It’s an enjoyable book. In particular the 80s references are delightful and, even better, accurate. I’m sure someday someone will create the virtual universe in this book, and I’d love to visit. Meanwhile a movie is in development hell, and may or may not eventually emerge from the Hollywood sausage machine. But given the rights issues (there are a lot of cultural references key to the plot, such as videogames, TV shows, songs and movies) it’s open to question whether the movie will resemble the book. My advice: don’t wait for the movie. The virtual universe inside your head is much more realistic anyway.

Review: Homeland

Homeland by Cory Doctorow is the sequel to Little Brother, and like its predecessor is not so much a novel as a manifesto for change, for a better world dominated by altruism and individuals, not money and corporations – a bottom-up rather than top-down society.

The book’s been on my to-read pile for a while (I find it hard to read fiction while I’m writing). I enjoyed Little Brother and was looking forward to finding out what happened next in Marcus Yallow’s life – and, indeed, I rattled through its 400-odd pages more quickly than I usually do. Partially, I suspect, because I’m already familiar with a great deal of the technology discussed in the book. Partially, too, because the plot is straightforward and fast-paced.

Where the plot does pause, it’s because Doctorow, through his protagonist Marcus, is climbing on a hobby horse. That sounds pejorative, I know, and I don’t really mean it that way. If you’re familiar with Boing Boing, the blog Doctorow and others write, you’ll know his obsession with cold-brew coffee: an obsession ascribed to Marcus in the book, who leaves no bean unturned in his quest to convert others to the technique – which is described in detail. Similarly, there’s enough technical detail in the book – accurate, not technobabble – to convert the reader to Marcus’s other obsessions, personal security and privacy.

This is the point of the book: to energise and activate its target teen audience (yes, it’s a YA book: deal with it). The plot serves to illustrate the problems and solutions Doctorow wants us to consider, and to adopt, from cold-brew coffee to secure forks of Android to fairer, freer elections.

That’s not to say the plot is irrelevant: it is staggeringly so. In the almost two years since publication its depiction of a militarised, out-of-control police has been shown utterly true in scenes across the United States. And given some of the events in the book it’s hard to believe Homeland was published before Edward Snowden’s revelations of the extent of government surveillance of our activities. Doctorow’s fears, sadly, are all too real.

Talking of reality, one early scene jarred. In a tent at Burning Man surrounded by a dust storm, Marcus chances upon some non-fictional characters: real people, making cameo appearances in the book. Perhaps the target teen audience would like that. Cynical old me found it twee and unnecessary, bordering on laughable. Thankfully any other cameos were disguised.

I enjoy Doctorow’s books: they’re readable, intelligent, and technologically literate. In Homeland he has an important message to communicate, and he communicates it well. But I have to say, no amount of persuasion will get me drinking coffee.

The Perils of Pauline

The Pauline Conversion

No plan survives contact with the enemy. As I wrote in my last blog about researching The Pauline Conversion, as you dig around in the archives you have to be prepared to unearth something that stops your neat idea in its tracks. If you’re unlucky it sends you reversing back to the start line. If you’re lucky it diverts you onto a shinier, more interesting path. The Pauline Conversion is very much an example of the latter.

The journey to The Pauline Conversion started over a year ago after Russia passed an anti-gay law just months before hosting the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. You might remember the fuss, which resulted ultimately in mass hand-wringing and general inaction. This law angered me, naturally. It was a hugely retrograde step for the country, and the global community fluffed its response.

It set me thinking. Could I write a book satirising this situation in some way? It felt a natural fit for St Paul’s College in an earlier, less equal time than the contemporary Britain of The Pink and the Grey. I’d also been itching to write a story about a younger version of Dennis. One calculation later, I settled on 1972 as a first approximation. In those days the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. Munich, in the summer, suffered from terrorism: not a great backdrop for a St Paul’s story. Sapporo’s winter games were a better fit, mirroring Sochi in 2014.

That took me back to February 1972, when the Sapporo games took place. I noodled with the idea of St Paul’s or the university staging its own games, but nothing grabbed me – and it wouldn’t be Dennis’s thing at all, unless there was a gold medal in tea preparation. In search of inspiration I looked into that time in more detail: what was going on, globally and locally?

A lot of change. A lot of unrest.

Change is constant, of course, and someone’s always up in arms about something. But Cambridge was experiencing a greater turbulence than usual. Miners were on strike across the country, and the energy shortage was about to bring power cuts and disruption. Students took part in a sit-in at a university building, arguing for a greater say in university affairs and changes to exams. Not far from St Paul’s a large rectangle of old Cambridge was being demolished and redeveloped: a multi-storey car park, a modern shopping centre.

All this on the back of the great social changes of the 1960s. For gay men the decade brought, eventually, decriminalisation – though there’s a difference between legal and socially acceptable. Even five years after decriminalisation, attitudes towards LGBT people (not that this term was in use) had barely shifted from much darker, more violent times, even in a semi-enlightened Cambridge that would have tolerated St Paul’s for a couple of centuries. And discrimination was rife not just against gay people. Women were poorly treated (they still are, of course), and beginning to fight back: stereotypically, burning bras in the cause of women’s liberation.

In Dennis I saw a man who would be uneasy and suspicious of too much change too rapidly. But he would also be a moderniser, understanding the worst way to manage change is to build a dam and hide beneath it. He would also be a man of multifarious routines, as we all are, with that nagging middle-aged sense of a life slipping away unfulfilled.

Change, then: a rich seam to mine, at many levels. Environmental, social, personal, with Dennis at the core pushing and coping and not coping and blundering.

An idea bloomed and I started to write, but the story lacked fizz. I persevered for a while hoping a light bulb would blaze above my head, but I felt I was writing words to throw away. Changing tack, instead I hugged cups of tea and stared through plate glass at winter crowds, letting my mind wander, waiting for something, something…

Inspiration hit me, eventually, in the shower. (Without tea, plate glass, or winter crowds.) It was the character of Red. Red, I knew, would set the sparks flying.

A complete scene-by-scene outline followed at its own dozy pace, and then when I could procrastinate no more, with research in hand, I started on my second first draft: ninety-four glorious, frustrating days of writing. And after several further months and a few more drafts, with feedback from trusted compadres and the attention of my bluest editing pencil, I decided it was ready. (You can edit a manuscript forever. It’s never finished, it’s just time to stop fiddling and let go.)

There are things I’d like to have covered in the book. I barely touched on racial discrimination. A bolder author would have included a black character and the terrible racism common at the time. But that might have appeared tick-box tokenism and diluted other aspects of the story. You can’t do everything. You’re painting a picture not taking a photograph, and readers aren’t daft.

So it’s done, and it’s out, and I think the paperback looks tremendous. The plan now is to promote the book, and in particular attract reviewers – from “normal” readers and from pro or semi-pro reviewers. On Amazon, reviews are king. Reviews drive sales, and sales drive reviews. That’s the plan, anyway. And as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy…

Trying not to map paving slabs

A few days ago, as a friend and I were chatting about The Pauline Conversion, he said he’d bet any money I’d researched it to within an inch of its life. He believed I wouldn’t be happy until I’d followed every research thread to its end, mapping every paving slab and shop front of Cambridge in February 1972 to be sure the story played out in a historically accurate setting.

I laughed. He’s not right, but neither can I say he’s entirely wrong. The truth is, research is the best way to keep my flat clean. When I need to research something – say, the miners’ strike in progress at the time of the story – I approach it as I would a rattlesnake doing its little dance. I run away screaming.

It’s not that I don’t want to know what happened, or don’t want to do the research. I enjoy knowing. I enjoy learning more about things that interest me. The problem is, I’m a details person and I can be a bit of an obsessive. Research has an inertia for me: hard to start, hard to stop.

And I know I’m like this: hence the procrastination.

Research lays a number of traps for the unwary.

First: I researched it and you’re damn well going to know it. You know the sort of book. The author vomits every factoid in his research notebook into the manuscript to justify the time spent discovering it. The precise shade of blusher under a talcum face and wig. The twirl of brass on a pistol. The manufacturing history of a pair of contemporary bloomers. The author’s trying to paint a picture with too many megapixels. I don’t think I suffer from this: I try to make details serve the story as much as possible, or add a smattering of colour, or at least be an excuse for a joke.

Similarly, the past is a foreign country, endlessly fascinating, and it’s easy to dwell upon the differences – “only 7 1/2p for a bag of chips!” – and the multitude of hats, and forget that to the characters this is the now, the normal. Although a book might be written almost as the memoir of a participant, it’s best to avoid the literary equivalent of pointing and sniggering. There are always exceptions – for stories that flit back and forth in time, for example. But comparing then to now brings the certainty that, before long, now becomes then and the book exists in two time periods: when it was set and when it was written.

To put it another way: all books, even novels set in the present day, are historical. (Some day Disunited will be a curiosity in a world where out gay professional male footballers are normal and common. I hope it happens soon.)

Another risk is the possibility the research becomes more interesting than the book. I was worried I’d be knocking on the library doors at 7am desperate for my fix of 1972 local newspapers, fast becoming the world’s foremost authority on postwar Sidney Street roadworks. An honourable title, to be sure, but unlikely to power a page-turner.

And there’s the risk that sometimes becomes a gift: the wondrous, terrifying prospect of the author finding a piece of information that upends the entire story. Is it crisis or opportunity? That’s part of the fun of research. And by fun, I mean nightmare. The author never knows if, lurking over the page, is a photo that burns the plot to vapour. This worry can spur research far beyond what’s required to write the book.

Related to those last two: a discovery that real life events make a better story than the one the author had in mind. Truth really can be stranger than fiction – coincidences abound that would be laughed out of a novel. (Good fiction can get away with one coincidence at the start, to set the plot rolling, and that’s it.)

A pragmatic approach is best.

With The Pauline Conversion the vast majority of readers, most likely, didn’t experience February 1972 in Cambridge, or perhaps anywhere south of an ovary. But I had to assume a reasonable level of knowledge of that time, gleaned from popular culture and so on. Nationally and globally, I wanted to be as accurate as I could. I’d never have dropped a smartphone into 1972, but not everything is so clear-cut. TV remote controls? In the US, yes. They were rare to non-existent in the UK. Our house didn’t have a TV with a remote control until the late 1970s, and we were probably early adopters. So, no remote controls.

But did it matter that characters in a scene didn’t mention the rather large Tesco along the street at that time, even though it would’ve altered their behaviour? Absolutely not, since the store had no relevance to the story. (It would’ve mattered had characters later visited it for some reason: consistency is vital. As it happens I learned about this Tesco shortly before publication.) Local contemporary norms can be subverted, I suppose I’m saying.

Partially this is to allow the story to happen. St Paul’s is a fictional college superimposed upon a real geographical area, after all. And partially it’s because local knowledge can be tremendously hard to get right: the information just isn’t readily available at that level, if it exists at all. There are always people who know more than the author about the topic – local geography, terminology, technology, etc. That’s a fact of life. But a writer can’t read everything, can’t interview everyone, otherwise we’re back to mapping paving slabs. Immersing is great: drowning is bad.

Sometimes I’ll get things wrong by accident, and sometimes it’s better to fudge things to simplify matters. My goal is “factually correct” (aside from the obvious fiction of the story), but I’ll accept “not obviously wrong to the layman”.

Perfect is the enemy of good. Serving the story is the key. The author needs just enough research to get from beginning to end. Breadth, not depth.

For the mildly obsessive like me, that can feel like cheating. Like setting foot in a foreign country for the first time claiming to know the language, when you’ve no more than skimmed the “Useful phrases” section in the Lonely Planet guide and can order up to, but no more than, six beers. You want to know only enough to get by, to bluff your way through, because beyond a certain level of knowledge the time spent in research feels wasted.

I say “feels” because I do need to know more than appears in the finished book. A tourist in a foreign land who takes the effort to learn just that little bit more of the language gains a buffer of confidence (“seven beers” is so much more impressive than “six beers and one beer”, if an additional drinker appears unexpectedly). A similar buffer in my research lets me add nuance, a little depth, as long as I don’t start vomiting out my notebook.

There is a balance, somewhere, which I hope to find as I grope around in the dark.

My friend knows me well, of course: it’s true I learned a lot more about Cambridge in February 1972 than I actually needed to know. To return to his original point, I don’t think I researched The Pauline Conversion to within an inch of its life: but maybe to within a yard. About the length of a paving slab.