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.

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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: 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.

Back matters

Beside one of my bookcases lies the Pile of the Unread, from which I pluck the next book to devour (yes, I still read dead trees). I don’t chomp through them nearly quickly enough. I’ve just finished one, Robopocalypse by Daniel H Wilson, that’s been in the pile for a year or so.

This isn’t intended as a book review, but the long and short: the ideas in the book are scarily plausible — unsurprising from an author with a PhD in Robotics — but it took a while to hook me, as it flits between apparently unrelated characters a little too speedily for me early on. When the stories began to join up I became much more reluctant to put the book down.

The ending came as a minor surprise. Not for any plot-based reasons, but because I could still see a good twenty pages left in the book (this is the 2012 paperback edition from Simon and Schuster UK). I’m used to stories ending with one or two pages left, usually adverts for other books. Robopocalypse has full-on Extras: sadly no author’s commentary (I’d love to see this for some books), but a two-page Q&A and then an extract of Wilson’s next book, Amped.

I didn’t read the extract — after finishing a book I like to let the story settle rather than plough straight on into something new. I appreciate the tactic from a marketing perspective, even if I chose not to fall for it. Maybe I should adopt it.

The introduction to the extract made me laugh, for no other reason than it seemed to think it was in an ebook or a newspaper. It mentions Wilson’s “exciting new thriller, Amped, publishing in June of this year.” How very odd, I thought, to reference “this year” in a printed book, which might rest in a pile or on a shelf in a bookshop or library for years. If it were me in the publisher’s purple braces I’d write that sentence time-neutrally, to make it relevant and accurate for a reader at any time. Perhaps: “Read on for an extract of Daniel H. Wilson’s next exciting thriller, Amped, published in June 2012”.

It reminds me of the sign in the window of an empty office nearby, headed, “We are moving”. Must be a hell of a job, they’ve been moving for over a year.

I’m such a pedant.

The Q&A has a more unfortunate timing problem. One question starts: “Your book is being adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg…” with an interesting answer. The next question: “When is the film out?” Answer: “It’s slated for Summer 2013”.

Oh dear. I don’t remember a film version appearing last summer. I went to Wikipedia: there’s a page for the book, obviously, with a section about the film adaptation (caution: the page has spoilers). The film had a cast, it had financing, it had a release date of April 2014, but in January 2013 Spielberg shelved it: the script wasn’t ready, and it was too expensive. Will it ever be made? My guess: no.

Forever, that edition of Robopocalypse ends with its excited author promoting a film that in all likelihood will never have existed.

In a sense, that’s culturally fascinating: a snapshot of Wilson’s expectations at time of publication, with a hint of an alternative future that never came to pass.

But mostly I want to tell the publisher how daft it makes them look.

Review: Comedy Rules

comedy-rules-coverPart-autobiography, part-tutorial, part-ramble, Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes, Prime Minister is Jonathan Lynn’s look back at his career in acting and directing and in particular in comedy writing, and it’s full of excellent advice for those aiming to succeed him. The rules of the title pepper the book — there are 150 in all, over 200 pages — and range from the relatively obvious to the insightful.

For example, rule 35: It is hazardous to your career to make sexist jokes about women. Not a surprise, though somehow it still needs repeating. And then by contrast a few pages later, rule 39: If a band — or film crew — laugh loudly at a joke, you should probably cut it. Because, he says, “the band will only laugh at any new line which is a variation of the original.” And then there’s rule 98: Beware a phone call from the Inland Revenue, even if it’s an invitation to lunch.

Despite the title, these aren’t so much rules as lightly educational anecdotes: lessons he’s learned over the years through sometimes bitter experience. We skip between the decades, from his student days to more recent times as a film director and screenwriter, and back. Every story is funny, enlightening and well told, and occasionally guest-starring comedy gods such as John Cleese or Steve Martin.

Quite possibly my favourite story follows rule 117: Try to resist if the Prime Minister wants to join your writing team. If you remember the cringeworthy “sketch” Margaret Thatcher wrote while PM featuring the two main characters from Yes, Prime Minister, you’ll know what this anecdote is about.

There’s poignancy too. Lynn describes working on the play Loot with Leonard Rossiter, a masterful comic actor but a perfectionist who could be difficult to deal with. The play was a huge success and they became friends, and then Rossiter died suddenly: in his dressing room, from an aneurism, during a performance. Lynn includes the eulogy he gave at the funeral.

Lynn’s one of the greats behind the camera of post-war British comedy, up there with Galton and Simpson, John Sullivan, Eric Sykes, Muir and Norden, and so on, and Comedy Rules is a fantastic memoir. Recommended.