Anthony vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I turned seventeen in the spring of 1986. Days later Chernobyl’s nuclear power station huffed radiation across northern Europe, causing sheep to glow in the Scottish Highlands (subs: please check). At the time, the Soviet Union’s fresh, thrusting, young fifty-something leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was shouldering the tiller in an attempt to turn the supertanker USSR ninety degrees to starboard. Words like glasnost and perestroika were becoming commonplace on news bulletins.

Glasnost: openness

Perestroika: restructuring

Despite the pre-roasted lamb courtesy of an over-sugared Ukrainian microwave, it was an optimistic time in geopolitics (strokes beard). Like most of my generation, I’d assumed I would perish in a nuclear fireball, ash on the wind, not least because in those days we lived twenty minutes from a US air base housing several of “our” ICBMs. Gorbachev seemed to be leading us onto a different path.

And so it proved: for a while.

Aged seventeen, my own personal glasnost was stalled awaiting some cerebral perestroika. I was as closeted as a partially melted fuel rod under a hasty sarcophagus. And around us on the analogue eighties airwaves swirled HIV and AIDS, a geiger counter that ticked more urgently each week. Adverts, posters, leaflets, even school assemblies. Condoms on TV!

I honestly don’t know how my friends and family would’ve reacted had I come out then, all pimply and non-bald. I was in suffocating denial, even as I knew. Such is the plastic teen brain, such is the ability of humans to hold contradictory notions simultaneously. Crushes were crushed, neatly compartmentalised, boxed and ribboned and jettisoned and retrieved and reopened.

I’m sure one of my friends knew, or suspected. She wasn’t daft. I remember we skirted the subject once, a few years later at college. An idle have you ever wondered question, over student crumpets. Even then, I wasn’t ready. It would’ve been so easy, a couple of words. It would’ve changed nothing, and everything.

In 1986, there were no role models for a seventeen-year-old boy in my position. On TV, beyond the tumbling AIDS icebergs and red-faced ministers stammering through discussions of sexual practices, we had only high camp, sexless figures, and the inevitable haunted queer who coughs at the end of act one. Channel 4 showed the occasional late-night movie of a pink persuasion, barely audible above the braying and honking of faux-scandalised MPs and Mary Whitehouse. This was hardly a rainbow-rimmed invitation to come out over the Sunday beef (the lamb was off).

Newspapers? “EastBenders”. Say no more.

Movies? I wasn’t 18. And I’d never have had the courage.

Books? I remember looking. I’d never have bought anything: that would’ve collapsed the quantum unicorn wave function, Schrödinger’s Teen forced out of his box. Sometimes I’d stand in a bookshop, heart thumping, and read a page or two from something — I remember A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White.

Today’s seventeen year olds — in many countries, at least — inhabit a better world, if their parents and grandparents will let them keep it and survive it. This is a world of Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country. Of Drag Race, of the gender-blind First Dates. Of Noah Can’t Even, of Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda (Love, Simon in movie form). Even Trump’s America can’t stuff these back in the closet. The major corporations seem to have jumped on board the rainbow train, albeit with occasional jitters. That particular skirmish, though not the war, might be almost won.

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I wonder how the seventeen-year-old me would’ve reacted to Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. Perhaps it would’ve given me the courage to come out, to take that risk even amongst the shoulder pads and approaching menace of Thatcher’s Section 28. The current me would disappear in a glittery pop, of course. Things would’ve progressed differently: other choices made, other universes forked. Even so.

Reading Simon now, aged approximately 104, the book filled me with joy. Sure, I’m a soppy middle-aged bloke wishing he could have his time again (minus: exams, three-eyed sheep; plus: self-confidence). Sure, there’s a heaped tablespoon of optimism and pink-washing of what it must actually be like as a closeted teen in the American South.

But the message of hope. The non-noxious radiation of love and warmth. Wonder, discovery, dreams, redemption. The relentless positivity and promise of Obama’s path to the future, rather than Trump’s crazy paving.

I could’ve read it in one sitting — if I were actually seventeen and could survive on no sleep. Rationed to a few chapters a night, the book kept worming into my thoughts during the day. I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It made me grin, and gasp, and weep (see: soppy old man).

I wasn’t expecting this. I suspect I needed it.

One brief moment in a glorious exile from Trump/Brexit lunacy, spending time in the world I never dreamed could exist when Chernobyl melted into our vocabularies, but which now feels no more than a fingertip out of reach.

My fear is that it has begun to recede.

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Review: Armada

I confess I’ve struggled to articulate my thoughts on Ernest Cline’s Armada. As the tricky second book following a blockbuster like Ready Player One, the temptation for this reviewer is to throw down comparisons in an endless series of bullets: Ready Player One was like this, but Armada‘s like this, which means XYZ.

That’s unfair. But not entirely. Armada isn’t related story-wise to RPO, and yet the two books overlap in many ways. Both have a teen male protagonist whose expertise in video games is the spine of the story. Both are rich with pop-culture references anchoring the story firmly in our world. It almost feels as if both books have a common ancestor, an ur-plot in Cline’s head. More likely Cline’s simply projecting his own experiences, as all authors do to some extent, and these two lenses have much the same prescription.

If I try to forget RPO exists, how do I feel about Armada?

The plot is captivating and straightforward: on page one our hero, Zack, looks out of his classroom window to see a UFO darting across the sky. What’s more, it’s a craft identical to the ones he sees and battles in a video game – called Armada. How is that possible? Is it real, or is he hallucinating? Either answer signals trouble, which subsequently arrives at a pace speedy enough to keep me turning the 350 pages. It’s exciting, thrilling and eventful. It feels almost like the novelisation of a screenplay (which is handy, as the movie rights were sold for seven figures).

It also feels aimed at a specific audience: teenage boys who might see themselves in Zack’s place. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, complete with absent father and a school bully.

In that sense it’s a disappointment. I have nothing against these sorts of stories at all. I suppose I was hoping for something a little different, in the way that Ready Player One felt different. But ignoring RPO, as I claimed I was: it’s a great story and it’ll make a watchable brain-off blockbuster movie. It has its faults, though: not least the massive implausibility of <spoiler>.

Aside from that, some lesser but important characters lack any depth: you can’t make an emotional connection to someone who’s little more than a checkbox. “Oh, we need one of them, and one of them…”

Also, the pop-culture references tend on occasion towards the gratuitous. The bickering is real enough: characters bitch and joke about real-world fictional characters just as we would. Sometimes it feels shoe-horned in, possibly disguising the lack of character depth. I have fewer reservations about the unlikeliness of the characters having sufficient composure under extreme stress to wisecrack quite as coherently as they do: hey, that’s fiction for you. Gibbering and damp trousers would not be the average teen boy’s idea of wish fulfilment.

There is one particular scene late in the book in which certain real-world people “guest star” as characters. I am not a huge fan in general and in this case I was overwhelmed by the aroma of cheese. For me, this device bumps up against a line: I understand it, and it makes sense in context, but… just no. I sincerely hope it doesn’t appear in the film, as all tension in that scene will evaporate in laughter (at least in UK cinemas).

These criticisms are niggles rather than chuck-the-book-across-the-room-isms, and possibly amplified by my own expectations after Ready Player One. This was always going to be Cline’s problem: follow that. People of a certain age (hello!) who enjoyed revisiting the minutiae of 80s video games and films in Ready Player One, who can nod sagely at discussions of Pac-Man tactics and mullets, might have anticipated and wanted another spin around the Pole Position track.

Armada is not that, and yet it’s too similar to Ready Player One to escape comparison, and that might ultimately be its biggest problem. JK Rowling wisely keeps well away from magic with her non-Hogwarts books, and in Armada Ernest Cline perhaps drifts too close to Ready Player One for safety.

Still, I’m sure he’s worrying all the way to the bank.

Review: More Happy Than Not

More Happy Than Not – cover image
Please excuse the colour cast and the delicately distributed muck on top of my fridge.

It’s been a while since I’ve read an LGBT-themed book. Having finished Exo I saw the next few on my official to-read pile weren’t going to change that, so as a Christmas treat I decided to sneak in something new. Amazon opened its unwashed mac to show me a barely distinguishable selection of beefcake covers, and if you’ve read any of my books you’ll understand that’s not the sort of thing I write and it’s not my preferred reading material either.

I scrolled down, and saw a cover lacking both beef and cake. More Happy Than Not, by Adam Silvera. One blurb-skim later it plonked into my basket. It proved a fine choice.

I don’t remember reading anything like it before. A Bronx teen, Aaron Soto, struggles to figure himself out, torn between his girlfriend and a new, male best buddy, Thomas. Aaron’s father killed himself; his mother barely manages; his other friends run hot and cold, often violently. To Aaron, Thomas represents hope – and more? And threaded through the story, talk of a near-miraculous process offered by the Leteo Institute: the selective rewriting and deletion of memories.

A coming-of-age story, then, lifted by the generous peppering of a gritty setting and a dollop of SF mustard. In More Happy Than Not, no holds are barred, and teenage activities occur. This is not the (perfectly reasonable but) pastel, idealised world of some books. There are choices, and there are consequences. And the genre-mashing keeps you guessing, and keeps you reading, all the way.

Aaron is utterly believable: his thoughts, his feelings, his worries, all resonated to various degrees. The first-person present-tense style, not to everyone’s taste, brings an immediacy to a story focusing often on Aaron’s past and his future. I genuinely muttered “oh, god, don’t do that,” on at least one occasion, though I can neither confirm nor deny I was in a public place at the time and anyway it was noisy and nobody looked at me apart from that one lady.

I suppose if I were forced at knifepoint to find fault, I’d say I’d have liked the story to continue a little longer. That’s the reviewing equivalent to “my biggest weakness is that I’m a perfectionist,” I know. I guess some of the supporting characters feel a little interchangeable (not a great sin here). I can’t say whether the Bronx scenes are truthful in any way – my reality involves regular sightings of students in three-piece tweed, and consequently I’m an unreliable judge. It feels real enough, as does Aaron’s family and its fractured lives.

This is a book I rattled quickly through (always a good sign) and I wish I’d been able to read it as a teenager. The SF angle would’ve given me the excuse I’d have been looking for and it would have helped me, I’m sure. Oh, to be a teenager again (modulo school, acne, exams, climate change, Brexit, Trump… hmm, on second thoughts).

More Happy Than Not is Adam Silvera’s debut novel, which makes me both happy and envious. I look forward to his next dropping onto my pile soon.

Review: Exo

Jumper series

Last year I reviewed Impulse, the third book in the Jumper series by Steven Gould. I’ve just finished Exo, the fourth. Yes, I’m still a way behind in my reading.

As in Impulse, Exo follows the activities of the Rice family: parents Davy and Millie, written in third person, and their 17-year-old daughter Cent, in first person. All three have the ability to jump – teleport – from place to place, subject to some plot-enabling constraints. In my review of Impulse I suggested Gould seemed to be moving pieces around in preparation for something bigger, and Exo is definitely that. I wasn’t expecting quite how big.

Impulse was Buffyesque: teenage girl with powers has to deal with school, boys, villains, etc. Exo has more ambition. The scope is not local, but global. Exo is about a young woman taking control: knowing (mostly) what she wants, and setting out to get it. Emerging from the shadow of her parents, from the shadow of their necessarily secret lives – they have enemies, trailing them through the books, who’d rather see them dead than jumping.

What does Cent want? Consider this: she can jump to places she can see or has visited. She can also jump “in place” adding velocity. So she can jump up, and keep going, adding bursts of speed to counter gravity, and then she can jump instantly back to where she started – and then instantly back to where she ended up. With the necessary equipment, how far up could she go? And what could she do when she got there?

And of course: what happens when, inevitably, she’s tracked?

Cent is a convincing protagonist, albeit implausibly bright. She still has to endure late-stage teenagerism with its embarrassing parents and boy-related awkwardness, even as she steps and/or jumps towards adulthood and the accompanying Stuff. I’m pleased she’s not the only focus: the many chapters following Millie and Davy broaden and support the story, linking it to the previous books and showing more of that Stuff. For example, Millie’s mother is very ill in hospital – and they suspect their enemies know, which brings obvious and non-obvious complications.

Gould doesn’t skimp on the technicals. Exo is a little heftier than its predecessors, and much of that seems down to the fine detail, the research brain-dumps he scatters throughout the story. Perhaps these are intended to appeal more to the teenage boy audience, to balance the female protagonist viewpoint. I know my proto-nerd self would’ve lapped up every nut and volt. It doesn’t feel like padding, slowing the story down. Instead it grounds the story in the real world: despite all the jumping you still need X and Y, and you still can’t do without Z.

What’s missing, curiously, is any great sense of threat beyond the dangers Cent experiences as a natural result of her ambition. The Rice family’s enemies are always in their thoughts, and Davy especially is constantly on his guard fretting about attack vectors, and that’s mostly as far as it goes. Not entirely. Perhaps that’s a more realistic approach than an attack-of-the-chapter style, which would only submerge the main plot in treacle. The reader wants to know what Cent does next, and that’s enough to keep the pages turning.

Exo marks a change in the Jumper series. The previous books were about dealing, struggling, adjusting, fighting. Exo is about owning and achieving. It’s positive, it’s progressive, and you’ll wish it were true. On the flip side, I’m not sure where the series goes after this. At least if it ends here, Exo is a fine conclusion.

 

Review: Moon Over Soho

Now that A Room Full of Elephants is out, I’m planning to read more. Top of the pile: Moon Over Soho, the second book in the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. If you remember, I enjoyed the first tremendously.

Although not a sequel, Moon dovetails nicely with the end of the first book. Rivers had consequences, and they’re not funnelled into the Thames to dilute to nothing. Rather, they form an underlying thread at which Aaronovitch occasionally tugs, with the promise of more in subsequent books. I’m glad he didn’t wave the big red magical-realism reset wand: I’m now two books into a series, and I’m certainly here for the duration. (The third book’s already lower down the pile.)

Where Moon isn’t quite as successful, for me, is in the main plot. It feels a little disjointed, less coherent, than Rivers. Some of the plot developments aren’t as surprising as it appears they’re supposed to be. Without spoiling anything, our protagonist displays a certain… lack of due diligence in one particular area. I know from experience that it’s tricky to keep revelations revelatory: as the author, you know whose fingers are in which pies and it’s often hard to judge the correct balance between sprinkling a few crumbs and chucking buckets of pastry at the reader. Here it doesn’t distract greatly from the fun of the book, merely triggering the occasional arctic eye-roll. (I’m sorry.)

One criticism I’ve heard – entirely fairly – about my own Till Undeath Do Us Part regards its detailed geographical references: the “he turned left onto King’s Parade and waved at Charlie the bin-busker” sort of thing. Moon has these too. Not everyone likes them but I think they’re fine here: London’s a minor character, and the details help ground the reader in reality as a counterpoint to the magic. Knowing the locations – through personal experience or by reputation – heightens the fantastical elements.

I do like how Moon ends: both the end of the plot, and the winding up that takes place in the closing pages. Full of bittery sweetness, regrets and promise. The spark of magic glinting at the edges of the grey hardness of police life.

Overall: not quite as enjoyable as Rivers, but a solid, fun read that sets things up nicely for book three.

Review: Impulse

jumper-reflex-impulse

I’m not sure where I first read about the Jumper books by Steven Gould. Possibly on Boing Boing. Impulse is the third in the series, following Jumper and Reflex. (There was an awful 2008 film called Jumper, loosely based on the first book, starring Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell and Wooden Star Wars’ Hayden Christensen. The books are much better.)

In the first Jumper novel we met Davey, a teenage boy, who discovered he could teleport — he called it jumping — under certain circumstances, and to certain places. This was a Pretty Neat Trick, and unsurprisingly one that authorities of various kinds wanted to exploit. Jumper and Reflex explored Davey’s adventures. He got older and fell in love, discovering he wasn’t the only jumper along the way, and learned jumping has physical limits. In essence he reverse-engineered the physics of jumping, and it wasn’t the get-out-of-jail-free card it might have seemed.

In Impulse, with the Jumper universe well established, we return to Davey and his other half Millie a couple of decades on (Jumper was published in 1992, so we’re still present-day). The pair have lived in hiding all that time, jumping discreetly and in disguise, and they now have a daughter, Cent, in her mid-teens but lacking any social existence. She’s been home-schooled all her life, and she and her parents have come to realise that’s more of a non-life. So they work out a way for her to attend a real school.

Naturally being highly educated, paranoid and the new girl, Cent attracts attention. It’s no real spoiler to reveal she discovers she too can jump. And as she masters the technique she figures out how to do more – all logical within the established universe. Jinks both high and low ensue.

Meanwhile her parents carry on with their humanitarian activities (being able to bring fresh water into disaster areas without the usual hassles, for example, is a tremendously useful skill). Although the focus is mostly on Cent – first-person, strong teenage female protagonist alert! – we also follow Davey and Millie (in third-person).

In truth those diversions from Cent’s story feel a little half-hearted. They move the Jumper universe forward a little but you sense the author’s treading water, moving pieces on the chessboard to prepare for another book. (Exo, the fourth book in the series, was published in 2014: no idea what it’s about. I’ll read it at some point.)

The adventures of Cent herself are small-scale: school shenanigans and teenage angst. Bullies, boys, and her growing independence from her parents. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s difficult for me to say whether it’s a realistic depiction of life for an unsocialised teenage girl in an American high school – as an ancient Briton my exposure to the freshman/sophomore/junior/senior lingo is limited (Buffy, 80s teen movies…). It feels convincing enough, which is all that matters. I’m sure almost all of us, whatever our backgrounds, can relate to bullying at school. (I’d have loved Cent’s powers on more than one occasion.)

In the three Jumper books I’ve read so far Gould has wisely resisted the temptation to give more and more characters the ability to jump. In Alfred Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination anyone can learn how to do it (Bester calls it “jaunting”, the same word used in the cardboard’n’flares 1970s TV show The Tomorrow People). Although the imagery of thousands of people bamffing into existence to gawp at a current event is beguiling, it’d soon lose its impact in the Jumper books. When everyone can jump, jumping is boring.

Impulse is, I’d say, less of a YA thriller than its predecessors – it’s more of a coming-of-age story with an SF twist – but just as compelling. The female teenage protagonist is great to see, even if my hunch is it may deter the stereotypical teenage boy from picking up the book. A shame if so – there’s plenty to enjoy.

Like Jumper and Reflex, Impulse is very much one of those books you read with an inner sigh, wishing you had the same power. Fancy a day skiing? Some authentic Chinese food? Easy. Right now, I’d jump to somewhere I can get my feet warm. Rio seems nice.

*thinks hard*

Nope, still here.

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.