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Dreams Before the Start of Time, by Anne Charnock (Books 2018, 20)

I posted about Anne Charnock’s Clarke win a few weeks back, and I’m pleased for her. But when I was about a third through this, I had a dawning realisation: this appeared not to be science fiction. The Clarke Award being for the best SF novel of the year, of course.

At that point there were, to my reckoning, two things that don’t quite exist in the real world today: a self-driving car, and a kind of personal health sensor that can tell how much you drank last night, and if you’re pregnant. Neither is key to the plot or anything else, though.

There was also a hint that global warming has taken a turn for the worse. But it could just be a year with a bad crop, and anyway, that’s hardly fiction, never mind SF.

But then I hit part two, and it jumped forward 50 years, with corresponding technological advances. Part three takes us forward another fifty or so years.

So what we have is a series of vignettes about the experiences of several interlinked families, over a hundred or so years. It’s interesting enough, but it’s limited. It’s about families and the future of how humans conceive, bear (or not), and raise children. Which is fine. But there’s very little about what else is going on in the world, in society. Or even much about the societal effects of the technologies we are looking at. Yes, by the end there are reports of a visibly-pregnant woman being abused in public for giving her baby a bad start in life (by not using the artificial uterus technology and associated genetic cleansing). But that’s it.

It’s interesting enough, as far as it goes, but I’ve got to admit I’m surprised the judges considered it the best SF novel published in Britain in 2017.

The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks (Books 2018, 19)

Funny what you remember. Almost all I could recall about this one was the monstrous figure of the Archimandrite Luseferous: a hellish tyrant of the worst sort imaginable. As the narration describes him: “that most deplorable of beings, a psychopathic sadist with a fertile imagination.”

And I remembered it was about gas giants, and wormholes. And an important Secret. I remembered the Secret. Oh, and of course the fact that — in a massive difference from the Culture novels — it describes a galactic civilisation which proscribes AIs; mercilessly hunts down and destroys any hint of machines gaining sentience.

But not really anything else to speak of. So it was really great to read it again.

Highly recommended if you haven’t read it before. Or even if you have.

Walking on Glass by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 18)

A novel of three parts. Two of them are — probably — tightly linked. By some interpretations, anyway. The third — which is the first as presented — brushes up against one of those two, and is to a small extent influenced by it. But in no way that I can discern is it really linked to the others. Which kind of makes me wonder what it’s for.

I mean, sure, maybe he just wanted to tell that story, with no more reason than that. That would be fine. But since the three are presented under one common title, I’ve got to assume that they share more than just a passing brush with simultaneous walks and some sugar in a tank.

The title itself is interesting. The only people who are literally walking on glass at any point are the two exiles from a galactic war in the far future (if that’s really what they are). But glass suggests fragility, slipperiness: maybe everyone is walking on glass, as everything could collapse under them at any moment.

It also suggests transparency: maybe everyone can be seen at any time. If you walk on a sheet of glass, you can be viewed from below. Which sounds not unlike the crosstime telepathic viewing that people in the castle are apparently doing of people in Earth’s past.

All of which leads me to the conclusion — which I didn’t actually expect when I started writing this — that my long-preferred interpretation is the correct one: that Quiss and Ajayi really are former warriors who have been banished to the castle as a punishment for misdeeds. The castle has the technology to let people live vicariously in the minds of humans from its past. At one point Quiss probably touches Grout’s mind and partly causes the road accident.

Is Grout really an exile from the same war, or a similar one? Probably not, but maybe. Maybe someone like Quiss or Aliya touched his mind at some earlier, vulnerable time, and something of their experience passed in to Grout.

But again, what of Graham’s story, and Sara’s betrayal? What does that have to do with the bigger stories?

I remain unsure.

This storm feels like it’s been building for weeks. Finally to break just as I’m trying to get to the theatre.

The Great Banksie Reread

As you’ll have noticed, I have mainly been reading books by Iain Banks lately. This is all part of something I’ve been thinking of as “The Great Banksie Reread,” which has been going on haphazardly for… five years, as I now see.

Turns out that when I started rereading his works back in 2013, as well as doing so only very intermittently, I also didn’t keep records as I thought I had. The ones I know I read, but didn’t blog about, are The Bridge, The Crow Road, Excession, Look To Windward, and The State of the Art — or at least the title story.

As to why I didn’t blog about them, I guess I just didn’t write about my reading in some years. But it’s oddly lax of me. Blogging about them was kind of the point of the reread, surely — as well as my own enjoyment, of course.

Anyway, all these posts are now tagged with “The Great Banksie Reread“.

Radically Interoperable and Universal”

In In Praise of Email Dan Cohen writes of how email got things right, long before some of our other ways of interacting online came along and got so many things wrong.

I’ve long thought that email was the killer app of the internet, despite the problems that many people have with it. Those tend to be not inherent in email, but caused by the way we use it.

Here’s one point he makes, in regard to the algorithmic timelines that are ruining Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram:

Although some email systems algorithmically sort email by priority or importance, that is not part of the email system itself. Again, this can be added, or not, by the user, and the default is strictly chronological.

Although my main problem, as I’ve said before, is with some clients that insisting that “chronological” means “newest first.”

REPL Reply

Hjertnes talks about the joy of a REPL:

A REPL or read eval print loop is what we called an interactive prompt back in the day when I learnt Python and Ruby.

He goes on to say:

For a REPL to make sense you need to be able to test small chunks of code. Like this function or this expression; or my typical thing, “would this work” or how the fuck was that syntax again?

I’ve sometimes found that they have a downside. When you are looking for code examples, then if a language has a REPL, very often the examples show the use of a feature in the REPL. Which may be fine, but is not so helpful if you’re trying to find out how to construct a class or a function.

Which point, to be fair, Hjertnes does address:

In other words, if your language require a lot of “foreplay” to run code, like declaring a namespace and a class etc (I’m looking at you Java and C#) it will probably not be the right thing. But if you can evaluate code without much fuss it is.

Java is supposed to be getting one soon, I believe, if it’s not already in version 9.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (Books 2018, 17)

Back where it all began, then: Banksie’s debut. It’s a bit dated, of course. Do you remember pay phones having pips? And “I must convince dad to get a VTR.” Who ever called it a VTR, rather than VCR? Outside of TV companies, at least.

Still a great, crazy story with an ending that, now, seems less believable than it ever did. Well, the whole setup, really: the idea that you could have a child and not register them, and keep them away from all need for interaction with the authorities. Even if you lived on a private island, that’s hard to imagine nowadays.

And I had forgotten what a misogynistic character the narrator, Frank, is. Which is, frankly, ironic.

I recall reading a theory once that Eric, the crazy, dog-burning brother, doesn’t actually exist, that he was all a figment of Frank’s supercharged imagination. I was keeping that at the back of my mind as I read this time, and I don’t think there’s much evidence of it. But I’ll see if I can track down the actual theory.

Here we go: “The Weaponry of Deceit: Speculations on Reality in The Wasp Factory” by Kev McVeigh. Originally published in the BSFA’s Vector magazine.

Reading it again now, McVeigh has a point: Eric can be seen as a metaphor for Frank’s masculinity. But I prefer to take it at face value: sometimes a crazy family is just a crazy family.

The difficulty in searching for anything to do with this novel nowadays is that it’s on the English Literature curricula of both the English A-Levels and the Scottish Highers. So there are lots (and lots and lots) of sites offering analyses of it for students plagiarise learn from. As well as all the Goodreads entries and blog posts you would expect.

And, oops! I’ve just added to the pile.

Trumping Through London

On Friday I went for a walk through central London with a couple of hundred thousand of my closest friends.

The march was due to start at 2pm from Portland Place. I was a little late. I went straight to Oxford Circus. I came out of the tube station and just stood and watched the people walking down Regent Street. It was amazing, and seemed endless. Then I saw these two with great signs:

Anti-Trump protestors with signs: 'If Adolph (sic) Hitler flew in today... They'd send a limousine anyway'; and 'Bloody Trump, combing over hair, taking our tax money.'

A Clash quote and a bad pun? Count me in.

I walked down the pavement alongside the march for a bit, taking more photos.

Anti-Trump protestors, London, July 2018 Anti-Trump protestors, London, July 2018

Before long we got to Trafalgar Square.

Anti-Trump protestors in Trafalgar Square, London, July 2018 Anti-Trump protestors in Trafalgar Square, London, July 2018

There were many speakers and a few musicians. Len McCluskey told us that the police had estimated the crowd was over 250,000, which was surprising, since they tend to underestimate. Anyway, if so, it was the biggest since the Iraq war demo. More amusingly, we were a bigger crowd than at Trump’s inauguration.

That said, I looked around and it didn’t feel that crowded. I’ve seen the O2 full, and I would guess that there were a similar 20,000 in the square.

But it turned out when I left that there were many, many people in the streets around the square. I guess they didn’t want to push forward because the square looked full. I’m quite glad about that.

The atmosphere was fantastic all day. The police presence was pleasingly low (or at least low-key), despite the stories of leave being cancelled and people drafted in from all over the country.

Did it do any good? Probably not, in the sense that it won’t have any direct effect on Trump. But it made a lot of people feel good, and it showed the world that we care.