Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

John Gray (2002)

Strawmen as much as straw dogs: weak portrayals of ideas that can then be more easily torn down.

I find it hard to see ow this book achieved so much praise. In part it’s self-negating, a modern academic berating all the things that make his own activities possible. But many of the criticisms are also deliberate set-ups, for example telling me (a scientist) what “scientists” think (because we’re all the same, you know), and using it to demolish and/or demonise our activities. I would just point out that reading commentaries about science by philosophers and historians isn’t the same as practicing, and Gray might find that practitioners have a rather different outlook on their activities.

1/5. Finished Sunday 27 January, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)


Madeline Miller (2018)

The story of Circe, daughter of Helios and witch of the Odyssey, told from her perspective.

It’s very much a feminist story, capturing all the incidental abuses to which women in heroic narratives are always subject. It’s a pleasure to read and avoids becoming either preachy or too anachronistic: Circe feels like a classical goddess, not like an out-of-time modern. It’s also clever how Miller has managed to weave together the “main” part of Circe’s story from the Odyssey with the other, lesser-known elements that appear in different re-tellings, in order to make the narrative seamless across Circe’s lived experience.

5/5. Finished Monday 21 January, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age

Stanisław Lem (1965)

Science fantasy of the first order, this book of short stories tells (mainly) of the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two “constructors” (who are themselves robots) who spend their time making complex machines for the benefit of various patrons. There’s a medieval feel to many of the stories, despite the fact that most of the characters are either robots or intelligent machines.

Several of the stories clearly send echoes down through future literature, and indeed other forms of entertainment: in the Seventh Sally, Trurl builds a miniature universe to placate a deposed king, allowing him to control and influence its development in a way that’s unmistakably like Sim City. There are machines that tell tales within the tales, and robots who tell of having had their good deeds go awry. When you consider the Polish original was written in the mid 1960’s it’s all an amazing contrast to the contemporary science fiction and fantasy writing.

4/5. Finished Sunday 6 January, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Rosewater (The Wormwood Trilogy, #1)

Tade Thompson (2017)

Science fiction set in Nigeria gets two doses of otherness, both from the human society and from the effects of alien invasion. This is an excellent debut novel, perhaps a little unsure of itself in terms of the science and sometimes a little uncomfortable in the use of nonlinear narrative, but with compelling characters and an excellent plot line. I’ll look out for the sequel.

3/5. Finished Saturday 29 December, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Noumenon (Noumenon, #1)

Marina J. Lostetter (2017)

A voyage-to-another-star novel that embraces the distances travelled, and all that entails. A set of missions are sent out that will take generations to reach their destinations and return. On the way their society evolves in ways that the original missions planners both expect and don’t.

This is a book focused on the evolution of human groups and the ways that space travel and dislocation would affect them – and indeed would affect the society left behind. There are unmistakable echoes of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s short story The Climbing Wave in how the stay-athomes forget (and refuse to be impressed by) returning space travellers; and of Joe Haldeman’s Forever War in how those travellers would be left behind by technological progress, cementing their perceived irrelevance.

4/5. Finished Friday 21 December, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)