stephenpalmersf

Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

From Bacteria To Bach And Back

From Bacteria To Bach And Back: The Evolution Of Minds, by Daniel Dennett

I wanted to like this. I should have liked it. I didn’t much like it.

I’ve enjoyed this brilliant author’s previous work, not least the groundbreaking Consciousness Explained, but this… this has great substance, yet the writing is terrible. Every paragraph is broken up with digressions, stuff in brackets – even a single question mark in one instance – and more utterly unnecessary stuff that any editor would ordinarily have excised. But Dennett’s editor didn’t. As a result, the book reads mostly like the half-assed ramblings of a doddery old professor.

I’ll say it again – the substance is great. The middle section didn’t seem that important, but the opening and concluding chapters in particular were important and good. Dennett’s thesis is that all explanations which posit a dividing line between mind stuff and brain stuff, as with Decartes’ original concept, are misleading. He thinks the so-called Hard Question only appears if you take such positions. He also agrees with Nicholas Humphrey that the point of conscious, the reason for its existence, is that it makes things matter in human life. When you’re in love with somebody, that person’s highs and lows mean so much to you for exactly the same reason. You therefore make an effort for them, regardless of the circumstances. Similarly, the fact that consciousness is a user-illusion is no contradiction to the fact that we human beings matter to each other. For this insight, I applaud the author.

In a nutshell: good substance, dire writing.

denn

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Killers Of The Flower Moon by David Grann

The treatment of the Native American nations by white “Christian” settlers from Europe has always evoked horror in me, partly I think because of the sheer brutality and utter callousness of what was meted out by these “Christians,” and partly because of the scorn and disgust that I feel for so many aspects of American culture. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee was a gut-wrenching read. David Grann’s extraordinary book is not quite so visceral and terrible as Dee Brown’s classic, but it still packs one hell of a punch.

The work covers the so-called Osage Nation Murders – also known as the Reign Of Terror – which occurred between 1921 and 1925 in Oklahoma. Grann’s technique is to evoke the time through meticulous research, including vast amounts of never-published or otherwise mysterious or ignored documentation. The slow, precise way in which the story of the Reign Of Terror builds into a gripping read, as various layers of the mystery are peeled away, is a great way to reveal the full truth. And, surprise surprise, a greedy white man was at the bottom of it. In 1925 the determined and courageous FBI agent Tom White completed the investigation that caught this man, followed eventually, despite corruption and extraordinary levels of racism against the Osage people, by a successful prosecution.

Except… Grann in his research found out more; facts that were missed by the original FBI investigation. I won’t spoil this last section, but, as with what goes previously, it is pretty jaw-dropping.

For anybody interested in the seemingly endless list of injustices caused by white “Christians” in America, this is a sobering read. What marks Grann’s book out above others though is the brilliant writing and extraordinary effort put in by the author on behalf of the Osage people. An outstanding book.

killers-of-the-flower-moon

Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer

The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer

The third in Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide… books, The Time Traveller’s Guide To Restoration Britain is at least as interesting as his guide to the Middle Ages, which I read and reviewed a while back. Essentially, these books posit a traveller going back in time who might need a guide in order to survive, much as a modern day traveller would take a guide to, say, Crete.

Written in a very accessible style, the book assumes little or no knowledge of the era, beginning with an overview of political events, then heading off into travel, taverns, food, health and medicine, music, plays and painting, and much more. There are plenty of interesting details, lots of humour – all underplayed and well positioned in the text – and an overall desire to seduce the reader with the good and warn them about the bad of Restoration Britain. Inevitably, Samuel Pepys makes many appearances, but there are plenty of other characters whose lives and words help the time traveller.

Highly recommended to history buffs and the general reader.

time trav restoration

Rare Earth by Ward and Brownlee

Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon In The Universe
by Peter D. Ward & Donald Brownlee

A few years ago a book that looked interesting by these two men – The Life And Death Of Planet Earth – turned out to be fantastic, and inspirational for me. So when I spotted a second work by the pair I had to read it.

This second book details what the authors call the Rare Earth Hypothesis, which in a nutshell states that simple life – prokaryotic life and perhaps eukaryotic single-celled life – is common, but that multicellular, and particularly animal life is rare. The authors stake out their territory by describing the likely evolution of habitable zones in the universe, the creation of Earth and the solar system, and then the evolution of life. As many have observed, life appeared on our planet just about as early as was possible, which strongly suggests that the basic biochemical reactions (recently outlined by the brilliant Nick Lane in his tour-de-force The Vital Question) are comparatively simple, and even likely – for instance in hydrothermal vents at the ocean floor. Sections follow on the appearance of multicellular life, Snowball Earth, and then a crucial section on the Cambrian Explosion. Mass extinctions are covered, and then a vital section on plate tectonics.

Further chapters deal with the crucial importance of Jupiter and its position in the solar system, and the Moon, before the end chapters of the book deal with tests for the hypothesis and an assessment of the odds.

Some reviewers of this book, written in 2000, have in my opinion been unfair when calling it inconclusive. The authors themselves point out more than once that they are writing at a time of great change in extra-solar astronomy; and we only have to think of the extraordinary discoveries made in the last decade to realise that these authors were courageous in putting forward their hypothesis. In my opinion they were notably far-sighted too. Their book is a detailed statement of the Rare Earth hypothesis.

This book is a superbly written, thorough and fascinating look at the ultimate scientific question: how is life spread across the universe? We 21st century human are incredibly lucky that this question could be answered in our lifetimes. In the 2030s and ’40s a mission is likely to arrive either at Enceladus or Europa, sampling the components of those enigmatic satellites. If simple bacterial-type life exists on either of the satellites, the authors of this terrific book will have the first of their answers.

rare

My Life As A Ten-Year-Old Boy by Nancy Cartwright

I came quite late to the Simpsons. In the early days – the first half of the ’90s – I thought to myself, “I don’t want to watch the antics of a bratty American boy.” How wrong I was back then. Soon, after watching a few episodes, I realised the series was about far more than just Bart. It was about America, and even, on occasion, about humanity itself.

Since then I’ve become a confirmed fan. The series, like no other American television I’ve seen, has British elements of humour – wit, irony, intelligent charm. In My Life As A Ten-Year-Old-Boy, the voice of Bart, Nancy Cartwright, lifts the lid on what it was like at the outset and how the series developed.

The book is written in an informal style, almost as if the author is speaking it. Some reviewers have held that against her, and on occasion the style can be a little wince-inducing. But overall I think it does add to the charm of the account. In any event, the story overall is a fascinating one, with much to recommend it. Certainly for any Simpsons fan this is a must-read.

simp

A Brief History Of Everyone Who Ever Lived

A Brief History Of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

I was hoping to like this book a lot, and I do like the content, but the writing style… ouch. Adam Rutherford, for all his undoubted skills as a radio presenter, has convinced himself that he’s the world’s most amusing writer of prose, which, for me, reduced the enjoyment of reading the science considerably. Because he’s not amusing.

That science is fascinating though – Rutherford deserves the adoring comments of his many famous fans inside the front jacket. But the text is not only cringingly unfunny in places where the author believes he is being hilarious, it is peppered with pointless footnotes – and Rutherford is no Jack Vance.

So for style I’m giving 2** and for content 4***, which averages out at a somewhat underwhelming 3***. A shame.

ruther

The Lives of Erich Fromm by Lawrence J. Friedman

I discovered Erich Fromm in the ‘80s, and immediately fell for his no-nonsense brand of humanism and liberalism (disguised as Marxism, as he was a follower of Marx). His work has inspired me ever since, not least The Sane Society, with its ground-breaking and daring declaration of the human condition. A few months ago I discovered by accident that there was a biography of the great man; buying it was a no-brainer.

The book is quite academic in tone, but not so much that the general reader can’t enjoy it. A great amount of work went into the writing of it, as the author observes in his introduction, but that work pays off as the contradictions and brilliance of the man come to light.

Fromm, for all his vision and wisdom, was no angel; something of a surprise to me, who knew nothing of his personal life. Letters written by Fromm and by his friends illuminate this part of the biography. Fromm also ignored a lot of health issues during various intensive spells of work, and this biography conveys those periods of his life very well.

I suppose the readership of the book is essentially going to be followers of Fromm, and perhaps those in the psychoanalysis world for whom the shadow of Freud still looms large. The political aspects of his life are particularly interesting, and often surprising, especially during the Cold War period, but I suspect those will fade in times to come. His work on the fundamentals of the human condition however will never fall into obscurity. He really was way ahead of his time, and this superb biography illustrates that very nicely.

friedman

London In The 19th Century by Jerry White

For me this was more research about Victorian times, but the book is a marvellous collection – written in themed chapters and time-lined from 1800 to 1899 – covering how London changed during the 19th century. It covers everything from architecture to government, charity and religion to riot and prostitution, homeless children to the wealthy in their perfect, posh streets. The section on the working class attitude to charity and religion was particularly eye-opening.

Lots of period detail, a terrific eye when it comes to poverty, class and power, and with a great story to tell – very readable and very enjoyable. You wouldn’t have to be researching for a novel to enjoy this book.

london19

Childhood & Death In Victorian England

Childhood & Death In Victorian England by Sarah Seaton

I read this as research for my upcoming novels Monique Orphan and Monica Orvan. The title of the book says it all. These were grim times for children, who not only had to cope with extremes of poverty, exploitation and lack of opportunity, but who also had to deal with the same issues modern children experience in Britain: a culture which doesn’t like children, and which, if not following the old maxim “seen but not heard,” still manages to treat them too often as something to ignore.

One aspect of Victorian life that comes over strongly in this book is how the role of women as uneducated baby-producers limited them to a life of social imprisonment, fit only for domestic duties. But ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance led to millions of appalling lives, not only for women, but for the children they bore.

Some of the stories related here are extraordinary. The male-created need for birth legitimacy led to some terrible crimes. In an ironic conclusion, the author remarks on how little seems to have been learned since 1901 when it comes to looking after children. Too many readers of her book would agree with her.

childhood

Imaginary Companions by Marjorie Taylor

Imaginary Companions & The Children Who Create Them,

by Marjorie Taylor

A fascinating book, read as research for my upcoming work Monique Orphan, but well worth it in its own right. Marjorie Taylor, a psychologist by training, looks at the phenomenon of imaginary companions from a broad perspective, and right from the beginning she picks away at the cultural idea that a child with an imaginary companion must necessarily be a loner, alone, or have some underlying mental condition. She is blunt about the world of media – film especially – getting the phenomenon of imaginary companions wrong. In fact, as her thorough research shows, children with imaginary companions are slightly better at navigating the social world than those without. Imaginary companions are common, a sign of a normal and active, albeit relatively unformed imagination. There are many reasons why children create imaginary companions, all dealt with in depth here. An interesting digression is the gender difference between girls (who tend to create independent companions) and boys (who tend to impersonate their own creations). Subsequent chapters deal with the phenomenon in older children and in adults, with a particularly revealing section on the nature of adult creation – eg. that of the author.

Properly researched and referenced, this is a terrific book, both academic and thorough, but also easy to read for the non-academic reader, who might be interested in memories of their own childhood or who can see their own children creating imaginary companions.

m taylor