Stellar Science

The Science of InterstellarThe Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While it takes a book like this to remind us how cutting-edge and accurate Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar really was, author Kip S. Thorne (predictably) ignores what is perhaps the biggest idea of the movie.

This idea has also proved the most polarising, with a range of critics and viewers labelling Nolan as sentimental, goofy and on a New Age trip as a result. I am, of course, referring to Dr Amelia Brand’s Big Speech near the end (played with deadpan earnestness by Anne Hathaway):

Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful, it has to mean something… Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space.

Many critics have commented that the strong father-daughter relationship that drives the emotional engine of Interstellar is a vestige of the script/story when Steven Spielberg was still on board to direct it, as far back as 2006.

The only time that Thorne refers to the human elements of the movie is when he talks about Mann’s planet and the explosion of Endurance, adding (apologetically) that Dr Mann’s murderous actions lie outside the remit of science (instead of a mad robot as in 2001, Nolan presents us with a … mad scientist. Gee, how original.) Thorne then launches into a detailed, gleeful account of the Endurance explosion and how accurate it is, as enamoured as a Boy Scout with a ball of string.

Of course, the first time that Hollywood tried to depict a black hole was Disney’s 1979 movie, prosaically entitled The Black Hole. Thorne gives a compact account of how much our knowledge has changed in the interim.

The first time that the concept of a wormhole entered Hollywood as an SF staple of time/space travel was Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997), starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey (John Lithgow in Interstellar was also in 2010), based on the book by Carl Sagan (Thorne worked with both Sagan and Zemeckis on the science).

Flash-forward to 2014 and Nolan’s answer to Stanley Kubrick: a rigorously scientific and accurate SF movie, based upon (and extrapolated from) the latest research and data. Everything from Dr Brand’s equations on the blackboard to what Cooper sees within Gargantua, from the crop blight which decimates the earth at the beginning to the space colonies at the end, is either plausible or completely accurate.

Apart from Thorne himself, a crop of eminent scientists, theoreticians and academics were called upon for their two cents’ worth (though the final decision always lay with Nolan, Thorne points out constantly, especially when he has a quibble or two with the director’s artistic licence).

Needless to say, you should only read this book after you have seen the movie. If you attempt to read this first, I think you will have no desire whatsoever to see the movie, because it sounds like a graduate-level quantum physics lecture.

If you have seen the movie and then read a book like this, you will be amazed (as I was) at the amount of science you would have absorbed. And quite painlessly, all with state-of-the-art CGI and a truly thunderous Hans Zimmer score to boot.

My only quibble is that Thorne is a much better teacher than he is a writer – there are some wince-inducing instances here that could have used an editor’s cudgel. Apart from that, Thorne’s enthusiasm for his subject matter shines through every page, making this a truly memorable companion piece to a great movie.

Is it the greatest SF movie ever made? I would have to say it is probably the best American SF movie ever made, as the idea that the whole concept of space travel is simply to replicate the American Dream among the stars is singularly depressing.

There is no inkling here that base-line humanity will have to change; that evolution and transformation go hand in hand. One only has to look to great SF writers like Paul McAuley and Stephen Baxter to read what lies in store for us; hopefully Hollywood catches up soon.

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Duplex: A NovelDuplex: A Novel by Kathryn Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is hands-down the weirdest, and curiously one of the most affecting, books I have had the privilege to read in 2014. Impressive and incendiary. Overall the structure and tone reminded me of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury: a series of loosely connected and intertwined stories/tales/visions set in a mythical world of the imagination.

That world is either modern suburbia, a virtual reality simulation, a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by giant tsunamis, an old age home/convent, a future utopia where robots are ubiquitous … there is even mention of a Space Drift near the end, that is able to fold time and space, which reminded me of M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract trilogy (instead of a cat here we have a red dachshund).

A vital clue is provided towards the end, where a hinge is described as “not only being the place where a real scallop attached itself to its shell, but also the place where you could go forward and back with equal ease”.

There is a lot of mention of doors, openings, even wormholes, and neologisms like ‘dactilo ports’, while the titular duplex is described at the beginning as having properties “that are stretchable but they aren’t infinite. One minute the opening will be right there in front of you, and the next minute you won’t even know where it went.”

What I loved about Duplex is how it reminded me of a time when I was much younger and I perceived reading as a dangerous, even illicit, activity that was anti-social and took me out of the world as I knew it.

It reminded me of the thrill of ordering books from storage in our home town’s legal-deposit library that had not been taken out in years, feeling that not only had I rediscovered these lost books, but that by reading them, somehow activating their magic…

Duplex also reminded me of the brain freeze I would often encounter in reading new authors, and attempting a book that I knew was beyond my teenage comprehension (elastic as it may have been at that time), and being dimly aware of a vast realm of ideas and feelings just beyond my grasp.

If you read a lot of SF and po-mo or contemporary fiction, you are likely to take to Duplex like a duck to water, if you have not discovered Davis already (this is my first time reading her).

This book really reinvigorated my sense of wonder in reading: as a process of discovery (and rediscovery); as a contract with the author to educate and entertain me in equal measure; and as an emotional and cathartic journey, where the heartbeat of the story is much more valuable than the narrative footprint.

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The Word Exchange

The Word ExchangeThe Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This turgid thriller is hampered by too much exposition, a bolted-on love story and a rather dim-witted heroine. I think Alena Graedon wanted her readers to remain one step ahead of Anana/Alice, but the unfortunate side-effect is much readerly frustration at the heroine’s wilful ignorance of the glaringly obvious. Not to mention her sheer clumsiness and general abstraction. No wonder the Diachronic Society thinks twice about admitting her into their closeted ranks.

Comparisons with The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus and even Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux are inevitable, but Graedon lags far behind either. A character like Bart, for example, is too obviously a mouthpiece for Graedon’s own thoughts about Hegel and language. Bart also makes a wholly unconvincing suitor for Anana/Alice.

Compared to the dull-as-dishwater Alex though, he is a veritable knight in shining armour. Alas, Bart is by far the most interesting character, whose verbal gymnastics and sophistry shine from the moment he is introduced; more is the pity then that Graedon relegates him to being among the first victims of the ‘word flu’.

The narrative hook for the plot is the discovery by Anana/Alice that her father, the chief lexicographer on the third edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), has gone missing.

In searching for her father, she stumbles on a byzantine plot to destroy the NADEL (physically, by incinerating all extant copies; and psychologically, by unleashing a ‘word virus’ to infect all computing devices such as tablets and smartphones to force people to subscribe to the so-called Word Exchange for communication purposes and, ultimately, meaning in all its myriad forms, from quotidian conversation to reading books).

Exactly how this works is complex and unconvincing; Graedon uses an array of info dumps such as letters, journal entries and op-ed pieces to saturate the reader with a surfeit of detail (which is quite ironic in that the book is ostensibly about the ‘dumbing down’ of society through too much info clutter).

In particular, the sections where the characters become aphasic and substitute made-up words for conventional ones are irritating rather than conveying the actual physical breakdown of language. These are too structured and not nearly messy enough; one gets the feeling that Graedon is too much of a grammar Nazi to fully escape the bounds of proper discourse here. (I was reminded of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, but without the anarchic vim and vigour).

Still, Graedon does a great job of making Hegel relevant in the modern world. Her characters have some interesting things to say about language and its changing role in meaning and fulfilment. I think Steve Brock and Synchronic Inc. can be interpreted as a direct critique of Jeff Bezos and Amazon, and the Meme as akin to the ubiquitous tablet. Whether or not a device such as an e-reader ultimately means the end of the book, due to the simple fact that form has ultimately been divorced from content, remains a question we will continue to grapple with for a long time to come.

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All Days are Night

All Days Are NightAll Days Are Night by Peter Stamm

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This short novel left me with a lot of ambivalent feelings: on the one hand, it is quite spare and unflinching. The unadorned prose seeps melancholia. On the other hand, there is quite a distance between the reader and the text. This produces a curious lack of affect, with the novel ultimately being underwhelming.

Of course, that could be precisely the impact the author was aiming for. I did find myself mulling this book after I had finished it. Somehow it crept into my brain space, as certain books are wont to do – a thought, a reference, a comparison; anything can produce a touchstone for the reader. Whether or not this means it is a good or well-written book is, however, debatable.

All Days Are Night is the first novel by Peter Stamm I have read; a brief bio mentions him being a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. Stamm lives in Switzerland and writes in German; this was translated by Michael Hofmann.

I mention these facts because there is a definite European feel to the novel, a kind of Savoir-faire wrapped up in fatalism, like a mystery within an enigma. This curious duality is reflected in the title, from a William Shakespeare quote:

All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

It is also one of those novels that not only start as one thing but then end up as something totally different, but one where those turns are quite unexpected.

It begins with Matthias and Gillian having a quarrel at a party, and then ending up in a car accident on the way home. Matthias, who remains a cipher throughout the novel, is killed, while Gillian’s face is disfigured. Okay, the reader thinks, I can see where this is going …

We then learn the reason for the argument: Gillian posed nude for an artist called Hubert. The second part of the book tells Hubert’s story, his estrangement from his wife and son and his disaffection with his own artistic integrity and capability.

Hubert and Gillian eventually meet up again at a mountain resort, where she is entertainment director. Both are changed people. I do not want to give the ending away, suffice it to say that it is heartbreaking and liberating at the same time. Ultimately we realise that the accident was merely the start of Gillian’s evolution as both a woman and a unique human being.

There is a lot here too about art and representation, and how we derive meaning from the world through imagery and sensory impressions. Hubert’s crisis of art is quite convincing.

Stamm also paints a believable portrait of Gillian as a television producer and writer, whose vocation very much relies on her beauty. When this is destroyed by the accident, it results in her own professional and existential crisis.

We really do get a glimpse into the souls of these two damaged and disparate people, and the forces – a lot of it beyond their control – that both attract them to, and repel them from, each other.

Worth reading if you like fiction that probes into the psycho-pathology of its characters, without pandering to its readers, and with no clear-cut resolutions to the complex questions it poses. Perhaps little joy to be had here, but a smorgasbord of thought.

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Mermaids in Paradise

Mermaids in ParadiseMermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A couple on honeymoon at a Caribbean resort get roped into helping a marine biologist when she discovers mermaids in the coral reefs, setting off a comedic chain of events – not least of which is the apparent death of the biologist by drowning in her bathtub. I am unsure if I was supposed to find this funny or not, which is an indication of the problematic tone of this novel.

It is billed as a satire, and I was sort of expecting something along the lines of Carl Hiaasen. However, the book is way too frothy and loses its buoyancy when it segues into a rather fumbling ‘whodunnit’.

Surprisingly, the titular mermaids only make their appearance quite late, with the first section dissecting the life of the newlyweds. By then it is quite apparent that the mermaids are just a McGuffin, with Millet giving short shrift to any serious consideration of such a potential discovery.

The ‘whodunnit’ section is totally implausible, with a lot of bad plotting and even worse characterisation. Also, Millet attempts to be mock serious at this point, which simply does not work. I also found the lead female character to be extremely fatuous and irritating; her Labrador-like ‘jock’ husband is equally annoying.

The scene where she accidentally plays footsie with a hick from the American Heartland at the dinner table, and then feels guilty when he presumes her attention was that of a fellow foot fetishist – it cannot be cheating if it is foot-genital contact, says the hick, apparently borrowing a cigar from Bill Clinton – is enough to set the feminist movement back a couple of centuries.

Of course, our heroine then spends the entire fucking book worrying about whether or not she actually is a foot fetishist, by which stage the long-suffering reader just wants to kick her in the face and throw her to the mermaids as fish bait.

There is quite an awe-inducing moment towards the end when Millet pulls a Peter Jackson ‘more is bigger and better’ move on the mermaids … but then she ruins the effect totally by having our heroine ruminate on an impending asteroid strike on the planet. WTF?

Thus the book limps towards its watery conclusion. Satire is one of the most difficult things to write, as it requires a fine balance between incredulity and believability. It does not mean that commonsense and logic can be thrown out of the window. Millet tries to set the bar higher than a light and undemanding beach read, but scuppers her own best intentions.

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ConsumedConsumed by David Cronenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The ongoing controversy about The Interview reminded me of the running gag in David Cronenberg’s first novel about ‘Kimunism’ and the The Judicious Use of Insects. This fictitious movie causes controversy and upheaval at Cannes, as it is supported by France’s most intellectually daring philosopher couple, who are sympathetic towards the North Korean dictatorship (Cronenberg mentions the scandal of Gerard Depardieu renouncing his French citizenship and being personally awarded a Russian passport by Vladimir Putin).

The book opens with the death of the wife, killed and cannibalised by her husband, who is hiding out in Japan as a result. Cronenberg refers to the bizarre case of Issei Sagawa, who murdered and cannabilised a fellow Dutch student at the Sorbonne in 1981. A French judge declared Sagawa to be mentally insane, whereupon he was extradited to Japan, becoming a minor celebrity and even writing restaurant reviews.

What this means is that a lot of the more outlandish plot elements here are, in actual fact, refractions of real events, which adds another dimension to Cronenberg’s theme of the fusion of entertainment, media, technology and politics. We see the story through the eyes of yet another couple, two journalists, whose obsession with the latest gadgets is almost a fetish.

Cronenberg’s experience as a filmmaker allows him to riff authoritatively on the latest camera and recording technology: “…he consumed her body with that lens (the awkwardly named Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED).” There is a very funny scene where Naomi demonstrates the photographic potential of the newest iPhone by taking pictures of Nathan’s erect penis.

Indeed, much of the novel is blackly and bleakly funny, taking in its stride everything from acrotomophilia (a sexual attraction to amputees) to the fictitious Roiphe’s Disease, which Nathan contracts after having sex with a radical surgery patient, to the Worldwide Genital Mutilation Conference, 3D printing as a medical tool and ‘philosospasms’ (Naomi and Nathan’s pet term for their digressive interests).

The discussion of ‘insect politics’ and the ingestion of insects for both religious and nutritive value reminds us, of course, of Cronenberg’s own movies The Fly and his adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Indeed, Consumed is very much a love letter to long-term Cronenberg fans, running a sustained trajectory from the ‘body horror’ of his early work to his later interest in identity and gender.

Cronenberg’s writing reflects the dispassioned, steely intelligence of his movies. It is rather fitting that Consumed is a genre hybrid, straddling horror, science fiction and satire. Cronenberg writes with such confidence and insight that it is difficult to imagine this is his first novel. Of course, the attention to detail is very much a result of his director’s eye.

What I found fascinating is how the novel format allows Cronenberg to expand upon his ideas in a much more radical way than he is able to do in his movies – to the extent that a movie based upon Consumed would be almost impossible to make in the current socio-political climate. We do not want to upset the Boy King of North Korea, now do we.

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BarracudaBarracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an extraordinary novel, brutal and tender in equal measure. Flawed, unlikeable protagonists are perennially fascinating; the writer has to strike a fine balance (or is it a trade-off?) between alienating the reader and remaining true to his vision. The reader, in turn, has to be unflinching in his commitment to the novel and his trust in the writer’s journey.

Barracuda is almost unbearable in its intensity at some points. There is horror, pathos and tragedy aplenty; but this is no ‘kitchen sink’ drama. Tsiolkas bravely tells the story of one man’s life, the choices he makes, the consequences stemming from those actions, and his quest for redemption and the ultimate answer to whether or not he is a good man who has done his utmost to live a good life, despite his many failings.

It took me a while to find the rhythm of this book, particularly at the beginning, as Tsiolkas interweaves the younger Danny’s life with the older (when he simply calls himself Dan). I was so confused that I thought it was a different character altogether, particularly in that he was living with, and contemplating leaving, a man called Clyde. But this is precisely Tsiolkas’s point, I think: Danny and Dan are indeed two very different individuals, and this is the story of their reconciliation with, and acceptance of, each other.

The story here is quite simple: a school swimming prodigy fails to live up to his reputation and his own expectations of himself. This deals such a fatal blow to his self-esteem that it derails his life, culminating in a shattering tragedy. Another writer would have built up slowly to the tragic event itself, using this narrative tension to propel the story towards its ending and some kind of catharsis.

Not so with Tsiolkas. Instead he takes quite a risk by outlining the tragedy right at the beginning, when the reader has barely begun to know Danny/Dan. Of course, this colours our perception, as human nature is wont to do. Only gradually do we learn the truth, and so our perceptions begin to change.

There is a lot going on in this novel: Tsiolkas uses his characters to make some impassioned statements about the immigrant experience in Australia, and about the entrenched racism and noblesse oblige inherent in such an apparently civilised society.

There is also a lot here about family dynamics, especially between parents and children and the misunderstandings and grudges that can get passed on from one generation to the next.

What I particularly admired about Tsiolkas’s writing here is how tangential Dan’s gayness is to the story. It is simply a facet of who he is, and in no way defines his total identity. Dan’s prison experiences are quite harrowing: he equates discovering the beauty and bliss of being fucked with the beauty and bliss of discovering Shakespeare.

Indeed, it is in prison where Dan discovers a lifelong love of reading as a means to take him out of himself and to suspend time, as swimming did when he was young.

This is not an easy book to read. Tsiolkas demands much of the reader. He pushes a lot of white, liberal, bourgeois buttons. At various times I was affronted, angry and repulsed. But there is a rawness to his writing and a satisfaction to be gleaned akin to a child tearing off half-healed scabs in order to make them bleed again.

And then there is the sheer brilliance of Tsiolkas’s tehnical skill as a writer, which takes you effortlessly from the mind and heart of the teenage Danny to the full-grown failure of the man and his many regrets. Utterly magnificent; this novel will burn a hole in your heart.

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