Me, a little under two-thirds of the way through, having just worked out the significance of the two main character’s names: aaaahahaha I’ve worked out what’s going on!!!
Me, a couple of pages later: aaaaaaa I did not see that coming!!! Now I know what’s going on!!!
Me, a few chapters after that: aaaaaaa omg he did not!!! This is depraved!!!
Which is where I’m up to in Alastair Reynolds’s Eversion and I’m not sure I can handle another ghastly Space Horror twist. And to think I started reading it and put it down because I thought it was going to be one of his boring novels. I should know better after his Revenger series. Will it stick the landing? No idea, but it’s been a very enjoyable distraction so far.
Some I didn’t finish, some I didn’t start, some I’m reading by proximity until I get on to turning pages, some keep getting started and left when something I want to read immediately comes along, some just take me forever to finish.
Semi-alphabetically and fiction first (and I’m very out of practice with writing about what I’m reading):
Ben Aaronovitch is the not-TERF white dude writing actually good magical fantasy set in London. Yah, the main character is a cop and my current rule is “don’t engage with new stories if they humanise the piggos,” but I’ve been reading the series since 2017 when Gala slipped me one. What Abigail Did Last Summer is more Young Adult or whatever it gets called but my reading level is, “This. This I can read.’ I have the upcoming one on order, and that’s how I am with Ben.
More sci-fi with Charlie Jane Anders, and Victories Greater the Death is her best ever? I think so. Not enjoying waiting for the sequel though. Am enjoying the thought of it turned into a live-action series (movie?) with Wakanda’s own Michael B. Jordan.
I have been thinking about how many white trans femme or trans women authors and writers are about at the moment, how much media attention they’re getting (good attention, especially in traditional media; not talking TERF attention here), and how on Twitter (’cos that’s where the writers congregate) there’s a heap of interaction and interlinking between white trans women. And I’m wondering where all the Indigenous, Black, Blak, Brown trans femme and trans women authors and writers are and why the ones I do know, Claire G. Coleman for example, don’t seem to be interacting or being spoken about in the same sentence much. I mean I think I know why, eh.
Akwaeke Emezi and Zeyn Joukhadar (both trans but not trans femme or trans woman) I somehow place in the same space as Claire. All three have had media attention, but I’m trying to be specific on the dissonance I notice. I see white trans femmes being grouped together, and interacting on Twit and other online media — and likely the algorithms amplifying this, and feel like all the others are somehow isolated or separate. Which is one part of it. The other part is these three write about and live in spirit worlds. I feel that’s very familiar to me, and part of why they appear to me solid, multi-dimensional, in full colour. Part of why I’m drawn to them — even when it’s scary, ’cos just reading of spirit worlds draws attention to me, wakes the spirit worlds I know.
I read Charlie Jane Anders because she’s writing sci-fi and I’ve read her for years since the early days of io9. There were a number of other very high-profile novels published by white trans femmes and trans women last year, which I have no desire to read. I don’t care for the stories being told (and in one case think the story is well dodgy), and don’t feel much affinity at all with the authors. And I’m actually concerned (though not surprised) that whiteness is playing a substantial factor in trans femmes and trans women having any kind of success as writers and authors.
That’s a whole fucking convo there, so I’ll move on.
Becky Chambers I have a relationship to I don’t understand. I don’t think I’m a huge fan, but there’s something about her novels I really enjoy reading. I don’t think too hard beyond that and I keep buying them.
Genevieve Cogman though. I did get a kick out of her Invisible Library series, but The Dark Archive is where I’m stepping off. It was the ending, where the previous Big Bad turned out to be a diminutive bad who might actually be on the good side (I dunno, it was months ago now), and the true(?) Big Bad was revealed. Bait and switch is not a narrative device I enjoy unless there’s a huge amount of prior work to make me care, and six novels in feels way too late for such a plot twist.
Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Phase wrapped up that massive universe (for the moment). He’s one of the two or three white cis dudes writing sci-fi I’ll read. It’s mainly because his space opera is so fucking epic. This one has a heap of his delicious weirdness he let loose in the Revenger trilogy, and being Reynolds, of course any celebration is swept away by the whole galaxy getting shafted a few hundred years after the end of this story.
Zeyn Joukhadar. If I was in my old days where I’d write a post per book and spew out hundreds of words, Zeyn would get extra. The Thirty Days of Night and The Map of Salt and Stars are my favourites of the year — and would be Books of the Year if I still did that — for personal reasons as well as he simply writes beautiful stories. And he’s queer and trans and Muslim and Arab, so duh highly unlikely I wouldn’t rate him.
Sliding from fiction to non-fiction, Massoud Hayoun’s When We Were Arabs covers some of the same ground as Zeyn Joukhadar, and reminded me of my father’s family, as well as a couple of moments which caused me to look very side eye at them and what ‘Turkish’ really means. Which is another stitch in the long, slow unravelling of family from that single sentence uttered over a decade ago, “That’s why your grandmother couldn’t stay, because the kitchen was not halal.”
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done comes from near the land I was born on and is probably the single most important book I read last year or last several years. Unlike a lot of the heavy politics I read, in books, in articles, on social networks, Simpson also describes ways out of the shithole mess colonialism and white supremacy have caused. I raved to everyone (pandemic everyone, that’s about 5 people) about this book more than once. That kind of book.
Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus, slightly further east from the other Simpson, I’m still reading. It’s one that got — haw haw — interrupted by other books. It’s one that I need to have the right attention for. Reading this together with the other Simpson is good, strong words.
Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages is another I’ve raved to everyone about. And I was reading it in 2020, slow reader, me. I’m including it here again because … because it’s probably my non-fiction Book of the Year, over As We Have Always Done, which is a tough call. Settlers and Europeans need to know the history which led to colonialism, white supremacy, invasion, genocide, ongoing occupation of stolen land (as well as cisgender heteronormative supremacy as both a tool of those above systems and actions, and conversely a separate system and action which used those above as tools, a kind of reciprocal system of shit, but that’s not so much a topic for this book). They need to know the long, deep roots of these systems which go back most of the last two thousand years — not as ‘proto-racism’ or ‘not really racism, more like xenophobia’ or whatever, but as actual, recognisable, functioning racism. Racism at encompassing and conscious institutional, political, religious, community levels, and at individual levels. Knowing better how this emerged and evolved in the European Middle Ages makes it possible to understand more clearly Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial, and 20th / 21st century colonialism and racism. And that in turn makes it possible for non-Indigenous people to read Simpson and understand deeply what she’s saying and what’s required.
A bit of astronomy and space science now. And racism. Shit’s inescapable like that.
Ray and Cilla Norris’ Emu Dreaming: An Introduction to Australian Aboriginal Astronomy is really an intro, more of a pamphlet I was reading to educate myself on Indigenous astronomy which turns up a lot in my novels. And you’d be surprised at how much has been written on the subject. And by ‘surprised’ I mean not at all, and by ‘much’ I mean really fuck all, and the stuff that has is either paywalled academic papers or insanely expensive academic books.
Ronald Greeley’s Introduction to Planetary Geomorphology turned out also to be very Intro and missing all the fun of the 2015 New Horizons Pluto flyby. I love me all things space science though, so I keep buying these books.
Chanda Prescod Weinstein’s The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred, is the one speaking about racism. Growing up Black and Jewish in East LA, going to Harvard, being queer and agender, these oppressions and marginalisations are inextricable. In my early-teens, I wanted to be an astronomer. Being a young, queer multiethnic trans femme back then — and so many of those words, their meanings, and how they were lived were not available back then — meant I failed out and dropped out of school way before that desire had a chance to bloom. Still love the stars though; still sad fuckall has changed in all the decades since.
I’m grouping these together: Tiffany M. Florvil’s Mobilizing Black Germany, Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire, Johny Pitts’s Afropean, Asim Qureshi’s (ed.) I Refuse To Condemn. I haven’t finished any of these and at least one I’m unlikely to finish. They’re all important books. I really want to be enthusiastic about reading them. I’m just struggling with reading heavy shit (and there’s no way this stuff is not heavy) after two years of a fucking appallingly politicised and mismanaged pandemic response.
I’d almost put Adonia Lugo’s Bicycle / Race in with those. Maybe because I’ve been involved with racism and transphobia in professional / competitive cycling, as well a being very opinionated about bikes, walking, and public transport as the primary method of getting around in cities, and the need to massively reduce if not outright ban private cars and vehicles (yeah, I’m a devout hoon who loves the smell of hot engines and the sound of a redlining engine and I said that), I read this with hope and a bit of joy. I would absolutely do lazy laps of a city with Adonia.
And then there’s a few others I’m not going to mention, but the covers are below. All kinds of feelings and thoughts about all of them. This is already 2000 words and I needed to stop long before now.
Last Thursday on that proper hot 36° day, I was up north side of town getting my bike repaired. And had three hours to kill so wandered up to the Zeiss-Großplanetarium and plonked my arse outside. Excellent DDR architecture there.
Picking up shortly after Revenger finishes with one of the most delightfully gruesome reveals I’ve ever read, the middle child of the trilogy, Shadow Captain, swaps the narrative from Arafura to her sister Adrana. Remains just as bloody and unhinged. Every book I’ve read of Reynolds has managed a deeply unsettling darkness, like a faint light guttering in the void. Considering he largely keeps his stories bound to a single solar system, and any interstellar travel is slower than light, he creates a horrible sense of vast emptiness and abandoned hopelessness. Shadow Captain is no exception.
I was thinking about disappointing or failed trilogies and series while reading this, ones which start with such brilliance and possibility, and exhaust themselves in the first work. Often they follow a structure in which the shift from first to subsequent is one of qualitative to quantitative. The first is a shift in world view, scouring off normalcy and opening up a larger universe; The Matrix and Star Wars are two examples which have the the most overbearing cultural influence. The subsequent works largely only add to and expand this larger universe, and if there is another shift in perspective or revelations, it functions within this, rather than instigating a comparable usurping of the protagonist’s world to the initial one.
In The Matrix, this moment is Neo taking Morpheus’ red pill (let’s ignore fun speculation he took the blue pill and the remaining two and a half films are him ‘believing what he wants to believe’, but not ignore this is a movie made by two trans women, and there’s heaps more going on here than the first layer reading), and if we lived in the best of all possible worlds, Neo waking up would have been the end of the first movie. Everything that happens after serves to reify this newly established world. It’s a bit like a gigantic cum shot, one and done; there’s nothing left to do, which is the primary failure of the hero’s journey. If you’re invested in the story of a single, usually white, cishet man, then it’s all good, he still has 3/4 of the journey to go to catch up with the rest of us. But if it’s the profound workings of writing characters as real people and imagining worlds that reveal themselves through unfurling layers, it’s gonna be a bad lay. (I don’t know why I’m using this metaphor here.)
So I was reading Shadow Captain knowing on one hand a sequel that is a bare fucking banger as the original — which Revenger is — is setting way high expectations, and dialling it back 20%, pumping the brakes, gives the work a chance to be read for itself. On the other hand, I know Reynolds when he shredding hard.
Revenger’s cover is better. The title is None More Black fucking metal as you can go. I know he has a notebook of fully sick titles, Slow Bullets, for example, and the last of the trilogy is Bone Silence, but I can’t see a better title on my shelves, up there with Feersum Endjinn and Wonderful Blood. Incidentally, if Iain M. Banks wrote a sequel to Feersum Endjinn, it’d be like Reynolds writing a sequel to Revenger. And where the former gets to by the end reminds me quite a bit of where Shadow Captain is at and what it proposes for the final part of the trilogy.
Which is to say, I loved Shadow Captain, and I was judging fucking harshly. It doesn’t have that end reveal, and Reynolds, you are a dark motherfucker right there, but has more than one twist and shift that are dead majestic. Even without these, it’d be better than the majority of sci-fi / fantasy in any medium (and I hoover up this shit like no one’s business). With these, you wanna read a storyteller at the top of their game, and with the circumstances to permit this, Revenger and Shadow Captain are it.
I was thinking of an analogy here, ’cos I know my opinions are marginal (yes, Feersum Endjinn is the exemplary Iain ±M. Banks novel), and went down a bit of an ’80s SST Records trip last night. Hüsker Dü. No, they’re not fucking emo, fuck off. Land Speed Record, Metal Circus. The influence these had on artists and genres from the ’80s till now, rather than the success or fame of the band is what I’m getting at. Revenger and Shadow Captain are like these. Or if this is a crap analogy for you, like Kemistry & Storm’s DJ-Kicks. It’s shit you need to know, you uncultured gronk.
Oh, and I read sisters Arafura and Adrana (and the whole ship’s crew) as totally queer and increasingly trans and non-binary (while still rocking feminine), or whatever words propose an expansiveness of selfhood outside cishet-icity than these, and as I think about all the novels I’ve read from him, wondering how many characters veer towards asexual-ish and neurofuckery (I’m so tired of the word ‘diversity’ right now), and I reckon it’s heaps. Which is a common part of the characters in Banks’ novels I rate, like Whit, so me being so very slow, it’s dawning on me (hi, Elsa!) why I like, or more accurately identify with certain sci-fi and fantasy works.
Unmotivated to blog / write about what I’m reading, I didn’t even do an annual Books of The Year thing in October — and I’ve been doing that for ten years. “Life Project” and all (still quoting Emile on that), so … change and shit, I suppose. Still reading though, at a much diminished rate, partly because lack of time and energy and eyes needing a rest. Books have been read and are being read. No particular order.
Miri Song’s Multiracial Parents: Mixed Families, Generational Change, and the Future of Race, ’cos I’m trying to understand myself, my family’s history, and all. You’d think by the time you’re in your forties, you’d have this somewhat nailed, but nope, thanks to family secrets and family aspirations to whiteness, or some shite. Like my middle name never blew that fantasy up.
Charles Stross’ The Labyrinth Index, nth book in a series I’m long over. I keep reading like an old lover whose time has passed and, yeah, Lovecraft mythos is really creaking on its Zimmer frame these days.
JY Yang’s The Descent of Monsters. Very much a favourite author right now. South-East Asia is slaying it in the sci-fi / fantasy lately. I wish these were longer and JY Yang would write more. The so-far trilogy for some reason reminds me of The Water Margin (水滸傳, Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), which is, I dunno, about as high praise as you can get from me.
Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Joseph Norman’s The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks. Only two references to Feersum Endjinn. I was broadly disappointed. More so because trying to divide Banks’ work up into skffy / non-skiffy, or sci-fi / non-sci-fi, is never going to work (and I’m not even going to start on the glaring errors referring to The Hydrogen Sonata). Ken McLeod’s essay was beautiful.
Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping: The Seventh Rivers of London novel. Still holding fast to ‘Harry Potter, a black cop from London estate’. Glad he finally dealt to the Faceless Man, and hope he moves on a bit from this narrative arc (apparently, yes, he is planning to). I’m likely to re-binge this series rather soon, while listing to proper LDN Grime.
Ruth Pearce’s Understanding Trans Health: Discourse, Power and Possibility. Not fun reading. Considering lending to my endocrinologist because he gives a shit but I swear it’s like the last 30 years of ‘progress’ hasn’t happened in Germany. Primarily focussing on the UK and NHS, but I’ve dealt with health systems in several countries around the world (either Euro, or influenced by / aligned with Anglo models), and “Tru dat” was said a lot. Also “Fuck cis people”.
Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few: Wayfarers 3. Reading a lot of series, me. This is the series where nothing much happens, in a rather large universe (of the world-building type, I mean; mostly takes up a small bit of a small bit of a galaxy). I’ll keep reading because for some reason I like the story.
Kevin Martens Wong’s Altered Straits. Currently reading, and had been waiting for this for an age. Trans-dimensional, time-travelling corporeal horror. Once again, South-East Asia, and Singapore bringing it in the sci-fi / fantasy.
Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. I’ve been reading her blog for years. I kind of talked back to her a lot while reading, particularly of the, “Well, if you’d read history, and get outside a euro-centric model of science and philosophy, maybe some of these ‘intractable’ problems wouldn’t be there in the first place?” A frustrating like.
Tiffany Trent and Stephanie Burgis’s The Underwater Ballroom Society. Plus for the cover, plus also for Ysabeau S. Wilce, a stack of really good stories, probably going to have to read some of these authors.
Victor Mair’s translation of Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. He of the blog Language Log. Also been reading that for years. And I knew he was all about this stuff, but somehow blind spot assisted me in missing this. I like Zhuangzi heaps, my 404 is not complete without.
I also re-read a bunch of other novels, some Iain Banks, and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy for the second time, even better than the first.
This is me returning to some hard space opera sci-fi, ’cos I’ve read almost all of Iain M. Banks again and I’m not sated. Alastair Reynolds. I first read him before I even blogged about reading, giving Pushing Ice a go. All his novels I’ve read have this grim, lightless hopelessness, like tiny insects flitting around a single, weak light source in the unbroken countryside darkness. You’re glad the light is there, and huddle to it, find it comforting even, but it is powerless against the inexorable blackness pushing in. I went, “yeah, nah,” about Pushing Ice. I like at least a little hope or levity in my universe.
Much later, I gave the novella Slow Bullets a go. Farking brilliant. That gave me the shove to tangle with the Revelation Space trilogy. Moments of utter insanity there. Things that bothered me too, that I remembered from Pushing Ice. Then came Revenger. Really one of the best novels I’ve ever read, so starkly, unexpectedly violent and cruel, winding itself tighter to a savage, sadistic ending. A book for teenage girls with aspirations. Probably going to be my book of the year, and have a re-reading before October.
So I wanted more. And there’s not much sci-fi at the moment reeling me in (waiting for Ann Leckie’s new one), so I decided on The Prefect, set in the same universe and timeframe as Revelation Space, on the habitats of the Glitter Band around Yellowstone, an outer-system planet orbiting another sun, Epsilon Eridani, ten light years distant.
It’s like reading a novel of the TV series, The Expanse, which itself is an adaption of a series that seems to me to owe plenty to Reynolds. Like first season of The Expanse there’s a disappointment for me in the narrative being driven by a sad hetero man chasing and pining for a vanished woman. In The Prefect, this trope tied up with the main character’s wife and his actions eleven years prior. I gotta say I don’t care for this thread in the story, either in engendering empathy with him, or as a needed plot element. Nor do I care for the treatment of his junior partner, a young woman trying to prove herself in what seems to be a still misogynistic heteronormative culture a few hundred years in our future. There’s this one old codger on the habitat she’s marooned on who pompously calls her girl over and over. I do, I do, I do want to punch him in his nuts. She primarily exists to set in motion a specific plot element and flops around on the periphery for the entirety, adding not very much at all.
On the positive side, Reynolds has really nailed writing and understanding women as central characters in Slow Bullets and Revenger, so here’s to growth.
And, the same day I decided to order The Prefect, Reynolds announced a sequel, Elysium Fire. Which I have to wait until next year for. Reckon Chasm City is next, then.
If I was to say, “Read The Prefect — I mean, Aurora Rising, ’cos he renamed it,” it’d be with these caveats: Read Revenger and Slow Bullets first. These are fucking superb stories. Then, if you want to continue, reading The Prefect prior to Revelation Space would put it in the right chronological order, but might not be a compelling enough work on its own to draw you into that trilogy. So, get into Revelation Space and commit to the trilogy and bounce between all the novels in this universe in any order you like: somehow I think breaking that temporal flow suits his stories.
… there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.
Probably going to be my Book of the Year. There’d have to be something fucking exceptional to eclipse this monster of a story.
I first read Reynolds in Australia, when I was trying for an Iain M. Banks substitute while waiting for his next skiffy piece. Reynolds does hard sci-fi / space opera up there with the best of the current generation, but there’s something dark and frankly despairing in his work. I wasn’t being glib when I said it’s like the heat death of the universe. Humanity or who- or whatever passes for humanity in the near or distant future of his novels is like a lost child in a vast, abandoned factory at night, with the dimmest of torches on a dying battery for light. There are monsters in the blackness, and the blackness is all there is. It’s existential terror upon which his novels are written. And it’s the cheerless antipode of Banks’ Culture utopia. You don’t come out the other side going, “Woo! That was fun!”
I took a long break after Pushing Ice before giving him another whirl with Slow Bullets. Still grim as teeth being pulled but bloody masterful. Which convinced me to read his Revelation Space trilogy (now a quintet), Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap. Go read what I wrote about all those because I’m not going to summarise here. And as uneven as those were — brilliant and uneven — I’ve nonetheless let Reynolds into my exclusive world of Authors I Will Always Read. Magnanimous I am, for sure.
Which brings me to Revenger. Still the best title. He fucking murders titles. He’s probably got a list of them and periodically pulls it out and reads them, and is all, “Yes, I am God.” He could do an exhibition of just paintings of titles and people would bleed out under their awesome majesty.
The weird thing is this is marketed in that well dodgy category of Young Adult. You know, the one filled with dystopian futures for the last decade. I’m not sure whose idea that was, because Revenger is a slaughterhouse. Here’s a crew we’ve come to enjoy the company of on a small interplanetary pirate-y type ship. Here’s them getting massacred. Here’s a story of two girls who run away from their Little Prince-sized planet with a black hole at the core to have adventures and save the family from ruin. Here’s the younger cutting off her own hand and replacing it with an ancient and cryptic metal one. And I know I’m slow on the uptake, but when Reynolds revealed what she was writing her story on and with: it’s called Revenger for a reason.
Though it is neither the ironic violence of the Starship Troopers kind, nor the morally vacuous Marvel/DC superhero movie kind. As much as I love a tasty morsel of well-written violence, it needs purpose and justification. This is one of the two things I can rely on Reynolds for: he’s serious in the morality of use of force. His characters are changed by using it, often cut off on some existential level from the rest of humanity. He seldom reaches for it, so when he does it carries a far weightier brutality than if it were merely the full stop on every sentence.
The other is his commitment to a universe bound by the laws of physics as we know them. No faster than light travel (except for Slow Bullets), even if other technology is as incomprehensible as tools of the gods. There’s a whole battered solar system of that here, spanning successive waves of technological progress and decline. He builds a formidable world up in it, and could easily write a series of the scope of Revelation Space here. I’d read the shit out of it.
Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).
I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.
So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.
I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.
For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.
Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.
It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.
But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.
Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.
Lucky last of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, the first getting me hooked enough to plough through the not-so-astounding second, but good enough to push on into the rather bloody good third, Absolution Gap. All because Ann Leckie has nothing new coming out, Iain Banks is dead (with or without an M.), China Miéville has nothing out either (though is alive), not Charles Stross (also alive), and because Reynolds’ novella, Slow Bullets was one of my favourites from last year.
Sci-fi. Skiffy. Apocalyptic Hard Space Opera. He does this stuff well. Almost as good as Banks. Almost. It’s not for lack of quantity of imagination, which Absolution Gap runs wild with – there’s plenty of similarities as well between the two writers. Maybe it’s just Banks affects me in a way no other writer does, as well as being pretty much the first writer I read when I returned to sci-fi, and so had my brain comprehensively transformed by his consummate virtuosity. I also know it’s not fair of me to compare every writer to Banks, and I’m reading this one at the expense of doing things like going to ballet (I know! I bunked off training to read a fucking book!).
Some of the things which bothered my in the Revelation Space remain here. It’s difficult for me to pin down exactly, to point at something concrete and go, “That, right there, is what I mean,” but it’s to do what I scare/air-quote as ‘diversity’. He gets it right with plenty of central roles for women (human baseline or otherwise) yet somehow they remain less imperative (in both senses: important and peremptory), that it’s the men who are driving the action – whether by weight of numbers in central roles, or by a subjective quality that first-person narrative induces. It may simply be in how Reynolds thinks about these characters as he writes them causes this inflection. A game to play then is changing one of the characters, let’s say Scorpio (a Pig, but I’m choosing him for his violent hypermasculinity rather than because he’s not human, and because he’s a main character in two of the three books), to female and seeing how that reads. Which I shall do for the remaining tenth of this book.
I’m pretty sure I’ll read at least one of the remaining works in the Revelation Space universe (but not part of this trilogy), and probably give at least the first of his recent Poseidon’s Children series a go, though for me Reynolds veers between a writer I want to read more of, and one whose stories simply don’t work for me. There’s something of a pervasive existential pessimism in his works that occasionally is too grim for even me (especially at several hundred pages a go); I’m nonetheless enjoying this one and him enough lately to keep throwing euros his way.