Monday, December 28, 2009

Charles Stross - Saturn's Children

Sometimes I need to listen to people around me before reading books. I've liked much of Charles Stross' earlier work, as it pushes new boundaries in Science Fiction, deals with different concepts and updates some of the science behind the fiction. It is also often funny and entertaining, even if it doesn't have the most in depth characters and plots.

Saturn's Children is a break from this. It would be wrong to describe this as awful. It's far far worse than that. Take a look at the cover description;

"Freya Nakamachi-47 has some major existential issues. She's the perfect concubine, designed to please her human masters - hardwired to become aroused at the mere sight of a human male".

A friend pointed out to me that this was merely some sort of adolescent masturbation fantasy. "Oh no", I said, "Stross is far better than that. He likes to set up plot lines like this and play with the ideas and stereotypes".

The one original idea at the heart of this novel - that our "perfect concubine" is living in a universe were every human being has died out - is a good one. How would an automated society function with out humans in it? Sadly however it isn't an exciting enough idea to support the deep and meaningful questions that Stross would like. "What does it mean to be free?" is a meaningless question when the reader just doesn't care for the characters and is drowned in a seemingly endless series of inter-planetary trips that seem to simply to show that Stross understands the distances between planets.

Here in lies the real problem. The best ideas in the world are meaningless if the reader struggles to remember who is who amongst all the characters. The fact that they are all robots and most of them are identical models of other robots makes it even harder to follow.

The sad thing to note is, that Robert Heinlein did it all before. Apparently this novel is a "homage" to Heinlein, but where does homage end and pale imitation begin? Heinlein's novel Friday is about a robot super courier who can carry important items in a cavity within her abdomen. Unusually for Heinlein he didn't try and turn that novel into an adolescent masturbation fantasy. Sadly for Stross that's about all Saturn's Children has going for it.

Related Reviews

Stross - The Atrocity Archives
Stross - Iron Sunrise
Stross - Singularity Sky

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Deborah Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

At the start of the 19th century, the world was a very young place. God had created the planet a few thousand years previously and placed, according to the book of Genesis, everything on it in a few days. Less than a hundred years later, the natural world and its history had been expanded to include tens of thousands of creatures not mentioned in the Bible, a history spanning at hundreds of thousands of years and the very basis of much that was held as true had been turned upsidedown. It was, in every sense a ideological revolution.

Deborah Cadbury takes us through the amazing individuals that broke down the barriers of a rigid religious based society and strove for a new way of looking at the world. It shouldn't be underestimated what a suffocating atmosphere Victorian atmosphere must have had on this process. At one point in her tale, Cadbury describes a chance meeting between William Buckland, one of the countries greatest scientists with a women in a carriage. Both of them happen to be reading a new book by the French scientist Georges Cuvier, one of the world's most eminent scholars of fossils and geology. There is no one to introduce the two and Buckland has to overcome the social stigma of talking to a female stranger, despite their obvious mutual interests.

The characters at the centre of this fascinating tale of how the past gradually became unravelled make for great reading. But what is really interesting is the way many of them break with their past. Gideon Mantell for instance, the son of a lowly shoemaker, who never went to university, fights to break free of his social position to establish himself as one of the greatest scientists of his time. Despite opposition from his "betters" he is eventually recognised, though much of his hopes are dashed along the way.

We also read of the way that stereotypes are being broken. The stuffy, aristocratic atmosphere of the Royal Society being challenged merely by the existence of women like Mary Anning, fossil collector extraoridinare who despite not coming from the "easier classes", "contributed by her talents and her untiring researches... to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians and other forms of gigantic life."

Scientific was no longer the realm of the rich man who could pursue his researches as part of his life of leisure. It was time for the professional, dedicated scientist who could devote his or her life to the study of the world around them.

The discovery of the great fossils, their identification as extinct animals and the growing understanding of the scale and age of their remains is a story too long for this review. But it is one worth studying as it illuminates just how with the expansion of commerce and industry at the beginning of the 19th century, a new way of viewing the world was needed.

The individuals who fought and argued just how this vision was laid out were not necessarily motivated by trying to expand that viewpoint. Often they were trying to defend the old order. But ultimately they all contributed in part to breaking down the barriers. The rest, as they say is history.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tony Cliff - Revolution Besieged

Recent reading has made me think about how it was that the hopes of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 became the distorted caricature of socialism that was Stalinist Russia. Revolution Besieged is actually the third and fourth volumes of Tony Cliff's political biography of Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks and hence the effective leader of the Russian Revolution.

This part of the biography is perhaps the most important. Many activists in the International Socialist Tradition will have read part one of the trilogy, Building the Party. That book deals with the importance and necessity of building a revolutionary socialist organisation, viewed through the lens of Lenin's early life and his single-mindedness about turning the Bolshevik party into a mass organisation of the working class.

But this volume is perhaps neglected slightly. It's importance is two-fold. Firstly it examines in great detail the problems inherited by Lenin and the Bolsheviks once they had taken power. Russia with its backward economy and its domination by the peasantry was hardly the ideal place to build socialism in the midst of its powerful capitalist competitors. Cliff then examines what the revolutionaries attempted to do to strengthen their economy and entrench working class power. But it also shows how they tried to spread revolution, supporting revolutionaries elsewhere and trying to help others learn the lessons of the Russian experience. This is the second important strand of the book, because Cliff doesn't avoid criticism of the mistakes made in this period.

In particular, he tries to demonstrate that because the Russian revolutionaries had such a huge amount of respect for having taken power, often their advice was accepted without criticism by local socialist organisations. This led to a number of mistakes, most importantly perhaps, the German Revolution of 1923 was undermined by an over-reliance of the German Communist Party on the advice of the Russians.

Cliff though understands that this isn't necessarily the fault of the Bolsheviks. Lenin had created a revolutionary organisation that had, over a period of decades put itself at the heart of working class struggles. It had made mistakes, but had learnt from them. Bolshevik activists were respected by other workers. Revolutionaries across Europe couldn't simply create such experience out of thin air.

While this isn't a difficult work to follow, it is dense. There is a huge amount of history and politics to cover here. Some important aspects of post-revolutionary Russia are dealt with in short chapters that urge further reading. The debate over the New Economic Policy, the temporary re-introduction of capitalist processes to try and stimulate the economy following the increased isolation of the revolution is clear, but I was left feeling I needed to know more. Cliff isn't hiding anything here, but using a broad brush to paint a picture.

At one point the author asks rhetorically (about a particular point of the German Revolution) what place it has in a biography of Lenin, given that Lenin had no input on the debates. The answer he himself gives is that the "catastrophe in Germany in 1923 was the most important item on the balance sheet of Lenin's Comintern". The Comintern was the international body created following the Russian revolution to spread revolution internationally and cannot be separated from Lenin's life work - the commitment to international socialism.

There are many tragedies in this biography. The greatest are outlined in the final chapters as Lenin lies dying and Stalin manoeuvres to take personal power. One interesting aspect that Cliff highlights is the growing awareness of Lenin of this process, though it must be emphasised that Lenin is by this stage increasingly unable to intervene. However Cliff also highlights the seeds of some of the worst aspects of Stalin's distortion of socialism. We see the leaders of the Comintern labelling the Social Democrats in Germany as fascists and an increasing desire to downplay international revolutionary activity in place of the interests of Russia. Again, this shouldn't be over-emphasised, but Cliff clearly shows that by the time of Lenin's death the stage was set for a greater tragedy.

But Cliff also shows that there were many other seeds in the Russian Revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks fought with everything they had to create international socialism. The mistakes they made, as well as their successes provide many lessons for revolutionaries today. Tony Cliff's masterful writing has made these accessible to socialists today, and for that reason alone, though there are many more, this book is worth reading.

Monday, December 07, 2009

David Watkin - The Roman Forum

I started this volume of the excellent Wonders of the World series prepared to dislike it. Perhaps I shouldn't read press releases, but when I read that David Watkin's book "celebrates the Forum as it should be seen - etched in the haunting engravings of Piranesi", my heart sank.

The Roman Forum is, for most people, the heart of Rome. It is the place you can go and feel like you're wandering down the Roman streets like the ancients did. This isn't new of course, Watkins shows us how countless tourists have done just that for centuries.

So I was skeptical about a book that seems to imply that the Forum as it is today was somehow wrong and should be appreciated through a return to romantic etchings from centuries ago. Indeed I thought, how can you discuss objectively such a historical setting, if your starting point is that only a particular artist can portray it correctly.

I have to admit that I was wrong. At least partly. What Watkin has done is very clever. He's exposed the myth that is the Forum and laid the basis for a different way of looking at the remains. Firstly he makes the point that little of what we see is real. Much of the most famous monuments, such as the famous Temple of the Vestal Virgins (pictured) are modern reconstructions, using only small amounts of the original materials. In the case of the Arch of Titus, little remains of the original (with the exception of the famous panels) and it is, according to Watkins "largely a nineteenth-century monument". Piranesi's etchings are important, because they are one of the best visualations of what these ruins looked like before various figures through history destroyed, damaged and rebuilt the area in an attempt to recreate it.

Secondly he shows how even quite recent archaeological practice has destroyed many buildings and remains of great importance in the rush to show the real Forum. This is an interesting and important debate. When you take a historical area like the Roman Forum, at what point should it be preserved? Do we want to see the Roman Forum of 2000 years ago? Or the Forum 500 years ago? The Forum has been lived in for thousands of years. The more modern buildings built in the 13th or 14th Centuries are as much a part of its history as those of Julius Caesar.

This is what the visitor won't see. I think the point that Watkin is making is that visitors are sold an illusion. The idea that the Forum has been frozen in time and they can see it as it was at the height of the Roman Empire. Of course, the Forum changed constantly, particularly in Roman times. Buildings were added, extended and destroyed and Watkin takes us through this history to try and illuminate what we see when we stand there.

So I admit that my first impressions of this book were incorrect. But there are problems with it. Firstly, this is not a history book. It is a book of architectural history that leaves the social and human history of the place out. This is a shame, because the Forum is, above all, a social place. But it can be frustrating for the lay reader. If you don't have a background in architecture and just want to understand more of what you are seeing, what is the non-specialist to make of sentences like this one, describing the Basilica of Maxentius;

"the whole of the north aisle with its central apse and its three arched exedrae with giant coffered barrel vaults which served to buttress the central groin-vaulted nave".

Rare is it that I have to resort quite so often to the dictionary to make it through whole paragraphs. This is a shame, because the rest of the Wonders of the World series that I've read have been tremendously accessible and open to the ordinary reader and this one feels just a little too pompous in places.

What this book does well is make the reader think about the history of places like the Forum differently. How we excavate and display history is important. How we preserve it and interpret it is subject to ongoing debate. So it's an interesting book to take with you to Rome, if only to feel sad has been lost.

Oh, and if you really want to walk down Roman streets visit Ostia Antica. It's a short train journey from Rome. Absolutely deserted and has a fantastic little restaurant in the middle.

Related Reviews in the Wonders of the World series

Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Tillotson – Taj Mahal
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum