Wednesday 25 February 2015

Backroom Boys: the secret return of the British Boffin by Francis Spufford

So I had a minor hissy fit of nerd-rage last week just after starting to read Backroom Boys. I may or may not have been every so slightly over-the-top in my reaction to one particular sentence, but I unabashedly stand by my point that the sentence that offended my inner nerd should not have been in the book.

Once I got past that sentence (and the frequently poor punctuation of the Kindle edition), Backroom Boys is actually a cheerful read. Looking at British engineering through a series of case studies makes for a surprisingly entertaining journey. The book achieves this by leaving out the vast majority of the science and focusing on the anecdotes and tall tales of each project. It turns scientists and engineers into characters. Not just any kind of character - all the Brits are quirky eccentric underdogs.

Underdogs need to be pitched against something, of course. The Boffins tend to struggle with short-sighted politicians who chronically underfund them, and in one episode, with an American cut-throat competitor whose plans would slow progress by decades if he were allowed to succeed.

The book illuminates one of the fatal flaws of British policy makers: in the post-war period, they have been crippled by indecision. Unwilling to commit fully to any particular direction, they have spread their energies thin - and this thin spread has kept entire technological sectors on timid life support, but without the ability to succeed or flourish. Then, under Thatcher, the leftover survivors were largely culled.

(The one shining success - Vodafone - turns out to come from Thatcher's policies, but a keen-eyed reader might spot that it's a corrupt and toxic victory: when the government decided to set up two competing mobile phone networks, one was predestined to be cellnet / BT, and the other was given to a small company from the military sector. That company would not even have bid for the contract if Thatcher's government hadn't nudged the owner and tipped him off that his outfit would get the contract if they put in a bid. So, helped by a dollop of nepotism and plenty of wink-wink, nudge-nudge, a military radio maker got a shot at becoming a global mobile network giant and launched Vodafone...)

This book won't teach you anything about science, and it won't change your view of the world or teach you something useful you didn't already know. But if you like a few anecdotes and tales about underdog engineers struggling to shine despite the adversity of the powers that be, then Backroom Boys is the cheerful romp you should read.

Rating: 4/5

Monday 16 February 2015

Backroom Boys - a pre-review of RAGE, a handful of pages into the book

Today, my beloved Kindle found itself dangerously close to being hurled at a wall in anger. I guess this is one of the few things where having a paper book is superior to e-readers...

The cause for said near-miss was a minor burst of rage, and that rage, in turn, was triggered by the book Backroom Boys - one of the books I bought because Jo Walton recommended it in "What Makes This Book So Great". I fear on this occasion she may have led me (and other readers) up the garden path...

I'd only just started reading Backroom Boys. It seemed cheerful enough, although the significant number of missing apostrophes was already grating my patience into thin slivers. I figured this was probably an issue caused by the transfer to Kindle (when publishers use OCR to generate manuscripts for Kindle, things don't always work very well). But then came this whopper:
You have to pause for a moment there, as the rocket's vertical movement paused, with the forces of lift and gravity briefly equalised, and contemplate the strangeness of the place it was in, (...)
Oh wow. That fizzing and bubbling you hear? It's the sound of my blood boiling. This is the sort of throwaway remark that might be only mildly annoying in a second-rate scifi novel. It would be quite annoying in a good science fiction novel. But this is a supposed work of non-fiction, dedicated to celebrating engineers and ingenuity! How dare they!!!

Now, I hope it is very obvious to everyone what is wrong with that sentence, but just in case it's not, let's list all the problems:

1) Gravity is not a force. Gravity is a force field - the force it induces in a body, depending on its mass, is weight.

2) The author does not understand what lift is. Lift tends to be defined as the aerodynamic force perpendicular to the air flow that a body generates. (Sometimes, it can be defined as total upwards force, but that is a bit rarer). On rockets, the things that generate lift are the little steering fins (or any wings that may be attached to the rocket). The main force that pushes rockets upwards is thrust.

3) Let's for the moment assume the author defines "lift" as the total upward force and "gravity" (oh, how I cringe) as the total downward force. Then, guess what: in the moment when the rocket's vertical movement is paused, the two forces are not equal(ised)! In fact, at that precise moment, there is no "lift" at all (regardless of which definition you use: at that point, the rocket is outside the atmosphere / in space, so there is no aerodynamic lift, no thrust, no upward force). There is only the rocket's weight. The only force working on it is the downward force. The reason the vertical movement pauses (for an infinitesemal moment) is that its upward movement is being continually counteracted by the downward force (the weight) - force is mass times acceleration, and the rocket has been accelerating downwards ever since its "lift" (i.e. upward force / combination of thrust and aerodynamic lift) has stopped. If the two forces were equal, then the rocket would fly in a straight line (that's how planes work): it would not fly a parabolic arc.

So, about 1% into the book, the author gets the most fundamental Newtonian physics and the most fundamental language of engineering fatally, embarrassingly, shockingly wrong. I would expect anyone who finished secondary education to know these things, so of course it is disappointing in any book written by an adult. But this isn't just any book - it's a book meant to celebrate engineers and ingenuity. How can it celebrate them if it does not respect their work enough to get even the most basic fundamentals right?

And, more importantly, how am I supposed to trust later chapters, which presumably touch on sciences I know much less about, if I can see that the author didn't have the slightest clue about the topics that I do understand?

I may continue reading, but for now, I seethe...

UPDATE: I have finished reading the book. It was better than that sentence. Click for the review.

Saturday 14 February 2015

A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic is a book that knows what it wants to achieve: swashbuckling adventure, likably spunky but tough heroes, plenty of energy and fun. With magic. It doesn't do too badly.

There are four parallel Earths in this book, each just a quick dimension apart. Each has a city called London in the same place on the Thames, but they have different languages, different countries, different histories. The biggest difference, however, is the level and role of magic in each city.

  • Grey London has almost no magic - and matches our London under Mad King George.
  • Red London is rich in magic, and people live in harmony with the magic.
  • White London is poor in magic, and people strive to steal, control, and dominate the magic as much as they can.
  • Black London is dead: here, people had let themselves be controlled by their magic, and the world had experienced a mysterious apocalypse as a result.

There are only two magicians left who can travel between worlds: Kell, from Red London, and Holland, from White London. They act as messengers between the royal families of the three Londons that are still accessible. Black London has been sealed off to prevent its apocalypse from spreading into the other dimensions.

Kell is our hero, and the story really kicks off when he smuggles an artefact (which is treason) that turns out to be a relic from Black London (which makes it powerful and dangerous). Suddenly, all kinds of nefarious characters and thugs are after Kell. To make things worse, he gets entangled with Lila, a tough teenaged orphan girl from Grey London who wants nothing more than to be a pirate captain and see the world...

A Darker Shade of Magic has all the right ingredients: a good pace, repartee between the good guys, sinister and creepy baddies, adventure and magic... it's great fun to read.

It's not flawless: there are some holes in the plot, and while it is nominally set in (four) London(s), Grey London doesn't quite feel like UK London to me. In terms of plotholes, it's never quite clear what the royal families in the different Londons have to say to each other / why any connection continues to exist, and what magic can and can't do is quite nebulous. It feels a little as if the author hasn't quite worked out the workings of magic in her worlds. Still, these are flaws only some (overly pernickety) readers will mind: I think most readers who like to read the occasional fantasy novel will thoroughly enjoy A Darker Shade of Magic. I certainly did.

Rating: 4/5

Friday 13 February 2015

The Bear by Claire Cameron

I got about 19% through before giving up.

The Bear is told through the narrative voice of a five-year-old girl. It's a very stream-of-consciousness, go-off-on-a-tangent sort of voice, which may or may not be a convincing literary device in a novel told through the eyes of a child. However, this is a novel told through the eyes of a child whose parents are being attacked and eaten by a bear. (And later, presumably, a child fleeing through the woods with her toddler brother: by the time I gave up, one parent had been partially eaten and dismembered; the other was merely paralysed through a broken neck and gravely injured / not quite eaten yet). In that context, the writing voice simply does not fit, or convince.

At one point, the children are inside an empty cooler box, which is semi-locked (a rock features in some way to keep the door slightly ajar, while it is locked enough to prevent access). The bear gets interested. It tries to open the door with its teeth, with its nose and teeth protruding inside. Scared of the "big dog" and its long, long teeth, the girl nevertheless compares the shine of the black nose to the leather on her grandpa's sofa. If it was a throwaway remark / description, that might still just about work, but then we get a page-long memory of her grandfather and his TV/sofa habits, WHILE A HUNGRY BEAR WITH BLOODY SNOUT IS GNAWING AT THE DOOR to the cooler she is in. Even the most scatterbrained, short-attention-spanned child would not, in my opinion, get distracted from a hungry mouth full of scary teeth trying to get at her. 

As far as I read, the book relies heavily on the sheer drawn out horror of events - and the fact that the children are unaware of what is really going on, but have a sense that something is very wrong. The horror is visceral, complete with extensive feeding noises, dismemberment, screams, etc. - imagining a toddler and a five-year-old in that context is brutal. However, the narrative voice ruins it by being ridiculous and unconvincing. Not that it would be a joyful reading experience if it were more authentic: some horrors are too gruesome to make enjoyable entertainment, especially as the foreword points out that the details of the bear attack are an account of a real incident. Basically, much of this book is not just torture-porn, but snuff literature. It's hard to see it as being anything but a badly written book, in very poor taste. 

Really not recommended at all.

Thursday 12 February 2015

Cardiff Speculative Fiction Book Club: First Meeting Time & Place

It's time to fix the first meeting of the fledgling Cardiff Speculative Fiction Book Club, based on the results of the form.

  • The most popular meeting time is Tuesday 3rd March, 6pm.
  • The book for the first discussion will be Lock In by John Scalzi.

The easiest place to meet is probably the first floor of Wetherspoons Central Bar (the one sort of behind the KFC in Queen Street). It tends to be reasonably quiet there. After chatting about the book, we can then figure out where to meet for the second meeting (and what to read!)

I've created an event on Facebook: 

If you use FB, please do pop by, ask any questions, start conversations... or if you use Twitter, use a hashtag #cardiffsff to converse & make posts easy to find. Or use the comments on this blog.

Theoretically, there should be seven of us turning up on Tuesday 3rd March - that's a nice number if everyone turns up! (If you have filled in the web form and indicated that you can make it that day, please do get in touch if your plans have changed: it would be a bit awkward if there were 4 or 5 no-shows!!!)

Monday 9 February 2015

The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

The Galaxy Game is the sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds. I suppose it could be read on its own, but many characters from the previous novel make appearances, and the book is so full of characters that already knowing some of them is a hugely useful crutch against the onslaught of names...

The novel has a prologue and epilogue set some years in the future (enough for our hero to be an elder, wiser man), while the bulk of the plot takes place when he's a teenager.

Rafi Delarua starts the novel in a school for gifted youngsters... no, not the X-Academy, sadly. He is suspected of having telepathic powers as his father has committed serious crimes using such powers. So the government has put him in a school that serves effectively as a quarantine institution. The school is there to find out what powers the kids have, and exploit / enhance / sequester them according to powers and character inclinations.

Rafi has been keeping himself in check: that is enough to make the school suspicious, and they decide to "cap" him - apply a hat which effectively reads his emotional state and broadcasts it to someone monitoring him, to see if he's really a psycho in disguise.

At the school, he has two friends: Serendipity and Ntenman. Serendipity is in love with Rafi. Ntenman is in love with her.

And from such a fairly simple start, things get side tracked, and side tracked, and side tracked again. This is not a story of youngsters in a school: quite soon, Rafi and Ntenman escape, visiting first Rafi's family and then escaping to a different planet. Serendipity is more or less forgotten about for about 3/4 of the book, only to have a bit-part when events return to the planet the story started out on.

The "capping" and the school are pretty much irrelevant by the time Rafi arrives on the new planet. There, two systems of credit operate simultaneously: "essential credit" (comparable to money) and "social credit" (like whuffie, but more complicated: it's not just social standing and influence, but also takes into account which people one is networked with). For a while, the novel mulls this different system and its effects, before moving on yet again to focus more on politics.

The titular Galaxy Game is ambiguous. Perhaps it is the Wallrunning Game that so much of the book touches upon - some sport involving a vertical wall which has several different sections with different gravity properties. While Rafi gets to practice and train a little, the book never actually includes a game / contest of this sport. Perhaps it is the political game being played between different factions in the aftermath of the collapse of the Sadiri culture (the end of their planet was one of the main plot points of the previous novel). Strangely, the two games are connected - it's as if Quidditch turned out to hold the secret to fight Voldemort... except, of course, there is no real villain / antagonist in the book.

The problem with The Galaxy Game is that it is scattered all over the place. The Best of All Possible Worlds was an episodic novel - each chapter was almost like an episode from Star Trek. (Meet culture. Observe culture. Have adventure. Move on.). It was also a much simpler story: following a genocide, a culture that values logic above all else is looking for a future. The Galaxy Game, on the other hand, is closer to being a novel about different factions vying for control of interplanetary travel when a monopoly collapses, (The Sadiri culture runs the mindships that make faster than light travel possible in this world), while teenagers grow up, and encounter a strange sport and different society on the way. As you can sense from that summary, it is a novel full of ideas which are not particularly interrelated.

The Galaxy Game does not have much structure. At one point, Rafi comments about this and points out that he has not been planning his life properly, that he has basically fallen into a place, made friends, followed friends to go into a different place, made new friends, followed the new friends (leaving behind old ones) to go somewhere else - he's stumbling from event to event without having a clear direction. Similarly, the events stumble from one into another without feeling like they are particularly connected. They are all tied together in the end, but not very convincingly so. Arguably, that's authentic: real lives do not always have a simple plot / arc, and real events are often random and unstructured. But it does not make for a very engrossing read.

Much of the book plays with its fictional science about interstellar travel (it's inherently psi-powers based / telepathic). While that might be a pretty concept, it's a bit like reading a novel about different schools of magical theory, treated quite seriously. As someone who likes his SF more sciency, it felt a little frustrating to me.

I'll still be reading every future book Karen Lord writes - the other novels of hers have won me over completely - but I must sadly admit that The Galaxy Game left me quite cold.

Rating: 2.5/5

Sunday 1 February 2015

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Through the Woods is a collection of five graphic short tales. By graphic, I use the term like in 'graphic novel' - i.e. the tales are illustrated. I would not call these 'comics' - there is a slow and deliberate artistry in the illustrations and text here, and it is, after all, a hard-back book.

These are beautifully sinister and creepy fairy tales. I do not mean they are tales for children: I would be very cautious before giving this book to a child. They are tales of horror. When I call them fairy tales, I mean that they draw very archetypal characters, and they draw on very archetypal fears and story structures. That makes them all the more powerful: there is something universal about the terrors in these stories, and they resonate with all the things that probably scared you when you were little. (Except spiders: there is no appearance of spiders at all in this book)

Some of the stories leave the horror just off-page, so your imagination fills in the blank with bone-chilling effect. Others put the horror very much on the page, so you shudder at the creepy illustrations of creepy ideas.

The illustrations use black, white, and red persistently - all other colours are slightly faded, slightly subtle. And one archetypal, universal theme of horror in this book is teeth: whenever we get a close up of teeth, devouring, smiling, fletching, tearing... there are terrible teeth in this book.

Oh, these stories are wonderfully, deliciously dark, beautifully written and beautifully illustrated. Five tales, each one a gem, and the book about as perfect as it could be.

Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

PS: If you'd like a preview, you can read one of the tales on Emily Carroll's website: His Face All Red

Cardiff Book Club: book choice and meeting locations

I just sent out a quick book club update by email.
  • So far, 11 people (including myself) are interested. 
  • Three people can’t make either of the suggested dates  
  • Seven people can make it on the suggested Tuesday
  • Five can make it on the suggested Sunday
  • People have suggested venues in Roath, central Cardiff and Chapter. (I’m afraid I’m claiming organiser’s privilege and not going to include Canton / Chapter in the short list, as that’s awkward for me to get to)
  •  “Lock In” is now well in the lead (7 to 4). It’s the more popular option for those who can make Sundays and also for those who can make Tuesdays. To give people time to read it, let’s firm up the choice now: Lock In by John Scalzi is our first book!

I figure the sooner we fix a date, the better. So…

  • I’d like to check if more people can make the first meeting if it’s on a later Tuesday or Sunday. Could you let me know? Please use the form:
  • I'm also trying to find out whether Roath or Cardiff Town Centre is the best place for meetings.
  • I’d like to see if another day of the week would be better for more people in the long run (i.e. for second and further meetings). I excluded Wednesdays as an option because there’s an existing speculative fiction book club which meets on Wednesdays
  • Would you like to help out in some way? Please let me know!
  • Please do feel free to tweet / share on Facebook / spread the word to any local fellow SFF readers you know. Here’s a link that should include all book club updates on  my blog:

I'm also going through my previous blog posts and replacing links to the registration form with links to the new form.

By the way, do feel free to say hello in the comments!