Book Review

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Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

If this book, and the previous one by the same author which I have read, Cryptonomicon,  [albeit a much later book in his canon] are representative, then they are all [13] very long indeed; this one runs to 697 [!] pages, and the font used for the text is small—possibly 12pt—but I can genuinely say that this was a book I really didn’t want to end. It will probably be classified as SciFi but, given that it has been written within the last couple of years, on recent evidence, I would describe it as prescient, because IMHO one doesn’t have to be a tree-hugging, panicking environmentalist to discern that the scenario presented here is all too plausible; even possible—I hope against hope it is not probable. It is the near future; although the exact year is not specified, but COVID-27 is mentioned [subsequent to COVID-23 and our by-now familiar COVID-19], so it could be in the region of ten years hence, at least, and the climate has significantly worsened. The explanation for the book’s title will follow some further background information.

There are several different strands to the narrative, starting in different locations, but the reason for that will soon become clear. I had to put my republican sentiments into suspended animation for the duration of this story but, thankfully, that wasn’t too difficult, despite one of the main characters being the fictitious queen of the Netherlands, Frederika Mathilda Louisa Saskia, although the Dutch ‘royal’ family is famously low-maintenance; Saskia, as she prefers to be known by those close to her, is also a likeable person [but that has no bearing on my principles, as in the British situation]. A Texan billionaire, T.R. Schmidt [aka McHooligan, the publicly marketed persona for his chain of truck stops] has invited a somewhat disparate group of prominent persons to a conference in Houston, to discuss the climate crisis, and Saskia is one of these; although her constitutional inability to act directly & unilaterally is explained in great detail [as is much else: one of the commendable aspects of Stephenson’s narratives]. Unfortunately, her incoming self-piloted jet aeroplane crashes on landing at Waco airport; Houston being unavailable as a result of the intense heat; but she, and her minimal entourage survive, albeit with a few non life-threatening injuries, to continue the journey, and during her rescue from the cause of the crash, feral swine [and, randomly, although not much more, an alligator], she encounters another main character in the story: Rufus [Red] Grant, a self-employed operator trading under the name FERAL SWINE MITIGATION SERVICES.

Another character, who initially also seems like a rather random inclusion, is a young Canadian man by the name of Deep, although he generally goes by the nickname of Laks, which is derived from the salmon he catches for a living; when he can’t do that in his native British Columbia, out of season, he works as a welder. Initially, these aspects of his character, in addition to his high level of fitness and toned physique, and the traditional Indian martial arts he enjoys practising because of his Indian heritage, don’t seem to connect with the rest of the narrative, but slowly & surely, through the literal, as well as emotional journey he undertakes, the author draws these loose strands together, and they later connect very satisfactorily.

Schmidt’s proposal, which is demonstrated after all the scrupulously polite & accommodating preliminaries, is to spread the sulphur which he has available in vast quantities into the upper atmosphere, providing a global reflective blanket to mitigate the greenhouse effect of the sun, which has been exacerbated by human-produced carbon dioxide. He is going to do this unilaterally and, it transpires, has already started doing it [the technical details are quite involved, so better absorbed from the narrative]; he hopes to also encourage other strategically placed nations to do the same, hence the conference, although the invitees are not necessarily the most geographically, or politically, obvious. Hence the jeopardy in the story: a scheme such as this has been proposed in similar forms previously, but a scientific consensus was never reached so, with a nod to his location, Schmidt decided that he must take the metaphorical bull by the horns and use his money for humanity’s benefit. Unfortunately, not all of humanity would be similarly benefited, and nations such as China & India, which were not invited, are significantly concerned, for political as well as geo-climatic reasons.

The title is the name of what is generally reckoned [using the climatic data currently available to the scientists] will happen if climate-mitigating measures, such as that proposed, and already put into action by Schmidt, are precipitately terminated: the climate would go into a sort of shock, from which it might never recover; or, at least, not in a way which would be conducive to long-term survival of the human race. For several different reasons, I cannot recommend this book highly enough: whether it would convince waverers, or hardline climate change sceptics, of the need for rapid & decisive climate mitigating action is debatable, but aside from the politics, it’s a damn good and well-written story—I would also recommend Cryptonomicon, if you have any interest at all in cryptography, but the history aspect of it is also illuminating, and written in a very approachable way. The [large!] paperback I read was published in 2022 [2021] by the Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd., London, ISBN 978-0-0084-0440-6.

Book Review

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Dead at First Sight, by Peter James

This story actually precedes one I have previously reviewed here, Left You Dead, so one major decision taken by Detective Superintendent Roy Grace towards the end of this narrative might suggest a certain course of events which appears not to have been followed, according to the situation in which Grace & his entourage find themselves in the later story; having said that, this possible disjunction should not deter anyone, especially ‘fans’ of the Grace canon, from reading either story. Grace is, for the most part, ‘in a good place’, apart from the regular [and unwelcome] monitoring of his activity by his superior, ACC Cassian Pewe which, although he is generally able to ignore it, nevertheless forms an irritating background buzz to his work environment.

This story represents a return to a subject which James has tackled before: online dating, in Want You Dead; but in this one, the focus of the story is the money-extraction scams which heinous criminal organisations perpetrate, targeting lonely individuals who sign up to online dating agencies, hoping to find a partner, generally after a previous partner has died, or otherwise left their lives, so the majority of them tend to be in an older age group and, unfortunately, not always as discerning as they should be, when it comes to ‘hard-luck’ stories spun by ostensibly genuine [and obviously physically attractive, of course, going by their profile photographs] individuals who are evidently very much in love with their targets, but desperately in need of large amounts of cash, for various reasons. These schemes normally work very efficiently, fleecing the poor victims with no chance of recompense, especially as the criminal organisations tend to be based overseas, outside British legal jurisdiction, but in the story, two of the perpetrators, albeit originating from Ghana, are actually based on Grace’s ‘patch’, in Brighton.

Two women who have become suspicious about the identity of their online amours, have ended up dead: one in Germany, and the other one in Brighton; the latter one has been in contact with a local gay motivational speaker, telling him that his image has been found on several online profiles, of which he was completely unaware—this leads him to become dangerously involved in the situation. Into this mix is thrown a returning character, an American contract killer, known as “Tooth”, with whom Grace has previously come into contact, but despite being injured, managed to avoid capture & arrest by Grace. Tooth is under contract to a crime boss based in Jersey, Channel Islands, although the relationship is fractious, to say the least, and Tooth is seriously considering retirement upon completion of this contract.

As should be apparent from the foregoing, because of the number of different characters in this narrative, there are several different strands operating concurrently, but as ever, James manages to keep the action flowing smoothly, without becoming bogged down in detail, but the reader can be assured that all the procedural details have been meticulously researched, so are undoubtedly accurate. The dénouement is not reached without any hitches, but the conclusion is satisfying, and should leave the reader eager to read further instalments, ideally in sequence, but that should not necessarily be a priority. The paperback I read was published in 2019, by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, ISBN 978-1-5098-1641-5; as usual, two very helpful maps of Brighton, and the surrounding area of Sussex, are printed at the front of the book, before the commencement of the story.

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Solaris, by Stanisław Lem

I don’t know if this book could be considered a modern classic of science fiction; or perhaps, a twentieth century classic would now be more appropriate, as it was published in 1961, in the author’s native language, Polish—it is, however, described on the rear cover as the masterpiece of this author. The first English translation was published in 1970: a delay which isn’t necessarily significant, but intriguing, nonetheless. It has certainly been considered good enough for two film versions to be based upon it: a rather dated-looking 1972 Russian version, with melodramatic music, and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky; and a 2002 American version, produced by James Cameron & Jon Landau, starring the then [and still] hot property, George Clooney, and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who, according to the Wikipedia entry for it, promised to be closer in spirit to the source material—apparently, Lem disliked both renderings.

Notwithstanding that the type is quite small; possibly 10pt, at a guess, because this isn’t stated on the flyleaf; the book packs a lot into its 214 pages. There appear to be three distinct sections to it, although there is some overlap: the setup; action; and the philosophy incorporated in the story. The latter section occupies a significant amount of space and, in my own humble opinion, this is what Lem wanted to propagate, for which the story [action] is a vehicle. A space station [referred to as the Station], a description of which is not given until well over halfway through the book, is in low orbit around the eponymous planet of the story, which itself orbits two suns: one red, and one blue. There have been no reports from the Station latterly, implying a lack of progress in the research the Station was created for, so a spaceship, Prometheus [it is interesting to speculate if this was the inspiration for the 2012 film in the Alien canon] is sent from earth with a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, on board, but the length of Kelvin’s mission is indeterminate, as Prometheus doesn’t wait for him, once he is safely delivered to the Station. When he arrives, he quickly discovers that all is not well, but to reveal any more would spoil the plot; however, the encapsulated philosophy can be discussed.

Solaris is a water planet, with only isolated islands & archipelagos visible, and this is a very significant element of the story. The very nature of humanity is questioned, but it also raises the question of whether there is such a thing as absolute truth; or is it always [and only] subjective? Certainly, Kelvin’s encounters on the Station, for all his experience & expertise, change him profoundly. Incidentally, I discovered a hitherto unknown word in the text: auscultation, with which medical personnel might be familiar, as it refers to the action of listening to sounds from the heart, lungs, or other organs, typically with a stethoscope, as a part of medical diagnosis. Naturally enough, given the preponderance of philosophical observations in the book, at the end of the narrative, religion, and specifically Kelvin’s concept of it, comes under the metaphorical microscope, and the mysteries of existence itself are considered, something which space travel inherently seems to inspire [2001, A Space Odyssey et al], given man’s participation in exploration of a boundless cosmos/universe: nowadays, these two terms appear to be synonymous.

There is a lot more I could write about the articulacy of the book; for which English-speaking readers should be grateful to the translators, Joanna Kilmartin & Steve Cox; and the descriptions of occurrences on the planet are very detailed & copious, but to give them here would forewarn the reader as to how the narrative develops, so I will refrain, other than to say that Lem’s imagination is to be applauded. Arguably, all science fiction has an agenda, but the agenda of this story is right out in the open, and irrefutably thought-provoking. The paperback version I read was published in 2016 by Faber and Faber Limited, London, ISBN 978-0-571-31157-6.

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V2, by Robert Harris

A Robert Harris novel is always an enticing prospect, for me, and this one didn’t disappoint, because I knew in advance that it would be based on meticulous research. The science & technology which facilitated this murderous & potentially catastrophic final chapter of the war is well known & catalogued, as is the personnel on both sides who were involved, although Harris did invent the British defence unit in the story, and the principal German character; what he doesn’t specify is whether the named casualties of the rockets were real, but it would seem disrespectful if they weren’t, so I think it must be safe to assume that they were. The idea for the novel came to Harris after reading the obituary of a 95-year old ex-WAAF officer who had been posted to Mechelen, Belgium, in November 1944, and then her two-volume memoir. It is also well known that Wernher von Braun and other scientists involved in Hitler’s last desperate attempt to subdue & conquer Britain were persuaded [although probably not a great deal of persuasion was necessary] to work for the USA, albeit in secret, because of the sensitivity of their recent enemy status, in the USA’s postwar ballistic missile, and subsequently civilian space programmes: this extraction operation was known as Operation Paperclip.

The narrative is effectively a two-hander with, on the one side, the German participants; most of whom are scientists, but there are also some military characters; and on the other side, the British participants, the protagonist being the WAAF, Section Officer Angelica Caton-Walsh, known as Kay, based on the aforementioned officer, Eileen Younghusband. Kay works at Danesfield House; renamed RAF Medmenham after the closest village, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire; she is a photographic analyst in the Central Interpretation Unit, working in what was known as Phase Three: examination of recent aerial photographs from the enemy theatre of operations for potential longer-term tactical use. She has been having an affair with Air Commodore Mike Templeton, but Mike is injured when the building in which his London apartment is located, Warwick Court — near Charing Cross, just off Chancery Lane in Holborn — is badly damaged by a V2 rocket strike; Kay receives only very minor injuries. She is more emotionally wounded when Mike warns her against accompanying him to the hospital, but she is pragmatic enough to know the reason for that.

She is asked to accompany her section leader, Wing Commander Leslie Starr [known as The Wandering Starr, for fairly obvious reasons with so many female subordinates], to a meeting at the Air Ministry to formulate an urgent response to the exponentially-increasing number of disastrous V2 incidents. To her amazement, Mike is there, hobbling on crutches and swathed in bandages, but he acts as if they have never previously met; although this is, again, not entirely unexpected, Kay resolves to make a clean break and request a transfer to a forward new radar analysis unit which is proposed for the closest location in Belgium to the apparent launch site of the latest V2s: Scheveningen, in Holland. The female officers needed for the new unit have to be mathematicians, but Kay’s mathematical prowess is rudimentary, although she knows her way around a slide-rule & logarithmic tables, so she feels confident enough to prevail upon Mike to facilitate her transfer, as one last favour. The idea is that the trajectory of the rocket’s flight, and hence the launch position, can be retrospectively calculated using the first observed position after launch, direction, and speed, then factoring in the strike location and working back using the flight parabola.

On the other side, at Scheveningen, is an old colleague & friend of von Braun from their early days of rocketry experiments, the technical liaison officer from the Army Research Centre at Peenemünde. He is keen to improve the efficiency of the rockets, especially in view of the investment the Nazis have made in their development, and several embarrassing & costly failures [both in financial and human terms] have always been a cause for concern; latterly, he has begun to consider the implications of his actions: both he & von Braun were always more interested in the rockets’ potential for space exploration, and von Braun, particularly, saw the war as an unavoidable distraction from their main purpose, but also with the advantage of providing funds & facilities to achieve that. Graf’s anxiety is exacerbated by the arrival of SS Sturmscharführer Biwack of the National Socialist Leadership Office, one of the Nazi Party commissars, recently embedded in the military on the Führer’s orders, to kindle a fighting spirit: “Real die-in-a-ditch fanatics.” He has full security clearance, and it is obvious to Graf that, as well as his stated purpose, he will also be snooping everywhere, always on the lookout for lack of enthusiasm or even possible sabotage.

The action progresses from one side to the other and, naturally, anti-fascists will root for Kay & her associates, but it is not difficult to also feel some sympathy for Graf; less so for von Braun, perhaps, as he never hesitates to use his SS credentials to further his career & aims, although he does assist Graf in more than one sticky situation. The outcome of the war is known, of course, and not too much space is devoted to the race against time to locate the launch sites, but it is nicely paced, and there is also a neat little coda where Kay & Graf actually meet: entirely fictitious, of course. Overall, I found the book reassuringly enjoyable, although I do have a couple of minor [and very personal] quibbles: for me, it was disappointing to see American terminology used in a couple of places, e.g.: wrench for spanner, flashlight for torch. US troops were stationed in Britain in 1944, but British usage would have prevailed, plus the character where they were used was German. Also, the author uses what I consider as the lazy habit of referring to a German army officer as Nazi, when not all were members of the Nazi party: many were actively critical of it, dangerously so. I don’t cite these as a deterrent, however, so I would unconditionally recommend it. I read the hardback version, published in 2020 by Hutchinson, London, part of the Penguin Random House group: ISBN 978-1-78-633140-3. There is also a Wikipedia article, which gives more background to Operation paperclip.

Book Review

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The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore

If I’d had to guess, I would have said that this author would be British, with a name like his, however he was in fact born in Chicago, USA, but I’ll forgive him for that. The book’s name, which I actually think is quite clever, refers to the transition period of the 1880s in America, primarily in the metropolitan north east, but then gradually spreading out to encompass the whole country, when electric lighting began to take over from the previous standard of gas; although this wasn’t ubiquitous: oil/kerosene lamps were also cosynchronously very common. There have, in fact, been a few books on this subject, plus a 2017 film, The Current War, which seems to have had a somewhat underwhelming reception, disappointingly [for me, anyway, given the subject matter; although it was caught up in the repercussions of the Weinstein scandal, which delayed its release, facilitating, presumably fortuitously, a ‘director’s cut’ final edit]; the screenplay of which was written by Michael Mitnick, according to the Wikipedia entry for the film, but no mention is made of, or reference to other sources for the story; although, to be fair, it can almost be considered as folk history in America; especially, given Thomas Edison’s persistent reputation.

As with other fictional narratives based closely on readily available historical fact [An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris, is another example], authors have to be careful not to deviate too far from established truths, unless they are prepared to categorise their output as an ‘alternative’ history; confining themselves to embellishing known facts with scenarios which are appropriate to their narratives is quite common. This is what Moore has done here, as he freely admits, in his Note from the Author, at the end of the book: “This is a Gordian knot of verifiable truth, educated supposition, dramatic rendering, and total guesswork.” Overall, I would say he has done very well, despite the timeline having been significantly tinkered with to make his narrative plausible. It is essentially the story of the struggle for dominance in the electrical supply market, between Edison & DC [direct current] on one side, and George Westinghouse & AC [alternating current] on the other; into this conflict is also thrown the saturnine character of Nikola Tesla, who has latterly become something of a folk hero globally, but in the USA specifically, notwithstanding what I rather feel is the traducing of his name by a current [no pun intended] billionaire, with his upmarket and very expensive [and therefore not affordable by the masses] products, and the irony of this compared to Tesla’s sad demise.

The story actually begins with litigation between the two main characters, with Edison as the antagonist, suing the protagonist, Westinghouse, for infringement of his patents for the electric light bulb, claiming [speciously, but that is the core of the suit] that he had ‘invented’ it. The latter takes the ostensibly risky step of engaging a relative newcomer to the legal field, Paul Cravath, who knows that this is something of a poisoned chalice, but he nevertheless relishes the challenge as an opportunity to make a name for himself: but only if he wins, of course. Along the way, he meets a seemingly unattainable woman, Agnes Huntington, to whom he is inexorably drawn, when she also engages him to fight a suit for her; at first, he makes a conscious decision not to let himself become dependent upon her, but as the narrative develops, despite evidently being somewhat submissive to her domineering mother, it becomes apparent that there is more to her than meets the eye. When the truth is revealed, it seems inevitable that they will become romantically attached, until Tesla inadvertently causes a schism.

The story is nicely paced, and the characters, although admittedly somewhat enhanced, are plausible, so I found this a very enjoyable read, which retained my attention throughout, and the conclusion was reasonably satisfying. The paperback version I read was published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., in 2017, ISBN 978-1-4711-5668-7.

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World Engines – Destroyer, by Stephen Baxter

I am very happy to state ‘upfront’ that, except for the ending, I have enjoyed reading this book more than any other I have read, of any genre, for a long time; that might seem like a contradiction, but my enjoyment of the main body of the narrative was not diminished unduly by the short final section, which was something of a disappointment. I can’t reveal any details of the final section, naturally wanting to avoid spoilers, but I felt that, after such a comprehensive narrative, in which Baxter has allowed time for the folds in the story to be revealed & explored, the ending could have been longer and more detailed: it was as if he knew a sequel would have been a better way to wrap the story up, or even develop it some more, but in the end, he couldn’t be bothered, or he ran out of steam, so it was just a question of tying up all the loose ends as cleanly as possible. Enough of that for now, though, because you need to know what the story is about! Ahead of the characters & the plot, what I enjoyed about the story was the elements of alternate universes and time periods, rather than time travel per se, but also the fact that the fantasy was very much rooted in the real world that we know, instead of a fictitious universe full of alien races & technology that is unknown to us and, given our current level of knowledge, impossible.

The story starts hundreds of years into earth’s future, the year 2469, precisely, when earth has suffered the climate catastrophe that is now widely predicted. A man is woken from a cryogenic sleep, and it appears that he is a space shuttle pilot from the early days of the 21st century; so, our own time now, but subtly different in the state of space technology (and the political history that has allowed this to be created). He is conversing with a form of artificial intelligence (AI), and he has been woken earlier than he might otherwise have been, given that he suffered a devastating accident which left him very badly injured, because a message has been received from Phobos, one of the satellites of Mars. The main problem, apart from some significant differences in the sequence of events that led up to the sender’s distress call is that it is impossible, because the sender couldn’t be there in the first place, because she is Emma Stoney, the wife of the pilot, Colonel Reid Malenfant, and her ship was lost when it reached Phobos. In this timeline, Mars was already colonised by 2005, and there was “some kind of puzzle with Phobos”, but it was easier to send a dedicated mission from Earth than to have the Mars base colonists do it from the ground. Unfortunately, the problem with Phobos is inextricably connected with an event known by everybody by the name The Destroyer, which is predicted with some accuracy it would seem, by the AIs, to occur in the year 3397, resulting in the destruction of Earth and very possibly also much of our solar system.

Malenfant is sent back to Earth from the moon, where he had been kept in cold storage, and he is assigned a humanoid AI with medical specialities, to monitor & supervise his recovery, and he befriends a young woman who is also assigned to him as a sort of cultural advisor. The Earth of the twenty-fifth century has a well-established resource based economy (the long-term result of a very surprising innovation by one of the best-known 20th century American politicians: and not who you might think!), as money is no longer necessary, apart from occasional exceptional circumstances; the population doesn’t have to work for a living, because all necessities for a comfortable life are freely available: the fact that the population is much reduced as a result of the foregoing upheavals is a positive contributory factor here. Malenfant is curious as to why the populace seems to accept unquestioningly the impending fate of Earth, albeit in the relatively far distant future, but when he speaks to the Earthbound AI, he discovers that it is distinctly worried (displaying a surprising level of human empathy), so he sets out to find out more about the problem with Phobos, which seems to be the root of the danger. Using by then outdated space technology, but with which he is familiar from his own experience, he manages to get to Phobos, which is where the story becomes distinctly strange……

This is about as much as I can reveal without spoiling the plot, but if you enjoy space fantasy fiction and, especially, if you have read any of Stephen Baxter’s other books, either solo or with Terry Pratchett, I am as sure as I can be that you will enjoy this one. The paperback version I read was published in 2020 by Gollancz, London, ISBN 978-1-473-22319-6. This is a book to really luxuriate in, and revel in the way the plot develops quickly enough to retain your interest, but not so quickly as to leave you gasping for breath. As I said, the ending seemed tantalisingly short, but I don’t think it leaves the way open for a sequel: should that be the case and I am wrong, however, I would be eager to read it!

Book Review

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I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

This is possibly the best known of Asimov’s stories, but the book with this title is, in fact, a series of nine short stories, published individually between 1940 & 1950, plus a fictitious introduction, in a connected thread, and it is also one of five ‘robot’ books written by Asimov; the epithet ‘seminal’ can surely and safely be ascribed to it, in the science fiction genre. Younger readers might initially associate the title with a 2004 film of the same name, directed by Alex Proyas, and starring Will Smith; given that it is a few years since I watched this film, from what I can remember, it bears little resemblance to Asimov’s original: the Wikipedia ‘blurb’ tells us that the original screenplay, Hardwired, was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 short-story collection of the same name.” The underlying message of the film might not be too far removed from the original, however, because Asimov’s portmanteau essentially uses the technology of robotics as a vehicle for psychology, philosophy and, possibly, even morality: how much autonomy can we, should we, give to what are machines or, perhaps, cyborgs; if they have organic content in the form of a positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov, and now very well known in science fiction); and if we do, how far would we be able to trust them, in view of their likely superiority, both mental & physical?

Of course, AI (Artificial Intelligence: “founded as an academic discipline in 1955”, according to Wikipedia, so very much springing out of, if not necessarily inspired by, Asimov’s thinking) is now a very widely known, if not necessarily understood, concept, and it is used in a plethora of applications, from internet search engines to what are now referred to as ‘smart’ devices; the worry, which some technologists are probably quite happy to dismiss as ‘conspiracy theory’, is that much of the work that AI does goes on unseen, in the background, so it is virtually impossible to monitor its activity and the repercussions for society, especially where privacy & human rights are concerned: perhaps these wider implications weren’t obvious to Asimov when he was writing the stories in the American post-war, white heat of technological development, although it is pretty clear that he was aware of the dangers that intelligent, autonomous robots could present.

These creations, initially of mankind but, before very long, self-reproducing, can be made to be beneficent (probably the best-known example of which is the android Data, from the Star Trek Next Generation series) just as easily as they can be made bellicose, as they would be when (rather than if) the military were allowed to dominate their development: the difference would be governed by the primary programming of the neural net (another name for the positronic brain), and it must be assumed that the military’s killing machines would not be given the fundamental & inescapable guidance of Asimov’s wonderfully precise & concise Three Laws of Robotics, “designed to protect humans from their robotic creations”, hence the clear & present danger which would be obvious to all, including (but expediently ignored by) the military.

The protagonists of these stories are three main characters, the primary one being, to Asimov’s credit, a female ‘robopsychologist’, Dr. Susan Calvin, the other two being engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who have to deal ‘on the ground’ with different situations involving robots, in the chronological course of the narrative. It is structured in the form of a memoir of a series of interviews with Calvin by an unnamed future version of a journalist (he is only ever referred to by Calvin as “young man”: he is thirty-two), who is acquiring background information on her for his “feature articles for Interplanetary Press”: he already “had her professional ‘vita’ in full detail.” The year is 2062, and over the course of the interviews, Calvin gives the journo her thoughts on both her life, to that point, and sketches in the scenarios involving the main & supporting characters, which are described in the third person, including Calvin herself.

There are many interesting aspects to this series; the first is the obviously, and occasionally, in our terms comically, antiquated manifestation of the future technology as it could be conceived in the late 1940s; another is the way that everybody, across this future society, is quite comfortable with anthropomorphism of robots, primarily derived from their nomenclature: “Dave”, from DV-5; “Cutie”, for the QT series; but the first robot mentioned only has a human name, Robbie, rather prosaically, although ‘he’ cannot vocalise, being “made and sold in 1996. Those were the days before extreme specialization [sic], so he was sold as a nursemaid…” Also, and somewhat depressingly for me, it is taken for granted that capitalism will still be operating in this technological future, but it doesn’t have to be so: there is at least one highly developed ‘alternative’ system, Resource Based Economy, embodied in the work of Jacque Fresco and his collaborators in The Venus Project — it is difficult to pin down exactly when his work would have first achieved some prominence, but he was born in 1916 (died 2018!) and, according to the website, “Fresco’s lifelong project stems from his firsthand experience of the Great Depression, which instilled in him the urge to reevaluate how many of the world’s systems work.”, so it is possible that Asimov was aware of this concept, but whether he chose to ignore it is a moot point.

The impression given by Dr. Calvin’s reminiscences, for all her obvious genius professionally, is that she is distinctly ambivalent about the advisability of humanity’s inexorable & irrevocable reliance upon robots and AI, and her empathy, for all she could come across as occasionally cold & arrogant, is presumably the vehicle by which Asimov conveys his own reservations: any tool, or weapon, has no impetus other than the autonomy which is bestowed upon it, so an inert tool is subject to the use to which a human being might put it, but it appears that Asimov was wanting to warn us of the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box. Thankfully, those concerns are being addressed to some extent, but inevitably, secrecy associated with humanity’s protectionism embodied by global military forces means that it is possible that wider society will have no inkling of how far development of autonomous AI has progressed before it passes the point of no return: perhaps the best we can do is hope and work for peace wherever possible. The paperback edition of the book I read was published by HarperVoyager, London, in 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-827955-4.

Book Review

Westwind, by Ian Rankin

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Image credit: The Reading List

I like Ian Rankin’s work; or, I should qualify, what little of it I have read hitherto; but, given that this is not a detective novel per se, in the Rebus oeuvre, I thought it would be worth reviewing. It is almost science fiction, but (so don’t panic) not quite, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this review. It is also presented, on the cover of the 2019 edition which I read, as “The classic lost thriller”: hyperbolic, perhaps, but it seems that one doesn’t win many prizes in publishing for understatement. After the probably inevitable, and understandably somewhat grudgingly undertaken rewrites, the book, actually his fourth, was published on March 1, 1990, to an almost deafening silence: one small review in The Guardian. “So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” Somewhat later, a surprise: Twitter to the rescue! Fans using this estimable service, and one in particular, combined to persuade Rankin to look again at this book, which he duly did, and it was republished in 2019, after giving “the original printed text a polish, … [a] few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser . . .”

The story, which is set in a slightly alternate version of our world in 1990 (where Germany is still divided, for example), begins with parallel situations of a British government listening station, monitoring satellites, especially ‘our’ spy satellite, called Zephyr (the significance of which will become clear near the end of the book), and a space shuttle mission, Argos,  to launch a satellite ends disastrously (not unknown, unfortunately), when the shuttle crash-lands, killing four (all American) out of the five astronauts (or are some of them already dead?), and as a consequence, the British surviving astronaut becomes a hate-figure, because American military forces are being unceremoniously kicked out of mainland Europe, which considers that it is capable of defending itself against the old Adversary, Russia. At the same time, there has been a panic at the listening station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, that has lost contact with Zephyr for over three minutes, which is unprecedented: it was not a drill, and yet the military overlords do not seem unduly concerned. One of the monitoring operatives, Paul Vincent, who is relatively new to the job but very well qualified, thinks he has spotted something worthy of mentioning to his superiors, but before his older friend, Martin Hepton, can quiz him further, Vincent is mysteriously sent on sick leave, to a nursing home, even though Hepton knows him to be very fit & healthy. Hepton is able to visit Vincent on a day off, but their eventual clandestine conversation appears to have been observed by two well-muscled ‘orderlies’, so when Hepton drives away, he becomes fearful for his colleague’s safety.

After this, the story develops into a cat & mouse chase, with an assassin thrown into the mix, and the British astronaut, Mike Dreyfuss, is brought back to England to assist the British security services get to the bottom of what has happened, and how much of a threat Hepton’s suspicions, and Dreyfuss’s near-death experience might be; not only to Britain, but to the whole world. There is many a slip along the way before the purpose of the satellite launched by the Argos mission is revealed, and as usual in any story involving security services, the reader is given clues as to who might be untrustworthy, or actively working for ‘the other side’: it is suggested that one of the main characters might be a wrong’un, but this turns out to be a red herring. It is clear (to this reader, at least) that, despite being one of Rankin’s earliest efforts, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller, and the pace of the action increases to a pitch where the book, which is not overlong at only 288 pages, not including the new introduction by the author, attains that epithet that has become something of a cliché: ‘unputdownable’! The story isn’t a classic in the way that, say, Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, or Lolita are considered to be, but it is a thumping good mystery, and I recommend it.

Book review: The Cryotron Files

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Picture credit: popsciencebooks.blogspot.com

I found this book, published simultaneously in the US and the UK in 2018 (Icon Books Ltd., London, 2018), fascinating. It is cowritten by Iain Dey & Douglas Buck, and it is is subtitled: “The strange death of a pioneering Cold War computer scientist”. You could be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of the book’s main title, that it is fictional, possibly science fiction; but it isn’t: it is a narrative of what we have to accept (given the somewhat murky reputation of some of the organisations involved) as the truth, and the subject of the book is the father of one of the authors, Dudley Buck. Even if you feel you are reasonably well informed about how science & technology, especially that appertaining to computers, have developed over the last 80 years, from its hesitant beginning with Colossus at Bletchley Park, I think it is fairly unlikely that you would have heard of a cryotron. Even though (and without worrying about revealing any significant element of the narrative) this was ultimately a ‘blind alley’ for computers as we know them in common usage nowadays, it was fundamental to the development of computing in a wider sense than what we, as the vast majority of non-specialist users know of as computing, from our smartphones and laptops.

Those of you with any knowledge of etymology will have guessed that the stem of the word cryotron indicates cold, freezing or frost, and it is derived from the Greek kruos, icy cold, frost; this compound name was coined by Dudley Buck for his invention that he thought would revolutionise computing, and it is almost risible in its simplicity, and yet its operation is marvellously efficient, the biggest requirement being that it (or in common usage, they, in significant multiples) had to be contained within an environment as close to a temperature of absolute zero as possible. The device consisted of literally nothing more than two pieces of thin metal wire: a straight section, and another that was coiled tightly around it with a ‘tail’ on each side (you can see it, tiny though it is, in Buck’s right hand in the above photograph, comparing its size with a contemporary vacuum valve); so, an input and an output. Depending upon the presence or absence of an electric current, this switch could be considered closed or open: the absolute minimum required for a binary switch, which could produce a positive or negative result – yes, or no, which is the ridiculously simple premise that allows all computers to function (although quantum computers, now reaching a fairly sophisticated stage of development, will muddy the waters somewhat).

Have you ever heard of Dudley Buck? I certainly hadn’t, hitherto. It was clear from an early age that he was gifted in all-round terms, and after the tragic accident suffered by his mother when he was only twelve, he & his younger sister were sent from their home in San Francisco to live with his father’s mother in Santa Barbara. It was there that he was able to satisfy his curiosity for all things mechanical & electrical, using a spare garage on his grandmother’s property. The family was god-fearing, so Dudley was included in all the religiosity, but that didn’t preclude him from the occasional mischief, including producing a stink bomb from the lab equipment he had hauled to bible camp one year! He joined the local Eagle Scout troop, and made a friend with whom he attended evening classes in radio electronics; before long, they set up what is claimed to be one of the first mobile disc jockey businesses in California. This was late 1942, and “World War II was in full force, but it was all happening too far away to completely disrupt the flow of life in central California”; although Dudley’s self-built radio system did attract the unwelcome attention of the Federal Communications Commission. Despite having to surrender his equipment to be dismantled, the positive outcome was that, a few months later, “Dudley was plucked out of high school and sent on a fast-track training scheme for America’s best and brightest.”: a very sensible response!

After completing his college education in the V12 program, at Seattle, Washington, which was “a  fast-track officer-training scheme that would mix undergraduate study in a few chosen disciplines with the rigors [sic] of naval training”, Ensign Dudley Buck was posted to the navy’s communications headquarters in Washington, D.C., which is when his involvement with the various security services began, and very possibly set him on the path to his untimely, early death. Although the immediate circumstances that caused his death are known, the big question mark that hangs over it is whether the Russian security services could have somehow engineered it. Somewhat surprisingly, given the vehemence of the McCarthy purges which were concurrent, there was also a willingness to share scientific research, especially in the field of computers, with the Russians; however, it was expected that this would would be a reciprocal arrangement, which was not always the case, and the research that was shared was carefully selected, because computers were increasingly being used in the euphemistically named “defence” sector, for the purposes of both detecting & targeting missiles. Buck had been working with the newly-formed National Security Agency (NSA), and the already existing CIA, including a secret mission in Berlin, although this was overseen by the highly secret 7821 Composite Group: “… a covert CIA operation run by a man who would later be dubbed the Spy of the Century … Reinhard Gehlen”. Before this, though, he had gained entry in early July, 1950, to the prestigious MIT, although not without some strings being pulled on his behalf. It was there that he had the idea for the cryotron, and was able to start developing it.

The first reciprocal trips involving the Soviets, after a couple of false starts, took place in the summer of 1958, after which a bigger exchange was suggested by the Americans. The Soviets wanted to see “among others, the young assistant professor at MIT whom the Russians believed was building the guidance system for America’s intercontinental ballistic missile.” The Russians were aware that Dudley Buck was one of the expected headline speakers lined up for the Eastern Computer Conference that December, in Philadelphia; the conference went ahead, but without the exchange, “and Buck was indeed a star performer.” The following April, a group of seven Russian scientists travelled to the US for a series of meetings & demonstrations at various locations, one of which was MIT, where they were eager to meet Dudley Buck, but: “Ever patriotic, Buck clearly just didn’t want to show them his work. … The group left MIT that night full of questions, not least about the cryogenic computer that they had not been able to see.” Around this time, Buck had begun working on electron lithography, but to achieve this required some very volatile chemicals, and they were not easy to obtain; it wasn’t until May 18th that the parcel of chemicals arrived. With hindsight, it would be very easy to condemn Buck for the careless way he handled the chemicals, which appear to have caused the fatal illness that killed him within three days, but the strange thing is that his assistant, who was very close by during the handling, was entirely unaffected. The main concern is that the Russian visitors could have somehow engineered this, but it is difficult to see how. Perhaps it was just an bizarre & tragic coincidence; the fact remains, however, that the Russians were aware Buck was a leader in his field, and the potential military applications of his work, so there will always be a question mark over his death.

It is possible that if he had lived through this early period of development, Buck might have been able to overcome the limitations of the ultra-cold environment for his technology, but it had to be modified quite extensively to be used in any practical application; according to Snyder’s official history of NSA computing projects, the cryotron “‘proved not to scale to high speed operation as had been hoped.’ The detailed explanation of how the cryotron was used and what went wrong with it remains classified. It seems that it never was used as a missile guidance system, in spite of the time that was spent on the idea; the semiconductor took that crown.” Sadly, Buck’s family earned next to nothing from his work and, outside the confines of the well-informed, Buck’s name quickly became a footnote in history, but his work was fundamental to the development of computer technology, even though, as is usually the case in most highly developed countries since the second world war, all technology has to be a slave to the military. The details I have given here only scratch the surface of Buck’s story and his achievements, but I can highly recommend this book, and as I said at the beginning, it’s a fascinating read.

Book Review – 3001, The Final Odyssey

This book was a revelation to me, primarily because I hadn’t known it existed! The title gave me to expect, and in which I wasn’t disappointed, that it was a sequel, of sorts, or at least a further instalment of the story, to the original novel by Arthur C. Clarke, which was written as the narrative for a truly iconic film of the late 1960s, created by the maverick director Stanley Kubrick: 2001, A Space Odyssey. I’m sure that most other avid readers, especially those of science fiction, would have come to the same conclusion. I was aware that there had been what appeared to be a direct sequel (but see below) to 2001, called 2010, Odyssey Two, although I wasn’t sure if there had been a book before the second film; this question was answered in the helpful notes at the back of the book (which were appropriately titled Valediction, and I often smiled as I was reading this section, imagining Arthur Clarke himself reading the notes in his rich Somerset burr), and a further surprise came with the revelation that there was a second sequel, called 2061, Odyssey Three, before the final volume that I had just finished.

Very briefly, the chronology of the series is as follows. Clarke’s original story was written for a BBC-sponsored competition at the end of 1948! It didn’t win, but the story, which was published just over two years later in a British Sci-Fi magazine, was the basis of a “proverbial good science-fiction movie” for which Kubrick asked Clarke in 1964 if he had any ideas; the book & the film were released four years later. The unmanned Voyager space-probes in 1979 sent back such fascinating images of Jupiter and its moons that “the temptation [for Clarke] to explore it was irresistible; hence 2010 Odyssey Two [1981], which also gave me the opportunity to find out what happened to David Bowman, after he had awakened in that enigmatic hotel room.” The film was made in 1983 by Peter Hyams, using “actual close-ups of the Jovian moons obtained in the Voyager missions”. Odyssey Three was already being conceived thereafter, on the basis that the forthcoming Galileo mission would provide “a detailed survey of the major satellites over a period of many months.” Unfortunately, this mission didn’t happen, because the Challenger disaster ruled out a launch from the Shuttle in 1986; nevertheless, Clarke decided to press on, and the 1985 return of Halley’s Comet suggested the theme for the story, based around its next return in 2061.

Clarke is unequivocal that “Just as 2010 was not a direct sequel to 2001, so [2061] is not a linear sequel to 2010. They must all be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe. … So this Final Odyssey has discarded many of the elements of its precursors, but developed others — and I hope more important ones — in much greater detail.” So it would appear that the ‘reboot’, which nowadays causes so much consternation & debate among sci-fi fans, is by no means a new phenomenon! I certainly don’t want to give the impression that a reader new to the Odyssey saga, if I could refer to it so, would struggle without reading any of this book’s precursors: quite the opposite, so don’t feel inhibited by a lack of previous knowledge.

After a brief prologue (the details of which I won’t reveal), in which the background to the whole odyssey is laid out, the story starts, and it features ‘Dave’ Bowman’s erstwhile colleague from the USSS Discovery, which was on a “Top Secret mission to Jupiter”, Deputy Commander Frank Poole. He wakes up feeling rather confused, in a hospital bed on what he presumes is a space station, but before long, he is apprised of the fact that it isn’t, and how he came to be there. Without wishing to reveal significant elements of the plot, he decides to complete his mission, in a manner of speaking, by discovering what happened to Dave, after HAL’s mutiny; which he does.

Along the way, Frank has some romantic involvement; one abortive liaison, subsequent to an exhilarating flying experience, then a slower to develop, but longer lasting relationship. I’m very pleased, as an avid fan, to relate that Star Trek, which was already quite long in the tooth, gets an honourable mention. There is a jeopardy here, of course, as there should be in an engaging story, but I feel that there is a very slight ‘cop-out’ at the end: even though I do prefer a nice, neat ending generally, this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, however. For me, the most salient point that it makes is delivered as a quote from one of the book’s main characters, Dr Theodore (a.k.a. Ted) Khan, who resides on Ganymede, “curing any True Believers he can find there … all the old religions have been discredited.”, and which includes the name for the first monolith that was found on earth, TMA ZERO:

‘Ted’s fond of quoting a famous palaeontologist who said “TMA ZERO gave us an evolutionary kick in the pants”. He argues that the kick wasn’t in a wholly desirable direction. Did we have to become so mean and nasty to survive? Maybe we did … As I understand him, Ted believes that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the wiring of our brains, which makes us incapable of consistent logical thinking. To make matters worse, though all creatures need a certain amount of aggressiveness to survive, we seem to have far more than is absolutely necessary. And no other animal tortures its fellows as we do. Is this an evolutionary accident — a piece of genetic bad luck?’

This sounds rather like another nod, albeit inadvertent, to Star Trek: a reference to the Vulcans, who deliberately modified their nature over centuries, to rid themselves of the inherent aggression that they felt was destructive. Human nature: a subject about which there will probably never be any agreement (for as long as we have the free will to debate it)! At 253 pages (the edition I read: this might vary) the book is by no means too long, and there is a very brief, but in the context of the narrative, rather portentous epilogue, right at the end, before the notes, acknowledgements and valediction. We are left to draw our own conclusions about this portent and the possible necessity for the manipulation of human nature, perhaps emulating the fictitious Vulcans. The pace of the story is just right, for me, and even though it is now over twenty years old (the book was first published in 1997, by HarperCollins Publishers, London), the future technology does not feel unduly antiquated by contemporary standards. A very satisfying read for a sci-fi buff; this one, anyway.