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Six Degrees from artificial intelligence to destiny fulfilled

Murmur

This month’s  Six Degrees of Separation  (hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) begins with Murmur by Will Eaves; a book I haven’t read. Some quick research revealed that this novel delves into the consciousness of the mathematician and and cryptologist Alan Turing during the period when he was undergoing chemical castration as punishment for gross indecency.

Turing’s pioneering work on artificial intelligence enabled the German naval code (Enigma) to be broken during World War 2,  shortening the war by as much as two years and saving countless lives.

A_Space_Odyssey

Artificial intelligence, its promises and dangers, were explored in 2001: A SpaceOdyssey by the British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. On a mission to Saturn the on-board computer HAL 9000 is meant to maintain the space craft and protect the astronauts but it begins to develop a will of its own. Clarke’s novel highlights problems that can crop up when man builds machines, the inner workings of which he does not fully comprehend and therefore cannot fully control.

Dark Star Safari

The word odyssey has come to mean any epic journey. In Swahili such a journey is known as a safari. And that links me nicely to Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It’s an account of a journey taken when he was pushing 60, from Egypt to South Africa, taking in Uganda and Malawi, countries where he had lived and worked in his youth.  What he finds are countries that are falling apart through war, famine, Aids, political chaos. He seems most incensed by the convoys  of aid workers he encounters. In his eyes they’re ineffective because they’re foreigners who don’t engage with local people who actually know the country and the cultures they are seeking to help.

Bend in the River

Paul Theroux had a famous falling out with his friend, the Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul, who also drew upon his experience of Africa in his own writing. A Bend in the River published in 1979 tells the story of Salim, a small shopkeeper who buys a business in a town at “a bend in the river” in an unnamed African country. Though highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it was also criticised for a perceived defence of European colonialism in Africa.

Once Upon a River

It’s to a river in one of those colony-ruling countries that our journey now heads.

Diane Setterfield’s  Once Upon a River is set at an ancient inn on the Thames. On a dark midwinter’s night the regulars are engaged in their favourite entertainment, telling stories. The door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Or are there magical forces at work?

This is a novel that straddles the line between realism and the supernatural. Magical realism isn’t a genre I enjoy much which is why I struggled through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

midnights children

In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them.

The mention of children with remarkable powers takes me to the final novel in my chain.

northern lights

In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights,  Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who inhabits a universe parallel to our own. Raised in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, she has an uncanny ability to see past, present, and future and the truth  by using a golden compass or an alethiometer. The skill enables her to fulfil an ancient prophecy that she is “destined to bring about the end of destiny” and ensure the stability of the universes.

Maybe my imagination is working overtime but maybe there is a parallel between Turing and Lyra; two people destined to be saviours of mankind.

And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end otherwise the connections might become even more ridiculous.

 

 

Six Degrees from Christmas to Christmas

Christmas carolIt’s the last Six Degrees of the year hosted by Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and we begin with a book that for many readers is required reading at this time of the year: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was my first experience of Dickens, introduced to him via an abridged version that nevertheless included some lovely line drawings.

Now the obvious path from here would be a link to another Christmas related novel but I’m going to take a different direction. My thread picks up on the word carol. Or rather, the word Carol as in the girl’s name.

CarolCarol is the title of a 1952 novel about a lesbian relationship by Patricia Highsmith. Since you are all astute readers, you’ll see immediately that my sentence is wildly inaccurate.

Highsmith actually used a pseudonym of Claire Morgan because some of the characters and events in the story referred to her own life.  And the book was originally called The Price of Salt but underwent a change of title to Carol when it was re-printed in 1990. This is the title used for the recent film version issued in 2005 and starring Cate Blanchett.

Carol is not the first — and highly unlikely to be the last — novel with more than one title.  I’m almost spoiled for choice with my next book in this link. I’m settling for one that underwent an identity change as a result of a mix up between publishers.

northern lightsNorthern Lights  is an award-winning young adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman about an Arctic quest by Lyra Belacqua in search of her missing friend and her uncle who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as “Dust”. Pullman conceived this as the first part of a trilogy. During pre-publication the UK publishers used a working series title of The Golden Compasses — an allusion to God’s poetic delineation of the world. Across the Atlantic however, the US publishers Knopf had been calling the first book The Golden Compass (singular)  mistakenly thinking this related to a device featured on the front cover that looked like a navigational compass.

By the time Pullman decided his preferred name for the trilogy would be His Dark Materials (rather than The Golden Compasses), Knopf had become very attached to their own title., They insisted on publishing the first book as The Golden Compass. This was adopted as the name for the 2007 film version with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

The Golden Compass/Northern Lights has been controversial ever since its publication in 1995, primarily because it was considered to promote atheism and attack Christianity, in particular the Catholic church. Consequently the book frequently appears on lists of books that are banned from a number of public libraries and schools in the United States.

Colour purpleAnother novel that has been fiercely denounced and also banned is Alice Walker’s epistolary novel about racism, sexism and poverty The Colour Purple.  Objectors cited its graphic sexual content and also “troubling ideas” about race relations and religion in arguing for its removal from schools.

While The Color Purple does contain a lot of controversial content, none of this is gratuitous. The attitudes and behaviours portrayed by Alice Walker are ugly but they are nevertheless real. Even more worrying is that in some parts of the world, prejudice continues to exist and is all too prevalent.


The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s 2018 novel The Mars Room is a reminder that prejudice takes several forms. In this novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she shows how the legal and penal system in America works against people from the poorest groups in society. Unable to afford a decent lawyer, they have to rely on state appointed legal representatives who are often too over-worked and too underpaid to do more than a superficial review of their client’s case. Consequently people like the protagonist Romy Hall never get to tell their full story in court including any mitigating circumstances.

I seem to have stepped onto a soap box which may not be what you want to read. This is after all, meant to be the time of year when we display charity,  forgiveness and goodwill to each and everyone (and yes that does include the  person who just barged into the back of your heels with a pushchair, and the one who biffed you in the ribs with their overlarge backpack.)

So in that spirit I shall make my final book somewhat more uplifting. I don’t do feel-good books (I find them generally too cloying) but I’m sure I can find a book that is a tad bit more cheerful.

little-womenYep, I have it – a good partner to A Christmas Carol in fact since this is book is also considered a classic. It’s another I read and enjoyed as a child though reading it as an adult a few years ago, was a vastly different experience.

I’m referring of course to Little Women by Louisa M Alcott which was published in 1863 and proved so popular it sold more than 13,000 copies within six weeks of its release.  Against her own preference, Alcott was persuaded to write the sequel Good Wives. Though I still love the tomboy character of Jo March ( I suspect I was not alone in wanting to be just like her), the overall story was too didactic for my tastes now.

But it couldn’t be more appropriate for this last chain of the year since it begins with a very seasonal reference.

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

And so we come full circle. We’ve come a long way on our journey, from the Arctic to the American deep south. Where has your chain taken you?

3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids

cross-over readingOne of the biggest trends in publishing in recent years has been the emergence of ‘cross-over fiction” – novels written for teen readers which can also be enjoyed by adults. J.K Rowling set the trend with her Harry Potter series and it’s continued with the Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series, Hunger Games, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Book Thief etc etc  Here are three ‘cross-over” novels I’ve read in the last year which all can be enjoyed  by young readers but which contain plenty of material to get adults thinking…

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

First of all a confession. I hated this book the first time I read it. If it hadn’t been required reading for my children’s literature course I would never have even considered reading this. It’s in the fantasy genre which is never my cup of tea. We not only get  anthropomorphic animals – in the shape of armoured bears with human-level intelligence – but Pullman introduces some weird fictional beings called “dæmons” that are the companions of humans and accompany them everywhere. Both these elements were guaranteed to get me squirming with discomfort.  I struggled through the book and was relieved to get to the end.

But such is the nature of reading for academic purposes that reading a set text once is not enough. So I gritted my teeth and entered once more the parallel universe in which Northern Lights is set. And you know what; after a while I actually began to appreciate that what Pullman has created a book that can be enjoyed in two vastly different ways.

One one level this is a pure adventure story of good versus evil. Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl, sets off on a quest in search of her friend Roger who’s gone missing. There are plenty of narrow escapes and thrilling moments to keep younger readers entertained – this is a world that crawls with danger in the form of gobblers who snatch children and academics who use poison.  Lyra makes her way through this world with the aid of a golden compass which acts like a lie detector and one of those armoured polar bears.

For readers who want more thought-provoking content, Pullman introduces a mysterious celestial phenomena called ‘Dust.”  This, Lyra discovers, has spawned parallel universes,  is connected to death and misery, and is believed to be the physical basis of  original sin. Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children who are more ‘innocent’ and unconscious beings.  Her adopted uncle Lord Asriel believes ‘Dust” is a force for evil and wants Lyra’s help to destroy it.  This is a novel that explores big themes: the conflict between the powers of science and religion; innocence versus knowledge; the soul versus the human body. Apparently Pullman’s intention was for  Northern Lights to be  “A rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” for young adults, hence the ideas of Dust and daemons are meant to be read allegorically. I have a feeling this is a book that could easily be re-read several times for that reason. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

This is another powerful novel which asks big questions, this time about racism and poverty. It’s set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression and  has a wonderful narrator in the form of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. She’s  a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper, whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. It’s through her that we experience attitudes towards the black population of the state and see the catastrophic effects when some local people take the law into their own hands.  For young readers the content around school and friendship would likely be of interest but for older readers there is a lot of darker material with lynch mobs and arson.  I thought the first few chapters were bogged down by too much exposition and the narrative voice didn’t always feel like that of a young girl. But the remainder of the novel was a compelling story about dignity in the face of injustice.

Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve

I had no idea when I started reading this book that it fell into the category of ‘steampunk’. Frankly I had no idea what that term even meant. Good old Wikipedia came to my rescue by explaining that steampunk is a  “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. ”  Glad we got that cleared up. It does describe Mortal Engines pretty well since this is an alternative history kind of novel which imagines a post-apocalyptic world of Traction Cities –  giant mobile machines that roam a land torn apart by earthquakes and volcanoes. London, the primary traction city, has to hunt down and dismantle other cities and towns to ‘feed’ itself. This is a fast-paced action novel with two teenagers as the heroes who uncover a sinister plot by the city’s Lord Mayor and get into plenty of scrapes and near misses as they try to block his plans.  My problem with science fiction/fantasy novels is usually that the imaginary world doesn’t feel realistic enough or that the narrative is stuffed full of technical info that I don’t find interesting let alone understandable. But Reeve’s imaginary world is so superbly conceived I had a whale of a time reading this book. Like Northern Lights, it can be read as an adventure story but it also has some powerful ideas about nuclear warfare, the value of learning from history.  In our current volatile world, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage these traction cities like countries always on the prowl for other nations to swallow.

 

Reading Snapshot October 2016

autumn-leaves-in-sun3I can pretend no longer. The tinges of red on bushes in my garden and the rate at which our copper beech is shedding leaves tells me that summer is over. Time for the season of mists and intermittent sunshine.

I know many readers who change their reading habits once the seasons evolve and start to think of slightly darker, or more cosy books once the nights begin drawing in. I don’t consciously do that – as far as I can tell I read pretty much the same things all year round. It’s rather a coincidence therefore that the two books I have on the go at the start of October are rather dark.

Reading Currently

One is the latest in the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny that I’m reviewing for NetGalley. Penny has found a clever way of dealing with the problem that two books earlier she made her protagonist retire from his job as head of homicide for the Quebec region after a dramatic showdown with the corruptive elements in the force.  The last novel saw him retire to the quiet community of Three Pines with this wife, but even then he found a crime to solve. But of course she can’t go on creating crimes in Three Pines given it is such a small community. The latest novel A Great Reckoning sees him take up a new role at the helm of the police training academy, determined on a root and branch review and a cull of the less desirable influences which of course sets him firmly on course to antagonise his colleagues. One of them get murdered and Gamache is in the frame as a potential murder. As with all of Penny’s novels we get a reasonably good plot but a lot of thoughtful commentary about the state of the world as seen by Gamache.

It’s all rather different from my second novel which is Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – the first in his trilogy. I read it a few years ago and wasn’t all that enamoured with it – it features a talking bear and some fantastical creatures called daemons that you carry with you as a reflection of your soul. Reading it a second time for my  study module on children’s literature I can appreciate more the way Pullman plays with the typical elements of fantasy and quest fiction, of mythology and Paradise Lost to create a tale of other worlds that asks searching questions about religion and the role of the Church. Still wish he hadn’t included  talking bears though….

Just Finished

I do seem to be on a run of darker material since I only just finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing by the Canadian author Madeline Thien. It’s shortlisted for both the Booker prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It covers a vast swathe of Chinese history from the era of Mao and the devastation he brought to the nation not to mention the untold number of deaths, right up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some of the history is familiar from my reading of Wild Swans (one of my favourite non fiction books) but Thien looks at this through the lens of three highly respected and talented musicians and how political upheaval affects their ability to learn, play and enjoy music. It’s an ambitious novel and really tough to review for Shiny New Books for their upcoming edition.

What’s next?

A lot of other children’s novels await my attention in coming months. Next in order will be Treasure Island which I love and Little Women which I loathe…. In between I hope to get to some of the books I mentioned in a recent post about books on the Autumn reading plan but like most of my plans its likely to go astray. German literature month beckons as does the 1947 club and then there’s the Classics Club prize which I have sadly neglected this year and the Booker project and my world literature project. Plenty to occupy me for sure.

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