Saturday, July 28, 2007

Jack McDevitt - Engines of God

"Archaeologists in Space" would be a fairly accurate title for this neat little science fiction novel. In Jack McDevitt's 1996 novel we encounter an Earth wrecked by global warming and war; and a humankind struggling for a future. The universe that they hope to escape into though is surprisingly devoid of very much intelligent life. Which is surprising because the galaxy is littered with the artifacts and remains of long dead civilisations.

In an effort to understand this future archaeologists explore in much the same way that archaeologists today examine artifacts, the remains, cities and monuments of these long dead civilisations.

Principle amongst the extinct aliens are the "monument makers" who have left gigantic monuments amongst the stars, often near the remains of other civilisations. These monuments appear to serve no purpose and the future scientists scratch their heads and speculate about the meaning of the inscriptions and buildings in the same way that their fore-fathers did standing on the Giza plateau.

Of course archaeology rarely makes for exciting space based drama. We're offered some of this as the scientists race to understand a vital new clue before the planet it is on is destroyed by other scientists trying to terraform the planet for future habitation by humans fleeing the dying Earth.

Further excitement is provided as the scientists gradually start to work out that all the civilisations appear to have suffered destructive events in the past with surprising patterns and they get marooned in space in a solar system filled with planet sized radio telescopes.

McDevitt has produced a rather exciting vision of the future, interestingly grasping the nettle of climate change and environmental catastrophe before it was popular for SF writers. To combine that with space ships and archaeology makes this book almost to exciting to read for this particular reviewer.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Steven Mithen - The Singing Neanderthals; The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body

Quite early on in the reading of this book, it becomes clear that just how humans communicate, how language developed and how our minds work are matters that keep specialist scientists arguing late into the night.

Steven Mithen's excellent introduction to the debates around these matters does a good job of introducing the basic ideas to an audience of non-specialists. At almost roller-coaster speed, we learn basic brain science, how babies use language, which parts of the mind are responsible for music and language, why we might have emotions and so on.

Mithen's central theory is one that I suspect is much more controversial though. He argues that music and I mean music in all it's forms - singing, rhythm, chanting and so on, formed a much more important part of the development of the human mind. He looks at how other apes react to music, the inter-relation between music and language, and how babies develop the capacity for speech.

I must admit to finding it all a little confusing. Mithen has an easy style, but the book ends up being, in my mind, a collection of fascinating anecdotes and nuggets of information, but I felt his general argument got lost in amongst it all.

Fot instance, I was fascinated to learn about the interactions between mothers and babies, and how "baby language" actually stimulates the child's ability to pick up language later. I'm sure though, that I'll remember this much longer than Mithen's much more detailed arguments about how music and singing by mothers is part of this too. Similarly, he has very interesting stuff to say about how emotions develop and how collective living has always been central to human existence, but it all got lost in a wealth of detail and bittiness.

In the end, while thoroughly enjoying this book, I was also very disappointed by it - part of this contradiction lies in my thorough enjoyment of Mithen's earlier work, After the Ice. This was for me one of the best works about human development at the end of the last ice-age ever written for non-professionals interested in archaeology and human development. That was a superb book which will long remain with me. This is clearly a much more developed, complex work, which unfortunately didn't stimulate the right bit of my brain.

Related Reviews

Mithen - To the Islands
Mithen - After the Ice

Monday, July 16, 2007

Richard Morgan - Market Forces

A quick Google of the phrase "anti-capitalist science fiction" generates few hits. Perhaps this review will link Richard Morgan's novel "Market Forces" with this rather apt description, even if I do say so myself.

The world of Market Forces is perhaps best described as an extrapolation of our own. The multinational corporations that dominate the world's economies of today have become more power than the nation state. Independent of it even. Their ruthless struggle for profits, plays itself out down to every level. Executives duel in armour plated cars on almost empty motorways for position in the company. Serious promotion can only occur by returning to work "with blood on your wheels". Such methods of "natural selection" mean that senior partners are only those ruthless enough to stamp out competition by any means necessary.

These individual battles play out against a backdrop of poverty, violence and drug-abuse on London's derelict estates. There's no welfare state left, a job marks the ordinary person out for violence, except for a few who live in armed gated communities in terror of the rest of the population.

I was reminded while reading this of some of those films of the 1980s, company executives, drunk on power, prepared to stamp on all opposition to get the money - Morgan's dark satire and humour is an extension of this. An unlikely world perhaps, but not impossible.

We follow one of the executives through the beginnings of a rather complex business deal (a deal that will could mean the lives of thousands being sacrificed) as he $battles personally for control. The novel concentrates on Chris Faulkner (*), as the contradictions of his life open up. His wife hates his violent life, though for a woman with principle, she's strangely tied to her husband. Deep down inside he seems to have princples, though they make themselves known in strange ways (Kneecapping of Nazis for instance).

The plot drifts along, without seeming to go any place simple. There's a lot of gung-ho drinking and fighting, quite a bit of unneccessarily detailed sex scenes and a fair bit of simplistic politics which combines to make a surprisingly intense reading experience.

If you like your anti-heros and you'll like this novel, particularly if you believe in a bleak future for man-kind. Though you don't have to share the author's cynical view of the human spirit.

(*) There's a neat little joke in the novel, when a night-club owner repeatadly jokes about the main character's surname being similar to the famous american novelist. Of course, none of the company executives, supposedly cleverer than the rest of the stupid masses understand the reference.