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Holiday Time

This is going to be my last post for several weeks. I’ll be flying off to Australia tomorrow and, with a full schedule, I don’t expect to be reading much – and definitely not writing reviews.

I expect to be back at the end of the year with some more book reviews and maybe the occasional short story. On my TBR list, I have three classics – Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle,

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plus a couple more recent novels – The Gift by Louise Jensen (to be published later this month) and Chains of Blood and Steel by Karen Gray (promised to read!).

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I also to intend to round off my articles on Asimov’s Foundation with a look at the final two volumes – Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (published posthumously 1993).

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If you would like to read some of my older reviews in the meantime, you’ll be able to download them in a Kindle book, Classic Reviews, FREE from 4th to 8th December here  (UK), or at other Amazon sites – USNetherlandsGermanyCanadaAustralia etc.

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as a Christmas thank you for following my blog. I’m hoping to plot the trip on Facebook, maybe with a few photos, so if you want to check me out there, please do.

However you may celebrate the Christmas season, I wish you a happy and enjoyable time.

See you in a month!

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The Martian

by Andy Weir

I had avoided buying this book for so long. I saw the film and enjoyed it so much, and that made me wary.

So many wonderful novels are turned into dreadful films. Great movies from mediocre novels are not so common – but it happens often enough! So, as I said, I avoided buying and reading The Martian until presented with the opportunity (at one of those ‘swap book’ places – in my case the local village hall) to acquire a copy at no cost. Half-way through and I could only wonder why I hesitated. And now I’m wondering what my reaction would have been if I’d read the book before watching the movie. Would I have considered The Martian a dreadful film?

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As it happens, I don’t think so, because all the essential elements are there. Yet the book is so much better, the scientific stuff so much more detailed: chemistry, physics, botany, human physiology and the rest – it’s all there.

A brief summary will suffice for anyone who hasn’t either read the book or watched the movie: Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars. His crew mates have left the planet thinking he is dead. However, Mark has nothing if not time on his hands and figures out a way to survive until the next Mars expedition is due to arrive. He cannibalises his equipment, manufactures water from its constituent parts and plants potatoes; he rebuilds a Rover with an extra battery and solar cells capable of recharging both, with the objective of travelling 3,200K to the next landing site. Meantime, NASA has discovered he is alive and is trying to find a way to bring him home. And, of course, they eventually have to tell his crew mates.

Being alone on an alien planet, with no atmosphere worth speaking of, is not without unforeseen dangers and Mark has many new challenges to overcome before he can rendezvous with his rescuers. The novel keeps us on tenterhooks until the very end when we discover IF, or HOW, he’s going to make it.

The Martian is one of those books where you think – wow! the problem is solved, only to uncover another problem that demands another solution, and another, and another ….. I think this book is  a ‘must read’ for all space opera fans. Maybe Mark Watney is a bit too resourceful to be real, but it is great science fiction.

***

 

 

Hag-Seed

by Margaret Atwood

‘Hag-seed, hence! Fetch us in fuel. And be quick, thou’rt best to answer other business.’ [Prospero to Caliban, The Tempest]

From the off, we suspect that Hag-Seed might be be Atwood at her most provocatively outrageous. However, post-prologue, the novel settles down to a semblance of normality.

Felix is sacked as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. He makes some life changes and plans revenge on those who have ousted him. Apart from living in a hovel and having an imaginary daughter called Miranda, Felix seems to be a fairly normal guy. [I should point out here that – as we learn at the beginning of the book – Felix did have a daughter Miranda, but she died.]

‘She never asked him how they came to be there together, living in the shanty, apart from everyone else. He never told her. It would have been a shock to her, to learn that she did not exist.’

Nine years into his exile, Felix takes a job at a prison, teaching theatre, a chance to develop his own particular – and rather exotic, or eccentric, depending on one’s point of view – ideas about the presentation  of Shakespeare’s plays. This is Shakespeare as you’ve never seen it before, and what better stage than such an intense microcosm of Shakespeare’s Thespian world of witchcraft, revenge, lust and regicide than among a bunch of thieves , murderers, con-men and rapists?

‘His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.’

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For three years, Felix’s endeavours appear successful and he begins his fourth with great expectations of not only producing a successful play but of acting out his revenge. The instigators of his downfall, Tony and Sal, now ministers in the government, are to visit the prison.

‘Is it really that helpful, Mr Duke, to expose these damaged men …. these vulnerable men to traumatic situations that can trigger anxiety and panic and flashbacks, or, worse, dangerous aggressive behaviour?’

The play chosen for the year is The Tempest. There are some problems with the casting. No-one wants to play the parts of Miranda (a girl!) or Ariel (a fairy!) Here, Felix uses his imagination and ingenuity. He engages Anne-Marie, a professional actress, for Miranda, and persuades his inmate actors that Ariel isn’t really a fairy but some kind of invisible alien.

So far, so good, you think, and not too outrageous. Think again! I mean, they all want to be Ariel, fifteen Caliban, and not one King Alonso. The men are encouraged to look up ‘swear-words’ from the play and to use them instead of the conventional four-letter variety. But what about Felix’s revenge?

Well, what he plans is not exactly legal and, as the story develops, we wonder if he can really pull it off. Full of hi-tech wizardry, Felix’s alternative play – his play within a play, if you like – is daring and depends on precise theatrical timing. After all, the governor’s party are watching, are they not?

One of a series of novelistic re-tellings++ of Shakespeare by contemporary authors, Hag-Seed is an Atwoodesque re-imagining of The Tempest itself. Making use of the well-known Shakespearean technique of ‘the play within a play’, it goes a stage further and gives us a play within a play within another play. Felix is Prospero, Anne-Marie is Miranda, but with which characters in the play shall we identify the other characters of the novel? It isn’t always too clear, but it’s fun trying.

*****

++Hag-Seed is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Press
series.
Three others are already in print:
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (The Winter's Tale)
Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson (The Merchant
of Venice)
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (The Taming of the Shrew)
Four others will be released over the next few years.
For details, see http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

*

Farewell to South Africa

[I wrote this piece a while ago, an imagining of my mother’s experience on leaving her childhood home. I hope you enjoy it.]

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The taxi pulled up on the quayside. From my seat in the back, I looked up at the massive hull of the ship in the berth. Now that the time had come, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave South Africa, the only home I had ever known. I missed the mission school and my friends, and I did not want to trade them for a new life with people and places I didn’t know. Worst of all, I still missed my father, now dead seven years. I was afraid of leaving him behind, of forgetting him and the memories of the short years we had shared.

The driver left the motor running as he helped us alight. He unloaded our hand luggage. We had sent on our trunks and they would already be delivered to our cabin.

My mother paid the driver and added a small tip. Now that the main breadwinner was gone, we weren’t rich, but there was such a thing as pride.

‘It’ll be all right, Annie,’ my mother said, picking up her bag and hugging my shoulders with her free hand. She seemed to understand what I was feeling but somehow it didn’t help. I began to cry and buried my face in the folds of her cape.

It would be my fifth crossing. However, this trip would be different. My mother had made it clear that we would be spending more than just a few weeks in Scotland, the country she had left fifteen years earlier to marry my father in Boksburg. She hadn’t really explained why she wanted to leave Africa or how long she expected us to be away. She had even talked about sending me to school in Britain. That made things worse. I could conceive of no reasons that made sense why we would leave our comfortable, warm lives for faraway Scotland. I had been there and hadn’t liked it much. The weather was cold and dull and the people spoke with a funny accent, all ayes and ocks and long, rumbling rrrs. My grandpa had become quite angry when I said I didn’t understand him. My uncles had smelled of tobacco smoke.

For a few moments, I enjoyed the comfort of my mother’s embrace. Then I withdrew from her bosom, sniffed and wiped my damp face on the sleeve of my new travelling frock.

‘Use a handkerchief, Annie,’ my mother chided. ‘Remember you’re a young lady!’

Two officials of the mail ship company were waiting to inspect our tickets and our papers. My mother handed them over and we waited. The procedure seemed to take forever. I passed the time staring at other passengers who had passed through and were making their way up the gangplank – stiff and sullen strangers I had no intention of befriending.

Our embarkation approved, my mother squeezed my shoulder again and kissed me gently on the forehead.

‘It’ll be all right, Annie. It really will. We have one another and that’s all that matters, isn’t it?’

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I nodded, wondering what the voyage would be like. The last trip had been rather fun but that had been a proper holiday. Apart from the Bay of Biscay crossing when I was sick, I had enjoyed myself, watching the sun come up over the sea and playing all the deck games. I had no expectation of enjoying this adventure. There were only two maiden aunts to look forward to. They would be staying with us, my mother had told me – while we made other plans.

We were now close to the ship and the quay had become quite noisy. Taxis deposited more travellers and honked as they pulled away empty. Trade vans hooted and from time to time the ship gave a trial blast of its horn. I looked up at the gaping hole in the ship’s side, ready to swallow us up, and imprison us and most of what we owned, for three weeks in its bowels.

I turned to catch one last glimpse of Table Mountain, just visible behind the warehouses and cranes. The African sky was blue with scarcely a cloud. I looked up at my mother, rubbed my eyes again and set one foot on the gangplank.

*****

Building a Foundation

Foundation’s Edge &

Foundation and Earth

by Isaac Asimov

Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, published in novel form in 1951-53 was first conceived as a series of short stories in the 1940s. [See https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/history-of-the-future/] Complete in themselves and as a unit, the three novels did not need a follow-up. Asimov turned his attention to other matters. Apart from a few unrelated sci-fi works and some short stories, his entire output for about thirty years was devoted to non-fiction books. Most – though not all  – dealt with scientific subjects.

‘Slowly the Galaxy was turning so that it could be seen at right angles to the Galactic plane … a gigantic, glowing whirlpool, with curves of darkness, and knots of brightness, and a central all-but-featurless blaze.’

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Suddenly, and maybe unexpectedly, in 1982, he returned to his Foundation stories. As he wrote himself ‘… fans kept asking me to continue … I kept refusing.’ The real pressure seems to have come from his publishers with a contract Asimov just couldn’t refuse. So he wrote Foundation’s Edge and, in 1986, followed that with Foundation and Earth. I was already a fan of his books so I went out and bought both.

Both novels are complete in themselves though, in Galactic years, the second follows immediately from the first. The chief protagonist is Golan Trevize, an outspoken councilman of the Foundation Federation, five hundred years after its founding on the planet Terminus. Believing the mysterious Second Foundation of psychohistorians still exists, he confides in a friend who promptly betrays him to the Mayor of Terminus, Harla Branno. Branno exiles him, gives him a state-of-the-art spaceship and tells him he can return only if he can locate this world of mind-adjusting psychologists. Accompanying Trevize is historian/mythologist Janov Pelorat, whose objective is to discover the planet of origin (Earth).

‘Trevize sat silently … he could hear Mayor Branno’s voice say firmly , “Free will!” Speaker Gendibal’s voice … “Guidance and peace! … “Novi’s voice … “Life!” ‘

Meantime, on the planet Trantor, Stor Gendibal, a Speaker of the Second Foundation, has his own problems. Gendibal too is a rebel in his society, and he too is sent – accompanied by the woman Sura Novi – on a quest to find and destroy the unknown entity that is apparently derailing the Seldon Plan.

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Driven by their double mission, Trevize and Pelorat follow the trail to the planet Gaia, while Gendibal and Nova for different motives pursue a similar course. Foundation’s Edge ends with a rendezvous in space, a confrontation of several powerful forces at which Trevize must make a decision as to which Foundation, if any, should best rule the Galaxy.

‘It held out its hand and from Trevize’s right holster there emerged his blaster, while from his left holster there rose up his neuronic whip. Trevize snatched at his weapons but felt his arms held back as though by stiffly elastic bonds.’

Foundation and Earth narrates the further adventures of Trevize, Pelorat and the Gaian girl Bliss as they resume the search for Earth. Does it exist, or is it myth as many believe? And why have all records relating to it been removed from the planetary libraries? The renewed quest leads the three travelers into dangers they cannot possibly foresee, and against new adversaries, human and otherwise. Irresistibly drawn towards the original home of humanity, Trevize finally understands why he made the decision he did. But was it really his decision to make, or is the Galaxy already controlled by a more powerful force than either Foundation, or even than the mind of the benevolent Gaia?

‘Fallom closed her eyes. The note was softer now and under firmer control. The flute played by itself, manoevred by no fingers but moved by distant energy, transduced through the still immature lobes of Fallom’s brain.’

Foundation’s Edge is every bit as good as the original trilogy, and I enjoyed it as much as I did when I read it many years ago. Foundation and Earth – for someone who has followed the stories thus far – suffers in parts from too much unnecessary repetition. However, it is still a worthy conclusion to the epic, full a twists and driven forward by Asimov’s masterly dialogue.

*****

 

 

Life Lessons

Continuing my science theme, I have been reading No Dream Is Too High by Buzz Aldrin. It’s not exactly a book about science, nor is it strictly an autobiography. Rather, it’s one man’s recipe for life, peppered with anecdotes from 87 years of living.

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Everyone knows Buzz Aldrin as the second man to set foot on the moon but he has done much more besides during his already long life. No Dream Is Too High is divided into 13 chapters, each with advice for the reader who dreams of reaching for the sky. I think all of them are good advice and would like to share them with you:

  1. The sky is not the limit; there are footprints on the Moon.
  2. Keep your mind open to possibilities: quote – ‘We don’t do things that way – great, let’s try something new!’
  3. Show me your friends and I will show you the future.
  4. Second comes right after first: quote – ‘It’s OK to be second as long as you do the absolute best you can.’
  5. Write your own epitaph.
  6. Maintain your spirit of adventure.
  7. Failure is always an option: quote – ‘Failure …. is a sign that you are alive and growing.’
  8.  Practise respect for all people.
  9. Do what you believe is right even when others choose otherwise.
  10. Trust your gut … and your instruments.
  11. Laugh … a lot!
  12. Keep a young mind-set at every age: quote – ‘I hear people complaining about growing older. Why would I want to do that? After all, think of the other options.’
  13. Help others go beyond where you have gone.

No Dream Is Too High is not great literature [and I don’t think it’s meant to be].  The narrative jumps around a lot in time and space (as it were). However, it is an interesting read. Buzz talks about his service in the Korean War, his experiences as an astronaut and the down side of being famous. The book is full of little gems of information like (1) Aldrin’s mother’s name was Marion Moon; (2) He was the first person to take a ‘selfie’ in space; (3) His ‘giant step for mankind’ – more of a jump really – was very nearly his last; (4) President Nixon wrote a second speech – an eulogy for the three moon astronauts, just in case they didn’t make it.

No Dream Is Too High is written in collaboration with Ken Abraham, a non-fiction writer who specialises in co-authoring with high profile public figures.

****

Childhood’s End

by Arthur C Clarke

A Review

You may have noticed that I’ve been spending the past few weeks reading science “stuff”, and that includes both fact and fiction. Today, I’d like to share with you a book by one of my favourite sci-fi authors.

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Arthur C Clarke, like Isaac Asimov (another favourite), was a scientist. During World War II he was involved in the development of radar and studied for a degree in maths and physics only after the war had ended. He is probably best known for his screenplay (shared) of the film 2001, A Space Odyssey.

***

‘ “On that day,” said Karellen, “the human race will experience what can only be called a psychological discontinuity. But no permanent harm will be done; the men of that age will be more stable than their grandfathers.” ‘

In Childhood’s End, the Earth is ruled – or rather ‘supervised’ – by the Overlords, an alien species who seek to end wars and crime, and to bring peace and stability to the planet. No one has seen an Overlord; their representative Karellen communicates to the human race through Stormgren, Director-General of the UN but Stormgren has only ever heard his voice. Alien rule is benevolent and there are only a relative few dissenters whom Karellen is well able to keep under observation and control by the use of advanced technology.

Karellen promises that the Overlords will reveal themselves to mankind in 50 years time and, indeed, they keep their promise. To describe an Overlord would be a spoiler, so I shall say only that their appearance might, in some people, awake ancient fears and dreams. However, the Revelation (another good word) sees the dawn of a golden age.

‘Out of the orifice, a wide, glittering gangway extruded itself and drove purposefully towards the ground…… The world was watching that dark portal, within which nothing had stirred. Then the ….. sound of Karellen floated softly down from some hidden source.’

In the central section of the book, Clarke introduces several new characters. Of particular relevance to the story are Rupert Boyce and his wife Maia, her brother Jan Rodricks, and some of their party guests: George Greggson, Jean Morrel and Rashaverak (an Overlord), who visits the Boyces so he can read all the books in George’s library of paranormal literature. Jan is not content to be a mere ‘subject’ of the Overlords but wants to know all about them and where they come from. At the conclusion of his party, Rupert organises a séance, at which Jan poses the question ‘Which star is the Overlords’ sun?’ Mysteriously, the plate spells out the answer ‘NGS 549672’.

‘….what you have brought into the world may be utterly alien, it may share none of your desires and hopes, it may look upon your greatest achievements as childish toys – yet it is something wonderful and you will have created it.’

Jan resolves to go there and stows away in one of the Overlords returning starships. He realises that more than 80 years will pass on Earth while he is away but he has no wife or responsibilities so that doesn’t really matter. His departure and the Overlords’ discovery of it leads to the unfolding of the final act. Meantime, Jeffrey Greggson, the young son of George and Jean, is developing strange powers.

What is happening to the human race? What kind of future is in store for us? Why have the Overlords really come to Earth?

These are questions that WILL be answered eventually but will we – will Jan Rodricks – be here to hear the answers?

Childhood’s End is not a conventional sci-fi work. It’s true there are aliens and space travel, but the novel has a philosophical and moralistic edge to it, not to mention the psychic stuff. Clarke was a member of the British Interplanetary Society and had a lifelong interest in astronomy and space travel. However, he was also curious, though sceptical, about the paranormal and used his interest to good effect in this intriguing novel.

Final thought:

‘Far down in the rock, the segments of uranium began to rush together, seeking the union they could never achieve. And the Island rose to meet the dawn.’

***

Book Review: Measuring the World

by Daniel Kehlmann

(Die Vermesserung der Welt)

This novel is a double biography of two of the giants of science, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt, fast-paced and told with irreverent humour.

‘It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss …. that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. It gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-a-vis the future.’

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The book begins with the meeting of the two men in Berlin in 1828 before turning back the clock to their childhood and youth. Kehlmann contrasts the stiff, aristocratic Prussian, Humboldt, with the humbly-born child prodigy, Gauss, both – in their own opinions anyway – destined for great things. While the former will travel the world in pursuit of his passion for botany and geography, the latter is destined to exercise his genius without leaving Germany.

Measuring the World is divided into chapters devoted alternately to their lives and careers. We learn of  Humboldt’s relationship with his would-be politician brother (equally famous!) and follow him as he travels with his accident-prone companion, the Frenchman Bonpland, from Europe to Trinidad and through South America. Humboldt’s contributions to the world were mainly in the natural sciences – his work influenced Darwin – but he was also interested in mining, electricity and magnetism, and was something of a philosopher too.

‘….Humboldt’s skin produced two large blisters. And now please cut the blisters open! The servant hesitated, Humboldt had to raise his voice, the servant took up the scalpel …. Now for the frogs! Oh no, said the servant.’

Turning to Gauss, Kehlmann describes his childhood and schooling, his ‘stay at home’ nature and his determination to marry Johanna while at the same time consorting with the prostitute Nina. Gauss was, first and foremost, a mathematician but he also contributed to physics and astronomy.

‘The coach set off …. crammed with evil-smelling people; a woman ate raw eggs, shell and all, and a man kept up an uninterrupted stream of jokes that were blasphemous without being funny. Gauss tried to ignore it all by reading the latest issue of …. Global and Celestial Knowledge.’

Although, in real life, both men made important discoveries and significantly contributed to our  knowledge of the planet, Measuring the World concentrates less on their science as such, more on their personalities and eccentricities. The backgrounds of the two were quite different and as human beings they appear to have had little in common save their obsessions and their association with the Duke of Brunswick, godparent to Humboldt and patron of Gauss. Though broadly factual, many of the scenes and incidents in the book are either pure conjecture or sheer invention. However, Kehlmann does his fiction in style. We can almost believe it all to be true –  but not quite!

Devoted to his mother, Gauss was the family man who liked women – but could easily be distracted by his calculations:

‘… she wound her legs around his body, but he apologized, got up, stumbled to the desk, dipped the pen, and without lighting a candle wrote “sum of square of diff. betw. obs’d and calc’d >s Min” ….’

Humboldt was not greatly attached to his mother and seems to have preferred men. His stoicism, indeed masochistic tendencies are treated by Kehlmann as a topic for gleeful humour. His relations with women were strange, to say the least:

‘Women were frequent visitors: Humboldt counted the lice in their plaited hair. They came in groups, whispering to one another, and giggled at the little man in his uniform with the magnifying glass …’

Towards the end of the novel, the author reverts to that famous meeting when it seems the two protagonists are doing a lot of talking but not really communicating. By now, they are thinking a lot about what it means to be old, and wondering if they have really achieved anything in their lives and whether they will be remembered by posterity. Humboldt embarks on his final expedition to Russia while Gauss goes home again leaving his son in prison as a suspected revolutionary. Remember, it’s 1828.

This is a lighthearted book and an easy read. While the author is clearly sending up the eccentricities of his protagonists in a way which is out of sync with most English speakers’ idea of Germanic humour (though Kehlmann was born in Germany he has spent most of his life in Vienna), he never loses touch with the times he is describing. I do not believe he intentionally  disrespects either of the two men – and certainly not their work. However, the depiction of scientists here, especially in respect of their communicative skills is more caricature than fact. Scientists may indeed be obsessive, argumentative and even absent-minded but they are seen here as excessively so. As it seems to implicate all scientists,  I find that presentation just a bit negative.

That said, Measuring the World is a lot of fun. The comedic scenario is not the kind of thing one finds in “classical” German writing but I suspect that’s because “fun” is not always easy to translate! Carol Brown Janeway, translator of the present work, does it extremely well.

***

 

 

 

 

 

A Reality Check

Review:

Reality Is Not What It Seems

by Carlo Rovelli

‘The only true infinite thing is our ignorance.’

Carlo Rovelli is a professional scientist, a theoretical physicist who specialises in the study of quantum gravity. In this book he traces the developments in scientific thought that have led to our present knowledge of the cosmos. Beginning with the philosopher scientists of ancient Greece, he shows how, in many ways, our understanding of reality today is only an extension and development of ideas put forward by Democritus and Ptolemy, and more recently by Copernicus, Kepler and Galilei. Moving on to the more controversial theories of this century, he leaves us in no doubt that the story is incomplete for, as much as we know, there is so much more we do not know.

‘Our life is a combination of atoms, our thoughts …. hopes and emotions are written in a language formed by combination of atoms which bring us images.’

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After reviewing the achievements of Newton, Rovelli gives us the electromagnetic fields of Faraday and Maxwell before introducing Special Relativity and the concept of ‘the extended present.’ He moves on to discuss the two major (and apparently conflicting) physical theories of the twentieth century, General Relativity and Quanta.

‘…. every object in the universe has its own time running, at a pace determined by the local gravitational field.’

So far, so good! Fields and Relativity are part of school physics nowadays and anyone with a grounding will be able to appreciate Rovelli’s new approach to the subjects. We learn that not only is spacetime curved but it equates to the gravitational field (and vice versa). Instead of the ‘simplistic’ structure envisaged by Newton of space + time + particles, our new reality consists of particles + electromagnetic and gravitational fields.

‘The world is a swarming of elementary events, immersed in a sea of vast dynamical space which sways like the water of an ocean.’

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Quantum Theory is something else, and no one really understands it anyway, so to appreciate it takes a bit more effort. The point we have reached now is no entity is infinitely divisible, ie there is no infinity. The universe, though without borders, is finite and everything in it is granular, composed at the sub-microscopic level of tiny clouds of probability. Both visions of reality work, Relativity Theory at the macroscopic level, Quantum Theory at the microscopic – how else could we make digital computers? The trick now is to combine the two ideas into one universal theory which works at all levels.

The rest of Reality Is Not What It Seems is devoted to doing just that. Modern science offers us two competing theories, respectively string theory and loop quantum gravity. Carlo Rovelli believes the latter to be ‘the most promising’ and in discussing it turns a few more of our cherished idea about ourselves and our world on end. What, for example, are we to make of the statement ‘time does not exist’? What are these loops? What are spinfoam and thermal time?

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This book takes us on a fascinating journey on which we meet not only the familiar giants of science like Galilei, Newton, Einstein and Hawking but other, lesser-known but no less brilliant thinkers: Matvei Bronstein, executed by Stalin’s police at the age of thirty for daring to challenge the system; Henrietta Leavit, who devised a way of measuring the distance of other galaxies; George Lemaitre, the Catholic priest who told the Pope he was wrong. Because many of the ideas  presented here are counter-intuitive, they are not always easy to grasp, nevertheless they are always intriguing and make the journey worthwhile.

Reality Is Not What It Seems won’t be a book for everyone, but if you are interested in science, in particular physics at its cutting edge, it’s a stimulating read.

*****

Zafon’s Barcelona (3)

The Prisoner of Heaven

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

trans. by Lucia Graves

‘Cast against the light from the street, the silhouette resembled a tree trunk lashed by the wind. The visitor ….took one step forward, limping visibly. He had the cold eyes of a bird of prey, patient and calculating.’

The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book in Zafon’s cycle of stories set in Barcelona and featuring the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It is much shorter than either of its predecessors yet lacks none of the intrigue of the earlier books. Nor is it missing their compelling characters.

We return again to Sempere’s Bookshop and renew acquaintance with Daniel Sempere, his father and their loveable helper, Fermin Romero de Torres, central characters in The Shadow of the Wind. And we meet again David Martin and Isabella, protagonists in The Angel’s Game.

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Two years after the events related in The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel Sempere is happily married with an infant son. It is Christmas. A stranger walks into his father’s bookshop and enquires after a special edition of The Count of Monte Cristo. He is willing to pay far more than the book is worth. When he leaves the book behind with a dedication for Daniel’s friend, Fermin, it sparks a mystery that has its roots in Barcelona’s revolutionary history. Fermin’s disquiet on being told of the stranger’s visit prompts Daniel to question him about his past.

The past is something the reader feels Fermin would rather forget. However, his problem can be simply stated: he loves Bernarda and wants to marry her; he needs papers to marry; he has none; Fermin Romero de Torres does not exist; he died in prison a quarter of a century ago!

‘Fermin went on cleaning him as best he could, silently, and then covered him with the piece of blanket they shared – teeming with nits and stinking of urine. He sat next to the thief until Salgado closed his eyes ….. “Tell me he’s already dead,” came Number 15’s voice.’

Zafon now switches from first to third person point of view to relate the story of Fermin’s earlier life, a story at the heart of which is a sinister secret that will disturb Daniel’s newly-found happiness.

In 1940, Spain still suffers the effects of the civil war and its people are cruelly and mercilessly ruled by an oppressive regime. The authorities arrest Fermin and confine him in a cell in Montjuic Castle, then Barcelona’s fascist prison. David Martin, the haunted narrator of The Angel’s Game, the second book in Zafon’s cycle, has already been confined there for several years when Fermin arrives. Prisoners in Montjuic routinely die of cold, starvation or disease. However, for his own reasons, Valls, the prison governor, is determined to keep Martin alive. The story reintroduces us to Isabella, who has always been Martin’s friend, and is making strenuous efforts to have him released from prison.

Like Monte Cristo, Fermin’s tale involves conspiracy, murder and a large fortune. And like Edmond Dantes, Fermin, with help from Martin and an apparent corpse, makes a dramatic escape. But unlike Dantes, Fermin does not find gold and jewels in an Aladdin’s cave. He goes on the run, possessed of the secret that, when told, will shatter Daniel’s perception of himself and his family’s past.

‘My father stared at her in astonishment, as if he’d seen a ghost. I gulped, feeling a shiver run through my body. That girl was the spitting image of my mother: she had the same face that appeared in the set of photographs my father kept in his desk.’

Again, as in his earlier novels, Zafon challenges our idea of the conventional hero. He paints Fermin as a brave but gentle man who values friendship and honour above fame and wealth. And once again, in Valls, he introduces us to a villain with no apparent redeeming qualities, one that demands a fourth novel to satisfy the reader’s sense of justice.

I would add only that, for me, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, though fantasy, is one of the greatest fictional creations of all time.

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