Sunday, January 26, 2020

Review of Jonathan Franzen's Purity.


Although this blog is mainly about science fiction, I sometimes read pure literature just to see what the other side is up. Jonathon Franzen is one of my favourite non-genre authors and here is a review of Purity, which I just finished reading.  

Purity is literature with a plot. The plot revolves around secrets with the two main secrets being Purity’s search for the identity of her father, and the cover-up of a murder. The novel follows four main characters: Purity, Andreas Wolf, Tom and Leila. Purity is a recent university graduate in search of journalism job. She was raised by a controlling, but loving, mother who always got her own way and would argue for hours about the most trivial matters. Andreas Wolf is modelled on Julian Assange, complete with his own version of Wikileaks. Wolf was raised in East Germany and was a reluctant escapee when the wall came down as East Germany was a seemingly perfect place to keep his secrets. Tom is the owner and editor of an investigative journal. While Leila is a hard-nosed reporter who works for Tom. They are lovers, even though she is married.

When Pip is offered a job by Wolf that requires her to relocate to his secret base in Bolivia, the lives of the four main characters go from circling each other to intermingling. But each of them is so caught up in their own sense of what is morally right they find it hard, in some cases impossible, to share their lives with others. While Franzen's critically acclaimed novel The Corrections was all about people trying to hide their true selves from the world, in Purity the characters, for the most part, are controlled by secrets.

As usual, Franzen divides the novel into lengthy sections told from one of the four character’s points of view. So Franzen spends a lot of time in the heads of his characters as they attempt to justify what they are doing while reminiscing on what they have done. I particularly found Andreas Wolf’s life as a church councillor in East Germany compelling as he tried to keep under the radar of the Stasi, even though his father was a high ranking East German official. When Andreas "escapes" from East Germany, his secret ensures he is never free.

But the story revolves around Purity and her search for the identity of her father. Her strict upbringing by her mother and lack of a father leaves her longing for a father figure. This leads to a desire for a relationship with older men, be it the older married man living in her share house, or perhaps Andreas Wolf, or... While searching for her father and love, she leads an otherwise aimless existence ruled by cynicism.

I very much enjoyed being in the heads of the main characters. Their search for an ethical meaning to life had me often contemplating my own machinations on life. As I read, I pondered the possible consequences of their secrets being exposed and was frequently surprised with what happened. While not in the same class as The Corrections, Purity is a very entertaining and thought provoking read.  


Monday, January 6, 2020

I'm back.

Hi everyone,

It’s been a while since I posted, I have been busy, sick and slack. I plan to write a few more blog posts this year. As usual they will be mainly about writing and science fiction, concentrating on apocalyptic and time-travel fiction. But first a bit of a summary of 2019, my annus horribilis.

2019


2019 started with my finishing three very challenging years of study with a BA in Internet Communications in early March. The degree was easily the hardest study I had done. Way harder than my Master of Creative Writing. I think its difficulty was due to the combination of doing web-design subjects, (I had virtually no knowledge of even html) and getting used to the “Arts” way of thinking, with its huge emphasis on well researched and argued essays. Due to the nature of the degree, I also had to learn many software packages and web platforms, like video editing software to create video mashups for assignments.

I should have been happy when I completed my degree, as I did extremely well, getting distinctions or high-distinctions for all of its 24 subjects. But, unfortunately I had developed a health problem over the three final months of my degree called diabetic lumbosacral plexopathy (what an imposing name). Basically, I had neglected my diabetes due to the degree being full on, with no breaks between 13 week study periods for three years.

I had managed to keep up my extensive exercise regime (well I think it was extensive), which included swimming 3ks three times a week, weights three times a week, 5k walks four times a week, exercises four times a week. But my blood sugar had stayed high due to neglecting my diet and sleep (lack of sleep raises a person’s blood sugar) while doing the degree. As a result, the plexopathy caused my right knee to give way without warning while standing or walking on five or six occasions. I had lost a lot of weight, mainly in the form of muscle, like my bum (the biggest muscle in the body, I think) shrank, even though it was not that noteworthy beforehand. My weight dropped to 72ks. But thankfully, after a neurologist set me on a course of immunoglobulin infusions, and I started exercises from a physio, as well as getting my blood sugar under control, I am not falling over anymore and regaining my strength. My neurologist said I was one of the quickest to recover from the condition.

During the months it took to be diagnosed and then heal, I was concerned the left leg would suffer the same fate as the right and then I wouldn’t be able to walk anymore. I was using a walking stick for months and walking very stiff legged and slowly. I also was not sleeping, with worry about my health combining with totally stuffed up sleep patterns from my degree (I had frequently worked into the early morning at night.) So, the first three quarters of 2019 was one big health problem.

Eventually I improved. I am now starting to set up my own web-design business, another big challenge. I am currently working on the website for it, and on proposal for a website for a potential client, having already submitted a proposal for another website for the same client. I am also set to do a NEIS course, starting next week (bushfires permitting), where I learn a bit about setting up a business and I am subsidised by the government for its first nine months.  

Reading in 2019


During my degree I read a total of four fiction books, and all were for some writing electives I had done. Otherwise all my reading time was taken up with hundreds of research papers and a few text books. But once my degree finished in March, I started reading fiction again. A total of ten novels for the year, nine of them were science fiction, with the best being The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, set in a near future Thailand in a world lacking traditional energy resources and suffering from climate change and famine. The Thais were trying to prevent the destruction of their traditional food sources from multinational genetic food corporations. The title of the novel refers to a much abused clone. I reviewed it in a previous post. 

The second best was This is How the World Ends, by James Morrow, which is part of the Masterworks series of classic science fiction novels. It’s a weird Phillip K. Dick type novel, set after the world has been destroyed in a nuclear war, where six survivors are put on trial for their part in causing the war in a court made up of people from the future who never lived due to the war (huh?).

Writing in 2019


I did very little writing during my degree, but my word count increased after I finished it. It is still nowhere near enough. I am currently about two-thirds of the way through the second draft of a apocalyptic science fiction novel that is just getting bigger and bigger as I get wrapped up in exploring the inner thoughts and fears of my main character. I am going to have to cut, slash and obliterate in the third draft as it risks ballooning out to 200,000 words.

2020


I plan to do a lot more writing this year as well as reading and fill this blog with insightful reviews of the novels I have read as well as tidbits about science, science fiction and writing.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Review of A Refugee's Rage by Anthony J Langford


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I very much enjoyed being challenged in my thinking by the two novellas in this collection. It contains two very different stories: Caught Between Love and Loss, and the title story, A Refugee’s Rage.

Caught Between Love and Loss

This story starts out as if it is going to be a story about Richard, a guy who buys a block of land in the bush and decides to build a house on it, but then gradually becomes a story about his girlfriend, Rachel, as she struggles to define what her relationship with Richard is. Is he just a lover? Perhaps a potential long-term boyfriend? Is she in love with him? Or is she just in love with the idea of building a house and living in a beautiful rural Australia setting? The house becomes a metaphor for their relationship as the reader wonders whether it will ever be complete. The story tugs at the heart as you hope they can find a way to really connect.

A Refugee’s Rage

In contrast to the first story, A Refugees Rage is a very angry story. It is the story of a sixteen-year-old Romanian refugee, Alexlandru, in Rome. He has had to look after himself for most of his life and will do anything to survive. He is a volatile character who readily resorts to violence to survive. The story is written in the first person so the reader sees the world almost exclusively through the eyes of someone who is not only a refugee in a foreign land, but in many ways a refugee from society. One day he meets a Syrian refugee, Ara, and the story revolves around their attempts to survive and whether his desire to survive will allow him to develop a relationship with her.

The linking factor between the stories is, I think, that both main characters are searching for a place in life. The writing is excellent and frequently poetic (Anthony J. Langford has authored a few books of poetry).

I thoroughly recommend the stories in this book as they will engage the reader while taking them out of their comfort zone.



View all my reviews

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Quick review of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazing world building, peopled with very flawed characters who are mostly looking out for just themselves. The novel is set in a future Thailand in a world that is near apocalyptic as it deals with climate change and rising sea levels, running out of fossil fuels, and famines caused by diseases attacking genetically engineered crops. Thailand is a holdout from food conglomerates who want to introduce their genetically engineered crops into the kingdom and get access to the Thai seedbank which the Thai's have used to create crops that are disease resistant. Add to this mix are windup people or clones, servants that have been create with jerky movements, hence the term wind-up. The plot has four main strings, a battle between the trade ministry, who want to open up Thailand to the overseas food conglomerates, and the environmental ministry who don't. The second plot revolves around a conglomerate agent's attempts to access the seedbank. A third plot is the plight of a windup girl who has been abandoned to degrading work in a brothel and her attempts to escape her predicament. And the final plot is that of a Chinese Malay who escaped slaughter in his own country and is attempting, through dubious means, to survive as a despised foreigner in Thailand. All the stories intertwine and the novel comes to a satisfying conclusion.

View all my reviews

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Quick review of When the Floods Came.

When the Floods CameWhen the Floods Came by Clare Morrall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Very well written, and an imaginative take on a future and how people might behave. It is set in England where a virus has wiped out most of the population and a few people live in isolated pockets using technology that is slowly running down. The main focus is a family that lives by themselves in an large apartment block. The story is told from the POV of a twenty something female. Children and people that age are rare. The story centres around her waiting for her finance (who she has never meet in real life, all their interactions have been on the web) to arrive, by bike - there are no cars or pods still running, while a mysterious stranger turns up, is he good or evil? The plot is not fabulous, but the story is more about how a family that has been cut off from physical interaction with others copes with this new worldly stranger and the world he introduces them too.

View all my reviews

Saturday, July 29, 2017



A personal essay I wrote for uni about the influence two books, 1984 and Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, had on my reading and writing.  

The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

                              Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In my mid-teens, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four told me what I already suspected. It confirmed my thinking that everyone I knew – my iffy school mates and more definite school hates, as well my teachers and my parents – were all just like me, desperate to fit in because they were too scared not to. Nineteen Eighty-Four was also full of ideas about how society could be manipulated, and had me thinking what our future world might be like. A few years later I escaped to university and found myself surrounded by outsiders. One of them shoved Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane into my hand. It had a very flawed hero who I identified with. Both of those books had a great effect on my future reading as I searched for more stories that had flawed outsider characters exploring ideas about future societies. I soon found science-fiction novels and magazines were full of such characteristics.         

In an introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Professor of Politics and Contemporary History Ben Pimlott claims most of its characters are only two-dimensional. As a teenager, with a limited experience of life, I can’t remember thinking the characters needed to be more fleshed out, they seemed real enough to me. Pimlott goes on to claim that without its political ideas, Nineteen Eighty-Four is just an adolescent fantasy “of lonely defiance, furtive sex and deadly terror”. I really identified with the “lonely defiance”. Winston Smith seemed to be a lot like me, someone who didn’t fit into the world, but unlike me, he resisted the pressure to fit in. His resistance had me questioning my own desire to conform and accept my allotted space in society. Nineteen Eighty-Four had me wanting to read more about outsiders who rejected the need to fit in. Outsiders who were not so much rebelling, more just living their own versions of life.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was much more than a call to defy my peer’s low expectations for me. It was a novel full of ideas that sparked my imagination, and metaphors that explained the world. Ideas like Newspeak and how language could be used to influence and censor thought. Ideas like the Ministry of Truth and how history could be changed to justify those in power. Ideas like Big Brother and how we are all under surveillance and being scrutinised. Nineteen Eighty-Four had me wanting to read more idea driven books. It also had me thinking whether future societies would be oppressive or utopian, or something in between. At the time I read it, I was an avid fan of Doctor Who and Star Trek on television, which were shows full of outsiders, such as the Doctor and Spock, and ideas, such as time-travel and transporters. Those shows also explored what future societies might be like. Maybe in the future the world will have one government, like Star Trek’s Federation. These thoughts led me to reading science-fiction.  

I soon found that science-fiction novels and magazines are full of what I was searching for. They are full of ideas, like genetically-engineered immortality, or living in virtual worlds. They are full of characters who don’t fit in, such as child maths prodigy Francis Conway in George Turner’s The Sea and Summer or the genderless clone Breq in Ann Leckie’s  Ancillary Justice. Science-fiction suggests we might colonise other planets, like in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, or an outsider scientist might create a virus that nearly kills everyone, like in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Science-fiction novels and magazines had me hooked.  

Three years after I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, I appeared to have escaped the clutches of Big Brother to live in a residential college at La Trobe University. A fellow escapee recommended and loaned to me Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane. In that novel Thomas Covenant is magically transported from modern day America into a world full of sorcerers, spirits, giants, demons and humans. Covenant was brought to the land to battle the evil sorcerer Lord Foul. There was an obvious reason for him being chosen: the magical power of his white gold wedding ring, but why did they choose such a flawed human being?

Covenant must be one of the most flawed heroes of literature. Rejected by society due to his leprosy, he is bitter at his treatment and hates himself. He still wears a wedding ring in the deluded hope that his wife might return. Once transported to the other world, a teenager befriends him, and he rapes her. At the time, he did not think the world was real, while as a reader I was also trying to decide if it was “real”. Covenant doesn’t trust himself for most of the novel, yet by the end of the novel this very flawed character sacrifices himself to save a world that he is beginning to think might be real. Stephen Donaldson says in fantasy the world is an expression of its characters, so Lord Foul is an expression of the contempt Covenant held for himself. Therefore, Covenant is battling himself. This battle within himself had me identifying with him. On a number of occasions my real-life emotions and uncertainty mirrored Covenant’s. He was one of the first really flawed characters I identified with.

Lord Foul’s Bane had me wanting to read more novels with flawed characters. It had me rejecting a lot of American science-fiction due to its formulaic heroes: alpha males full of moral certainty. They usually have a token flaw, like an inability to talk to women, in an attempt to make them appear, what Professor Pimlott might call, more than just two-dimensional. One such near flawless hero in Ben Bova’s Moonrise infuriated me so much that I cheered when he died, suffocating alone on the moon’s surface. In my search for more realistic characters, I found Australian science-fiction full of flawed characters, such as Spider, a penniless, divorced and unmotivated repairman in KA Bedford’s Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait.

Nineteen Eighty-Four and Lord Foul’s Bane not only affected what I read, they also affected what I write. I predominately read and write science-fiction stories that are usually set in the future and explore ideas about society through flawed characters. In my writing, many of my main characters don’t care about fitting in. Like Winston Smith, I hope my writing will tell many outsiders what they already know.   

Friday, April 28, 2017

Whatever happened to the technological singularity?

This is a copy of a speech I wrote for a writing subject in my BA of Internet Communications.

Whatever happened to the technology singularity?

I am here tonight to ask the question, whatever happened to the technology singularity? I ask this question because we don’t seem to be getting any closer to being dragged into its event horizon. The singularity’s supercharged revolution of society is something I desperately want to experience. Rather than just writing about the singularity, I want to live it.    

I can remember my excitement when I first read Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation, where he told us of the wonders of nanotechnology. He told us of a future where nanobots - nano-scale robots - can manufacture everything, molecule by molecule. Many Star Trek fans would have immediately imagined that replicators would soon be churning out all the burgers and beer we could ever consume, for free. 

My excitement about the future I would live in super nova-ed when I read Damien Broderick’s The Spike. He wrote of a convergence of technologies that would create a spike in human development, a period of massive change, where a combination of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotechnology would turn us into super-humans. We were destined to become technological gods. 

While impatiently waiting to become a god, I read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. He speculated that artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotechnology would lead to humans, like you and me, creating our own starship Enterprise and leaving the planet. You and I were going to the stars. And humanity would eventually saturate the universe.

But, here’s the reality for those of us dreaming of the technological singularity. Engines of Creation was written three decades ago, while The Spike hit the bookstores nearly two decades ago. And The Singularity is Near came out over a decade ago.
So how near is near?

Are we ever going to live lives of leisure and creativity while AI’s run everything for us? Are we ever going to genetically engineer our bodies so we can live for millennia? Are we ever going to use swarms of nanobots to strip carbon atoms from carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere and stop global warming?

What have scientists been doing to ensure the singularity even occurs?
Well, at the molecular level a few of them got together and used a scanning tunnelling microscope to move 35 atoms around so they spelt IBM, thus creating the world’s smallest logo in 1990. While scientists at Cornell University busied themselves constructing a molecular scale nano-guitar, which has strings that can be strummed, but we aren't able to hear it. But other scientists seem more intent on creating something useful. Nature magazine says scientists have created many nano-scale motors and propellers. But these very simple machines are a long way from the complexity needed to make Drexler’s replicators, his engines of creation.

But then 3D printers suddenly materialised, like the Tardis, out of nowhere. We suddenly had a very primitive Star Trek replicator. Many of you would’ve seen stories about 3D printers, like their ability to print guns, single shot pistols that tend to explode. Just as well 3D printers can also print replacement artificial hands.

One or two of you might already have spent the few hundred dollars for a 3D printer.  I envisage that in a few years, every household will have one, using them to print replacement screens for dropped mobile phones or to make a missing Lego block needed to finish a model of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.

Think what you could print if you had an industrial scale 3D printer, like the ones used to print houses in China. NASA has also used them to print out 75 percent of the parts for a working rocket engine. In the future, you might be able to print a full-scale Millennium Falcon, that actually flies.

What about genetic engineering? Seemingly endless trials continue to reaffirm the safety of genetically modified foods. The US Food and Drug Administration says diabetics have been using genetically engineered insulin for decades. And many animals have been cloned including cows, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. But no one has successfully cloned a human, at least not officially.

One form of genetic engineering that seems to always be in the news is stem cell research. Harvard university scientists have used stem cells to regenerate human heart tissue. They hope a fully functioning human heart will be created using stem cells in several years. There are also many reports of stem cells healing paraplegics. The University of California reported using them to help a car-crash victim regain the use of his hands and legs. While in Japan, the RIKEN laboratory for Retinal Regeneration used stem cells to stop the muscular degeneration of an 80-year-old’s eyesight.

What have the computer scientists been up to? We’re still yet to see an operating system become self-aware like Samantha in the movie Her, but machine learning is taking off. As many of you know, machine learning is where a computer learns to do things using algorithms, rather than being programed to do those things. Such algorithms allow driverless cars, like Google’s, to react to all the new situations the car encounters on roads. Data scientist Jeremy Howard, runs a company involved in machine learning, and he says deep-learning algorithms have enabled a computer to be better than humans at recognising the content of images. Not only that, the deep-learning algorithms enabled the computer to write accurate descriptions of the images. Howard claims that machine learning will enable computers to soon do most service jobs that involve writing, reading, listening and data analysis. And they will do these tasks much faster than humans.

Kurzweil says artificial intelligence is the key to the singularity. Once computers get smarter than you and me they will not only design smarter computers, but they will be able to speed up the development of nanotechnology, 3D printing, and genetic engineering. For those of us counting on fully experiencing the singularity, we can hope that an algorithm is currently being written that will soon turn computers into smarter than human AIs. We can hope such an algorithm will be announced next week, seemingly materialise from nowhere, like 3D printers did.

If a full on artificial intelligence enabling algorithm is created soon, many of us here tonight could experience the wonders of the technological singularity and a post-human universe. A universe where the only limitation to our massively extended lives is our imaginations.

References:                        

Aldrich, M. (2016). Paralyzed man regains use of arms and hands after experimental stem
cell therapy at Keck Hospital of USC. Retrieved from https://stemcell.usc.edu/2016/09/07/paralyzed-man-regains-use-of-arms-and-hands-after-experimental-stem-cell-therapy-at-keck-hospital-of-usc/

BBC. (2014). 3D Printed guns of ‘no use to anyone’. Retrieved form
http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-27634626

Bernard, L. (1997). Smallest guitar, about the size of a human blood cell, illustrates new
           technology for nano-sized electromechanical devices. Retrieved from
http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/1997/07/worlds-smallest-silicon-mechanical-devices-are-made-cornell

Broderick, D. (1997). The spike: Accelerating into the unimaginable future. Kew, Aust: Reed.

Browne, M.W. (1990). 2 Researchers spell ‘I.B.M.,’ atom by atom. Retrieved from
http://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/05/us/2-researchers-spell-ibm-atom-by-atom.html?pagewanted=print

Coghlan, A. (2017). Vision saved by first induced pluripotent stem cell treatment.
Retrieved from
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2124820-vision-saved-by-first-induced-pluripotent-stem-cell-treatment/

Drexler, K. E. (1986). Engines of creation: challenges and choices of the last technological
revolution. Retrieved from http://xaonon.dyndns.org/misc/engines_of_creation.pdf

Junod, S.W. (2009). Celebrating a milestone: FDA's approval of first genetically-engineered
product. Retrieved from
https://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/whatwedo/history/productregulation/selectionsfromfdliupdateseriesonfdahistory/ucm081964.htm

Kurzweil, R. (2005). The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. New York:
            Penguin.

Massachusetts General Hospital. (2016). Functional heart muscle regenerated in
decellurized human hearts. Retrieved from http://www.massgeneral.org/News/pressrelease.aspx?id=1910

NASA. (2015). Piece by piece: NASA team moves closer to building a 3-D printed rocket
engine. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news/news/releases/2015/piece-by-piece-nasa-team-moves-closer-to-building-a-3-d-printed-rocket-engine.html

Peplow, M. (2015). March of the machines. Nature, 525(7567), 18. Retrieved from
http://www.nature.com/news/the-tiniest-lego-a-tale-of-nanoscale-motors-rotors-switches-and-pumps-1.18262

TedxBrussels. (2014). Jeremy Howard: The wonderful and terrifying implications of 
computers that can learn [Video file] Retrieved fromhttps://www.ted.com/talks/jeremy_howard_the_wonderful_and_terrifying_implications_of_computers_that_can_learn

Walmsley, H. (2015). World-first 3D-printed hand prosthesis inspired by 1845 design kept in
online archive. Retrieved from
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Zhou, C. (2015). 3D-printed house built in just three hours in China’s Xi’an. Retrieved from
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