Adventures in Bookland: Superluminary by John C. Wright

Although marketed – and sold as – three separate books, this is really one rougly 500 page story split into three. A bit cheeky that – you end up paying, even for the Kindle edition, significantly more than you would if it was sold as what it really is, a single novel.

Still, I’ll forgive the marketing – it’s not as if writers are coining it (average wage £10,000 per annum), so if this gets John Wright a bit more in royalties, I can’t cavil – as the story itself is such a magnificently over the top piece of space opera. For you older SF fans out there: if you thought nothing could top EE Doc Smith’s Lensman stories, think again. To give an idea of the scales involved, Superluminary has War Dysons as one of its minor conceits! Arthur Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistiguishable from magic: so it is here. Quantum physics, Aristotelian teleology, and every possible variant on the space-time continuum are employed to give an exhilirating veneer of plausibility to a ride that takes the reader to the galaxy’s core (engineered by Space Vampires as the ultimate weapon) all the way through to galactic ramming. This is SF on a scale so massive that it inspires smiles of awe at Wright’s sheer chutzpah. Can he possibly top this, you ask at the end of Book 1? The answer is, yes.

Now, after the praise, the criticism. Given that the book is quite expensive, the editing on it is far too sloppy. There are far too many typos, incorrect words and word order and sundry other editing errors. It does not look like it has been checked much beyond a spell check. That is sloppy, and takes the reader out of the story quite unnecessarily.

But it’s worth it for the ride.

On The Road

Next stops on the History Bros (in Law) Warrior road tour are two book festivals this weekend in Galloway, Scotland, and Carlisle, England.

At 1.30pm on Saturday 5 October, Paul and I are appearing at the Wigtown Book Festival in, of course, Wigtown. Tickets available here.

Then at 3.30pm on Sunday 6 October we are at the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle. Tickets here.

Forum Books – Tour Day 1

The History Bros had the first stop on our Warrior book tour yesterday, at Forum Books in Corbridge, and it went better than we could have hoped. Every ticket was sold and the good people at Forum even had to get in some extra chairs to accommodate more people who turned up on the night. Forum Books itself is everything an independent bookshop should be and completely delightful – as you’ll see from the photos below. One of the audience, journalist Ian Wylie, very kindly forwarded me these photos he took of the event. Find more of his work on Twitter @ianwylie. Our next stops, on Saturday 5 October and Sunday 6 October, are the Wigtown Literary Festival in Wigtown and the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle. I hope to see you at one of these. In the meantime, here are Ian’s brilliant photos of Tour Day 1.

The Complete Little World of Don Camillo by Giovanni Guareschi

It’s flat. Don Camillo’s world. Flat. Flatter than Norfolk. Flatter than the Netherlands. Flatter than a table. Completely, unrelentingly flat.

That world is the flood plain of the River Po, Emilia Romagna in Italy. The soil there, nourished by thousands of years of effluvium from the flooding Po, is the richest in Italy. Bologna, the provincial capital, has the best food in the country. But these are the stories of the people of the plain, of the farmers and mechanics and one large, ham-handed priest who suffer through the unrelenting glare of the summer, then suffer through the rising fog and the long damp of the winter. It was a malarial land, dangerous as well as bountiful, and its people were touched by its geography: harsh, generous, superstitious and pious. My relatives live there now, and it hasn’t changed so much since Don Camillo’s days in the middle of the 20th century. Yes, it’s richer, the coast is tourified, but the geography is still overwhelming.

Read these stories for a glimpse into an old Italy that still lurks, barely covered, beneath the new Italy.

The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen

Judging by some of the other reviews on Good Reads, The Essential Difference is in danger of falling victim to today’s fraught sexual politics. This is both unfair and deeply unjust to autistic people – Baron-Cohen’s first and continuing main research interest is autism.

Some background. Baron-Cohen conducted the seminal experiment on autism where he and his researchers presented to groups of children, some autistic, some neurotypical and some with Down’s syndrome, two dolls. One of the dolls then picked up an object and hid it under a cup. That doll was then taken from the room and the other doll lifted the cup, took out the object and hid it under a different cup. The first doll was then brought back and the children were asked which cup the doll would look under to find the object. The neurotypical and Down’s syndrome children said the cup under which that doll had first hidden the object. The autistic children selected the second cup.

This was one of the first major clues as to the nature of autism, and Baron-Cohen has continued to investigate the condition ever since. He developed a theory that autism is a result of what he calls the extreme male brain, and adduces evidence for this in his book. Of course, for that theory to hold, there have to be differences between male and female brains, and much of the book is concerned with demonstrating that. Which is where Baron-Cohen, a Guardian-reading liberal if ever there was one, has found himself unwittingly on the receiving end of angry feminist attacks. For among some strands of feminist thinking it is an article of faith that there are no inherent differences between male and female brains: it’s all environment and upbringing, a neurological blank slate on which a sexist culture writes boys and girls in shades of blue and pink.

You know what? That’s rubbish. If you want complete gender parity, then let’s even out autism. Let’s have just as many girls as boys remaining completely non-verbal, unreachable, sealed into their own wordless world. Let’s have some girls so acutely sensitive to sensory overstimulation that they have to wear boxing gloves all the time to stop them poking their own eyes out (the family that had to do this forgot on one occasion: their boy gouged his own eyes out). Is that the sort of equality feminists want? As the father of two autistic boys, I’d be happy to share.

And yes, yes, I know that girls are probably under dignosed with autism. But really, it’s not that hard to spot the most acute forms: watch for the boy who can’t speak, jumping up and down with headphones on. Among these most severe cases, boys outnumber girls by 10 or more to one. So let’s have some equality there.

As to whether Baron-Cohen’s extreme male brain hypothesis holds true, that requires further work. It answers well to two of the three main diagnostic criteria for autism – social communication difficulties and behavioural inflexibility – but has less to say about sensory sensitivity. But parents who are trying to stop their children hurting themselves really don’t need to be conscripted into the feminist war against the patriarchy. We’ve got enough problems to deal with – and Baron-Cohen has been on our side for many years in this struggle.

Adventures in Bookland: Fighting ISIS by Tim Locks

A strange book this. On the outside, the story of a fairly ordinary Englishman deciding to sell up everything he owned to go and help the Kurds in their fight against ISIS, on the inside it’s a story of identities assumed and cast off.

First, the outside story. Tim Locks, horrified by what he sees and hears of ISIS on TV and the internet, decides to mortgage his house and sell his business and go off and fight. The fighting, it turns out, mostly involves sitting around – he is good on conveying the boredom that is the greater part of most military action – and the motley collection of Western fighters who turn up in what the Kurds fervently hope will one day be Kurdistan to take part in the war. The fact that, in the end, Locks contributes relatively little to the war beyond bankrolling more experienced volunteers (Locks has no military experience at the start of his adventures) adds to the authenticity of the book. Somebody who was making things up would hardly bother writing a memoir in which so little actually happens!

What is truly odd about the book is Locks himself, and the authorial voice he and his ghostwriter have chosen. Early in the book we learn that Locks actually went to private schools as a boy, including Stowe College (current termly fees £11,500). Yet the book is written in the voice of a Middlesboro lad who went to a sink comp. Locks says that he hated school, and left with few qualifications – but you don’t spend so many years in such an environment, nor have parents who can afford those sorts of fees, without it leaving a mark on your deportment. So it is clear that Locks has reinvented himself, turning himself into something very different from his upbringing. If he had chosen to written about that, and how that affected his decision to go off and fight, he might have written a very different, and very much better, book.

Adventures in Bookland: The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease

It’s a shame I didn’t read this book when I was 17. Or indeed 27. I would run through a check list in my mind:

  • Reasonably presentable – check
  • Not actually smelling – check
  • Teeth brushed – check
  • Able to hold a conversation with a member of the opposite sex – well, by 27 I could check that. At 17, no.

So why could I not find a girlfriend? By 27 I had quite a few female friends. I actually enjoyed female company. But as for a girlfriend? Not a sniff.

Turns out that I was completely clueless about body language. Women might have been signalling to me left, right and under their eyelashes and I wouldn’t have recognised anything other than a large sign held up with the words, “Kiss me now” written on it in capitals. A book on body language would have served me in very good stead back then.

Of course, in today’s world, fraught with the consequences of misunderstood sexual signals, a large sign saying, “Kiss me now,” might well be the best way to proceed. Thankfully, I am married – although the book’s been helpful in reminding me to watch out for wifely signals too, although the wonderful woman has long known my blindness to anything less subtle than a flying brick – but I do wonder whether young men and women today can rely on these hard wired body language signs: for the simple reason that sometimes the body wants to do what the mind later regrets.

My advice: read the book, then get the invitation in writing first.