Review: Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond & James Moore

Darwin’s Sacred Cause distinguishes itself as being the first biography that I find readable, and the reason for this is probably that it is not a biography in the purest sense. Instead of chronicling the details of Darwin’s life it tell about how his two famous books Origin of Species and Descent of Man came to be.

To do this the authors has had to explain the political, economical and ideological climate of Darwin’s time and because of this the book interweaves history of the 19th century British Empire, slavery and abolition, political discourse, economic and political change, and history of science.

On reading the book my mind set off on various tangents, exploring ideas and making new connections with pieces of knowledge laying strewn about the floor and desk of my brain –

– We who grew up in the wake of WWII are, at least in Sweden, saturated with images from those wars; public service TV, which was the only TV we had, showed lots and lots of WWII documentaries. The atrocities of the concentration camps and the siege of Stalingrad was standard fare.

Until I read Darwin’s Sacred Cause I had not fully understood how intrinsic stratification and racism is to our culture, to the very social fabric holding western society together. Growing up during a period when outrage over the possibility of places like Auschwitz and Dachau was mandatory I had no real concept of a society were treating humans as less valuable than a good work-horse or a car was acceptable.

Mind you, I was well aware that the racism of the Nazis wasn’t conceived out of thin air. Intellectually I knew they were children of their time. And economic stratification is one of the most important mechanisms of capitalism. But reading this biography I got the instruments to understand how ingrained both stratification and racism is to our culture, as is now aptly demonstrated by the revival of nationalist movements across Europe. It makes the post-WWII part of the 20th century look like a parenthesis when shame forced us to at least pay lip service to the idea that every human had equal value.

Darwin, of course, did not think every human had equal value. Very few of his contemporaries did. And I did say this was tangential to the book. But as the book touches on the American Civil War, on slavery and abolition, and on the birth of anthropology and ethnography in all its colonial splendour, I could not ignore that my train of thought ran off towards personal experiences of for example LA’s South Central or downtown New Orleans, as experienced in the late 1990’s, or by segregated suburbia in present-day Stockholm.

Much as we want to be upset over the way plantation slaves were treated and much as we want to put distance between ourselves and the attitudes of Darwin’s contemporaries and their colonial mindset we – humanity as a whole – need to ask ourselves if these changes we perceive are just superficial, veneer, difference in dressing rather than context.

Much as we want to distance ourselves from the atrocities of the concentration camps we as humans have not yet managed to face why these things happen. We want those things to be the result of aberrant behaviour in individuals. We want those things to be the result of skewed minds manipulating the well-meaning and innocent.

They aren’t. They are the fruits of our blind spots, were we don’t see – don’t want to see – what consequences our theories about individual freedom as sacrosanct for the successful have on the exploited; an exploitation necessitated by our demand for more. We don’t want our well-deserved vacation to a tropical island to be possible because children labour to produce our iPhones and our Nikes.

Neither did Darwin, despite his same blindness. And this biography of his set me thinking, and that is a value in and of itself.

Easily one of the best non-fiction books that I have read in a long long time.

Highly recommended.

Some prior knowledge of the history of science makes the text easier to parse, though, because there’s lots and lots and LOTS of names and it is easy to lose track of who had what opinion.

 (…and by coincidence a friend posted a link to this New Inquiry essay the other day – related, in my view, to my musings above.)

Review: Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Blue Mars, which concludes Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy, continue in the tradition of it’s predecessors. The style is disconnected and rambling, telling a tale seemingly free of storyline or plot, through the eyes of a shifting gallery of protagonists. Sometimes it gets intensely detailed, sometimes extremely sketchy – a decade of someone’s life can be covered by one single sentence.

I had an extremely hard time getting through the opening chapters. They detail the formation of the Martian Constitution and legal system, which was a tedious (and not very interesting) process for the character through whose eyes we see it, and tedious for me as a reader. With about two thirds of the book left, but with the majority of the story behind me, I felt like I had trudged around on Mars forever, with no ending in sight. Add to that scientific speculations ranging from eyebrow-rising to outright incredible, and I think you’ll understand why this book took four weeks to get through – a true tour de force.

So. Was it worth it? Definitely. Because this is not a novel, or even a set of novels. It’s a document chronicling a hypothetical future, an epic chronicle on a grand scale, displaying how the here and now transforms into history, and how that history changes the now and the perception of what really did happen. It also sketches a future model society, one I guess Robinson himself favoured as his personal take on utopia when the books were written.

As utopias go it’s OK – ideal societies always get too bubblegummy for my tastes but here it is acceptable, much because the chronicle concerns the voyage there more than the final state of things.

This trilogy is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the future, in economic and political systems and in societies and cultures. Endurance is a must, though, so not for everyone. And reading only one, or even two, of the books won’t do – if you’re in, you’re in for the whole three book journey. Because on their own these books aren’t much value. Epic. Epic. EPIC.

Review: Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Back in the beginning of December, when I had just finished Red Mars, I ached to get on with the sequel, Green Mars. But first it took me some time to find it and then I started to read other things, always with Green Mars looking at me – I think I started or intended to start reading it about once a week for months.

Then, finally, about a week ago, I picked it up, determined to read it. And this time I did. Writing a review is hard, though. Almost just as hard as getting started with the book.
Part of it is that like Red Mars it’s so obviously a part of a trilogy that it’s more like part two of a one tripartite book than anything else. But part of it is my over all impression of it, which is hard to sort or define.

This time the telling feels even more distanced than in Red Mars. In Red Mars people were passionately angry or loving or pro or con something or the other – this time it’s just a shrug of the shoulders. Even when things are bad.
Granted, some passages had me reading on without wanting to put the book away but those were mainly in the first half of the book – the second half I often had a strong feeling of disbelief, something which worked to distance me even further from the goings-on. The book never touches on the psycho-social effects on society of prolonged lifespans, only on the socio-economic and then only at a distance, and the original cast, those who survived Red Mars, just lives on and on and on, without much problems other than a sense of disconnection and some insomnia. And some of the other stuff is just plain unbelievable. Like the “resistance” being able to covertly build hidden silos AND missiles for ground to space warfare.
So, this is definitely Big Ideas fiction, in the grandest sense, but this time with insufficient drive and energy.

That said this is not the worst book I’ve ever read and I have a profound feeling that I will not be able to judge this book, this trilogy, until I’ve read the last one – Blue Mars. So that’s what I’ll do – read the last one. Then my verdict will fall.

Review: Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Some books are well nigh impossible to review. Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is one of them. My reason for this feeling is this is so very obviously the first of the three books in the Mars Trilogy – the stage setting, the laying of the foundation for more to come…

As such it is a good one, I think.

In many ways this is Big Ideas fiction, and I’m an avid fan of every book that makes me think. The grandness of the scale is impressive, a multi-decade storyline involving a lot of people, both as individuals and as pieces in a jigsaw too big for them to fathom. The main characters are mostly scientists, with little idea of how they and their side taking affects the world or how they and their ideas will come back at them, with a political twist.

The way the story plays out is plausible, if depressing, but I am eager to get to know how this social, economic and political experiment will develop.

On the down side this is very clearly about people and systems of people – normally known as “societies” and their close kin “political systems” and “economic system” – and not about individuals. Sure, we follow certain characters, but in a distanced third person, and only for a short while – the story is told from multiple perspectives, and these perspectives shifts every now and then. These characters are there to illustrate different viewpoints and different ideas about who to tackle a situation, and sometimes this is too obvious.

Sometimes the text feels like an embellished piece of non fiction, veritable info dumps that gets no less info dumpish by being real science.

Finally, the text is somewhat dated. It plays out in a reality where the US and Russia were still THE dominant actors. This, honestly, doesn’t bother me much. Politics is politics, just like economics is economics – the name tags are not as important as the actual system, and the basic premise that he stipulates is not that far fetched.

All in all it works quite well and at the moment I’m staring at the door waiting for the next instalment – Green Mars – to be delivered; the SF bookshop was out of stock, so I had to order it from another source. (I do favour brick’n’mortar bookshops, I want them to stay in business, so I try to use those I particularly fancy. No luck this time, though.)

I should say that this is not a book to read as distraction. It needs a focussed mind to work, as evidenced by the fact that I had to put it down for a while – since my previous post here I’ve had planned tonsillectomy, followed by high levels of pain and its mitigator (codeine based painkillers, yuk /but that’s another story/) and what felt like a fried brain. During that time – almost two weeks – I either didn’t read at all, or did feel-good rereads.

I’m very glad that I picked Red Mars up again, as it ultimately was a rewarding read.

Review: Use of Weapons, by Iain M Banks

I have not read any of the other novels in the Culture suite and so initially knew less than nothing about the background. Starting my read it worried me, usually I begin with the first book in any series I’m attempting, but I was told this could stand on it’s own, and so it did.

Written to unfold layer by layer of the life of Special Circumstances agent Zakalwe while at the same time exposing the way the civilisation known as the Culture uses people and whole civilisations as part of their game of Rebuilding the Universe to Fit Our Standards it made me think of nations pursuing interventionist policies of different flavours, like the late USSR or the present-day US, but also of colonialist France, not to mention the British Empire.

The writing – or perhaps that should be the editing? – might work against this book, as it is told in two time frames, alternating with each chapter; one of them working backwards in time, one seemingly tracking the present. Also, in the middle of the “present” time line point of view suddenly changes, without any warning. Both of these can be perceived to be frustrating. But to me it was one of the things conspiring for this to be a pleasurable reading experience.

Shockingly revealing as (one of) the end(ings) was I personally feel that it is those greater questions asked that lingers with me, after I closed the book. Questions linked with the colonial/post colonial discussion (among others who has the right to intervene, and when) but also touching issues as ethics and morality.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoy thinking about such topics.

Review: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

I don’t know what I expected from this. A book about war, obviously, a future war, and one that had gone one for a while. What I knew was I was in the mood for some ‘classic’ style science fiction, and Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, promised to be just that.

We follow the adventures of senior citizen John Perry as he decides to gamble his life on the promise of… extended life – he quits Earth and join the Colonial Defence Forces for a term of no less than two years, with a high probability of serving the full ten the contract stipulates. He have no idea what is waiting for him, yet he feels he is not ready to die. And the CDF only recruits 75 year old people, people who wouldn’t be expected to withstand the rigours of war. So it’s a given the CDF have a way to make you young again, no?

I haven’t read any Heinlein in ages, yet he was the first reference that came to my mind while reading Old Man’s War; a kind of flashback to my teens when I devoured anything with Heinlein as an author.

I don’t research books too closely before reading them so I had no idea Scalzi himself recognises this debt, but it makes sense.

In the first half of the book Scalzi manages this heritage very well, but the second half don’t live up to expectations – at least not mine. This is mainly due to a couple of all too unbelievable coincidences and going-ons. The writing is still accomplished, and by that point if you have invested in the main character you want to know what will happen next, but the story in itself just didn’t hold up.

The last chapter felt contrived, and should rightly had been labelled ‘epilogue’. I guess the publisher demanded him to axe it, to make the rest into another novel.

Despite above reading this book was an enjoyable experience.