Posted by Paul Samael on Wednesday, August 29, 2018 Under: Book reviews
The Speed of Sound, The Bees and The Three Body Problem
The Speed of Sound by Thomas Dolby
The Speed of Sound by Thomas Dolby
Thomas Dolby has had an unusual career – he had some success in the eighties as a solo artist, a film music composer and a producer of other artists (e.g. Prefab Sprout and – rather less successfully, as he freely admits - Joni Mitchell). But he became increasingly disillusioned with the music industry and switched to being a tech entrepreneur, eventually coming up with the software that enabled mobile phones to play polyphonic ring tones, instead of single note bleeps (yes, all those versions of the Nokia waltz are HIS fault). As a writer, he has some interesting things to say about music and technology but what really makes this a good read is his keen sense of what makes for a good anecdote. Many of these revolve less around him and more around other people, ranging from Dr Magnus Pyke (seen cavorting around in this video) through to Ken Russell, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Paul Allen and Bill Gates. This, coupled with with a generous dose of self-deprecating humour, ensures that the book avoids becoming a self-indulgent “Wow, aren’t I great?” exercise. He’s also honest enough to admit that in both his music and tech careers, it wasn’t enough just to have talent or a good idea - a fair dose of good fortune was also required, together with an ability to cope with being knocked back quite a few times. I got the audiobook version, which he reads himself – and can report that he’s a rather good mimic and raconteur too.
The Bees by Laline Paull
“Watership Down” but with insects. Actually, it probably deserves something better than that rather lazy and dismissive 5 word attempt at a review. I just haven’t got over my disappointment at the bees being quite so extensively anthropomorphised. I really wanted something more alien, but maybe that would’ve been totally unrelatable – whereas this was a perfectly readable story, it just wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it would be.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Talking of aliens, this is an interesting hard sci-fi take on the whole alien invasion thing, as recommended by Barack Obama, no less. It starts off with scenes of some brutality during the Cultural Revolution. Traumatised by those episodes, one of the main characters comes to feel that humans can’t be trusted to treat each other in a civilized way. She eventually uses her position at a secret Chinese research station to broadcast a signal into space, calling upon aliens to come and put the world to rights. Unfortunately for humanity, those aliens have evolved in an environment considerably more challenging and brutal than our own, with three suns (the three body problem of the title). Their unpredictable orbits mean that “stable eras” when civilisation can progress are subject to abrupt curtailment when one of the suns gets too close to the planet, whereupon everyone suddenly gets frazzled (although the aliens have developed an ability to “dessicate” themselves in order to survive these unstable periods). Not surprisingly, they are delighted to find a planet in stable orbit around a single sun asking them to come and take over.
Some of the characterisation leaves a bit to be desired and some people may find the science content a bit much, but you can’t fault the book for its ambition and imaginative approach (this is the first in a trilogy). It reminded me of some of Stanislaw Lem’s work, notably “Fiasco”, which is another cautionary tale about humanity’s yearning for contact with aliens (although in Lem’s novel, aggression on the part of the aliens seems to be more because they are so very unlike us that they actively don’t want contact – and quite right too, as it turns out).
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