Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku

physics of the impossible - michio kakuThis week, I finished Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible. We all love a little escapism now and then. Whole genres are built on things like time travel and parallel universes and extraterrestrials, but deep down, we know that none of that stuff could really happen. No matter how open-minded we think we are, there’s a little part of us that adjusts his monocle and scoffs “impossible”.

When I’m trying to decide whether or not something is possible, the first question I ask myself is “does this obey the laws of physics?”. Just last weekend, I asked myself the same question when I looked at the stack of clothes that needed to be ironed. The laws of physics govern matter and energy and, since a few creases didn’t matter to me, I couldn’t find the energy to iron anything.

No? My girlfriend didn’t buy that one either….

We’re living in a world of matter and energy, so if you want to know how possible something is you need to ask a physicist. Physicists have this reputation for being beige, betweeded misfits – a reputation that Michio Kaku sheds like an electron off of a positive ion. See! Terrible jokes like that have been sucking the fun out of physics for decades!

hoverboard-back-to-the-futureThe book tackles all of the big, important questions in science: Could you really build a death star? Are aliens watching you at night? Will they ever make a goddamn hoverboard?! Kaku’s answers to questions like these are easy to understand, fun to read and initially surprising.

I say ‘initially’ because after a while, you realise that all of these questions have the same answer: Yes, it’s possible, but probably not in this galaxy, or even this dimension and definitely not for coal-burning savages like us.

Kaku frames the book around the Kardashev Scale, a way to demonstrate how advanced a civilisation is based on the amount of energy they can make use of. The scale includes Type I, Type II and Type III civilisations. The bad news is that humans haven’t even attained Type I status. To do that we’d need to harness nuclear fusion, cultivate antimatter or build a giant solar panel in space.

If you think that’s mad, a Type II civilisation could wrap a whole star up in solar panels, and a Type III civilisation could do it to all the stars if they really put their minds to it.

Part one covers class I impossibilities, or things that can theoretically be achieved by Type I civilisations. This covers all kinds of madness from force fields to telepathy to robots. Kaku then rolls up his sleeves to tackle class II impossibilities like time travel, before going completely over the top in Part III with subjects like precognition.

Wrong flask, dipshit!

“No, Jesse! You’re sciencing all wrong!”

I’m definitely not what you’d call a scientist, but this book made complete sense to me, 90% of the time. I didn’t just understand what I was reading – I was quite often blown away with how profound it was. At one point, he suggests that intelligent beings like us (well, maybe not us) might be the microscopic agents of universal evolution.

I think that’s what that part meant anyway…

An actual physicist might read this book and think it’s over-simplified wish-wash designed as entertainment for the non-physicist masses. Well, I’m just an idiot in no position to judge how accurate his theories are and, as a member of the non-physicist masses, I can give it a big stamp of approval.

The only downside to Physics of the Impossible is that it was published in 2008 – and a whole lot of science has happened since then. Even if it’s not exactly current, you should definitely give it a go. Take it with you on the daily commute – you’ll be thoroughly amazed and you’ll look a bit smarter.

Undermajordomo Minor – Patrick DeWitt

Undermajordomo Minor - Patrick DeWitt“What do you want from your life, Lucy?”

“Not to die”

“Beyond that. Were you to live, what would you hope might come to pass?”

“Something to happen”

So, Christmas came early for Patrick DeWitt fans with the release of his third novel, Undermajordomo Minor. The Sisters Brothers, his Booker shortlisted 2011 western put him right there on my awesome authors list. Cracking open his latest offering, I hoped against all hope that it wouldn’t be a huge disappointment.

Luckily, it didn’t even take a full chapter to set my mind at ease.

Undermajordomo Minor follows Lucy (Lucien) Minor as he spreads his 17 year-old wings and leaves the old homestead behind to see what the rest of the world has in store. In the blurb, Lucy is described as a ‘compulsive liar and a melancholy weakling’. While this is more-or-less true, he’s still a very likeable character.

In his small-town, teenage innocence, his primary goal in life is to engineer a situation in which he can point at something with a pipe. That’s not much of an aspiration, I suppose, but what more can you expect from someone who, on their deathbed, merely wishes that he wasn’t so bored.

Lucy’s exciting new life begins when he takes a job at the Castle Von Aux, as the assistant to the majordomo, Mr Olderglough. Things aren’t all sunshine and gumdrops at the castle – the Baron hides away in the daytime and prowls the halls at night, mad with heartbreak since the Baroness upped sticks and headed to the West.

Meanwhile, Lucy explores the village, becomes acquainted with the local thieves and gamblers and meets Klara, the object of his affection. That goes just about as smoothly as you’d expect and reinforces one of the themes of the book – that love is about the worst kind of torment that can befall a man.

All-in-all, I loved the book. It’s funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny; it’s fantastical, without the need for witches and goblins; and it feels like you’re being told a story. After reading a couple of what-does-it-really-mean type books, a fireside tale like this was the breath of fresh air I didn’t know I needed.

Will you like it? I can’t answer that unfortunately, but I can say that you should give it a go. Actually, what are you doing at the moment? If you can, get down to your local bookshop and read the first chapter. If you find you’re on chapter 5 before you know what’s happened, then take that bad boy home and prepare yourself for a jolly good read!

(Pay for it first, obviously)

Incidentally, if you’re in London on the 1st October, Patrick DeWitt will be appearing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road for a chat with Jessamy Calkin. You can buy your tickets here for a piddling 8 quid a pop. What else are you going to do on a Thursday evening?

Player One – Douglas Copeland

player one douglas couplandI’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve got a penchant for global catastrophes. I’d happily stack tin cans in my bunker all day long listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor on some crackly AM radio.

So I couldn’t really say no when I read the blurb of Douglas Coupland’s Player One – a real-time 5 hour ordeal between a group of strangers in an airport lounge (of all places) as civilisation collapses outside.

I like Douglas Coupland – I always have, but like so many things, I’ve worried that I might just like the idea of Douglas Coupland. He’s that cool Canadian author that cool people talk about at cool parties (I’m sure).

There was a time when I aspired to being one of those cool people, and it’s during this period that I read Generation X (the pink paperback that sticks out amid all the other titles in the “Cult Fiction” selection of your local bookshop). That was a while ago and, with the added cynicism of years, I was open to disappointment as I cracked open Player One.

Everything worked out grand in the end because the book was fantastic!

It’s about a group of flawed people trying to figure out what to do next as everything they know collapses around them. Joni Mitchell said ‘you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone’, and it’s the sudden absence of modernity that brings its flaws and follies into stark contrast.

Player One was actually written for the 2010 Massey Lectures (an event that’s played host to people like Noam Chomsky, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood) and each chapter was delivered as an hour-long lecture in different Canadian cities.

The book gets a big thumbs-up from me and I’ll probably go back and read some more of Coupland’s work. I won’t even mind too much if there isn’t a massive apocalypse in the plot.

Falling Man – Don DeLillo

falling man don delilloYou don’t approach a novel about 9/11 expecting giggles-a-plenty, and that’s definitely not what you get in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. The story mainly follows Keith, an employee who manages to escape the south tower before it collapses and walks back into the home of his estranged wife and son, carrying a briefcase that doesn’t belong to him.

In a typically post-modern style, the book progresses in a series of scenes, bouncing backward and forward in time. You might like that kind of thing, but if you’re not used to it, you’ll probably find yourself rereading paragraphs with a grumpy look on your face.

For something that’s probably classed as the most dramatic event of the 21st century, DeLillo plays everything down, choosing to subtly hint at how the attack affects the characters. Then again, if you’re looking for a suspense-filled 102 minutes of terror and tragedy, that book probably won’t exist – at least not until 9/11 is seen as something that was on the news a long, long time ago.

For me, Falling Man fell a bit flat but, in fairness, my experience was spoiled a little by the occasional notes left in the margin by the previous owner. Nobody likes to be influenced by an unqualified stranger and, out of stubbornness, I refused to consider whether the third paragraph on page whatever was a meditation on the nature of identity.

So I might have deliberately missed the point.

In any case, if you’re looking around for a novel based on the 9/11 attacks, Falling Man will inevitably appear on every list you find. It’s definitely worth a read, but it’s not likely to brighten up your day.

Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks

consider phlebas mindAfter enjoying the Wasp Factory and My Exploding Granny immensely, I felt I was missing a whole other side to Iain Banks – the side with an ‘M’ in it. I’m sure I’m not alone in being compelled to fill the space-opera-shaped gap in my reading list. Was it any good though? Well, yeah, it was excellent. There are still traces of Iain No-M but the environment is obviously very different from some Highland castle or coastal village.

I mean – it’s in space.

As a bookseller, I’d occasionally encounter a certain breed of reader who wouldn’t entertain or tolerate science fiction of any description. Most of these people would remain pretty rigid in their prejudices but, on more than one occasion,  they could only be swayed by the Culture novels simply because Iain Banks had never let them down before.

What’s the best thing about Consider Phlebas? Well, the first thing I recall is the Vavatch Orbital. Horza, the changer (what it sounds like) and our hero moves from calamity to catastrophe and ends up falling in with a group of space-pirates. If you enjoyed Firefly, by the way, then this is definitely a book for you. This motley crew decide to pull off a bit of cosmic theft on the orbital, a huge o-ring floating in space. The orbital belongs to the Culture, a super-advanced civilization at war with the Idiran Empire, a race of almost-immortal three-legged warriors. In a kind of folly that only war can generate, the Culture are so worried that the Vavatch Orbital might fall into Idiran hand that they decide to destroy it.

Woah, woah, woah! What the hell is an orbital?!

I was thinking the same thing myself for a while before I finally worked it out. It’s pretty self-explanatory when you think about it but the sheer impossible scale of it prevents you from accepting it. The orbital is a hu-fucking-mongous  circular space habitat. It’s about fifty squillion parsecs in diameter and 9 googol football pitches wide (Revision: 4.5 million km in diameter 35,000 km wide). The orbital spins in space just fast enough to mimic the effects of gravity with centrifugal force. If you’ve ever swung a bucket of water around in the name of science, then you’ll get the picture.

Consider Phlebas vavatch orbitalIf, unlike me, you have the right edition of the book, there’s a picture of the orbital on the cover as a hint of what it might look like. Imagine walking around on that! You could look spinwards (?) and see what should be the horizon stretching up into the sky and somewhere, you might see a thin band of darkness on the opposite side of the ring, still enjoying their night. Maybe it wouldn’t look like that, but it’d still be cool.

That’s what stood out for me but it’s hardly the only reason to read the book. Within the classic quest-to-find-the-thing-first plot, there’s plenty of political intrigue, war, spies and violence. Also, if you like random acts of near-comic tragedy that will suck the breath out of your lungs, then Consider Phlebas should be on your to-read list. If you like the sound of that, look out for the first death on the megaship.

 

 

Definitely Maybe – Boris & Arkady Strugatsky

Definitely Maybe - Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Definitely Maybe:

A good read? Definitely.

As good as Roadside Picnic? Maybe.

I’ve already mentioned my obsession with Roadside Picnic, so you can imagine my joy at finding out that Melville House were going to publish another book by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky as part of their Neversink Library.

This new edition was published in the last month but I found out about it AGES ago. It was like the break in the fifth season of Breaking Bad. I tried to hustle an advanced reading copy, but they were having none of it. I had to wait like everyone else. With all of the anticipation, I couldn’t help wondering if Definitely Maybe could fill the boots of Roadside Picnic…

definitely maybe

No, not that one

When I finally picked it up (from my favourite bookshop, in person), the damnedest thing happened. Every time I sat down to read it, something or someone would interrupt me. It was almost as if the Universe didn’t want me to read it. A couple of days ago, I said ‘to Hell with you, Universe’, and jumped right in.

Set in Leningrad in the 70s, the story concerns Malianov, an astrophysicist working on a thesis about how stars react to gas clouds…or something. He has sent the wife and child off on holiday so that he can get a bit of research done. When he finally sits down to work, it isn’t long before he realises that he is onto something, something big, something worthy of a Nobel Prize. But then the damnedest thing happens…

The chain of interruptions that follows leads Malianov to meet up with other professors who are experiencing similar weirdness to varying degrees of severity and in curiously individual forms. They try to find a link between their diverse fields of study and when they fail, they try getting drunk instead.

What the…?

That doesn’t work either and just as the chaos whirls to a crescendo, something really strange happens without the vaguest hint of warning. About half-way through the book, something changes, stays changed and is never explained. I don’t want to spoil it, but you can’t miss it and it’s definitely one of those rare double-take moments.

But, maybe that’s a little on the cryptic side.

definitely maybe

not that one either

To get back to the concrete business of what the book is actually about, it’s a story about a man who accidentally stumbles across something unimaginably powerful and has to decide between realising his lifelong ambitions and losing everything he has ever loved. The story itself has the pace and the mystery of a conspiracy thriller and it’s delivered with deadpan, defeatist humour, all without losing the cloud of certain doom.

I approached this book with one question on my mind – how does Definitely Maybe compare with Roadside Picnic? They both deal with humanity’s futility in the face of unknown powers. The message in both books is clear – we are all insignificant specks in a universe that doesn’t care about us, ignorant primates who only climbed out of the trees a few thousand years ago, hopeless playthings of vastly more intelligent beings.

It’s definitely not all bad though. In the world of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, we encounter wonders equally fascinating and terrifying. Like a chimpanzee trying to work a landmine out, these alien artefacts could kill us at any moment, but we are still compelled to understand them. However, like poor Malianov, even the merest fraction of insight could come at a terrible cost.

Okay, maybe it is pretty bad, but that doesn’t change the fact that these stories are fantastic in every sense of the word. So give Definitely Maybe a go – it’s a bit left-field, a bit obscure, but you’ll read it in a couple of days…unless you get interrupted.

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin

The queue - vladimir sorokin

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin

NYRB

Looking for a short, experimental, soviet-era novel? We-he-hell, look no further!

The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin is set in Russia as the Soviet economy is stagnating into entropy. Commodities are hard to come by so whenever something good shows up, everybody rushes to buy it. I think it used to be a kind of joke back then that anyone who saw a line of people would naturally join it. It got to the point where nobody would buy anything from a shop that didn’t have a queue outside, assuming that the shop had nothing worth queueing for. People would stand in line all day to buy things they didn’t even need and, in a lot of cases, they didn’t even have to know what was at the other end.

And such is the case in The Queue. We’re never quite sure what everyone is expecting to buy and, generally speaking, neither are they. We get the occasional hint – it’s definitely American, it could be suede, they might have them in black – but all of these clues ultimately contradict each other so (spoiler alert) you never find out what’s so damned special that it attracts over a thousand hopeful Russians.

Historical idiosyncrasies aside, the style of the novel does enough to confuse the reader by itself. I say ‘novel’, but it’s teetering on the edge of becoming a script. The book is written entirely in unallocated dialogue. As the story progresses, we leave one conversation without warning and drift into an argument further along the queue. One moment, we’re listening to two people flirting with each other, the next, someone is buying a drink from a stall. Imagine what it’s like to stand still, in the middle of the street with your eyes shut, listening to the voices passing by – that’s the best way I can describe the sensation of reading this book.

Although I found it at times disorientating, I think, as an experiment, the book is just perfect. Sorokin executes the idea with a good deal of stoic Russian humour and takes us on an almost Joycean journey through all aspects of human life. But, in my opinion, the most perfect thing about the book is its length – because, as rewarding as I found the book, I know that had it been any longer, I might well have lost my patience with it.

All that said, it’s definitely worth a go. The Queue is full of gimmicks and quirks that I’d never seen elsewhere (like leaving a number of pages blank when the characters are asleep) and it has one of the strangest sex scenes that literature has to offer.

And if that doesn’t sell it…

In closing, here’s a bunch of Soviet jokes about queueing that I found on the internet:


What is 150 yards long and eats potatoes?
A Moscow queue waiting to buy meat.


Why are Russian meat shops four miles apart?
So the queues don’t get tangled up.


A Soviet man is waiting in line to purchase vodka from a liquor store, but due to restrictions imposed by Gorbachev, the line is excessively long. The man loses his composure and screams, “I can’t take this waiting in line any more, I HATE Gorbachev, I am going to the Kremlin right now, and I am going to kill him!”

After 40 minutes the man returns, and begins elbowing his way back to his place in the vodka queue as the crowd looks on. They begin to ask if he has succeeded in killing Gorbachev, to which the man replies: “No, I got to the Kremlin, but the line to kill Gorbachev was far too long, so I decided to come back and wait for my vodka”.


Still not bored of queues in Soviet Russia yet?

You Should Know About Don Camillo

the little world of don camillo giovannino guareschi penguin

The Don Camillo series – Giovannino Guareschi

You know what? You should know about Don Camillo and his adversary, Peppone. Don Camillo is the Catholic priest of a little village in Italy’s Po Valley – his ‘little world’. When we first meet Don Camillo, it is in an Italy trying to find its identity again after the Second World War. The eponymous priest is himself based on Don Camillo Valota, a priest who fought the Nazis as a partisan and was detained in Dachau and Mauthausen.

The fictional Don Camillo is enormous and “about as graceful in his movements as a division of armoured cars”, with hands like shovels and size 12 shoes. His physical immensity is matched by his personality which is by turns playfully mischievous and furiously vengeful. Like all priests, he talks to Jesus and has a particularly good relationship with the crucifix in his chapel – because this Jesus talks back.

The Communist mayor of the town, Peppone, is equally Don Camillo’s bitter political nemesis and his trusted friend and the dynamic between the pair is brilliant. Don Camillo, although a man of God, is not averse to committing little sins if it means thwarting Peppone’s ludicrous, politically charged schemes. Peppone isn’t blessed with Don Camillo’s intelligence but whatever he lacks, he makes up for in a militant belief in Russia, Lenin and the People. He’s a man with big ambitions and, as the mayor of the town, a man of influence. Sure, he’s an idiotic and quick-tempered communist but he’s well liked – so he must be doing something right.

Despite their political differences, the pair have a deep respect for each other – one they unsuccessfully try to mask. In many of the stories, they have to declare a temporary ceasefire in order to look after the interests of the town and, with a duo like Don Camillo and Peppone protecting it, the town is in danger only of farce.

Written and illustrated by Giovannino Guareschi, the first of the Don Camillo stories appeared in Candido magazine, in December, 1946, a couple of days before Christmas. It was so popular that Guareschi was bombarded with letters from fans demanding that he write more.

They’re like that in Italy.

the little world of don camillo giovannino guareschi penguinOn the whole, each story involves some farcical situation, usually sparked off by the latest mischievous episode in the ongoing feud between Don Camillo and Peppone. Having been born and raised in the region, Guareschi evokes post-war rural Italy perfectly. I wasn’t around the Po Valley at the time, mind you, but you can’t disguise the genuine article.

The stories can be read individually, if you like, but they blend together quite nicely. They were first published in English by Gollancz in the 50s as gorgeous little hardbacks. They’re ridiculously hard to find but I’ve tracked down two Penguins from the 60s and 70s so they’re probably easier to get hold of.

I’ve only recently come to learn of Don Camillo and it’s a perfect example of a series I should have known about. Sadly, it has faded into obscurity a little. I think anyone who has had the pleasure would agree that these books deserve to be read by everyone.

In the 50s and 60s, a series of five films were released starring French comic actor, Fernandel in the title role. Like the books, the movies are fantastic, but a nightmare to find in the real world although you can pick them up online for a small fortune. The first movie is available on Amazon for £15-£22 but take my word for it – it’s money well-spent.

 

North Korea Undercover – John Sweeney – a review

north korea undercover john sweeneyNorth Korea is probably the most secretive state in the world. They have good reason to be too – they have an appalling human rights record and a strict policy of hatred and mistrust for anyone who isn’t North Korea.

It’s no surprise then that the country had become a magnet for investigative reporters, cultural voyeurs and dictatorship ghouls – and John Sweeney can tick at least a couple of those boxes.

In his career, John Sweeney has uncovered the grim secrets of a number of modern dictatorships and rogue states, from Ceaușescu’s Romania to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. His intrepid reporting aside, he’s probably best known for losing his rag with a scientologist. If you haven’t seen the footage, he proudly displays the video on the home page of his website.

So synonymous is he with unrestrained rage that his Twitter handle is @johnsweeneyroar. If you can’t laugh at yourself, right?

John’s penchant for mockery extends to his subject matter as well as his own unabashed fury. I’ve read quite a few books about North Korea, from the heartfelt accounts of defectors in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, to the exhaustive fact-sheet that is Victor Cha’s The Impossible State. In North Korea Undercover, John Sweeney approaches the country with his fists out and his teeth bared. His mission is to demystify and expose the regime for the self-serving totalitarian slave-state that it is.

Nowhere can you find the fearful reverence for the Kim dynasty. Instead John substitutes the names of Kim Jong Il for ‘Bad Elvis’, and Kim Jong Un for ‘Fat Boy Kim’. In North Korea you can get thrown in the gulag because your grandfather might have forgotten to dust his Kim Il Sung portrait in 1975. Were Sweeney to return to Pyongyang, I’m sure his bitter irreverence would earn him a special torture all of his own.

Not that we’d ever hear about it though – North Korea is a black hole into which many people have simply disappeared. We can’t be sure of their exact fates but from what we know, the lucky ones have been allowed to live in Pyongyang as curious capitalist zoo exhibits. The less fortunate have more than likely been forced to sit alone in cold cells for years, with only the occasional beating to break the monotony and the odd bowl of grass soup to prolong their starvation.

north korea undercover john sweeneyIf you haven’t read anything about North Korea yet, I would recommend North Korea Undercover as an excellent starting point. Sweeney gives a concise account of the country’s history, making sure to insult the Kims at every opportunity. Many reporters might prefer a more unbiased method, but given the circumstances, I think Sweeney’s approach is wholly justified and, if anything, it’s refreshing.

Too many people have tip-toed around the issue with guarded diplomacy. I found North Korea Undercover all the more enjoyable simply because Sweeney tries to send up the regime whilst expressing a very real anger and frustration at the cost of human suffering.

This suffering continues today and because of Fat Boy Kim’s nuclear threat, there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about it except hope that the regime is toppled from within. Such is the stranglehold on liberty however, we needn’t hold our breath.

How I became an ex-bookseller

book tombstoneSo, it’s been a month since I quit the bookshop and, as I’ve neglected this blog for a while, I thought an epitaph might be a fitting way to kick things back into action.

For almost six years, I’d honed my book-recommending skills. Every day was a combination of shelving, ‘curating’ and waiting for a suitable victim customer who didn’t yet know that they were about to leave with a little piece of magic.

In the past four weeks, that has been the thing I’ve missed the most. How many other jobs can give you the opportunity to talk to strangers all day about your passion? That, I suppose, depends on your passions, but the world of bookselling attracts a specific bunch – people who love books so much that matters of salary and financial stability pale into insignificance.

And there you have my one and only reason for leaving – I simply couldn’t afford to do a job that I loved. Some people might be surprised to learn that bookselling is among the lowest paid professions you’re likely to find. A career in retail is, by itself, not very lucrative but even on this scale, bookselling ranks fairly close to the bottom.

Strangely though, this is the very reason that you’ll always encounter true passion whenever you go into a bookshop. The people shelving the books, writing the review cards and, indeed, gushing about their favourite books are there, not for the money, but because they love what they do. Either that or they lack ambition but this, I assure you, is a small contingent.

Even if you take the money out of the equation, there are other drawbacks to being a bookseller. Everyone who works in a bookshop will be familiar with the occasional doom-bringer. Every couple of weeks, this strange person arrives eager to remind you about Kindles and Amazon and how insecure your future is. Personally, I’d like to think that bookshops can hold their own. There are enough people willing to spend their money in a real bookshop to prevent the doomsday scenario that keeps anxious booksellers awake at night. However, being naturally cautious, I wasn’t prepared to take my chances.

As I write, it’s Saturday morning and I’m sitting in Nero’s waiting for my old stomping ground to open. I want to visit my ex-colleagues and say hello but I also want to visit the books and make sure they’ve been loved in my absence. It’s a ritual I perform every week and each time, I find myself unconsciously tidying, reorganising and filling gaps. I don’t expect to be paid. After all, nobody does this job for the money.