Yzabel

Book reviews, and my personal reflections about writing.

The Dark Net

The Dark Net - Benjamin Percy

(To be fair, I actually got a review copy through Edelweiss, but didn't get to the book at the time due to... probably too many other books to read. Story of my life.)

It's a decent novel. It didn't exactly deal with what the blurbs mentions. From the latter, you'd think it's a techno-thriller involving the Deep Web, groups like Anonymous, the Silk Road, and so on. But the 'Net, while playing a part, is not as much involved as more traditional urban fantasy/horror elements: 'the Light' vs. 'the Dark', an immortal who prolongs her body's current life through blood transfusions, an ex-child evangelist now running a shelter by day and hunting monsters by night, demons...

I did like the way the Deep Net was involved: as a new turf for a war between Light and Dark, with means of action relying on people's obsession with their smartphones, GPS, and connected technology in general. That was a good plot point. I also liked Hannah's 'Mirage' apparatus, in the first chapter of the book, where it is hinted that thanks to it, she's now able to see more than meet the eye.

The story is packed with action, the characters don't really get a chance to rest, and even when they think they do, well, Evil never sleeps, right? As a result, though, it was also difficult to care much about them—so when there were dead people, I barely noticed them.

The more traditional horror/UF elements were also a slight let-down. As much as I like these in general, here, I felt that the technological angle took the back burner at times (one of the characters is actually a technophobe). Perhaps I resented the blurb misleading me more than I thought, too? I would've been more interested in a truly cyberpunk-cum-supernatural angle, rather than the contrary.

Magic For Liars

Magic For Liars - Sarah Gailey

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A mystery where Ivy, a private investigator, has to address a potential murder in a magic school, where her own twin sister Tabitha is a teacher—her sister, who was gifted with magic, while herself wasn’t. That’s a recipe for disaster, or at least, for tense relationships and/or resentment.

And I enjoyed, indeed, the out-of-balance relationship between the two sisters, based on a lot of unsaid things, feelings and resent left to simmer for years, with each contending with a difficult event in a way that made the other sister believe they didn’t care, or not so much. Well, it was especially imbalanced when Ivy was concerned, since she was the one at home when the said event occurred, and had to live through it with the feeling that Tabby was too busy with her studies. But this long-festering resentment also came hand in hand with a wistful, half-buried, never fully admitted, desire for magic as well: Ivy telling herself she’s fine as she is, that she doesn’t want magic, can never really hide the regret that magic separated her from her twin. A good chunk of the story deals with this complicated relationship, as well as with Ivy wondering “what if” (what if she had been magic, too?), and seeing herself as the woman she never was, and that she probably wouldn’t have minded being. Along with her investigation, this leads her to spin more and more lies: some appearing as necessary, to throw the potential culprit off-balance while Ivy is fishing for clues, and some that are, let’s say, less justified, if not by her feelings.

On the other hand, there were times when Ivy came off as wallowing in self-pity a little too much for my liking, and when she became unsympathetic rather than touching. So the character development and relationships were interesting in general, though tedious at those times I mentioned.

The magic itself is not all stars and sparkles, and this makes it more interesting than neat spells and wand-waving. First, it can be pretty gross. Healing spells, for instance, are gruesome and difficult, and only the best mages can attempt them without killing themselves or their patient. And there’s also something twisted and petty to the way some of the students use their magic—one of the things Ivy reflect upon: they could do so much with it… but they’re still teenagers wrapped in their own drama, and so use it in a very self-centred and sometimes mean way.

The mystery part was where I think the novel wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been. The crime itself is one of magic (not a spoiler—you see the discovery of the body in the first chapter), and this, of course, throws additional difficulty in the path of our investigator, since she’s not familiar with spells and with what mages can or can’t do. Which is partly why she needs to do so much fishing. Yet at the same time, I felt that it lacked tension, that Ivy wasn’t as threatened as she could have been. And the clues were either something she stumbled upon (so not exactly screaming “investigation” here), or so subtle that they were really difficult for a reader to spot. Not to mention some parts of the ending. Some things were left unfinished, and while I do enjoy an open ending, here something was missing—some closure when it came to certain characters and facts, who/which were in fact sort of… brushed aside as “that was bad and they did a bad thing and oh it’s the end, bye.”

Conclusion: 3 to 3.5 stars? I quite liked this novel, but it’s a like” and not a “love” here.

Walking to Aldebaran

Walking to Aldebaran - Adrian Tchaikovsky

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A short book (more novella than novel) about exploration, the unknown, first contact(s), and horrors lurking in the darkness.

The narrator, Gary Rendell, is an astronaut who got separated from his crew while exploring an odd artefact/construct he has nicknamed “the Crypts”, at the edge of the solar system, and suspected to be a gate to other parts of the galaxy. Gary’s narrative is disturbingly humorous, which in itself was not surprising to me, as a “buffer against madness” attempt at coping. Because the Crypts will eat you alive if you’re not careful, walking from one “biome” to the other, every time wondering if the air will be breathable, or if his body will be able to tolerate a new gravity, or if some other wanderer will decide to make him their dinner. And Gary is definitely not alone in there.

The story is told in chapters alternating present and past: Rendell’s roaming in the Crypts and what led him and the exploration team there. Both worked well for me, and were never too hard to follow or confusing. The science/technology part is not really explored here—it’s assumed that in the not-too-distant future, when the artefact was discovered, humanity is space-savvy enough to send a crew in semi-suspended animation past Neptune. And in itself, the “how” is not the point here, just the method by which the actual point is reached.

There are disturbing little hints here and there, that you don’t necessarily pay attention to at first. Rendell has been in there for days or weeks or months, and somehow you want him to find the exit, while knowing all too well it probably won’t happen, or not like a breeze. There are the names, too: the Frog God, Aldebaran? Brush up on your Lovecraft and you’ll see what I mean. There is a twist as well, and the aforementioned hints may or may not be enough to sense it coming, but once it’s here, you can’t unsee them, so to speak.

I’m just not too happy at the last chapter: I felt something was missing—that perhaps Gary should’ve gotten slightly less screen time here, so that we could also see what happened from the other party’s point of view? I’m not sure exactly, only that it didn’t thrill me as much as the rest of the book.

This said, I definitely recommend this novella.

Bonus: A fairly good soundtrack for this novella would be The Little Cloud Who Wouldn't And The Rainbow Who Couldn't… Lyrics included.

Let's Talk About Love

Let's Talk About Love - Claire Kann

Problematic in more than one way—bullet-point style, because I have other reviews to write:

- The writing style didn't agree with me from the beginning, whether the narrative or the dialogues (nobody really talks like that).
- Alice is a very childish character, more a young teenager than a 19-year-old person. Her "Cutie-Code" would've been OK had she been 13, but otherwise, it was pretty much face-palming.
- Which ties into another problem for me: "Alice = childish" so "Alice = asexual" can so easily been read as "asexual = she'll grow out of it".
- Also, Manic Pixie Dream Girl syndrome.
- The romance itself was nothing exceptional. Most of the relationship building even happens off-screen. Such as: Alice and Takumi fly in a hot air balloon, but we don't see it, we only know about it because she tells her friends. I don't know... Just show me the characters enjoying their flight? (At least that would've been better than the chicken soup part, with all its girl = mother/nurse implications.)
- Takumi taking pictures of Alice without her consent is creepy. And it's even creepier to see that it bothers her for, like, two seconds only before it gets swept under the rug. What's with romance stories trying to pass creepy stuff as "romantic"?
- Just communicate with your friends! That will spare you a lot of trouble.
- Not that the Alice/Feenie friendship is very healthy in itself. I kept feeling that Feenie just wanted to keep Alice in reach, and as soon as Alice started to see other people, then it meant Drama.
- To echo Alice's feeling: yes, having to always educate people about being [asexual / trans / gay / bi / lesbian / anything ] is super tiring. So reading such explanations throughout the book was super tiring, too. It tried too hard in that regard.
- Diversity is great, but Alice and Takumi were so generic that it didn't mean anything here.

I was so disappointed here. Ace representation isn't so widespread, so I was really hoping I'd like this book, and... Nope. Just the same old YA romance stuff as in (white) straight YA romance, only with lessons about asexuality.

Outdoor London

Outdoor London: Green spaces and escapes in and around the capital - Eleanor Ross

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

Technically speaking, I could only review a PDF copy, not a physical one, so I can’t comment on the quality of the paper and of the printed colours; but the photos in the digital copy were, at any rate, vibrant and gorgeous.

This book presents quite a few parks, gardens, walks and cycling paths throughout Greater London, ranging from cozy gardens to cemeteries and preserved areas—we all have that idea of "the big city" as made of concrete only, but London is actually a pretty green city, or at least one with many more green places that one would suspect. Along short texts and beautiful pictures, the author also takes care of giving addresses, opening days/hours, and the closest Tube lines, to make it easier to find these locations and book entrance when this is necessary.

While visiting more than a couple will be difficult for someone who's in the capital for only a few days, if you're a local, or go to London more regularly than just every few years or so, "Outdoor London" will definitely give you plenty of ideas for both summer and out of season outings. (I was particularly happy to find about several smaller gardens in the City, since this is a very accessible area for me, and now I have no excuses whatsoever not to go visit these places more often.)

If anything, maybe I would've liked to see more details about each park or trail—a few more anecdotes, perhaps? But that doesn't detract from the book as a whole.

Digital Consciousness

Digital Consciousness: A Transformative Vision  - Jim Elvidge

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

I admit I wasn’t sure what I was going into with this book (and that I don’t know anything about the author or his previous work). I requested it thinking it was a science-fiction novel, and of course realised it wasn’t one after the first couple of pages. This said, it turned out quite interesting and intriguing in terms of ideas and points developed, even though I sometimes had trouble going on.

What if our material reality is not what we think it is? And isn’t even really material to start with? Well,” why not,” is what I think about this. As much as I see myself as a materialist (I often joke that I’m waiting for the Men in Black to come and recruit me and pump me up with juicy cybernetics and bio-engineered alterations—hello, Iteration X), I also have no proof that we are -not- living in a simulation, after all. That the reality we think of as ‘material’ is not simply what the author calls a ‘Reality Learning Lab’, where consciousness goes to live through new experiences for a while, in order to learn and progress. And when you consider all the strange things quantum mechanics have forced us to consider—things that a 19th-century scientist, for instance, would have rejected as preposterous, ridiculous, and completely misguided—it’s not so silly at all. What’s to tell that in two centuries from now, we won’t have come up with something even more outlandish, that turns out to be -the- truth instead of what we knew before?

It’s probably a lot of speculation, but the arguments used throughout the book do make sense, too, so there’s definitely a part of me that won’t discard them.

I didn’t appreciate the tone at times, though, when it veered off sounding ‘objective’ and into more ‘personal’ jibes at other theories. I get the same feeling with any author who does that, really: for me, it’s all about “if you want to convince me, you don’t need to take a shot at anyone; let -me- do this on my own”. But that’s more of a pet peeve of mine. What was more troublesome, I think, was that some approaches and examples were both too simple and too complex at the same time. As in, if you already know the basics about quantum mechanics, string theory and the likes, you’d need more in-depth examples; and conversely, for someone who doesn’t know much to this, the examples/comparisons would probably not make as much sense.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars

Emily Eternal

Emily Eternal - M.G. Wheaton

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Earth is living its last months in this book: all calculations indicating that the Sun would go the way of red giants in 4.5 billions of years were wrong, and helium fusion has been detected in its core… which means the inner solar system will soon go bye-bye. On this Earth where people have forsaken money for barter, and where people try to go join their loved ones to go together, a group of MIT scientists is still working on their Artificial Consciousness: Emily, who was intended as a psychotherapist of sorts, and was “growing up” half in a simulation where she was living the campus life, in order to better understand humanity. And now, they want Emily to be the last hope of the human race.

That was super-fast read for me, because I just couldn’t stop, and kept on reading, wanting to know how all this would unfold. The story is narrated in the first person, from Emily’s point of view, and as a character with a voice all of its own, the artificial consciousness is definitely quite likeable and even funny at times. This is not only a novel about the end of the world, but also about humanity and free will; about emotions, feelings and romance; about what “being like a god” could be like; about doing the right thing because it’s in your programming, and then because you do sense it’s just the right thing to do, period. Not everyone agrees with the decision Emily’s creator went with, and thus Emily finds herself pitched against those who would uphold more drastic methods… even though, all in all, tasked with saving the world in a matter of weeks, all methods are probably going to be drastic, each in its own way.

Thanks to her supercomputer nature, Emily can easily interact with electricity, through an interface patch letting its wearers see her… but this also means she can interact with them, using electric signals in the human body, and this raises all sorts of conundrums and interesting questions about what she could do, and how far she’d be willing to go in that regard for the greater good, to save as many people as possible. And even though Emily was overall a good person, with her own morals that were so much closer to a human’s, it didn’t meant she was never tempted, or never made mistakes, for that matter. This includes the romance part (one that I enjoyed, for a change—I’m very picky about romance subplots), considering what it’s partly based on.

If anything, I’d say I was less on board with the last 10-15% of the book. While the basic premise, that of the Sun going out sooner than expected, does demand a bit of suspension of disbelief at first (“could we be mistaken THAT much about it?”), it is nevertheless grounded in a logic that makes it quickly believable. However, the solution Emily went with is much more of a stretch, perhaps because it felt like it all went too fast compared to the rest of the story? I would probably have been on board more if it had taken a little more room, rather than “this is what’s been happening during the past few months”.

Conclusion: 4.5 stars. I wasn’t completely on board with the last chapters, but Emily’s character, as well as Mayra’s, definitely make up for it.

Internment

Internment - Samira Ahmed

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

The theme of this book was definitely scary, in that it’s not something that can never happen—it has happened in the past already, and anyone who’s studied history a little, and/or gotten interested in studying extremist movements, will know very well that even an apparently “balanced” society can give way to extreme rules, to persecuting people, and to turning your average citizen into an “I was just doing my job” person.

The story echoes the internment of many Japanese-descent American citizens during World War II, often considered as “enemies of the nation” and interned as “potential dangers”. There is no World War here, “only” the aftermath of 9/11 and growing fears of terrorism, with people being so afraid of a fringe of Muslim people that they lump all Muslims in the same basket, starting with a religion census, then moving to curfews and the burning of books. Also, the parallels drawn with early 21st century US politics are obvious (although this is not limited to the USA)... perhaps a little too much. Which leads me to what was my main beef with the book: it makes everything too obvious.

Don’t mistake me: the message IS really important, and there’s no way any decent society should let something like this happen (again). However, I often found that it was hammered through and through, and that overall, more subtlety, and a more mature treatment of it all, would’ve been welcome. It’s a little as if too much repetition, too much obviousness, weakened the message by making it tiresome, in a way. (I’m not sure if I’m explaining myself very well here. It was difficult to properly put my finger on what had been nagging me throughout my reading.)

A few other things annoyed me, too. The writing itself was fairly simplistic, with Layla’s thoughts often circling around the same things (like her boyfriend), and in general, there wasn’t really any explanation about how things came to be. I could fill in some blanks because I know my history, but more background details about the escalation of Islamophobia leading to the internment camps would’ve been great (and would’ve helped to strengthen the message)—just like it would’ve been good to see more chemistry when relationships were involved. For instance, Layla and David: we don’t get to see them together enough in the beginning to get a feeling for their relationship, and this makes it hard to really empathise with their obsession to see each other (even though doing so endangers pretty much everyone: David, Layla, his family, her family, the people who help them…).

The same goes for those people who are on the Muslims’ side: with everyone at the camp cut from the outside world, with no real news, no phones, no internet allowed, whatever happens outside is learnt through third parties. We don’t really -see- those reactions, we don’t get to read the texts that Layla manages to smuggle outside and that inspire people, etc. And most characters’ motivations are never really explored. Why is the Director such a cartoonish villain? What motivates the guards who try to help? What motivates (or threatens) the minders turned traitors to their people?

The ending, too, was… conveniently simple. And got rid of one specific plot point that otherwise would’ve needed more explanation. That was very predictable… and very frustrating.

Conclusion: I definitely agree with the message here, but as a novel, it didn’t really work for me.

Space 2.0

Space 2.0: How Private Spaceflight, a Resurgent NASA, and International Partners are Creating a New Space Age  - Rod Pyle,  Foreword by Buzz Aldrin

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

As a NetGalley ARC, I got a digital copy, but getting a printed one is very, very tempting, since the book contains plenty of beautiful pictures: from archives, from “current” events (taken during SpaceX launches, for instance), and from art depicting projects as of yet unrealised, but that look definitely exciting.

This book takes us on a journey from the early days of space-faring into current projects, as well as what could very well be in store for the future. The space conquest started strongly during the Cold War, but it is true that after a while, those efforts kind of dwindled compared to what they could have been, what a lot of people no doubt expected them to be. I remember when the shuttle was decommissioned, and that was heartbreaking in its own way. Now, as the space industry is not relying only on public agencies but also on investors from the private sector—while I’m not a huge fan of Musk and Bezos, let’s be honest, we need people like them to carry on with the effort—may we hope that it’s not going to stop here?

“Space 2.0” is a very pleasant read, both in an entertaining and in an informative manner, and doesn’t restrict itself to covering NASA: it also presents recent and currents efforts from other agencies, whether in Europe with the ESA or in Asia with the growing importance of China and India. And while it doesn’t shy away from all the hurdles in conquering space, the past as well as the future ones, it provides plenty of technical details, and a clearly hopeful vision (complete with contacts and organisations to get involved as individuals in space-related endeavours in general).

Yes, I really want to get the printed version now. If I have one critique, it’s that I wouldn’t have minded if the book has been a little longer, with even more pictures and details!

Delta-v

Delta-v - Daniel Suarez

[I received a copy of this book through Penguin’s “First To Read” program, in exchange for an honest review.]

Quite an interesting novel, with parts that definitely made me want to keep reading in spite of my better judgment (read: “maybe it’s time to sleep it’s past midnight and I’m supposed to get up at 5:30 to go to work oh my”). Considering the stakes and the setting, obviously things couldn’t go perfectly, and the characters were bound to run into all sorts of trouble. Although there could have been more trouble than there was, but then, they’d have ended up all dead, because you can’t very well weather ten asteroid showers and the likes without any damage (not a spoiler, I’m just using some generic example here). So all in all, the ratio of suspense vs. things that work vs. things that turn to crap more quickly than you can blink was fairly good.

I also really enjoyed the science and the research behind the space technology presented throughout the novel. I wasn’t always on board (see what I did there) with absolutely everything in terms of medical impact on the astronauts’ bodies—but then, considering what our current astronauts already have to go through just after 6 months on the ISS, going for 100% accuracy may just have led, here too, to a bunch of very dead characters, very quickly. I guess we can use some suspension of disbelief on the grounds of “it’s 2030-ish and the consequences are better known, so they’re better prepared, too”. So, in general, I pretty much liked reading the explanations, how the ship was meant to function.

The geopolitical side was interesting, too. It is clearly grounded in our present, where corporations invest in space travel and research, and some of the investors/CEOs we meet in the story are definitely parallel descendants of people like Musk and Bezos—although in that regard, Nathan Joyce is probably closer to those, in terms of investing and betting everything on a very daring scheme.

The reason I’m not rating “Delta-v” higher is because, like other books of the same type, I found it too ambitious for just one volume. There are two very distinct parts in it: the training and the actual mission, and I kept feeling that each would have warranted a novel of its own. Because of length constraints (I suppose), the author had to go with storytelling shortcuts, which made for a choppy rhythm all along. For instance, one chapter shows what’s happening on the first day of training, and then two chapters later we’re at “a few weeks later”, and so on.

My other problem likely resulted from this “shortening an ambitious story into one book”: I found the characters too one-dimensional, and at the end, I didn’t get to know them well enough to really, fully care about them. Tighe is probably the one we know most about, but not so much the others (we get glimpses about Dave, Isabel and Han, but Nicole, Amy and Adisa remained rather a trio of unknowns, apart from a couple of defining feature such as “he’s a genius with computers and hacking” and “she needs to escape Earth because she can hear the movement of tectonics and it drives her bonkers”). And let’s be honest, in a story like this one, we need to care about the characters; we need to be much more invested about them.

Conclusion: 2.5 to 3 stars. Enjoyable and exciting technology, but too ambitious for just one book.

Burnout: The secret to solving the stress cycle

Burnout - Emily Nagoski, Amelia Nagoski

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Not exactly an eye-opener, since I was already considering a lot of the stressors and consequences it lists as, well, logical—but in that regard, it was also good to see that “ah, so it’s not just me seeing weird things where there isn’t anything.” The concepts of Human Giver vs. Human Being especially make a lot of sense when you think about how society tends to view, and divide, and force a lot of things on women. (Not that men don’t have stressors and burnout either, but the book is labelled as being about women, not as a more generic book about burnout; and I doubt that being seen as “human givers” is the main cause for men anyway.)

“Human giver” has to be understood here as a person whose existence is seen as being devoted to others, and only others—and if they dare listen to themselves and take care of themselves for a change, shame on them, how dare they! I’m sure that if we take the time to think about it, a lot of us will have to acknowledge that it’s true (and is not only limited to obvious forms of giving such as volunteering etc.). I can clearly sense the discrepancy myself when I mention that I don’t want children and don’t want to devote my life to them, for instance: at some point I can cross out the “you’re so / what’s wrong with you” cases on my personal bingo, whereas the guy next to me who doesn’t want kids either gets a milder reaction. Or all the usual crap about getting your bikini body (‘tis the season right now, huh), about being pretty, about changing your body: the media don’t tell this to women because people are genuinely concerned about their health, but because that’s how women are supposed to present, and if they don’t—shame on them. I wouldn’t necessarily have linked this to Human Giver Syndrome, not just in passing, but in hindsight, it stems from the same source.

(And no, the solution isn’t for us to all become selfish monsters, but for a redistribution of the giving, i.e. women are human beings too, not only givers; and men are just as able to give as well. So if everyone gives a little here and there, it balances out. Makes sense.)

Again, nothing exactly new for m; however, seeing it in writing, seeing words put on my thoughts, allowing me to formulate them better, is something that I think can help in general. When we can word a feeling (or anything, in general), my take is that the “thing” becomes more tangible, more like something we can act upon. In that regard, I believe this book can definitely be of help.

The book is well-researched, as far as I can tell, with suggestions, self-help exercises and other ideas outlined. While they may not all be convenient, or applicable, or ground-breaking (exercise is good for you = who doesn’t know that by now?), what was most useful to me was the reasoning behind it, because once I understand the causes-and-consequences chain, then it makes sense and I can more easily devise my own techniques. For instance, now I can specifically explain why I’m always more productive, sleep better, and generally feel better when I walk back home from work (a 40 minutes brisk walk), even when the day was physically tiring and I would expect additional physical activity to tire me even more: this was/is all part of my own unconscious attempts at “closing the stress cycle”. Now the whole thing makes so much more sense.

(Basically, dealing with the stress and dealing with the stressors are two different things. The symptoms of stress—adrenaline, etc.—are hard-wired in us as old, old reactions, back when “stressor” was likely to be some wild animal threatening us—and so, we’d need to run. And once back to safety, after the run, that was “completing the stress cycle”, with our bodies being able to come down from the whole thing, and we’d be fine again. But you can’t do that anymore in a lot of situations now: if the stressor is your jerk of a boss belittling you at work, you can’t very well run away or smack them… so the cycle isn’t completed, and the stress, well, just stays.)

Now, to be honest, I didn’t always agree with the writing (the blog-like tone would work in a review or an article, but not in a book, I think) or about some of the quotes (Cassandra Clare… really?). Sometimes it threw me out of my reading. I would also have liked a little more science in it, or rather, a somewhat more scientific writing—so that ties more with the aforementioned tone in general for me, and not with the research itself.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars. A lot of things I already knew/suspected. Some things I didn’t and that now make more sense. Some things we’re still a long way of getting out of our lives (Human Giver Syndrome), but once you get how it works, at least you can start. Also, beware: “Jane Eyre” spoiler in Part III.

Hacking Darwin

Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity - Jamie Frederic Metzl

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

This book is not heavy on the actual science details—if you’re looking for those, you’ll be better to get another book, but if you don’t know that much about genetics, then there won’t be anything in there impossible to follow. It focuses instead on the various advances in genetics in terms of “what do they do”, “what do they entail”, “what could the results be”, and “how should be approach those?” (You can tell that the author has also written novels, because there’s a definitive storytelling thread throughout some of the chapters, especially when he deals with IVF and the potential of modifying embryos to make their future selves healthier. This makes the reading all the more accessible and enjoyable.)

You can also tell that Jamie Metzl is probably more on the side of advocating gene-related manipulations than on the side of those who want them banned, but in a cautious way: it’s not all enthusiasm and sparks and giggles, and for every “good point” he lists, he also takes care to consider the negative sides (or potentially negative sides, since there are still many approaches that haven’t been tested, so we just have no idea how people would react when given the choice). And it is true that while the transhumanist in me is excited at so many prospects, the cynic is me is also convinced that, like we so many other things, humanity in general will bork its way through this and pervert it. But let’s keep hope, shall we?

“Hacking Darwin” considers the therapeutic potential of genetic intervention. Through current techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, we are already able to cut material that leading to genetic diseases, although this hasn’t been approved so far on human embryos destined to be implanted, because the results are good, but more on a “60% good” scale than on a “95% good” one. Which leads to understandable caution about all this, and with reason. There is something frightening and sublime (in the philosophical and literary meanings of the word) to all these developing technologies, because when we contemplate them, we are put face to face with how we are, all in all, code; and code can be hacked, and modified, and this could be for the best or for the worst.

The best: if we had a chance of preventing babies with genes condemning them to Alzheimer’s or to Huntington’s disease, for instance, shouldn’t we take it and thus prevent future suffering? If we can make crops that yield more nutrients (Golden Rice comes to mind, and is actually even mentioned), shouldn’t we do it, so that people dying of malnutrition illnesses can get a chance at life? And if we could give our future children better health and strength in general, better chances in their future lifes through specific abilities, wouldn’t we want to do that? But the worst, too: who’s to tell that this won’t spiral downward (eugenics and the earluy 20th century come to mind), lead to less diversity (not a good thing), to people all wanting the same kind of child—or, perhaps more alarmingly, to a growing chasm between those who can afford to enhance tyheir future babies, and those who can, thus leading to a class of “superhumans” trampling “subhumans”?

The book considers these aspects, and other ones as well, including the major religion’s take on it (you’d be surprised at some of them) and approaches and pitfalls that humanity as a whole must consider here. It doesn’t hold all the answers, far from it. But it gives you a lot of food for thought. And even though it is perhaps too optimistic (again, seeing the world as it is today, I just don’t trust us in general to avoid creating worst societies based on even more inequalities, this time from before the womb), it does remain a very interesting start for more discussions about genetic engineering.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes

The Department of Sensitive Crimes (Detective Varg #1) - Alexander McCall Smith

[I received a copy of this book through Penguin’s “First To Read” program, in exchange for an honest review.]

I thought this would be the introduction to a series with investigations a little on the strange side, and quirky characters. The cases indeed had a bit of oddity (a man knifed at the back of the knee, a boyfriend who may or may not exist…), but I didn’t enjoy the characters and their interactions much.

I think the breaking point for me (well, not really a point, since it kept going on throughout the whole novel…) was the way their thoughts and conversations were meandering. In a way, they surely did mirror how our thoughts in general go from A to E through convoluted paths and associations of ideas; the problem is that this doesn’t translate very well into written form, unless perhaps you’re called James Joyce, and even then, I wouldn’t bet on it systematically. As a result, the characters took their sweet time getting to the fact, and to be honest, I found that their reflections about their own lives intruded all in the wrong places, such as between two paragraphs pertaining the investigation. The amount of useless dialogue lines kept breaking the flow of the story, and didn’t endear me to said characters.

Another problem was the nature of some of those conversations, taking gratuitous jabs at people: reflections about the size of a policewoman’s buttocks (such a professional conversation, that), or calling a secondary character a midget, or being not even vaguely sexist—even coming from the female investigator, Anna, when she addresses the matter of the young woman in the second “crime”, and declares “Hormones come into it” (to which Varg agrees with a heartfelt “Don’t they always?”). I mean… No? Just no? Was this really necessary? What was it meant to achieve?

All in all, I was disappointed here. I was expecting a sort of quirky, adorkable atmosphere, but it felt at best bland, and at worst somewhat rancid.

Invisible Women

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men  - Caroline Criado-PĂ©rez

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Wow, did this book hurt. And made me angry. In a good way, that is—not feeling angry at some, at least, of what it deals with, would have probably been abnormal. For two main reasons: 1) it points at things one doesn’t necessarily thinks about when reflecting at first upon all the ways women still get the short straw, and 2) once you consider these things, you realise you’re not even surprised, and -that- is proof that all of this stuff is… just sad. It’s the 21st century, and half of humanity is still forced to deal with rubbish.

Here’s a very simple illustration of one of the problems the author points. It’s very simple, and minor, and I bet a lot of people (possibly mostly men, but surely also some women) would tell me to ignore it and “suck it up” and “it’s not important, so stop dwelling on it.’ But it is a good example. I work in a fairly good company when it comes to treating people equally. It’s not perfect, of course, but let’s just say that for a Silicon Valley company, they actually openly try to recruit more diverse people than just 25-ish white male nerds, which in itself deserves to be pointed. And it gives its new hires little welcome gifts. So when I joined, among the gifts, was a pair of socks. They’re pretty, I like their colour, and I’d love to wear them. There’s just a problem that no one obviously though about: they’re not “one size fits all”, they’re “one size fits all MEN”. Which means they’ve been gathering dust at the bottom of my wardrobe, since wearing socks whose heels ride above your ankles is really incomfortable. And there you have it: the way the default “human being” is actually “male”, with female bodies being sort of a side show that those poor men have to accommodate (/le sigh).

(In defence of my employer, they do give us female version of T-shirts, too, so it’s not completely hopeless either. And no, my point is not to rant about socks. If someone hasn’t gotten my point by now, they should probably read this book because they’d make a good target for it.)

It is both enlightening and infuriating to read about this for 300+ pages, about all the circumstances in which women are still, more or less unconsciously, treated as the less important part of humanity, the part that can “suck it up” and “deal with it: look, we men deal with it”, except that it’s much easier for men to deal with it since the “it” was made for them at first. An example from the book: tsunami shelters in countries where there’s a solid separation between the female sphere and the male sphere, where women can’t go out unless they’re with men from their family, because if they do, they’re pretty much free buffet for all. So, when a tsunami hits, and the shelters are designed as huge places where hundreds of people have to cram, without any separation between the sexes, guess what happens? Well, women die, because they don’t dare to go in there (if they do, they almost surely end up shamed and beaten and raped); and that’s IF they get to the shelters in the first place, since a man from their family needs to warn them and take them there first. (It is also telling that in such dire circumstances, like these ones, or refugeed camps, the worst for women is often not even the wars or natural catastrophes that led them there, but male violence.)

And the worst of it, the saddest part, is that most of the time, it’s not even done on purpose: it happens because most people who plan these places, most people who decide about infrastructures, are still men, and the mere idea that not all people (read: 50% of the people) don’t have exactly the same needs as theirs doesn’t even cross their minds. How pathetic is that?

Conclusion: Read this book. Read about all these pathetic things, that you can’t dismiss as “oh well it’s not true, surely this (female, of course) author is exaggerating”, except that she’s not, nope, you can indeed see all this around you, every day, if you pay attention. I don’t even need to check sources to realise this. If it’s around me in 2019 Britain, I can’t dismiss it as “but it only happens in ‘certain countries’, luv”.

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side  - Julia Shaw

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Interesting in its own ways, and raising a lot of prompts to question oneself about how we define ‘evil’, if such definitions are actually applicable, what would make us think a person is evil, or whether we are all capable of evil (and if we are, then what prevents us from tipping that way). Most examples given I already knew (Hitler—obviously, or the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments), but it didn’t make the questions less valid, of course. Like many things, the ‘evil’ label can be applied in haste, as a shortcut, and there are times when I believe it is indeed valid, and others when evil has nothing to do with it. Times when we tend to use the label to mean something that is too different from our own experience for us to want to acknowledge it and not treat it as ‘other’.

And it is definitely a tricky subject. It is not so easy to calmly consider, say, the case of paedophilia, and try to see people experiencing these urges as people who need help rather than just as ‘evil people who should be castrated’ (note that I wrote ‘experiencing urges’, which doesn’t necessarily mean ‘acting on them’). Are those people ‘evil’? Are they more victims of something they can’t control? And what would be more productive: just labelling them, or trying to find solutions to help before something bad happens? Probably your mileage may vary here, but I get the point, and I agree with it, that pointing the finger is seldom a solution in itself—and that saying ‘it’s evil’ is basically useless anyway if all we do is say it instead of acting. Which raises other questions, obviously: what does ‘acting’ mean here? Does it mean punishing, killing (and committing a harmful act as well)? Does it mean helping?

Regarding this kind of reflections leading to more reflections, the book is clearly interesting, and tends to push boundaries and make one feel uncomfortable: none of us want to realise ‘hey, wait, but I also have such thoughts at times’, or think ‘if I don’t call a murderer evil, then people will judge me as bad and reject me’. There’s a lot of philosophical aspects to go with here, and opportunities for good discussions.

This said, I found the ‘science’ side more lacking. While many examples presented in it do rest on actual experiments and reports, and some clinical reasons are given for certain behaviours (such as studies trying to pinpoint if specific areas of the brain are involved in psychopathic behaviours, etc.), for me, it didn’t go far enough in the scientific department (such as neurology), which is why I liked the book in general, but didn’t love it. The author also adds her own opinions, and does say they are opinions (= not trying to pass them as facts), and to be fair, I do agree with them (I never once considered that mental disorders were ‘evil’…); still, that is not what I expected here.

To conclude, this one is a good read for delving into more philosophical approaches, confronting ourselves when it comes to what we consider evil, and trying to understand what the latter entails. It is much less an actual scientific book, though.

The Quantum Magician

The Quantum Magician - Derek Kunsken

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I loved the world built here. It took a bit of work and time to get into it and piece things together, but not so much time, all things considered, and I found the conundrums of the additional human species really fascinating. The Homo Eridanus, engineered to survive in several hundred atmospheres of pressure in hostile oceans, but unable to ever get to the surface unless they want to be crushed to death. The Puppets, twisted slave-race created by the Numen, who thought themselves superior to the others, and made themselves into gods… without really thinking about what this would make their “worshippers” do (a.k.a the Puppets are as fascinating as a train wreck). And the Homo quantus, made to delve into the mysteries of time and space, seeking a state of fugue which is the only one where they can fully observe the universe, but to the cost of their individuality and their health. (Speaking of which, the fugue demands the lack of an observing conscience in order to avoid collapsing the wavefunction; if the Copenhagen interpretation irks you to no ends, you may not like that part.)

And, behind this, a geopolitical system strewn through space thanks to wormholes, with patron and client nations, and a delicate balance between all of those. Many possibilities, only a few of which are explored here.

The story also has the proper elements of a good con/heist: an ambitious goal that most people would call crazy and impossible; a team of misfits and odd people gathered from various places to each play they parts (including, among others, an ex-soldier who loves her explosives, an exiled Puppet, a dying man, a geneticist, and an AI who believes itself the reincarnation of Saint Matthew); and, of course, things that don’t go exactly according to plan, because where would be the fun otherwise?

The characters, in general, are also compelling and well-developed. Belisarius and Cassandra draw an interesting dynamics: she loves the fugue but has trouble staying in it, he was engineered too well and can’t get out of the fugue before it kills his physical brain due to overheating. Gates-15 is a Puppet exiled because he cannot react to Numen pheromones, and so cannot experience the divinity of his captive gods, and who wants nothing more than to go back to his homeworld… with a twist, that is. William has to weigh what he stands to lose against all he could give his daughter instead if the con works. Marie was less developed, but her antics combined with those of Stills, the swearing Eridanian whose people’s credo is to give the finger to the universe who screwed them, were pretty fun to read (yeah, I loved Stills).

There was a downside here for me, though, in that while I loved the hard science incorporated in the foundations of this world, the way it was sometimes explained slowed down the whole caper/heist part. Also, I wouldn’t recommend this book to a reader who’s not keen on hard science fiction in general.

Conclusion: A solid 4 stars, I enjoyed the characters and the world, and I’m interested in any sequel that comes out.