Book Review: Peter Høeg’s “The Woman and the Ape” by Octavia

hoegNo-one likes to be called an animal, yet animals are what we inescapably are. And from poor frightened stuffy old Bishop Wilberforce on there have always been people who think that being an ape is worse, somehow, than being any animal at all. Yet apes we are, and apes we remain. Walking down the street one can see the resemblance – in the turn of a jaw, in grasping manipulative hands, in the hairy back of the man who simply must wear a singlet. A newborn baby, a particularly clumsy walk, can illuminate as lightning.

The Woman and the Ape is full of such illumination. Høeg goes out of his way to underline the animal nature of his characters. The text is ripe with comparison and allusion, and provides some of the best imagery and character moments. For example, a young alcoholic wife, driven stir-crazy by the emptiness of her life:

“Madelene looked at the window frame, the park and, beyond that, across the city. From conversations overheard in her childhood home she had retained a vague and repulsive impression of what conditions were like for domestic animals on factory farms. She knew the meaning of such terms as spontaneous fracture, tongue rolling, somatotropin, urine drinking, manger biting, neighbour pecking and monotonization of mating behaviour. Now, in these terms, she spied herself.”

In truth it can’t be said that Høeg is particularly subtle about this – indeed the likenesses keep coming like a sledgehammer to the head – but it has a positive effect, and the continual reinforcement is likely intended. The saturation of simile and metaphor is relentless – not for one moment is the reader allowed to forget that before her is a cast of animals, a regular circus ring of them. The stage is set, and this ruthless undermining of our own puffed-up humanity – the humanity we perceive as somehow less animal in nature than the true animals – underlines the thread of masks and disguise that run through the text. If, as a species, we can perceive ourselves as other than what we really are, how, as individuals, can we be expected to fare any better? Other masks, and more personal, inhabit our lives and define our identities.

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Book Review: Louise M. Antony’s “Philosophers Without Gods” – by Octavia

Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life
Edited by Louise M. Antony

philwogodsIn my trawl through the atheism section of the local library, I’ve learned to try and keep my distance from anything with “philosophy” in the title. Ignoring this rule leads to frustrating sessions with books full of gibberish; books only an author could love. But Philosophers without Gods looked new and shiny, and I could see from the cover that it was a collection of essays. If they each had a limited chapter to themselves, I thought, it will prevent them from getting up a head of philosophical steam. They’ll have to dumb it down to my level. This could be a philosophy book I might actually understand!

A couple of the authors didn’t seem to get what I was looking for, it’s true, and went wandering into the confusing bits. Even then, though, it has to be said, their contributions were watered down enough so that even a philosophy dunce like myself didn’t find them very difficult.

The majority, however, seemed to grasp the fact that Antony appeared to be trying to produce a book that would communicate with normal people. It’s really quite successful – and also rather canny. Philosophers without Gods is structured in two parts. The first is primarily personal experience – half the contributors tell how they came to embrace atheism. Most came from a theistic background, and the differing flash-points, or slower journeys, which prompted the changes, are a fascinating read. The traditional arguments for and against God which you often find in a philosophy text on the subject – the ontological argument, for instance – are barely touched on. The exception is the problem of evil, which comes up in a lot of the “experience” stories, although hardly ever in a technical way. The tone is very readable; in some of the essays it is almost chatty. In fact the essays are so reasonable, and draw such attention to the religious background of many of the contributors, that even a fairly obdurate believer could probably start reading and not be too shocked or horrified. I can see them being a little smug, though: “Yes, that’s terrible, I can see why it made you wonder why God exists, but have you thought about…” But it’s roughly equivalent to an atheist reading C.S. Lewis: the way the arguments are put is enough to keep you reading, even though you don’t agree with the argument itself, indeed can see glaring holes in it. A bridge-building sort of prose… This is really more a book for the irreligious than the religious, but if the latter happen to read it, there’s a fairly decent chance that the first part of the book will get them reading it long enough to get to the rest.

The second section of the book – Reflections – is a little harder in content. The language is still fairly clear and easy to understand, but the contributors are getting more to the meat of things. Jonathan E. Adler’s essay on “Faith and Fanaticism” turns that tired (and inaccurate) old meme about Dostoyevsky from The Brother’s Karamazov on his head in a way that is completely obvious – so obvious, in fact, that I never made the connection before. And David Owens “Disenchantment” essay on science and the natural world has a truly fascinating thought experiment set in the pharmacy of the future that’s as amusing as it is interesting.

The best essay, the one I most recommend reading, is “Religion and Respect” by Simon Blackburn. Blackburn talks about “respect creep”, where more and more it appears we expected to respect not only the rights of the individual to believe whatever stupid shit they want (fair enough), but the idiocies themselves – and those that hold them. Blackburn is really very convincing in his argument that, although we might genuinely respect a believer for their good qualities (honesty, kindness, etc.), if we cannot respect their religious beliefs, we cannot respect the individual for holding them. He extends this further… if an individual supports a God who is willing to inflict eternal torment, can we really respect the individual for offering that support? And if we do, are we worthy of respect ourselves?

I’d recommend this book for that chapter alone. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, read Blackburn. But read the whole if you can – especially if, like me, philosophy isn’t really your cup of tea but you still want to know what the philosophers are thinking.

Philosophers without Gods includes contributions by:

Jonathan Adler, Elizabeth Secord Anderson, Louise Antony, Marvin Belzer, Simon Blackburn, Edwin Curley, Daniel C. Dennett, Daniel M. Farrell, Richard Feldman, Daniel Garber, Marcia Homiak, Anthony Simon Laden, Joseph Levine, David Lewis, David Owens, Georges Rey, Stewart Shapiro, Walter-Sinnott-Armstrong, James Tappenden, Kenneth Taylor.

Book Review: Bernard Beckett’s “Genesis” – by Octavia

genesisTaking its cue from Plato’s Republic, and with more than a hint of George Orwell, Genesis outlines a world where society is split by genetic identity. I the future resulting from climate change, terrorism, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the onset of World War Three, New Zealand cuts itself off from the rest of the world. In the resulting closed society, a leader called Plato sets out the rules for the new community, rules that will prevent the chaos of the outside world from destroying NZ as it has destroyed the outside world – at least, that is what the reader is led to think. It’s never made quite plain as to the state of life outside NZ – initially, refugees try to enter NZ waters and are blown up by the army. (Anyone familiar with the state of the NZ military today knows that we are now solidly in the realm of science fiction.) After a while, there are less and less attempts. Does this mean that the need grows less, or that the refugees do? This is never made clear, and is a clever way of increasing the claustrophobic tone of the book.

In the early days of the Republic, gene testing divides the population into four groups: labourers, soldiers, technicians, and philosophers. As can be expected, however, the odd individual arises who doesn’t fit into their assigned class as well as he or she might.

One of the main characters, Adam Forde, is such an individual. Adam’s life is presented by a young student philosopher called Anaximander, who is preparing for entrance into the Academy: the highest echelon of academia, and the group with the responsibility of running the Republic – a Republic that has drastically changed since Adam’s day.

Genesis is structured around Anaximander’s oral presentation to her three examiners. The story of Adam’s life has reached legendary status in the centuries since his death, but Anaximander has a new interpretation of it, and him. Originally an extremely capable philosopher himself, Adam was demoted from the philosopher to the soldier class as a result of his inability to conform as expected to social and intellectual norms. It is not long before Adam disgraces himself in his new position as well, murdering fellow soldiers in order to avoid shooting a refugee girl.

Adam escapes the death penalty by being assigned to an experiment in identity: the philosopher William has created a new android, Art. Given that William’s previous efforts had ripped nearby children to shreds, it is decided that Art needs a more disposable test subject to interact with. In fact, by forced interaction with Art Adam is helping to programme the android, and to build its identity into a functioning individual. The science fiction staple of androids as living creatures is used effectively here, especially as Art avoids the by now too-common milquetoast innocence commonly given to androids in his situation. Art, in fact, is a nuisance brat with an annoyingly steep learning curve, and naturally this doesn’t help Adam, who is locked into his own mindset of seeing Art as a subhuman piece of machinery. Beckett manages the two perspectives (and their inherent chauvinisms, for Art is as pro-android as Adam is pro-human) well, although his sympathy initially seems to be with the android, who does tend to get the best lines:

‘Ugly’s still ugly, no matter how you see it.’
‘An interesting assertion. Justify it.’
‘You bring twenty people in here,’ Adam told him, ‘and they’ll all say the same thing. They’ll all say you’re ugly.’
‘Bring in twenty of me,’ Art spat back, ‘and we’d all say your arse is prettier than your face.’
‘There aren’t twenty of you.’
‘No, you’re right. I’m unique. So I can safely say that all androids find you ugly. Not all humans find me ugly. So technically, I’m better looking than you, using objective criteria.’

(Art isn’t your normal android. For one, he looks like an orang-utan. Why a roboticist should make an android in the shape of an orang-utan I’ve no earthly idea, unless it is to somehow reinforce its inferiority from a human-chauvinist point of view.)

But while Adam is fulfilling his role of extending Art’s programming, his input extends far beyond what anyone expects – especially Art. The secret of what happened in the final moments between the two, in their attempts to escape the testing facility, has, Anaximander believes, been lost. And when she finds that the Academy have not only still got the missing archive footage, but are actively keeping it from the public and philosophers both in a ruthless indoctrination programme of their own, her growing proximity to the secret, and how she eventually reacts to it, endangers far more than her standing in the academic community.

Examiner: You have become less careful in your answers.
Anaximander: I have.
Examiner: Are you sure that is wise?
Anaximander: I am sure it isn’t.

The realisation of the extent of the conspiracy within the Academy – a conspiracy that even involves Anaximander’s tutor Pericles, who has prepared her for the Academy examination for years – is pretty shocking. It was the twist I didn’t see coming (there’s another that most readers should get), and both involve identity: how it is formed, how it is kept… and how it is undermined. While it is true that the Republic of Anaximander’s day has reached almost utopian status, with the class divisions and civil unrest of Adam’s day long in the past, the price of maintaining that status has required the Academy to institute distinctly unsavoury measures. What price peace against the life and intellectual freedom of the individual? The totalitarian nature of the Republic has been based from the beginning on control over outside influences; firstly those from outside the borders of the country; and eventually those from within the minds of its citizens, influences in the form of ideas that spread throughout the population like a virus. Unsurprisingly, it is this viral, replicating influence that has the greatest effect. It’s also what dooms the main characters of Genesis – particularly Adam, Art, and Anaximander, but also the Academy in general – a fate that is arguably irrespective of who lives and dies.

Book Review: Terry Pratchett’s “Nation” – by Writer@Large

nationTerry Pratchett’s Nation is his first non-Discworld novel in something like twenty years. Set in an alternate Victorian Era Earth, this quasi-fantasy novel takes place primarily on a South Seas island with no true name—it is just The Island, home of The Nation. The novel begins with a tragedy: a giant tidal wave sweeps the Island (shades of the 2004 tsunami disaster), killing everyone except Mau, a young native on the verge of becoming a man; and Ermintrude, who calls herself Daphne, a young Englishwoman who is the lone survivor of a ship wrecked against the Island by the wave. Alone together, Mau and Daphne set about trying to survive together, while struggling to make sense of the tragedy and trying to deal with other refugees of the tidal wave who begin arriving on the Island.

Because this is a Pratchett novel, the work is very familiar. It is not a Discworld novel, but it sure feels like one! There’s the sharp but naive hero in Mau; Daphne is a plucky, intelligent, but socially sheltered heroine; the villains are generally one-dimensional, wholly selfish, and destined to get their comeuppance; and the cast of quirky stock supporting characters are there primarily to help the protagonists when needed, and to act as sounding boards for the novels’ themes. The plot begins with some event that sets the snowball rolling and continuing down the hill until every element is somehow wrapped up into the improbable but inevitable conclusion, and the usual Pratchett plot coincidences remain. Also present is the sharp dialogue and wry humor that Pratchett does so well If the formula works, why change it?

Far more interesting to me, and I think to readers of Nexus, are the themes and ideas Pratchett explores. This is his most nontheistic, skeptical, rationalist book since Small Gods, and indeed—perhaps because it is NOT confined by the Discworld—succeeds at exploring themes of nontheism much better than SG did. Mau begins the novel as an “angry atheist.” The tidal wave kills his entire Nation, everyone he has ever met or known; and in the wake of that senseless tragedy he loses his faith in his anger at the gods. As the novel progresses Mau’s thoughts on the topic become more complex, until he begins to see the truth about belief.

The meatiest conversations in the book usually take place between Mau and Ataba, an old priest who clings to his religion even in the face of disaster. Ataba is the voice of the fervent believer in Nation, even if he might not really believe at all, as in this exchange:

[Mau said,] “I am talking about my father, my mother, my whole family, my whole nation! They all died! I had a sister who was seven years old. Just give me the reason. There must have been a reason? Why did the gods let them die? I found a little baby stuck in a tree. How had it offended the gods?”

“We are small. We cannot understand the nature of the gods,” said Ataba.

“No! You don’t believe that, I can hear it in your voice! I don’t understand the nature of a bird, but I can watch it and listen to it and learn about it. Don’t you do this with the gods? Where are the rules? What did we do wrong? Tell me!”

I don’t know! Don’t you think I haven’t asked them?” Tears started to roll down Ataba’s cheeks. “You think I am a man alone? I haven’t seen my daughter or her children since the wave. Do you hear what I say? It is not all about you! I envy your rage, demon boy! It fills you up! It feeds you, gives you strength! But the rest of us listen for the certainty, and there is nothing. Yet in our heads we know there must be … something, some reason, some pattern, some order, so we call upon the silent gods, because they are better than the darkness. That is it, boy. I have no answers for you.”

Mau’s angry atheism and Ataba’s desperate theism are complimented in the novel by Daphne’s rational Victorian mindset. Daphne was raised a Christian, but had also been taught by her father to think in scientific terms.  She approaches the mysteries of the island from an experimental angle. For example, when the question arises as to whether or not the islanders should continue praying to the God Anchors, large white stones that supposedly connect the nation to its gods, Daphne suggests that some of them continue while others pray to different stones, to measure whether or not their fortunes change. Mau’s atheism and Daphne’s rationalism begin to inform and reinforce each other as the novel progresses.

There’s more to the plot of Nation than discourses on religion and belief, of course. The Island has a secret, slowly revealed as Mau and Daphne dig for the truth. There’s also an important subplot involving Daphne’s father, who, in the wake of a different tragedy half a world away, has risen suddenly in social standing. All of these plotlines inevitably collide at the end, perhaps rather too neatly, but readers will forgive Pratchett for the last chapter, which pushes his overarching themes perhaps a little too forcefully.

All in all, Nation is a worthy read. Pratchett fans will find everything they love about his work, while new readers will find the book, divorced as it is from the Discworld, far more accessible. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Richard Fortey’s “Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution” – by Octavia

trilobiteI picked this book up of a shelf knowing what a trilobite was – like everyone else I’ve seen the fossils – but knowing absolutely nothing else about them. Fortunately for me, Richard Fortey fills up the gap by knowing absolutely everything about them that is known at present. Seriously, the man has an obsession.

But that’s alright. There are worse things to be obsessed about, and at least he’s not boring about it. I’d braced myself for a relatively dry book that nitpicked details that no-one but Fortey – who works for the Natural History Museum in London, studying trilobites – could possibly care about. Thankfully this is not the case. Fortey is well aware of the need to keep his prose informal and chatty, in order to better capture the attention of the ignorant and short spanned of attention. He has obviously come to the valuable conclusion that he is an obsessive, and that the rest of us need a bit of help to be as interested as he is. Witness this description of the Cambrian explosion:

In popular accounts it became an ancient moment of madness, a magnificent evolutionary Mardi Gras, when a parade as bizarre as could have been devised by a surrealist on speed would be permitted for a geological day. ‘See the crystal-eyed monster!’ ‘Roll up, roll up, for the shiny, tubiferous wiggly orphan thing with no relatives!’ The freak show was open for trade.

This is the first palaeontology book I’ve read that’s made me laugh out loud while reading it, because damned if I don’t look at some of the pictures and think “What the hell is that thing?”. Amusing as these frequent bursts are, it has to be said that they do cater a little too much to that short attention span. Personally, I found the humorous asides, the personal stories of trilobite hunting, and the anecdotes of other trilobitists (pity poor unknown Rudolf Kaufmann!) more interesting as they were easier to visualise than the purely scientific rocky stuff. Part of that is Fortey’s natural charm of description, but that charm is relied upon so often that when it isn’t present for a few short pages of nothing-but-science, I began to feel a little bogged down. This is completely unreasonable considering that drier books on evolutionary biology don’t have this effect, but then, when immersed in them, there’s little variation in the prose and I have nothing to compare the more boring bits to.

It helps that Fortey includes a lot of illustrations. And as the different types of trilobite (and who knew there were so many?) do begin to blur into each other after a while, being able to flick back and forth to the photographic plates whenever he resumes writing about species #17 is useful. I have to admit I spent more time staring at the plates than reading the descriptions of them – some of the photos included are truly stunning (that of the trident-bearing trilobite from the Devonian period in Morocco, for instance) and it can be hard to believe these things actually existed. My very favourite, though, was the dimwitted-looking Bumastus. Pick up the book and take a look, go on. I know it’s the back of the creature, but don’t tell me it doesn’t look like something propping up a seedy bar in Star Wars. As a picture book, Trilobite! gets an unqualified thumbs-up from me.

The only other possible stumbling block – and this will depend on your perspective, as it can also be interpreted as a strength – is the highly focused content. This is a book about trilobites, trilobites, and more trilobites. There’s not a huge amount of contextual material, and the focus on evolution isn’t as strong as it is in other texts, catchy title aside. If you’re comfortable with evolutionary theory, this will make no difference to you. However, those who aren’t may find the book’s tight focus less convincing. The best example here is the chapter “Crystal Eyes”. It’s undeniable that this is an interesting read – and the facts behind it are fascinating. Eyes made out of crystal – how could it not be! But it’s very different from the chapter on eyes in Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable. The latter is very broad and explanatory, and puts the development of eyes in a wider evolutionary context. “Crystal Eyes”, while reinforcing the “look at the trilobite, see it looking at you!” theme running through the book, is more specifically mechanistic, and for the beginner who is still under the “How can something as complicated as an eye evolve?” meme, this may be a problem.

Fortey is not, of course, writing an introductory text on evolutionary biology, and Trilobite! pretty much does what it says on the tin – and it’s enough to make you want to head off to your local museum to have a closer look.