The Geek shall Inherit

In the UK only one of the six-hundred and fifty Members of Parliament has a scientific background. Homeopathy and chiropractic are available on the NHS, while effective and proven medicines are shunned. Our newspapers and television constantly report non-effective and dangerous practices as if they were fact. Even when they report on scientific work, scientists are misrepresented and used to score political points which leaves the public believing that there is no use in funding research any more. The UK is turning from a centre of excellence, a candle in the darkness, to a Thunderdome where ever-decreasing funds are fought for by our scientific community.

Enough, says Mark Henderson – the head of communications at the Wellcome Trust, and sets forward a manifesto to reclaim our culture of scientific inquiry and build a government where decisions are made based on evidence rather than fear, uncertainty and doubt.

In order to try to force our MPs to listen, Dave Watts pledged to send a copy of The Geek Manifesto to all MPs if enough volunteers stepped up to share the load and, oh boy, did they?  Not only that, Transworld Publishers donated 150 copies to make sure the pledge could be met.

My own copy is now on its way to Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge), who certainly doesn’t need it but our own MP, Andrew Lansley, was the first to be snapped up. No surprise there. Let’s hope they read and act on it so the country doesn’t fall back into the dark ages.

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Trouble Down t’Mill

Updates to Readmill for iPad

 

 

I just did a guest post for ReadMill on how all the choice we’re given around ebooks boils down to no choice at all.

 

If you haven’t heard of ReadMill, their software tries to turn ebook reading into a kind of virtual reading group with shared highlighting, commenting, and conversations centred around your reading.  Although the reader is only available for iPad, there are ways to use the site with Android and iPhone applications and your Kindle highlights.

I’ve found it invaluable for cataloguing noted during my psychology MSc and it’s fun to see what other people highlight as important. At the very least, it’ll estimate for how many hours you’ll have to endure that statistics textbook.

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Absolute Nightmare

Reign of the Nightmare Prince cover

There’s a long tradition among Western writers of lionising ancient ways of life, as if there’s something better about giving up all the trappings of modernity and wallowing about in the pain and dirt. The myth of the noble savage is responsible for such idiotic beliefs as the power of alternative medicine and the idea that anything that refutes the scientific process is necessarily true. Worst of all, it gave us Avatar – a movie that makes Smurfs 3D look like Citizen Kane.

Reign of the Nightmare Prince is just like Avatar – noble savages in tune with nature are attacked by evil technologists who want to take their resources – but differs in one respect; you care what happens. The story’s told from the point of view of one of the alien natives who’s returning from their version of Walkabout to find out monsters are killing off the rest of his people, and follows his attempts to muster a defence in the face of impossible odds.

Although it’s an entertaining and fun read, it’s not explained why the aboriginal population of an alien planet feels so human and a lot of the non-native attackers are almost as one-dimensional as Jake “I see you” Sully. Also, the end was so abrupt it felt like a sixth grader who’s suddenly reached the word limit on an English essay but don’t let that put you off.

If you’ve got some downtime while you’re committing genocide on an alien planet you could do worse than Mike Phillips’ début.

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Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat

I don’t like procedurals. Put CSI Whatever on the TV, I’ll yawn. The Mentalist or Lie to Me, I’ll yell at the screen like a programmer watching The Net. Even Agatha Christie winds me up – I’m sure Miss Marple was responsible for a swathe of death in 1920s England. It takes a lot to make me want to pay any attention to something that even smells of murder mystery.

Pet Noir is a collection of short stories by Pati Nagle, all based around the adventures of a genetically modified tabby cat working as a detective on a space station, and it sounded like it could be different. Unfortunately not. Sure, the trappings of science fiction are there – animal uplift, a space station, cloning – but if you scratch the surface all that’s left is a set of fairly standard cop stories.

The cat in question feels no more than a human pretending to be a cat and the other animals turn out to be mere ciphers, the universe is barely sketched out and the much more interesting story of how human (and animal) society has coped with the massive changes brought about by space travel, new sentient species, and future technologies has been completely ignored.

This time, the future’s so bright, it feels like 1980.

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The Smell of Reeves and Worcester

One of the more fun stories from The Shadow Conspiracy II was Chris Dolley‘s Wodehousian pastiche, What Ho! Automaton – which detailed the rescue of steam-powered valet Reeves by the hapless buffoon Reginald Worcester and their bonding while foiling the plans of evil aunts. Collected here, along with a new novel length story (Something Rummy this way Comes), the parody is accurate and entertaining.  And while the story is never going to change worlds, it’s still a jolly good romp.

Reeves and Worcester share the same universe as the rest of the Shadow Conspiracy collections, but abandon any of the more ominous aspects in favour of a lighter style that is more like Wodehouse fan fiction than scifi. The original short (for which the book is named) deals with our heroes’ meeting and adventures while trying to figure out what’s amiss with his cousin’s new fiancée.

The meat of the book, Something Rummy this way Comes, is a romp through the balls, debutantes, and vaguries of late-Victorian British Society.  Reggie’s aunts (who are more viscious than veloceraptors) have had enough of his caddish ways and demand he tours the ball circuit to find a wife.  Unfortunately all the available debutantes are disappearing and it’s up to Reggie (aided by the super steam brain of Reeves) to find out where to. On the way he meets spirited Emeline who, like her namesake, will chain herself to a railing in a heartbeat and tries to find the ape or eunuch he is sure is to blame.

This is such a fun book that it’s impossible to find anything wrong with it.  Yes, it is a little rough around the edges, but the voicing is pitched perfectly – to the point where I can only imagine Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry as the main characters (take note movie adaptors – start saving now).  Some nice comic touches reflect the differences between this and the world of Jeeves and Wooster (Queen Victoria’s been saved by replacing her legs with steam-driven ones) and the whole tale hangs together nicely.

Even better, it costs less than £2.  Perfect for reading at your gentlemans’ club.

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Eat Your Heart Out De Selby

Could I have approached a book with more trepidation? From a publishing house that seems to specialise in Buddhist philosophy, I expected to be lectured at for the three hundred odd pages, but this autobiographical account of the eponymous odd boy turned out to be more charming than banal.

Set in the south of England in the late fifties and early sixties, an odd boy describes the journey from childhood to adolescence of a boy that’s different from all of his peers and will strike a chord with anyone who has felt like they didn’t belong. The narrative is told through his twin obsessions of blues music and art, it describes a cold upbringing tempered by the friends and delta blues musicians who became his real family.

It’s far from perfect, however, the author seems to obsess about explaining every minute detail through a use of footnotes that the late Flann O’Brien savaged in The Third Policeman. Nothing is left to the reader, with the narrative rudely interrupted to explain such esoterica as the BBC or skiffle. We have Wikipedia, we don’t need to understand every detail.

But apart from that, the first volume in what I suspect will be a long series is an interesting, if light, diversion. Perfect for lying on a rock beach during the Easter heatwave.

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Fresh Steamed Soul

Steampunk. Ooo-kay.

An anthology. Riiiight.

A self publishing co-operative. Hmmm

Soul-transfer. Oh God no.

This could have been so bad.

This could have been worse than the worst kind of Mary-Sue fan-fiction.

Actually, Book View Café’s shared universe collection The Shadow Conspiracy II was pretty decent, if rough in places.  The usual steampunk tropes are there: Babbage’s invention of the computer two hundred years early, Lady Ada doing the science bit, zeppelins, romantic science, and lashings of adventure, and running through all the stories is the conspiracy for which the books are named. The ability to transfer the consciousness from human to steam-driven automata has been discovered and is being used by various dasterdlies for NO GOOD.

Anthologies are, by their nature, hit-and-miss affairs, but even the worst of the stories here are pretty decent, if forgettable, yarns. Standing out are Kimbriel’s Abide with Me – a tale of parental loss and hope – and Nagle’s Claire de Lune, which pits Vodon against a moustache-twirling villain.

While soul-transfer provides a pretty decent MacGuffin, there’s very little sign of any conspiracy (shadowy or otherwise) and any real future plot advancement will likely never happen.  Not to worry, it took six seasons of Lost before the audience realised it, so they should be able to push out another four volumes.

These types of work have a habit of trying to be too clever and, without a ruthless editor, usually end up being awful but Radford and Bohnhoff did a good job of keeping any amateurish edges hidden.  It’s not much more than the price of a pint, so you can do worse than picking up a copy.

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