John Harold Haynes: The original fixer

When I bought my first car, my parents bought me the Haynes manual for the car. Haynes manuals, for those that have never seen one, are a series of workshop manuals — one for each make and model of car — based on a complete strip down and rebuild of the vehicle. What they do (or did) was take a car apart, then put it back together, documenting each part of the process step by step. If you had a set of spanners and the correct manual, it was possible to do most of the maintenance on pretty much any car.

And I did.

When I was young, single and had plenty of time and not much money, being able to do my own maintenance — with parts bought cheaply from a local breakers yard — meant that I was able to keep the first three cars I owned on the road largely by myself. When I moved to the Netherlands, I sold my car and didn’t get around to buying another one for over a decade. Dutch public transport is very good indeed.

Then, in 2010, a change of job meant that I needed a car again and, once I’d bought the car I started looking for the relevant Haynes manual. I was rather shocked, and not a little annoyed, to discover that this was not available — it turns out that modern cars, with their reliance on onboard computers and other such nonsense, just aren’t as maintainable as the cars I grew up with. But that’s a rant for another time.

I’d never really thought about who had originally come up with the idea of these manuals — they had always existed as long as I could remember — which is a shame because John Haynes, the man who inspired a generation of fixers, died on 8th February after a short illness.

As I mentioned earlier, the publisher has moved away from car manuals. They have now expanded into applying their iconic style to engineering achievements, fiction and humour.

What Haynes achieved, though, was more fundamental. He encouraged a generation — my generation — to try and fix our own stuff, told us what tools we needed and guided us through a range of maintenance tasks in a manner that allowed us to be reasonably confident of success.

The world needs more people like John Haynes.

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives is the first of Charles Stross’ Laundry novels which are premised on the idea that alternate dimensions exist and are populated by all sorts of Lovecraftian horrors. The twist is that the magic needed to summon these is a branch of mathematics, which means that anyone with a laptop and an interest in equations could accidentally annihilate Wolverhampton.

Of course, in such a universe, government agencies will exist to keep the dimensional portals closed and ensure that no-one with an interest in equations accidentally does annihilate Wolverhampton. This brings us to The Laundry, an offshoot of Britain’s wartime activities that continues to protect us all from these nameless horrors.

The real brilliance of this novel, however, is that rather than portraying The Laundry as some slick super-spy organisation, Stross assumes that it would operate in the manner of any other Civil Service organisation — bound by bureaucracy, hampered by office politics and obsessed with quality standards.

The Atrocity Archives is comprised of two novellas: The Atrocity Archives and The Concrete Jungle. The hero of both of these stories is Bob Howard, an IT support guy who works for the Laundry and who — foolishly — expressed an interest in active service.

In The Atrocity Archives, we follow Bob’s first forays into active service and see him quickly finding himself out of his depth and facing interdimensional Nazis, Islamist terrorists, elder gods and a wormhole to a dying universe. In The Concrete Jungle, Bob finds himself facing a deadly combination of CCTV and office politics.

Both are played straight with the humour deriving from the juxtaposition of the sort of mundane bureaucracy with which we are all familiar with horrifying alien intelligences. This mixture of the mundane and the weird keeps you off balance and allows Stross to insert all sorts of strangeness without it ever becoming too unbelievable.

Secret State by Chris Mullin

This was originally published in the early 1980s as A Very British Coup and centres on Harry Perkins, a former steel worker who leads a very left-wing Labour government to a general election victory. Inevitably, The Establishment is appalled at the idea and proceeds to conspire to bring down the government.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this novel for several reasons, the first of which is that it wasn’t the book I expected. Th e cover blurb claims that Secret State predicted the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, which it doesn’t. This was written shortly after Michael Foot became leader of the Labour Party but before they were flattened in the 1983 General Election. However, Chris Mullin doesn’t spend much time on how a very left-wing Labour party gets elected, he takes this as a given and jumps straight into what really interests him, which is Establishment conspiracies.

This brings me to my second problem with the novel which is that I really couldn’t buy into the conspiracy at the heart of the novel. While I can buy that various elements of society would seek to oppose, destabilise and bring down such a government, the sort of overt and organised conspiracy depicted felt like a stretch too far.

It’s possible that, if you share Mullin’s world-view, you may this conspiracy easier to accept. And you would have to accept it out of the box because the author doesn’t really make any effort to justify either his premise or his assumptions.

This is not helped by the thinness of the characterisation. None of the characters are really developed and they all feel like walk-on parts with no purpose other than to advance the machinations of the conspiracy at the heart of the book. Personal consequences are either skimmed over or completely absent leaving no real sense of the impact of the events being portrayed.

All this adds up to quite a disappointing book. There is a really good idea at the heart of it and one that could deliver a really gripping political thriller. Unfortunately, Secret State is not that novel.

2018: My year in books

The number of books I read this year has seen a significant rise on previous years. This is largely due to the fact that I am now commuting primarily by train, which gives me much more time to read.

(A consequence of this is that, my reduced driving combined with the fact that I can now get the BBC World Service on my car radio means that I have, for all intents an purposes, stopped listening to podcasts. But that’s not the point of this post.)

This year I have read a total of 24 books, leaning heavily towards fantasy novels. Two sets of fantasy novels, both of which have proved to be highlights of my reading year.

First up is A Song of Ice And Fire. All seven novels (so far) of George R.R. Martin’s epic tale of Westeros which I started reading in light of the hype surrounding the Game of Thrones TV series. I still haven’t watched the TV but, based on the novels, the hype is very well deserved. This is fantasy that is gritty, dark, messy and muddy and so well written that, regardless of the number of characters and narrative threads, you never once lose track of or interest in the ongoing events.

The other highlight for me was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall trilogy. This is a fantasy series that ignores all of the pseudo-medieval cliches in favour of exploring a bronze age society, populated entirely by shape-shifting humans. It’s a highly original series, packed with engaging and believable characters, that serves to remind me just why Adrian Tchaikovsky remains my favourite living writer.

Also worth a mention is A Matter of Blood, this first part of The Dog Faced Gods trilogy by Sarah Pinborough. Written in 2009 and set in a 2011 in which the ramifications of the financial crash were far more dystopian, this novel manages to combine science fiction, noir and horror into a single gripping package. I already have the next book in the series and will be starting on it very soon indeed.

On the comedy front, I can’t not mention A Game of Battleships, the latest installment of Toby Frost’s Chronicles of Isambard Smith. If the idea of steampunk space opera in which the Sun never set on the British Empire provides a deep mine of comedy gold which, hopefully, will continue to deliver for many more years to come.

Next year, I plan to enjoy even more time on the train, and finally put a sizable dent in my almost-under-control pile of unread books.

Quote of the day: And Another Thing

The Resorts of Han Wavel were so obscenely luxurious that it was said a Breqindan male would sell his mother for a night in the Sandcastle Hotel’s infamous vibro-suite, This is not as shocking as it sounds as parents are accepted currency on Brequinda and a nicely moisturized septuagenarian with a good set of teeth can be traded for a mid-range family moto-carriage.

Eoin Colfer

The Horror of Love

This is sick, twisted and superb.

Graphic designer and illustrator, Butcher Billy has come up with a series of book covers that re-imagines famous long songs as Stephen King novels.

The concept is to look at the dark side of love through the lenses of pop culture, bringing twisted aspects of his classic stories to play with the original meanings of the songs – that can be completely subverted or strangely emphasized, while paying tribute to the vintage design of the original book covers.

Click on through to his Behance page to see the full set.

Critical Mass

Critical Mass Following on from Thursday, I was reminded of the last book I read on the subject of economics. That said, Critical Mass by Philip Ball goes beyond just economics and takes in a whole range of social sciences and delves into why these areas of study so often get things wrong.

Ball, a physicist by training and a former editor for Nature, makes the case that these subjects should focus on the behaviour of systems, rather than trying to extrapolate from individual behaviour as is so often the case. He starts by laying the groundwork and then works through a series of examples in which his approach has been successfully used.

It’s been a fair few years since I read this (my copy has a printing date of 2007) but the core point – that people are random and unpredictable individually, but highly predictable in groups – is one that has stayed with me and still appears to hold true.

I’d recommend it and I’m highly tempted to go back and read it again.

2014 in books

I noticed today that Goodreads has a nifty feature that allows you to list the books you read in 2014 and I wondered if I could find some way of exporting it onto here. The answer, unless I am missing something obvious, is not easily.

But it’s mildly interesting to look back at what I read, so here is the list. The blockquoted bits are the synopsis, as published on Goodreads. The bits below are my own thoughts, if I have any.

Seal of the Worm by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Seal of the Worm The Empire stands victorious over its enemies at last. With her chief rival cast into the abyss, Empress Seda now faces the truth of what she has cost the world in order to win the war. The Seal has been shattered, and the Worm stirs towards the light for the first time in a thousand years. Already it is striking at the surface, voraciously consuming everything its questing tendrils touch. Faced with this threat, Seda knows that only the most extreme of solutions can lock the Worm back in the dark once again. But if she will go to such appalling lengths to save the world from the Worm, then who will save the world from her? The last book in the epic critically acclaimed Shadows of the Apt series.

This has been a superb climax to a superb series. There is so much that it’s difficult to talk about this novel without giving away huge spoilers for previous books in the series.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has done a spectacular job of reimagining the fantasy genre and taking it in a wholly new direction. I shall certainly be looking out for what he does next.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Breq is both more than she seems and less than she was. Years ago, she was the Justice of Toren–a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. An act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with only one fragile human body. And only one purpose–to revenge herself on Anaander Mianaai, many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.

This book melted my brain. On the face of it, this looks like a reasonably straightforward story of betrayal and revenge but there is so much packed into the plot that it really does push you to think about a whole range of issues – the largest and most obvious being the question of identity and what makes us who we are.

It does take a bit of effort to fully appreciate everything that is going on, but it’s effort that is well rewarded.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound and widely regarded impact on many fields—including economics, medicine, and politics—but until now, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book.

In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.

Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives—and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Thinking, Fast and Slow will transform the way you think about thinking.

This is a fascinating look at the mental shortcuts we take and the way in which we frequently allow these shortcuts to mislead us. The first few chapters felt, to me, to be covering territory I already knew but the author keeps on diving deeper and deeper into how our cogntive functions actually work.

The results are not always edifying, but the journey is riveting.

Why Does E=mc²? (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeffrey R. Forshaw

Why Does E=mc²? The most accessible, entertaining, and enlightening explanation of the best-known physics equation in the world, as rendered by two of today’s leading scientists.

Professor Brian Cox and Professor Jeff Forshaw go on a journey to the frontier of 21st century science to consider the real meaning behind the iconic sequence of symbols that make up Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2. Breaking down the symbols themselves, they pose a series of questions: What is energy? What is mass? What has the speed of light got to do with energy and mass? In answering these questions, they take us to the site of one of the largest scientific experiments ever conducted. Lying beneath the city of Geneva, straddling the Franco-Swiss boarder, is a 27 km particle accelerator, known as the Large Hadron Collider. Using this gigantic machine—which can recreate conditions in the early Universe fractions of a second after the Big Bang—Cox and Forshaw will describe the current theory behind the origin of mass.

Alongside questions of energy and mass, they will consider the third, and perhaps, most intriguing element of the equation: ‘c’ – or the speed of light. Why is it that the speed of light is the exchange rate? Answering this question is at the heart of the investigation as the authors demonstrate how, in order to truly understand why E=mc2, we first must understand why we must move forward in time and not backwards and how objects in our 3-dimensional world actually move in 4-dimensional space-time. In other words, how the very fabric of our world is constructed. A collaboration between two of the youngest professors in the UK, Why Does E=mc2? promises to be one of the most exciting and accessible explanations of the theory of relativity in recent years.

A fascinating and clearly written review of Einstein’s theories of relativity and what they mean. It’s so straightforward that even I could understand it.

Railsea by China Miéville

Railsea On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt.

The giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory are extraordinary. But no matter how spectacular it is, travelling the endless rails of the railsea, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life. Even if his philosophy-seeking captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing – ever since it took her arm all those years ago.

When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But the impossible salvage Sham finds in the derelict leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides: by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers.

And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Although I have been seeing praise for China Miéville for some time, this is the first of his novels that I have read. It took me a bit of time to get used to hi0s writing style, but once I did, Railsea turned out to be a hugely fun romp of a story. There aren’t any real surprises in the plot, but what is there is all handled exceptionally well.

From Aberystwyth with Love by Malcolm Pryce

From Aberystwyth with Love It is a sweltering August in Aberystwyth. A man wearing a Soviet museum curator’s uniform walks into Louie Knight’s office and spins a wild and impossible tale of love, death, madness and betrayal. Sure, Louie had heard about Hughesovka, the legendary replica of Aberystwyth built in the Ukraine by some crazy nineteenth-century czar.

Transition by Iain Banks

Transition There is a world that hangs suspended between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern: an all-powerful organization with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers?

Among those operatives are Temudjin Oh, of mysterious Mongolian origins, an un-killable assassin who journeys between the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice under snow; Adrian Cubbish, a restlessly greedy City trader; and a nameless, faceless state-sponsored torturer known only as the Philosopher, who moves between time zones with sinister ease. Then there are those who question the Concern: the bandit queen Mrs. Mulverhill, roaming the worlds recruiting rebels to her side; and Patient 8262, under sedation and feigning madness in a forgotten hospital ward, in hiding from a dirty past.

There is a world that needs help; but whether it needs the Concern is a different matter.

Iain Banks wrote some exceptional literary fiction. Iain M. Banks wrote some exceptional science fiction. I didn’t pay enough attention to the missing M in the author’s name when I picked up this novel.

Transition isn’t a bad novel but it does feel like the sort of novel that emerges when an author veers into a genre they don’t fully appreciate.

Iain M. Banks would have written a much better novel.

The Call of Kerberos by Jonathan Oliver

The Call of Kerberos Twilight, a world overshadowed by a vast gas giant, bathing the earth in its otherworldly glow. A world of magic and warriors, zealots and monsters. It is here that the human race cling to a small peninsula, ignorant of what lies beyond the World’s Ridge mountains. But there are those amongst this fledgling race with truly extraordinary powers, heroes who would delve deep into the mysteries of the past and bring new light to Twilight. Twilight of Kerberos is a sword and sorcery series, following the adventures of a group of characters with unique talents. The world changes for Silus – a simple fisherman from Nurn – when a man on the run from the Final Faith tries to persuade him on an extraordinary voyage. Then an ancient evil bursts from the sea and tries to claim Silus as one of their own. To discover the truth about his legacy Silus must take to the forbidding Twilight seas. There, the truth will forever change his world and threaten existence
itself!

I’m in two minds about this book. I do quite like the idea of multiple authors playing in a shared world, but this is not the strongest entry in the series so far. The writing is good enough to keep me with the story up to the end, but I really wasn’t buying into the premise – and I think this may turn out to be a problem with the series as a whole.

Coyote by Allen Steele

Coyote The national bestselling story of Earth’s first interstellar colonists-and the mysterious planet that becomes their home.

Allen Steele has thrown a lot of ideas into Coyote, but never really stopped to develop any of them. The end result is both superficial and disjointed.

This, I realise, is quite a damning criticism of a hard-sf novel in itself. But the problem is compounded by the characters – they are one-dimensional, often inconsistent and uniformly uninteresting. I realy couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to any of them.

I had heard many good things about Coyote before I read it but the book has proved to be a disappointment. It wasn’t bad enough to abandon, but I did come close several times.