Shadows of the Apt

Last autumn I binge-read a ten book series, Shadows of the Apt, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is highly unusual for me. I tend to prefer to read something different in between titles in the same series because otherwise I get fed up. In fact, the only other time I read books in a series consecutively is re-reads of A Song of Ice and Fire.

What I’m trying to say is, these books are good. Really, really good. To start with I loved the concept of the world. Humans are evolved from insects and retain characteristics of their parent insect. Some of these species are Apt, which means proficient with technology but insensitive to magic, and others are Inapt, not able to mentally grasp technology but possessed of magical power. A few species have a little of both. Each has an ability from their insect ancestor, perhaps flight, night-vision or a weapon. Within each species individuals are different. Some societies are more monolithic than others, but all have internal tensions.

Beyond that, it is a war story. A great sweeping tale encompassing many nations and peoples. It starts with Stenwold Maker, a college professor beetle in a Lowland city trying to convince his complacent compatriots that the Wasp Empire is not the profitable trading partner it appears but rather is bent on military conquest. He uses his student as a spy network, and it is through those characters that the story unfolds. Naturally, the wasps are evil. I was never sure if it was based on Nazi Germany, the Roman Empire, or the British Empire, and I expect elements of all three were present.

I enjoyed the exploration of the arms race in the books. The war swings back and forth. At first the wasps seem irresistible, then the clever beetles develop weapons that put the wasps on the back foot, but then the wasps come back with something even worse. The wasps are apt, but not especially mechanically-minded, but they have colonised peoples within their empire who are and they use those talents ruthlessly. In the later books, there is a thread of rebellion from within the empire and, rather realistically, some of the conquered people side with the oppressor. There are characters who develop weapons purely for the creative joy of it and sell them to all sides. I liked how there were many moments in the books when it felt impossible for the beetle cities of the Lowlands to survive, yet somehow they did.

The books also explore what people are willing to do in times of extremis. Some species use torture and others don’t, but all are confronted with the need to deal with traitors and spies and forced to face the consequences of their actions. Characters are complex and painted in shades of grey. No one is wholly noble and good, no one is one-dimensionally evil. Some people are swept along by their circumstances and others manage to steer their own courses at least a little.

There’s even room for a few love stories. You know, tragic ones where everyone dies. Well, almost everyone.

I couldn’t put them down while I was reading them. Compelling, thought-provoking stories. I highly recommend them. I fully intend to read everything Tchaikovsky writes which, given that he’s quite prolific, is already a substantial reading list.

The Power

You must read this book. This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time.

The Power by Naomi Alderman explores the nature and dynamics of power. Women have evolved the power to deliver excruciating and fatal pain through their hands, and men have not. Using four different characters whose lives eventually intersect, Alderman explores what it means when the tables turn. When I started reading the book, I thought I knew what Alderman was saying with her story. Women start waking up to their power and the women whose stories Alderman tells are all victims of the ones who previously had the power: trafficked women; women in relationships with violent men; girls growing up with fathers that rape them; successful career women undermined by sexist bosses and co-workers. Examples of things that happen to women everyday.

It’s a relatively short book and it is impressive in the number of ways it explores its theme. It contrasts how different political systems react to the emergence of the power and the way men try to fight it – repressive regimes using violence and democratic regimes using manipulation and psychological control. The book looks at religious power and how it is used, and also personal power and what it means.

It was not long before I realised that the point being made is actually much more complex than it appears on the surface, and I realised I didn’t know what the message was. The women in power do unspeakable things to men without power; again, things done by the powerful to the powerless on a daily basis. The point is not that the status quo is fine, because if you just gender-flipped it then everything would essentially be the same. It is that we need to think much more carefully about power and who has it, and what they can do with it. Because most of us do things, even awful things, just because we can. I finished the book thinking that while Alderman had made me think very deeply about power she has done so without taking a didactic position herself. The story always remains paramount.

I enjoyed the gender-flipping of historical objects scattered throughout. I especially loved the epilogue. I won’t spoil it, but I have had that conversation so many frustrating times and I loved what she did with it. I would have liked a bit more exploration of queerness in the book. Alderman touches on girls born without the power and what that means for them, and on boys who have it, and there are illusions to same-sex relationships, and I would have liked to see that more fully developed. On the whole, this is an awesome and important book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Dig

I read the first scene of The Dig by Cynan Jones in a workshop on the Arvon course I did in August. The exercise was to look at how the author sets up the story, word choice, rhythm, mood, that sort of thing. I was intrigued by the subject matter and attracted by the visceral writing.

It’s about hunting, about man’s domination over nature, the cruelty of blood sports, the physicality of farming life, and mostly about the overwhelming nature of grief. Which is a great deal to explore in a very short book.

It’s not a pleasant read. I can’t say I enjoyed it. It is very physical and I liked how that could be conveyed. Reading and writing are quite intellectual pursuits and the skill to be able to create an embodied sense of connection to the land is considerable. It was compelling.

In some ways it’s an unsatisfying read. The ending didn’t resolve the story and, actually, I’m not quite sure what happened. The Dig stops rather than ends but on reflection perhaps that right for this particular story. I found myself wanting to know why. That question is never answered. I suppose it’s not the author’s intention to give meaning or understanding. It’s a book about sensation and elemental forces and being caught in the tide of your circumstances. If you enjoy being unsettled by what you read, then this one’s for you.

After Atlas

This book was given to me by the author. This summer I went on an Arvon course on Science Fiction and Fantasy writing led by Emma Newman and Peter Newman. The week is mornings of workshops, afternoons of working on your project, and evenings of readings. On the first evening the tutors read from their own work and then generously gave us each a copy of one of their novels.

After Atlas by Emma Newman is set in an frighteningly plausible future dominated by corporations where advertising is omnipresent and indentured servitude has made a return. Carlos Moreno is a detective, but he is indentured. He has a contract which he has to work off before he can be free. In this story, Carlos is asked to investigate the murder of the leader of a cult called the Circle, from which Carlos escaped when he was 18. It was this escape that led to his capture and slavery. Returning to the Circle to solve the case stirs up a lot of memories, and the cult is not what he thought it was.

The future imagined in this book is an extrapolation of neo-liberal economics and its impact on democracy and any parts of life that are not economic. It is extremely unequal and highly surveilled. Almost nothing a person does goes unnoticed and privacy is reserved for the very rich. I liked the way it was handled and found it believable. I think the question of the balance of convenience and privacy is interesting. The concept of privacy is really a quite modern one. Centuries ago when people lived and worked in the same place all their lives everyone in the village knew everyone else’s business. Living in cities has given us a sense of anonymity that we’ve grown used to and are reluctant to give up.

The other thing I liked about this book is that it is a diverse cast of characters at all levels. A lot of this was done in a quite subtle way and I was a good way through the book before I realised it.

After Atlas is a science-fiction crime thriller, a genre of which I’m fond. It’s fun, and while it touches on some quite serious and weighty topics, it does so with a very light hand. Emma Newman is a good writer and this is an easy and engaging read. I liked it a lot.

Skin

Skin by Ilka Tamke is the first in a fantasy trilogy set in Britain in the early 1st century AD. Ailia is a child without skin, which means she doesn’t know her place in the world. Rome is poised to invade and the Britons are divided between those who would fight and those who would make peace. They are waiting for a spiritual leader. Ailia undergoes several trials and may be the one they are waiting for.

There’s quite a bit I liked about this book. The cover is beautiful and is a good representation of what the book is like. It’s in first person and set entirely in Ailia’s head, which means it’s not always clear what is going on because Ailia is young and doesn’t know who can be trusted. The worldbuilding is really great and the setting is brought to life with a mystical touch.

But, I wasn’t hugely engaged with the characters and the story. The ending sort of fizzled out. It is the first in a series, but even so, the ending felt as though the story just stopped, rather than coming to any resolution, and unfortunately didn’t set up any desire for me to find the next book.

The cover says it would suit fans of Game of Thrones which I think is a bit misleading. If you’re looking for hard-bitten political, dynastic fantasy, this is not it. Skin is an emotional, mystical story. It’s worth a read if that’s your cup of tea.

 

Why We Sleep

I was killing time in WH Smith in Kings Cross and in the mood to buy a book. As I was having a bad bout of insomnia at the time, a book about sleeping and how to do it better struck me as a good choice. I certainly wasn’t disappointed by Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep.

Matthew Walker is a neuroscientist who has studied sleep for his whole career. It starts with what sleep is and what happens in the body to make you go to sleep and wake up, and how we can disrupt our body’s natural rhythm, and how it changes over our lifetimes. It also looks at how different animals sleep which is very varied.

The section on the benefits of sleep was interesting but somewhat disturbing, given the very scary effects of not getting enough sleep. The most enlightening part was the section on dreaming. New research suggests that dreaming is the way we process and reduce the intensity of our daily emotional experience. It’s not so much about the crazy things that are happening in your dreams but the feelings you’re having while it’s going on. I don’t remember my dreams very often, but I assume it’s happening.

The last part of the book looks at the impact of modern life on sleeping patterns: our working lives, new technology, and especially electric light. Our bodies want to sleep when the sun goes down and get up when it rises. Apparently. Not sure my body got the memo. It ends with a page of tips on how to sleep better.

I loved this. I’ve been recommending it to anyone who mentions sleep and sleep problems to me. It’s pretty dense and loaded with scientific information but written so well you barely notice.

The Art of Thinking Clearly

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli is a collection of very short essays exploring the many mistakes humans are prone to making when we think about things. There’s not much new in this book, but I find however often I read about confirmation bias and the sunk cost fallacy I find myself slipping back into that kind of thinking. It’s hard work because our brains aren’t actually wired for logic and rational thinking. This is an easy and accessible guide to some of the concepts that can be found in much denser books like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

There are 99 thinking errors in this book which address things like how the availability of examples makes us forget about probability and how we regularly mistake correlation for causation.

If you want to understand why people sometimes say and do things that you think are ridiculous, then this book will help. Although it might also make you realise that the things you say and do are also ridiculous. so be warned.