Review: Zendegi by Greg Egan

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What’s It About?

In 2012 Martin Seymour is a journalist sent to Iran to cover the parliamentary elections.  While this turns into the predictable non-event he expected, shortly after he becomes caught up in an event that will change everything.  Nasim Golestani is an Iranian scientist living in the U.S.A.  When her mother is offered a job in Iran, she chooses to return to her home country in the hopes that she can avenge her father’s execution and become important in the quickly changing political climate.

Fifteen years later, Martin is living in Iran after marrying and creating a family there.  Nasim is now in charge of Zendegi, a virtual world that is used by millions, and pondering the ‘what if’ in her career choice to move to Iran.  While she is envious of her former colleagues, Nasim soon realises that she has the expertise and knowledge to change the face of technology by creating more ‘human’ and lifelike proxies.

When tragedy strikes Martin turns to Nasim in the hopes that she can use advance her technology to create a solution to change his son’s future life.  It now becomes a question of whether this technology is really alive and conscious, which creates more ethical questions than either of them are ready to answer.

My Thoughts:

This book was written in 2009, which is important to point out as the first part is set in a ‘futuristic’ 2012.  It may be because I don’t really have any knowledge of Iranian politics, but this didn’t phase me in the least.  Greg Egan doesn’t create a far-fetched fantasy and so I found his world to be completely believable (although perhaps a little optimistic) and never felt that the 2012 he depicted couldn’t have happened.  Of course, those who understand politics may completely disagree with me on that, though I believe Egan has kept it vague enough that it is still plausible, without lacking the detail that can keep you grounded while reading.

The majority of this book takes place in 2015.  Again, I didn’t feel that it was an impossibly spun fantasy.  Everything relating to the technology, I have no doubt, is well within our grasp and will likely be used fairly soon (though I admit I don’t know too much about technology either).  Egan once again keeps us grounded by focusing on the details of Iranian culture, rather than on any significant changes that aren’t important.  For me, this meant that I was much more engrossed in the story he is telling, than whether or not the science is real.

I personally found it a little difficult to truly relate to any of the characters.  This may be because they were, for the most part, eclipsed by the understanding of the culture it is set in, rather than the people.  While they obviously had motivations and inward thoughts, I felt, for the most part, that in a sense they were simply crutches to move the story forward and question all the right ethical points brought up by the idea of when does a computer become conscious.  However, I don’t feel this is a huge issue in this novel as they aren’t complete cardboard cut-outs either.

As I’ve already mentioned, the novel does bring up some interesting ethical questions about where the line is between machine and a living conscious being, and what this means in terms of ‘rights’.  Despite that being something that I noticed after reading, it didn’t take over the story until the very end.

I was quite disappointed, and a little confused, by the ending as not only did it seem to end a little abruptly, I felt the characters changed who they were so much to fit the ‘ethical’ answers that it was unrealistic and made me wish the book had ended on the question rather than a complex character response that doesn’t fit.

I would recommend this to anyone who is new to science fiction (as I am), as it is a good way to expand your reading without feeling too far out of your comfort zone.  I can’t really compare this book to any I’ve previously read as this is a whole new genre for me.  I expect that those who read a lot of science fiction would probably appreciate this book, though if you are looking for technical detail and explanations you won’t find it in this book.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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Review: Elizabeth I: A Novel by Margaret George

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What’s It About?

This is a historical novel about the last 45 years of Elizabeth I’s life and reign over England.  Told from the perspectives of Elizabeth herself and Laetitia (Lettice) Knollys, Elizabeth’s rival and cousin once removed, the two women must each face their own battles and feelings – one to reign, and one to forever struggle to get back to court.  This is a highly researched novel, which brings life to some of the more mundane aspects of the ‘Golden Age’ of monarchy, love, and politics.

My Thoughts:

It is only recently that I have started becoming interested in reading historical fiction.  I have always liked history; not the remembering of names and dates, but discovering how people lived, and historical fiction is a doorway for my mind.  Unfortunately this novel, in some ways, felt like reading a textbook with plenty of names that seemed almost familiar and dates of battles, although most of this information was portrayed through dialogue which made it easier to follow.  Nethertheless, in my opinion, the detail to facts was almost clinical throughout most of the book, which made the book a lot less pleasurable to read.

The book is told in split first person.  Personally I found the ‘Lettice’ character much easier to understand and follow, and therefore more relatable to.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, was too much like reading facts with no life behind them.  I realise this is probably due in large part to the fact that no one really knows how Elizabeth felt about anything, but it did make reading from her point of view almost nothing more than a series of events, and I found it impossible to empathise with her.  However, the book starts with a few scenes to set the time, and I didn’t realise that Elizabeth wasn’t the only perspective the book would be told from until quite late in as the novel isn’t evenly spread between the two.

The research that has gone into the book, however, has to be mentioned.  At 662 pages it is far from a short read, and every page is filled with the details of the women’s lives, as well as the many key men in their lives, which I can only imagine must have taken years to research.

Personally this wasn’t my favourite historical read ever, but I did feel I was learning (seriously, my history knowledge is truly appalling), and feel this book has a unique perspective in not only using first person, but telling it from two points of view.  Of course, due to the nature of the book, there isn’t really a plot to follow and I think that may have made reading a little arduous for me at times; however I wanted to read more for the majority of it.  I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and isn’t afraid to dedicate a decent block of time to reading it (it took me 2 weeks to read).

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

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Review: Train and Buttered Toast by John Betjeman (ed. Stephen Games)

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What’s It About?

John Betjeman was a popular BBC radio presenter.  Between 1932 and 1952 he was a predominant radio personality giving over 300 talks.  In ‘Trains and Buttered Toast’ Stephen Games has used transcripts and archives to bring together a large and varied selection of these talks.  These talks bring to life Betjeman’s wit and nostalgia, and often his love of architecture.

My Thoughts:

I am too young to have ever heard John Betjeman (or to have heard of him), but that didn’t stop me from picking up this book at the library.  To me it read like a book of fairly short essays (possibly even blog posts?), though at times I did feel that I was missing out on not being able to imagine how these talks were given.

Betjeman covers many subjects yet continuously comes back to architecture and often his talks are tinged with anger over the ‘new’ architecture that “littered the roadside with shacks and hoardings” (pp 38).  While I did find a lot of interesting, after a while I found that I was beginning to get bored of this constant whining and aggravation, even if I did agree with it.  I can easily see how there could be split feelings towards his style and content.

This book begins with a preface by Stephen Games, but one of my favourite parts of the book was the introduction.  As expected this gave an overview of Betjeman’s life which I found very helpful as a complete newbie, though admittedly this tinged how I read and accepted Betjeman’s talks as I had already been told opinions about it; no matter how hard you try and make your own opinions, once you’ve been told something it is impossible to not let that affect how you accept something.

Generally speaking I think this is an okay read.  It doesn’t include anything incredible, though there were moments that I smiled in appreciation or nodded my head in agreement.  Likewise, its only real downfall is the overbearing information about architecture appreciation and the ending poetry which felt misplaced after the rest of the talks.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, unless you are either a huge fan of Betjeman or architecture, but nor would I say that it wasn’t worth reading.  I have a feeling it’s one of those books that everyone will have their own reaction towards.

Overall rating: 3/5

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Review: Moonwalk by Michael Jackson

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What’s It About?

‘Moonwalk’ is Michael Jackson’s only autobiography.  It details his performance career from childhood up until the book was written (1983-1988) in his own words.

My Thoughts:

It will probably surprise most people to learn that I have only just read this book, considering how big of a Michael Jackson fan I am.  But seeing how I was mostly obsessed with him at High School, when this book was very difficult to get hold of, it isn’t actually that strange.

The first thing to point out is that this autobiography was first published in 1988 and so the bulk of it is about his childhood and his first two albums he produced as a solo singer (‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Thriller’).  This obviously means it missed out about half his life which I have to admit I was disappointed by, but there’s not a lot you can do about that.

At least half the book is dedicated to the experiences of being part of ‘The Jackson 5’ and ‘The Jacksons’.  While I found it interesting to see what events Michael Jackson left out of his childhood, I didn’t find any stories which I didn’t already know.  Of course, this would probably be different for someone who has never been that big of a fan.  Personally I felt that the writing was dry and was very much a ‘this happened, then this happened’ kind of telling.  This was my main issue with the book, as I like autobiographies for the emotional connection that is usually created between reader and writer.  In a way, it kind of felt like listening to what a child might say, with the occasional words or phrases that they’ve heard from other people, rather than made up themselves, thrown in.  While I understand that perhaps this is actually Michael Jackson’s style, it did become a bit boring and monotonous.

The latter part of the book is all about music (and a little bit about dance).  I found it quite boring to read how the recording of each of the songs added to the feel (in his opinion) of the two albums ‘Off the Wall’ and ‘Thriller’.  While there were a few interesting titbits about how the ideas of songs came about, mostly it was literally a breaking-down of the beats of each song.  As I am not a musician I have to say that this was irritating, and in fact more so as I know each song and album produced inside out – reading the singer’s point of view hasn’t added anything to my experiences as a listener.

Obviously for any Michael Jackson diehard fan, this is a must read (though I assume that most, if not all of these fans, have already read it).  But for everyone else I would only suggest reading it if you are interested to know step-by-step how Michael Jackson started in the music business; from with his family to as an independent artist.  It would probably be a good read for musicians of ‘pop’, but if you are just after a biography of Michael Jackson’s life, I would recommend reading ‘Michael Jackson: The Magic and The Madness’ by Randy J. Taraborrelli, rather than ‘Moonwalk’.

Overall rating: 3/5

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