CILIP Wales Conference 2017-Part 2 Friday

So with nerves abated, and the mind refreshed after the inundation of things to think about from the day before, time to enjoy day 2 at CILIP Wales 2017.

Now that I knew where I was going, I also elected to avoid turning up 90 minutes early this time, enjoying another seaside walk beforehand. Though I still ensured I collected another goodie bag – one can never have too many pens and bookmarks after all. Records of the presentations themselves should be available to view online. Searching Twitter for CILIP in Wales should head you in the right direction.

Dr. Jane Secker – Copyright!

Kicking us off today, Dr. Secker Senior Lecturer in Educational Development at City University gave us an engaging presentation on the relationship Libraries and Librarians should have with copyright – with an interactive feedback spell illustrating the frustration and confusion commonly felt by many! To help combat this she laid out the case for knowing more.

It is a fundamental feature of many of a library service – from ILL’s to digitization, access, preservation and general copying requests of users, and we are best placed to be able to educate others about good practice. We need to keep up – especially with ever changing technology and law: consider how intrinsic copying is to the Internet.

With global figures suggesting a reasonably high lack of confidence over implementation – just 57% surveyed across 14 countries reported a moderate level of confidence – and with such caution often leading to very risk averse decision-making, Jane asks – what is the solution?

More knowledge, more skills, more training? With the real risk of information overload – tailored critical copyright literacy she suggests is the way forward, marking a shift in mindset. By focusing on what we need to know we have the opportunity to be copyright educators via the broader information literacy role.  Developing more flexible approaches will hopefully lead to improved engagement and higher confidence in copyright.

To this end and in the spirit of gamification, Jane and her colleague Chris Morrison have promoted Copyright the Card Game, and The Publishing Trap to assist with copyright training and are aimed at academics, PhD students and researchers. They have been  trialed and showcased with success and you can find out more on both here:

Copyright the Card Game

The Publishing Trap

It seems to me a thoroughly appealing way of engaging the uninitiated with an accessible, fun but also important education in an arena where fear of infringement risks penalties ( I refer you back to the figures from David Teague’s speech in part 1! )

Breakout Session 1

The morning sessions were then divided up into three more groups. Paul Jeorett – University Librarian for Wrexham Glyndŵr University led a group exploring the LIS role in the Prevent agenda – an instructive and engaging look at what librarians need to know in the prevention of terrorism. Juanita Foster-Jones Development Officer (VLE ) with CILIP led a workshop exploring some of the communication and advocacy activities from the Impact Toolkit to practice working on the key messages we wish to bring out.  Liz Grieve – Head of Customers, Communications & Marketing at Denbighshire County Council gave us an “outsiders” view of how libraries could respond to the current climate, noting it is odd how there attitudes to libraries differ internationally – citing Russia and South Korea as examples where they are viewed more positively more widely. She suggests a local focus is more likely to see success – becoming more directly involved in communities whilst ‘leaning in’ to the important conversations. Suggesting less of a reliance on the statutory rights claim provoked some healthy debate afterwards too!  Though to be clear, she was not advocating, removing those rights, merely, as I understood it – not being overly reliant on the statutory rights as a weapon to defend itself with.  Perhaps, instead of defending this line from the Act, the focus should target on more specific positive areas that libraries can involve themselves with.

 

Paul Pedley – Protecting the privacy of library users

After another scrumptious lunch, Nick Poole introduced Paul Pedley who gave us a very thought provoking speech on the nature of privacy – and the interactions and responsibilities required between librarians and their users, and their users data.  Again, this is an area where the field is ever evolving alongside the ever changing technology.

Paul began by reminding us that we are members of one of the few professions that has privacy issues explicit to its code of ethics.  It is a part of Michael Gorman’s Eight Central Values, and librarians have access to substantial levels of individual personal data, but Paul poses the question of whether Libraries are simply to working to ensure their own lives are easier rather than the users, and suggests there are still struggles to keep up to date.

As Paul noted the privacy issue is inherent across many of the activities within the library service. Consider the details of users that are visible with self-service pick from shelf schemes and what information is printed on receipts. Card access to separate rooms still reveals information about the card user, suggesting that there will always be a difficult balancing act between giving up enough identifiable information to allow proper functionality v protecting the individuals right to privacy.

This is particularly evident with online databases, and personalisation tools, including personal searches, history of items borrowed and so forth. More broadly online how far do people actually monitor and understand privacy policies? Do they read agreements? It has been estimated it would take c.200 hours per year to read all the privacy agreements people sign up to!

Information is exploitable, and is exploited – again this connects with David Teague’s speech and we have to be very careful in the library profession how any data is communicated too – simple things such as telephone notification of reservations – leaving a message could reveal a sensitive book topic to an unintended listener.  Co-location of library services and Hubs often involve close proximity to conversations pertaining to sensitive personal issues.

Beyond these issues, Paul brought up the risks of blogging about the work life: where revealing the  behavioural idiosyncrasies can be considered just as informational as any other piece of data, and thus potentially identifiable. There are real life examples of this having consequences.

The talk contained reams of such examples, which was really interesting and quite concerning too. There are 400 CCTV cameras in the British Library. How far is this valid protection or unfair invasion?  Biometric data, online cookies, and commercial interests can create a confusing picture for anyone who’s not an expert in the area, whilst of greater concern, he notes, is the level of willful disbelief in the extent to which our information is taken from us without us knowing or understanding how it is being used.

Thus, what to do? Paul suggests going back to 1st principles and asking what role do we have as librarians in this: To defend, protect, be radical, revolt or be activist in attitude? Does responsibility lie with the individual user or the organisation or educator?

Perhaps then, the most important question is – if not us, then who? We are in a great position to activate, engage and educate about privacy in the digital age, and so now is the time to shift from walking to talking.

Breakout Sessions 2

After a really energising talk, the prospect of more, in the second set of Breakout Sessions was too tempting as Paul led a follow up Privacy workshop to zero in or more detailed concerns and allow for more tailored discussion.  Elsewhere Louisa YatesDirector of Collections and Research at Gladstone’s Library,  gave an inspiring workshop on some of the practical outreach models, that helped Gladstone connect with it’s community, transforming from a specialist scholarly resources into a thriving community and heritage hub for national and international visitors.

I have to confess Paul’s follow up talk instilled an immediate instinct to go back and wipe my entire digital footprint clear, though the fact I have taken to-rebooting this blog suggests pragmatism recovered itself eventually! Paul provided more direct details of applications, programmes and just general additional informational awareness to illustrate the extent of the general user’s ignorance,.

I wasn’t aware of the likes of Firefox lightbeam which allows you see which websites you’ve interacted with – often revealed many 3rd party visits you never knew had taken place.  I also didn’t realise how easy it was to leave your digital footprint – even the details you give for secret questions and answers contribute to your online profile. Whilst much of the rest of the room all nodded wisely in agreement when Paul asked if they used fake details for these questions, I took a quick note to immediately change my habits!

Whilst it is obviously impossible to go completely dark, the first steps to minimising it stem from awareness. There are two books that Paul flagged up as well worth a read if you wish to know more. Eli Pareser – The Filter Bubble and Cath O’Neill’s Weapon of Math Destruction – the latter of which I have since sought out and will be reviewing my thoughts on down the line here.

The nature of the algorithms and personalisation has consequences that people don’t fully appreciate, for instance using Google – a search request committed by several people scattered across the global would return a difference in results that is quite disturbing. In the age of the ‘echo chamber’ this is quite alarming.  There are alternative browsers and search engines that protect your privacy, and don’t track your search results – such as Duckduckgo.

The talk was replete with many more details that I simply couldn’t absorb all in one go – or note down legibly! Suffice to say I would fully encourage those looking to learn more to go straight to the source – Paul is on twitter @priv_lib and has a blog that naturally provides far greater clarity of his speeches and work than I could endeavour to sum up.

The key take-home is clearly to stay aware and keep up to date regularly! I have much to learn, and having noted down the many other sources to delve into later on, it was time for a much needed coffee .

Nick Poole – Closing Remarks

After a successful two days, full of idea-laden presentations, energetic conversation, good food, I won’t deny it, Nick brought an end to the proceedings with a vigorous call to arms, reminding us how important our profession is, and will prove to be mentioning the Million Decisions and Facts Matter campaigns that are currently among the chief issues to promote loudly and widely.  He suggests we are living through a revolution that may continue for the next 20-30 years as things change dramatically and the skillset involved in handling information is going to be crucial.

Further to this will be a vital alliance of skillsets across the professions – good networking again! – CILIP has a strong independent voice and it is vital to be able to have a voice that is able to get the message across and influence people – especially in government. We need to aim high, for those standards of diversity and equality, and we need to collaborate support each other and seek further support to build the economy we want!

And on that note – a very stimulating conference came to an end, much to think about, and personally I found it extremely instructive and heartening to begin my own professional journey meeting the pros with their vast experience to draw on! I look forward to meeting many more of you in the future, but on a personal note it was to nice to meet you, Nicholas, Mark, Gareth, Kathryn et al! (You’ll have to excuse me, after taking so much in, as is usually the case me ability to recall names is really quite horrendous )!

CILIP Wales Conference 2017 – Part 1 – Thursday

Warning – long blog alert!

The CILIP Wales Conference in 2017 was an excellent professional opportunity to meet fellow professionals, discover and engage with talking points, developments and ideas, all while enjoying the beautiful setting of the beach-side town of Llandudno. Here I’ll review my debut experience, highlighting the talks given, ideas developed and the value of such gatherings personally and professionally.*  With thanks to MALD for providing me with a sponsored place on day one, and Cardiff University for supporting me being able to attend the full two days, and a nod to all those involved in putting on this conference, including the caterers! Food for all meals enjoyed throughout the two days was delicious.

An Adventure Begins

Having enjoyed a breezy  and sunny morning walk along the promenade by the Venue Cymru I collected my welcome goodie bag from the reception area and was met by bright greetings from familiar faces from Cardiff – Helen Staffer and Tracey Stanley.  Less familiar or – rather completely unfamiliar faces soon followed as I slowly mingled about the hall,  whilst surveying the displays set up. They showcased all sorts of library related ideas. CILIP of course had their own stand, promoting membership, and skillset opportunities for development that come with it, not to mention parading many of the latest books from Facet Publishing.

Also present: thedesignconcept advertising their capability in library design, the Welsh Books Council / Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru–  supported by the Welsh Government as a focus for publishing and provision of associated services in Wales, distributing grants to publishers. They also actively promote literacy and reading in Wales too.

There was also Digital Communities Wales / Cymunedau Digidol Cymru – a project helping organisations to support people engage with computers and the Internet through training staff and and volunteers, and setting up digital volunteering initiatives, and Borrow Box Bolinda – who I learned provide audiobooks to libraries. It was interesting to know how many books are available on this service, which seems to me to be targeting the headphone generation successfully: providing free access to the best storytellers in audio format. Time to get out the library card and log on!

The Talks

Network, network, network! – Linda Tomos

Moving on to the key talking points of this conference, Linda Tomos – Chief Executive and Librarian at the National Library of Wales opened proceedings with a striking – and apposite speech emphasising the value of networking in the workplace. It’s centrality is exemplified in the success of campaigns that are able to reach out as widely as possible and to make all the right connections to allow us to not only understand who we’re serving but also to shout proudly about the success of libraries.  Within this we have to remember to celebrate the many great achievements – such as the ‘Every child a member’ scheme.

Such achievements are built on developing relationships that can deliver these services, and not only is it good for professional confidence, it’s also a boon personally. Drawing on Lord Matthews’ ‘bullying’ of Tony Blair regarding The People’s Network in the nineties, Linda emphasised the forceful need for action – the networking power is hard but vital – change has to be made to happen. It has led to many millions invested in libraries in the past, and it will need similar levels of networking and hard work to support and sustain the future we want for Libraries.

Social media is a great megaphone for advocacy and elevating our voice into the airwaves, and we now need to work towards a People’s network for the 21st century that is fit for purpose. WHELF, CILIP and SCL already doing good work in this regard, and let’s build on this relating to information sharing and knowledge management. The current concerns over fake news only emphasises this necessity – borrowing a Neil Gaiman quote – where google gives you 100,000 results, a Librarian gives you one correct one. Creating visibility in the profession is what we need, and she praises Alyson Tyler’s Love Libraries blog as an example of this.

The main themes of the talk were an exhortation to get out there, give proper self regard to the achievements reached, and continually engage and come up with solutions. Everyone knows the problems, but what we need – and what politicians want to hear most – is what can we do about it? Let’s find the solution, get creative with resources, and maximise those opportunities by networking and bringing our collective talents together to bear fruit.

 

David Teague – Regional Manager ( Wales ) at the Information Commissioner’s Office

After Linda’s passionate opening, David Teague zeroed in on the fast paced change in information management rights, and the importance of having up to date policies to cope.  He began by revealing a couple of indicative figures of penalties levied : £8,500,750 for breaches of the Data Protection Act, and a further £4,912,000 for nuisance callers. Not small change!

He then  nodded to a speech by Elizabeth Denham on the relation between information rights and democracy that can be seen here; appending this by providing a potted history of information rights, – emerging from the reaction to 20th century despotism within the Declaration of Human Rights. Articles 8 and 10 – illustrate one of the challenges – marking the Right to a Private Life versus that of Freedom of Expression. The protecting of these Articles has also had to take place amid the increasingly rapid (r)evolution of technology and the pace at which data is processed has required ongoing legal maintenance – through the Data Protection Act of 1984 through to the 1998 Act. This latest version expires next year – May 2018 –  to be replaced by the General Data Protection Regulations, an EU wide edict. The extent to which Brexit interferes with those plans is partially unknown, although the UK government has committed to have an Act that is at least equivalent to the EU provisions.

This latest development has come amid the age of The Internet of Things, the explosive rise of social media. The aims will be to focus on giving back control to the individuals. The key points include providing some statutory good practice regulations that will reduce the need for judgement calls to be made, and firming up accountability about what precisely will be done with the information – no more vague references to third parties. Fess for subject access to their data will be removed, whilst the act is also aiming to address the concerns over profiling – targeted ads, social profile algorithms, key in an age where we know so little about where our information goes – and more on the dangers of this were highlighted by Paul Pedley in Friday’s discussion on privacy – ( more on this in part 2! ) .

It is worth checking out the 12 steps to prepare for the GDPR published by the ICO last August. They are accessible here (pdf ). It was a very well received talk ( as they all were it must be said! ) and provided plenty to think on during a tea break!

 

Breakout Sessions

After the break – there were various sessions to choose from, including one on Marketing, and another in Disaster Manager  which both sounded really interesting  and were very well received – but I can only reflect on what I chose to see – and that was Alli Cingi, Library Manager Awen Cultural Trust and Rob Jones’ Library Assistant at Pencoed Library energetically enthusiastic presentation, ‘Makerspace’ a scheme developed in their local library .

It’s an excellent idea with fantastic advantages for kids ( and adults! ) that helps with their problem solving, numeracy and literacy skills and articulating expression through creative means. A personal visual connection to coding, that can light the imagination fires within youngsters, critical given our desperate need for STEM graduates.

Starting young with projects and schemes such as these, provides a firm boost to the children – not only for those longer term employability skills, but on a more immediate level it teaches them the social skills – working collaboratively and engaging with others for these little projects. In their library this has proved to be a really impressive scheme, positively received by the kids and the adults who help out!

Alli and Rob highlighted a plethora of support and creative options available online. Codecluborg.uk, Scratch, BBC Microbits, virtual pets, photo-editing tools such as Photofunia all provide these windows into personalising, manipulating ( in it’s most literal sense ) tools for creative exploration, including being a great option for story-telling too. Accessible and entertaining, it is schemes like this that can really help energise young people and give local libraries a further role to play in the supporting of a well-skilled community. Further suggestions include more graphic design options,  and it seems stop motion animation is another option that Rob was looking forward to trying too! We await more positive success stories in the future.

 

Lunch allowed for more mingling as I gradually got to meet more faces in the profession – all lovely of course – ( how can you not like someone who’s into libraries?! ) before the afternoon continued in the same vein as before with really fascinating talks.

 

Professor Neil Frude – Bibliotherapy – Reading back to health – ‘Shelf Help!’

Any thoughts of a post-prandial slumber, were -ironically – put to bed with another call to arms from Professor Neil Frude whose keynote speech advocated with energy and facts that matter – for the value of Bibliotherapy in it’s usefulness at intervening at a low intensity level at relieving mild to moderate sufferers of mental  illness’.  This is a key area where libraries can point to their role – or potential role – in providing some really effective ‘2nd step’ line of support to their communities, and help extol our worth – connecting to Linda Tomos’ message – we need to shout about this!

Prof. Frude was instrumental in establishing the Books on Prescription Scheme in Cardiff in 2003, and the subsequent history has been one of unanimous success, but only of late in England. It has fallen away in Wales and this – to everyone’s agreement! – is a situation well worth reversing when you consider the numbers of sufferers – approximately 1 in 6 of us have a diagnosable mental illness,  and the limited numbers of therapists – the ratio is roughly 1 therapist per 1000 patients, and that doesn’t include the estimated 55,000 children who suffer too.

Less than 1% of those who could benefit from Bibliotherapy ( and other psycho-social interventions ) do.  There is an over-dependence on the pharmacological approach  with Wales being the most medicated country in the UK, but it is often the ‘easiest’ solution when faced with limited therapist contact opportunities.

This requires remedying and help. Manualised self help  is supported by strong scientific evidence for it’s effectiveness for those who use it  but what we need to improve is the impact. Noting the ‘impact factor’- as the product of effectiveness x reach – there is clearly the potential for far more effective relief of symptoms among sufferers to be achieved. Prof. Frude illustrated the success of the programme through it’s global mimesis. It has been copied and expanded across the world, with the books being recommended from a pool of 50 professionals to ensure the wheat is sorted from the chaff ( consider the many thousands of books available under the ‘self-help’ banner.

Having outlined the history of Books on Prescription, Prof. Frude noted that the scheme had worked so well it had expanded into other areas.  The Reading Agency in England intervened to promote it with three recent schemes – Adult Mental Health (2014), Dementia (2015), Young People Mental Health, ( 2016) and to come this year ‘Self-Management of Chronic Physical Conditions’.

Early talks are under-way to get this back in business in Wales, and fingers are crossed. This is ultimately something we all can benefit from personally and professionally. We often are charged with looking after the shelves, so let’s now let the shelves look after us.

 

Breakout Sessions 2

 

The afternoon sessions continued in the spirit of before – and whilst Katrina Hall was unable to attend, the remaining sessions made up for this absence. Rob Owain – Wikimedia UK Manager (Wales) and Jason Evans – Wikipedian in Residence at the National Library of Wales gave a talk that focused on the advantages that working with Wikimedia can bring to libraries and their users, whilst Dr Andrew Eynon led a fascinating sessions exploring how FE librarians in Wales are devising impact indicators to help evaluate their library services. This involved a healthy amount of group work brainstorming various performance indicators. I must confess to being in LIS student sponge mode here – I sat and absorbed as much information as I could manage from the vastly more experienced attendees!

 

Dr. Einir Young: The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act – is it a blessing or a curse?

So after the final round of coffee breaks to digest this veritable information tsunami of ideas, proceedings were brought to a close by Dr. Einir Young, Director of Sustainability at Bangor University,  who spoke to us on the question of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015.

The Act, demands longer term holistic thinking from certain public bodies in Wales to ensure a sustainable future. Discussing this through the University prism, Dr Young asked us – in an interactive fashion! – what we understood by sustainability: and as many different adjectives and short descriptors were thrown up as there were audience members. The point being, like many abstract concepts it can mean many different things according to your perspective, and thus it helps if we focus on clarifying what we all understand by the term when we consider it in our own work places.

Einir drawing on her experience with Bangor, invited us to think differently: in terms of people, the planet, and resources. Economically, environmentally, socially – there are serious issues of inequality abounding and the question is how do we face them?

Joined up, interconnected thinking is vital to ensure coordinated activity -be it in corporate, social, or environmental outlooks. Drawing on the essentials of the Act – Dr Young framed the outlook from the libraries approach – deploying a memorable 1,4,5,7 approach:

One – sustainable development idea – our one future.

Four – pillars – economic, social, environmental and cultural well being

Five ways of working:

  • Long term thinking balancing the needs of now with the future;
  • Prevention is better than cure – how can we ensure future changes avoids errors?
  • Integration – how does library / university fit into wider community picture
  • Collaboration –  can we be better, sharing resources, time, money
  • Involvement – all key stakeholders should be included that are relevant

Seven well being goals:

  • A prosperous library
  • A resilient library
  • A healthier library – i.e. working with students to improve health and stress levels
  • A more equal library – improving access to information and technology, creating social safe spaces
  • A library of cohesive communities
  • A library of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language
  • A globally responsible library  – developing international links – i.e. Bangor and Uganda where peer to peer learning helps level the access where the cost is higher.

 

It is a platform for libraries to work with, and aim towards. Let’s start local but look outwards and help create the library, community, country and world that we want.  We need to ask ourselves at work – what do we need to do? Do we have the right support? And what support would we like to see going forward?  Its time to put on the hard hat and get to work!

It was an ambitious and grand sentiment to close the conference for the day on, but fully in keeping with the spirit throughout – the value of networking, advocacy and action are essential attributes of a vibrant profession.

 

I found the whole day to be a really enjoyable affair, hearing a range of ideas, meeting plenty of professionals with a wealth of experience to draw on, and after a long day taking notes, it was a pleasure to be able to relax in the evening with a lovely evening meal featuring amusing poetic entertainment from Peter Reid and included some useful personal discussion of the Aberystwyth LIS course with fellow students. However normal my initial apprehension at ALL THE STRANGERS may have been, by the end, I’d met some truly spiffing and friendly characters, who’d really helped engender a sense of belonging at the conference: the benefits of networking immediately felt!  Fittingly for a day that began with an exhortation to celebrate CILIP’s achievements – it ended with individual recognition of the professional talents with the awarding of the Welsh Librarian of the Year Award – congratulations to Wendy Foster, and a lifetime achievement award to Thomas Hywel James – awards very warmly applauded and deserved.

All told – a busy old day – and more to enjoy on Friday – which will be posted in part 2.

 

 

* The slides from these presentations are available online. If you’re on Twitter I would direct you to @CILIPinWales for more details.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Tom McCarthy “Men In Space” – a kaleidoscopic reflection on human uncertainty

Tom MCarthy’s novel Men in Space is a vertiginous journey of transcendent ambitions taking in political, aesthetic and metaphysical dimensions. Now if that’s not too pretentious a first line – let’s carry on. Set primarily in Eastern Europe on the cusp of the Velvet Divorce  between the Czechs and the Slovaks, the plot – such as it is – revolves around an eclectic cast of bohemian characters, whose various fates appear to be reflected and refracted through the imagery of a stolen Byzantine Icon painting that traverses Europe: from Sofia to Prague and Amsterdam.  With shifting narrative perspectives it’s a thoroughly absorbing multi-vocal study on punctured dreams and a world in chaotic disjuncture.

We have approximately seven main characters to whom we oscillate between, as the narrator’s voice takes in young wannabe artists, actual bohemian artists, a former Bulgarian football referee, political refugees, a curator, a disorientated police agent and the supporting cast of a society that’s waiting for a celebration of new life, but not entirely sure what it will bring. McCarthy has an acute grasp of human fragility, as he seeks to penetrate and deconstruct the foibles of human dreams. Although we only ever get partial perspectives from each character, he succintly captures their personalities and spirits as they intersects and intermingle, in an appropriate backdrop of political upheaval.

The political component serves more as metaphoric furniture than it does an intricate exploration of the particular dynamics; with a broad focus driven by plausibly autobiographical experiences through the eyes of Nick Boardman, a young Englishman  and key character living there.

The references to political leaders, the chase initiated by former agents of the USSR to pursue the painting, the New Years Eve party that marks the celebratory birth of the Czech Repubic, all allow for consideration of the story in it’s specific time and place – yet I would dispute a characterisation of the novel as not escaping it’s localised orbit.  Its thematic explorations are as acutely applicable now as they were then – even if we have the benefit of 15 years of post break up, and now post crash Europe to contend with. The melancholia of punctured dreams seem rather prophetic.

Anton, the Bulgarian referee whose role is helping his uncle Ilevski identify the right painter to do the job, has an arc that resonates particularly in a certain light for example. He has dreams of escaping this old world entirely – to get to the fabled land of America where he views with certainty a most prosperous future. The refugee escaping to promised lands, has marked currency today in the light of the migrant and refugee explosion in Europe now. Anton’s plan is to apply for an American visa and travel with his wife Helena once money is secured – but political and personal obstacles have been thrown in his way. It is a peculiarly poignant journey, and one that doesn’t escape the metaphysical link with this hypnotic painting. The stories of Nick, Heidi, Ivan, Joost, Helena, Han, Roger, and the nameless police guard – all have – in their own ways – their identities inextricably linked in to the Icon, and McCarthy’s skill in observing these paths unfurl is enjoyable to read.

The voice of Joost, a Dutch curator is to be found through his letters to his partner Han, whilst the police agent gives us his fragmented and increasingly surreal and disorientated reports on the pursuit of the stolen painting: – his voice reflecting a melancholic dissolution of purpose with the coming of the new world attached to  an obstinate refusal to adapt. They intersect and drive on a narrative that also includes the plotters behind the painting’s appropriation and planned sale, the painter commissioned to make copies of the artwork and the young artists caught up in the artists’ – Ivan Manasek – circle.

The writing is smart, and beautiful – the eye of the aficianado is  present in some of the discourse particularly relating to the artwork itself – discussion of codes reflects an interest in the theorists of postructuralism – but it is an effect expressed elegantly: the eliptical nature of the figurine depicted possesses a discombobulating effect on artists observing it – is it an ascension or a descent being portrayed? – the ambiguity is clearly intentional –  with Ivan the artist being consumed by it’s nature as he works on the copy.

Have no fear of being caught up in inaccessible pretension that can befall certain writers who are obsessed with a peculiar theorist, the book is very readable and engaging early on. Stylistically, the use of the present tense in introductions of each new character lent to me a distancing effect affect at first, akin to a surface documentation of a series of facts, but as each segment of narrative continues and oscillates with the other characters the perspective flourishes for the reader.  What has begun as a remote style in it’s brief hop between viewpoints takes on a greater intimacy as the novel develops.  The switch between this third person narrative and the letters of Joost, or the reports by the police agent, work wonderfully well in providing necessary thrust and depth to  this mosaic of a human portrait in uncertain flux during this time. They provide alternative perspectives to this story we have otherwise been more conventionally following through Anton, Nick and the rest.

It is Anton who provides the explanation of the titular reference: he discusses the fate of a Soviet Cosmonaut who is stranded in space – as he was sent up before the collapse of the USSR, now there is no state for him to come down to – a sentiment that sums up the main theme of the book the idea of human disconnection, struggling for transcendence in a febrile, yet fragile world.  And it was fascinating to read – as much as the human component I as much enjoyed the sense of place – the character of early 90’s Prague and Amsterdam was evoked with a plausible authenticity that swallowed my imagination whole and I look forward to delving into more of McCarthy’s work.

Book Review – Alex Bellos: “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland”

How many folds of a sheet of paper would it take to reach the moon? And how many more to the edge of the known universe? Clue: it’s less than a hundred.  Isn’t the idea of solving a mathematical conundrum by the simple act of inventing Imaginary numbers taking the piss? What is Euler’s Identity? Why is π not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be and what the hell do : τ, ℑ, ∫, ∑, ∝ all mean? Are all Cretans liars?

So many questions for which I don’t have an answer but here’s one chap who does: Alex Bellos. Alex’s Adventures in Numberland is a pop-sci book that  blurs the line between accessibility and brain-acher – at least for a chump like me who’s not had to try and decipher impenetrable equations for the best part of 15 years – but well worth the challenge nonetheless.

Working in a library I have become well used to spotting many varied books, both fiction and non-fiction that come in leaving me thinking ” I must read that”, “there’s another for the list” and “ooh that’s something different, why not?”  The list is presently a pretty modest two pages long so far, hopefully not too unhealthy after a year “in the service”, covering crime capers to classics, science books to politics, history, nature and philosophy.  This most recent one covers a hitherto under-read realm in my reading sphere.

As I am always acutely aware that there are so many subject areas that I know too little about, when a book pops up the list in one of those areas that I’ve allowed to go untouched for too long I welcome the opportunity to renew acquaintances. And so MATHS!  I remember at least some classes at school being not completely awful and as maths is in everything, everywhere according to all the science documentaries, why not find out more? At the very least I was able to go into this one with the surefire guarantee there would no exam waiting at the end of this book.

This is Bellos’ second book – a fact I discovered upon reading the first pages – so I would assume he’s accustomed to judging the level required for the lay reader – and one certainly cannot be a lazy reader if you want to enjoy what he has to offer. Across ten chapters the author draws out a thematic exploration of some of the key discoveries in mathematics history, roughly keeping it to a chronological narrative where possible  – though there’s plenty of room for back and forth – it’s no surprise to see the Ancient Greeks regularly re-appear with each new chapter.  Each section comes in roughly three acts, designed to help you keep up with the fast moving flow of the argument : i) an accessible introduction with an anecdote or two to help establish the context, ii) a fleshed out middle bit that goes into specific details, often using graphs and pictorial assistance to convey the significance claimed initially, before moving swiftly into iii); a conclusion that assumes you’ve taken all the information in in one nice digested mouthful and are ready to move on to the next – connected – discovery.

If you’ll excuse the consumption metaphor here a moment – certain chapters go down more easily than others, the opener is a pleasant aperitif that considers how societies have various relationships and superstitions with certain numbers – in Japan there is a  particular reverence for 3, 5 and 7 – but don’t like 4 . The reason being the word for 4 – shi – is also the word for death. Likewise the number 9’s homophone ku also means torture. I can’t help but feel this was an avoidable confusion, but then linguistic evolution everywhere can be quite mad.

There are surprising statements that can be drawn on so simple an issue as odd and even numbers – historically and culturally there has been a gendered split in association – the number one and odd numbers in general are considered more masculine, whereas even numbers have feminine links – or so suggest certain studies cited in the chapter.  We –  in its most general sense – also are rather fond of even numbers because of their ease of understanding – a point that can be intuitively accepted quite easily. We generally “like” seeing the number 50 more than we would 23 for example. Understandable, I can’t stand 23.  This observation  has not gone unnoticed by researchers for Advertising companies. However much we would consciously protest we would not be duped by such superficial differences, we are far more likely to buy a product called Solus 36 than one called Solus 37 – so say the statistics at least!

Thus, the opening chapter is an enjoyably breezy and informative overview of some of the ways people respond to and interact with numbers – interesting, accessible and digestible – the ham salad of starters.  It isn’t necessarily a gradual linear progression from smooth mouthfuls to calling for Dr. Heimlich, but there are – for the more rustier mathematicians approaching this – certain parts that will require a clear head, a pitcher of coffee and more than just a one hour lunch window of reading time to get stuck in.

In chapter 7, the abstraction of mathematical concepts has come to the fore with the question of Imaginary numbers – a concept that was invented to deal with the somewhat vexatious issue of negative numbers. We remember ( well so claims Alex)  from school that a negative times a positive is a negative, and a negative times a negative is a positive right? So what’s the square root of -1?  An apt response comes from the 16th century Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardono who revealed that thinking about these things “gave him mental tortures.

It is a position that I had some sympathy with at the trickier parts of the book.  For the lay reader who’s not touched equations in a long time, there will be times where you may, like me,  having to re-read words like sinesoid and parabolica several times before you understand what is going on. However, once you do get there, there is a satisfying sense of at least being able to appreciate at a basic level why those more “in the know” are in awe of certain breakthroughs. The development of understanding of the triangle, conical shapes, and angles, and it’s practical application in the worlds they emerge in is fascinating. For me at least, the word triangulation now actually means something! Being able to calculate far off distances for travelling ships or the position of the stars in the sky using the same simple principle is fascinating and rewarding to read once you’ve settled your mind into a mathematical approach.

In fairness Bellos is upfront about the varying level of technical language used to explain these concepts and one has the sense that there is a limit below which an explanation behind the notation and terminology for Imaginary numbers, quadernicons, and infinitesimals would be too simplistic to make it worthwhile. Still, there is enough to be able to enjoy to compensate for the parts where you may find your brain curled up in the fetal position demanding a more straight forward read (I duly followed up with some PG Wodehouse after finishing this).  I tried to take notes on most of the chapters I read with a little bit of information for each one, and I succeeded mostly – although Chapter 8 in my notebook simply reads: “Calculus – hmm, something Newton, 1800s, infinitesimal, help.”

On the other hand, and looping back to my introduction the nature and spectacular size of doubling explained through folding paper is a strikingly succinct way of conveying the exponential swiftness of growth. A 0.1mm fold of paper, folded 6 times has the thickness of a small book, a further 6 folds ( doubling ) gets you close to a metre in size. So far no quibble from the brain. But then it begins to take off rather quickly. Another 6 folds leads to a height equivalent to that of the Arc de Triomphe. Now we’re at 18 folds. It takes just a further 22 doubling folds to reach the Moon. It makes straightforward sense when you see the numbers written down, and multiplied by 2, but this visualistion lends a resounding sense of “wow” about this very simple idea.

The final chapter that discusses proofs is a welcome relief after the more abstract concepts that have preceded it, with Euclid’s Elements invoked to remind us how savvy those Ancient Greeks were,  and discussion of the cellular computation behind the mathematical plaything The Game of Life neatly brings old and new together to sign off a challenging but engaging book about numbers and maths. After an appropriate break I’ll happily try out Bellos’ first book in this area, and I do recommend it for those with an interest in numbers and popular science books – it is a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf, but for now, where are you Jeeves?

Film Review: Leviathan (2014) Russian Corruption Captured Magnificently in this classical Tragedy

Leviathan (2014)

Nb: This review contains some spoilers

My familiarity with Russian cinema has now doubled  up to two films  – firstly the outstanding, yet haunting 2nd World War film Come and See – and now this dramatic tragedy from director Andrey Zvagintsev. The film is a bleak satire on the endemic nature of corruption in Russian politics / society and from my tiny sample size, the Russians seem a dour lot. Though evidentally there is much reason for them to be so.  As the title suggests, the target of the film-makers eye is vast, yet it is shot intimately through the fate of Kolya (Alexeï Serebriakov), an ordinary Russian man who exemplifies Everyman traits in his proud masculinity – physically capable and productive – he lives in a remote coastal fishing village in his self-built house, with his own garage, wife and son.  Naturally, he also drinks an awful lot of vodka – never has a stereotype appeared quite so accurate – barely a scene passes without at least one person, across the status-spectrum imbibing the national drink with whole-hearted spirit.

The plot that serves as the allegory for broader institutional corruption centres around a dispute over the ownership of Kolya’s land. The local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), insists he has the right to buy the land at a set price, which is clearly dramatically undervalued according to Kolya who has asked an old friend, now a Moscow lawyer, Dimitri, to assist him fight his case. The film then divides its focus on Kolyas life, with friends and family and the battle to defeat the mayor. The latter plot initially seems promising thanks to the acquisition of material information that would easily threaten the position of the Mayor were it to be made public.  Inevitably events do not unfurl as Kolya would wish, as his life and relationships threaten to collapse amid violence, threats and betrayal. It is a bleak but exquisitely sharp depiction of the ominous degree of power held over the citizens by the state.

Whilst the narrative arc of man facing impossible battle versus state and widespread corruption is not new, it’s depiction here is still thoroughly well executed.  The film opens with beautiful photography that captures the vast essence of Russia itself, with wide shots of the grand expanse of mountain ranges and rural isolation.  At the beginning and close of the film it lingers over the long since dead fossil of a leviathan like creature on the beach.  The geography constantly places the characters as vulnerable contrasts with the might of the reach of the mountains, extending the metaphor of gargantuan power to the essence of the country itself.

From the opening scenes the spectre of corruption is made clear,  with a conversation with local policemen regarding Kolya fixing a car for his friend. Soon after, Kolya makes a remark to his friend that presumes corruption within the police force is normalised in this world – a minor mark but one that presages the greater fight to come. Politically the target is quite obvious.

Firstly on a shooting trip with Dimitri, family and friends, two of the characters draw out portraits of Russian leaders past – ready to be shot at, they discuss if they have Yeltzin and then ask if they have one more recent… although the allusion becomes more concrete in a later scene where we see Vadim in his office – hanging up on wall behind him is a portrait of a younger, but still undeniably balding Vladimir Putin. There can be no mistaking the association.

Vadim deploys violence and pulls strings to ensure his desires are achieved, with and his position is given a form of ‘validation’ through his discussions with the priest – representing the influence and status that the Russian Orthodox Church has over the population, it further strengthen’s Vadim’s stranglehold on the community. The priest advises him to fight back to assert his power in the community, and not to confess – because this would be weak – an attitude that many viewers might be inclined to impose upon their current commander-in-chief.

As Kolya seeks to overturn and appeal the court’s verdict, he inevitably meets with a bureacracy that is hostile and not without Orwellian oppression and Kafka-esque absurdity. The absence of anyone to speak to, and arbitrary arrests attest to this. I’m aware those references are becoming something of a cliche, yet having read both the echoes undoubtedly resonate in many a narrative that tackles related themes, as this film does too. The manner in which Kolya’s life begins to spiral out of control is not limited to direct political suppression from above, however,  but even from sources closer to home thanks to his old friend Dimitri, the Moscow professional who arrives and screws over an old friend in the provinces which sparks a further series of events that get a helpless Kolya into deeper trouble.

The mood is downcast, and the tone excoriating, yet it is never less than compulsive viewing, from the capturing of the isolation of the community to the menacing reality of political authority, all actors play their part superbly well.  To come back to the photography again, the director provides striking imagery of desolation, including the aforementioned coastal skeleton of the deceased giant to the fire-lit shots of the abandoned building Kolya’s son frequents with his friends; the perspective is all encompassing and all consuming and ought to be on anyone’s to watch list if they’ve not see it already. 9/10

Book Review: The Dark Philosophers – Gwyn Thomas

Chekhov with Chips’ – that’s how the author himself attempted to characterise his own novels when asked, and I’d be loathe to disagree much with that assessment.  Thomas (1913-1981) grew up in the Welsh Rhondda Valley, before gaining a scholarship to study at Oxford but it is evident in his writing how formative his experiences as a young man were to his personality and politics. In these stories first published in 1946, one senses a strongly autobiographical element bolstering the lives lived and explored in an impoverished South Wales neighbourhood – or The Terraces – as they are consistently known. That he would regularly choose to adopt the first person plural – we- as a narrative device attests to to a forceful identification amongst those of whom he is writing.

As one might expect of book set in these times the world inhabited in this pages is certainly bleak: containing variously elements of violence, revenge, bitterness, abuses of power –  physical and spiritual – and a population that is struggling to get by on not very much at all – and in Thomas’ view, even that ‘not much at all’ was still still rather too much for the more objectionable personalities in power quite taken in by a stately greed. Yet, there is a welcome counterbalance to the destitute setting, in its rich wryness of humour, that is as affectionate as it is sharp.

Within each tale there may lie monstrous tyrants, but there is also no small amount of warmth to be found in certain of those who survive there. The eponymous friends in the middle story – Ben, Walter, Arthur and John ( the narrator ), along with Idemeno the Italian cafe owner, Willie and Margaret are infused with a form of stoic tenderness for example. The stories also feature the familiar association of welsh valley boys who like to sing – a feature most explicit in the final novel Simeon too.

In addition to the more appealing characters available,  the dry humour serves a style that is as distinct in it’s tone as in it’s structure, one allowing a sardonic voice that belies a savage anger at the warrantless cruelty of authority – both men and state – whilst equally offering up a Camus-esque sense of the absurd, of the irrelevance of notions of choice for those living here.   There is a verbose precision to the style, conveying a meaning efficiently, whilst maintaining a full bodied structure to the sentences; eschewing any form of slang or diminutive language formation. As an example, here’s an excerpt from book two, ‘The Dark Philosophers’:

We found Mrs Radnor’s house to be one of a group of small houses in the top but one Terrace. The woodwork of the house looked as if the landlord thought paint was a deadly poision to be obtained only after getting a note from the doctor, and not even then if the tenants lacked the means to burn down the woodwork and move off to some quarter that had a fresher look.

While waiting for the door to open, Willie, whispering in a very important way, told us that the two rooms of this house, that were not occupied by Margaret and her mother, where lived in a voter called Hector. We knew this Hector by the back. A backward element who looked like an ape and acted like some animal that had not been found yet and has not been named for that reason; unless you want to take a short cut and call it Hector.

The  portrait of the house is indicative of a subtle but effective means of satirising the climate of the Terraces, both understated but also -taken as part of the whole – damning of the living conditions.  Politically, almost every character large or small in all the books are introduced as ‘voters’, which can  be viewed either as an ironic suggestion that these individuals are genuine agents of their own future destiny, or that they are complicit in their own fate. At any rate, it always keeps the spectre of political change, however futile it may be, at the front of the readers’ consciousness. The term element is also ubiquitous to the book, and both a method of distinguishing Thomas’ voice in the writing. It can underscore how each individual is both remarkably insignificant in the world, a disparate disconnected soul who taken on it’s own can offer up nothing on his own, but in parallel to that it also invokes it’s opposite too – the coalescing of elements creates a more unified and stronger whole – which given the Marxist politics of Thomas would certainly be appropriate to his line of thought.

 Oscar

The first of the tales then is full of political allegory – the Mountain and Oscar are synecdoche’s for a distant government’s crushing policies that have disenfranchised the communities, and left it in poverty and ruin. The narrator Lewis is a young man who takes work with Oscar, like many others in the tale, simply as it’s the only expedient option available to procure any form of wage. Through his eyes, and interactions with Oscar, his friend Danny and assorted local characters we have a window into the world of The Terraces.  He is the detached yet clearly troubled embodiment of the next generation who has grown up in this environment, learning and accepting that pragmatism in survival comes with a moral cost, yet the alternatives as seen through the weakened and destitute characters such as his neighbour and friend Danny indicate a lack of viable options available, life in the welsh valleys in the 20s and 30is about surviving, and even that’s a tricky business.

As mentioned above, despite the bleakness of the surroundings there is an absurdity  in the bleak humour of the existence. The Harp’s Landlord plainfaced concern over the missing Moral Sense is amusing coming from a man who watches over many insalubrious acts within his pub, one that regularly hosts the greatest source of local misery for the populace –  Oscar – attending to his rapacious desires for women, food and drink. Oscar’s overwhelming and overbearing presence pores into every area of effectively his own little dominion from start to finish, here but the resident wry humour applied to the narrative, creates tentative hope for rebellion.

The Dark Philosophers

A more established tale that’s overtly political and philosophical in it’s treatment of the characters and the environs in which these voters resides, Thomas is more explicit in aligning himself with the story, with the use of the ‘we’ pronoun. It serves to help establish a link to the reality that is described, lending a more personal vision to this imagined world having a very real sense of place in Thomas’ past. The frequent references to the Terraces’ and the poverty therein has a very acute sense of familiarity about it – not least as seen in the unavoidably polemical tone the book has in it’s opposition towards certain traits possessed by Mr Dalbie and Reverend Emmanuel. The latter in particular holds the “Philosophers” ire due to the volte-face in attitudes he displays from his pulpit once his sponsor Mr Dalbie – a coal-owner – criticises the younger Emmanuel for calling attention to trivial issues such as the abuse of labour and the impoverished state of the “voters.”

The eponymous characters chiefly feature the narrator himself (John), and friends: Ben, Arthur, and Walter who congregate at The Library and Institute and act as the weary observers of life in the valley, enjoying respite from the ardours of work and life in a cafe. They are a community unto themselves, held in suspicion by many others, for not subscribing to the doctrines and sermons preached by the now much-changed Rev. Emmanuel, whose absurdist spin on the troubles on the region reflects statements that do meet with experiences of those who are living through this period. As they chew the fat in the cafe – run by a friendly but broke Italian named Idomeneo – they come into contact with young Willie, whose naivety clearly contrasts with the dry-witted cynics. Willie’s courting of a young girl – Margaret – jump-starts a narrative that intertwines the lives of all of the main characters with that of the Rev. as past histories are brought to a darkly apt. climax.

Simeon

The shortest of the three novellas, but also the darkest. The humour and one-line wit remains, but the brutality – and his revolting abuse of power – physically, sexually and mentally of the eponymous character tips the ballance into a bleaker more savage tone. Colenso, Emrys and the narrator – Ben – are a younger group of friends, around 16 – and a generation removed from the Dark Philosophers but between possess the similar qualities of naivety – Ben – and hardened experience – Colenso and Emrys. The trio know Simeon as a man who gives them some money in exchange for hearing them sing a few songs, until one day Simeon offers Ben a job working for him, an offer that appears infinitely preferable to Ben’s current occupation. It doesn’t take too long to realise though that all is not as it seems in the household and with Simeon himself.

It was not a surprise to read in the introduction by Elaine Morgan that the Gollancz were unwilling to publish at the time – late 30’s, due to it’s bleakness of tone, but it didn’t stop many reviewers on it’s release in 1946 also finding his voice distinctive and original, and certainly as a social critic, with Thomas’ own characterisation in mind you can see the Russian style inflecting his commentary on the times, but the peculiarly Welsh voice stands above this classification and certainly well worth a wider audience.

Book Review: Stephen Baxter’s ‘Proxima’ – An Enjoyable Romp In Sci-Fi

Before diving into the review, I must first state a  mea culpa of sorts. Science Fiction has always been a genre renowned for being big on the epic ideas and adventures -both physically and philosophically – yet for some unfathomable reason, despite enjoying the visual TV and film treats ranging from Star-Trek through to Red Dwarf, Blade Runner through to Battlestar Galactica and Interstellar, I have to confess I have rarely ventured into the literary realm.  I have tangentially entering it through a bit of Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman – both of whom I love to read – and whose works fantastically capture the imagination, but to my arbitrary categorising mind still appears a ‘genre-removed’ from ‘Sci-Fi-authenticus’ if you will.

I suspect this is in part due to an unconscious bias that always seems to prioritise the great many other novels that are on the infinitely expanding “to do list” as if somehow the knowledge or enjoyment gained from sci-fi texts is potentially less than that from the more conventional form. It’s a nonsensical logic, of course, and reflective of a mild prejudice perhaps on my behalf. In my weakened defence – it wasn’t for the lack of trying in my younger days, I did attempt some Iain M. Banks (The Algebraist) and even one of the most revered names in the genre – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation – but alas neither gripped me, whether it was the abstract worlds or the occasionally unpronouncable names, there was to a degree a distancing in the style that I regrettable couldn’t take to then. Since which, I have added many a title to the to do list, but it has taken until now to get round to throwing myself into the world properly, with Proxima by Stephen Baxter.

It’s premise drew me in swiftly: – always handy when you’re a tentative newcomer to a genre – Proxima is a red dwarf star within the Alpha Centauri star system – the closest to our own, and provider of the stage for the subject of 22nd century interstellar interplanetary travel and colonial expansion of mankind. Mars has already been colonised, whilst Mercury too has become habitable within its own Dome world. The first wave of colonisers are those forcibly selected for the adventure – inviting an analogy with the convicts sent out to Australia – amongst whom is Yuri; a young man who has been cryogenically frozen and awoken 80 years later, who serves as one of the main character conduits through which the exploration of alien ecology and interstellar travel is undertaken.

His displacement from his own time, provides the narrative device for certain plot expositions to take place.  Yuri is sent down with a small number of colonists – a number that swiftly dwindles – and doomed to this new planetary landscape – one where one half of the planet has the Sun constantly in the sky, and possessing its’ own unique stem-based life forms. Trapped light years from the rest of mankind, the central focus of the narrative on prox e or Per Ardua ( Latin: through adversity ) as it becomes known by the newly enforced locals is an engaging ( though not original ) study of life in a new world with a tiny handful of colonists / survivors and the AI ‘ColU’ machine – again an expedient device for dishing out some of the fascinating science, both fact-based and speculative.

Allied to this storyline we also follow the tale of Stef Kalinski, who we first meet as a young girl based on Mercury supporting her renowned scientist father. It is 2159 and her father is working on a project to send ‘Angelia’ a light-based but also sentient technology to Proxima.  Advances have clearly been made to allow humans to man Mercury, and in terms of the science behind this Baxter invents the development of ‘Kernels’, which have provided the means by which mankind has been able to travel across the solar system in practical fashion.  Kalinksi is the science savvy super-curious protagonist whose path will inevitably collide with Yuri’s on a planet 4.2 light years away. Beyond both of these personal narratives is the backdrop of political tensions beween the competing blocs of  a large scale United Nations and a powerful China, competing for influence that extends beyond the global and into the solar system, and the Kernel technology is at the heart of simmering tensions.

The story thus  alternates between these two worlds, with the heavier focus on Per Ardua, and Baxter does a fine job in establishing a mysterious enigma in the plot that will serve to facilitate the convergence of Stef and Yuri’s lives. The intrigue and suspense is built up very well, though it seems only fair to say that towards the end you realise you are very much reading a narrative that is not going to conclude or explain the various contrivances until the sequel ( ‘Ultima’ – and my eagerness to read this is clearly a credit to the storytelling of Baxter ).  How the lives of Yuri and Kalinksi collide is engrossing, and one weakness for me – possibly as a result of the set up for sequel – is that there are certain flashpoint moments for characters within the story for which I’d love more exploration but are denied by the swift pace of the plot. In order to encompass the grand ideas and conceits within the story sees use follow the lives of the characters over many decades.

This scope of grand time elapsing is clearly necessary for the plot, which represents great ambition and is a reflection of a focus on the big rather than the small, which is probably what I am more used to – reading character arcs within a much more contained timespan – so perhaps I am being unfair. Indeed the spectre of the sequel does suggest further consideration of both the concept and human reflections and I very much look forward to reading more.  The content and the imagination of the worlds and technologies envisioned is easily the strongest component of the novel, though in Stef and Yuri in particular there are two main characters who are sufficiently interesting psychologically to help drive your attention forward.

If I am critical, the exposition of the plot at times struck me as a little clunky and stylistically I wasn’t always enamoured by some of the very brief chapters – one was merely a 5 line paragraph. I can understand the method, in separating the focus from one planet and character to the next, but it jarred with me at times personally. Additionally whilst I am more of a content rather than style consumer of fiction, there were still a few areas where the writing was a little unsatisfying and could have thrived with a little more polish.

All in all however it was a successful foray into the world of Sci-Fi fiction for me and I do look forward to reading more, not only the follow up to this book, but other authors too. If you like Sci-Fi yourself and have any particular recommendations yourself, do let me know!