With regards the reviews I write, I feel it is necessary to provide this caveat.
The initial section right up to the button that opens the full synopsis is the teaser where I try to give a look into the book without revealing too much.

The section within the button is a full synopsis. No detail will be hidden at all.

Be warned!
The final section (Food for thought) is a series of thoughts on the book. This is a personal take on the book and does mention important parts of the books. It should be considered as much of a spoiler as the previous section!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Book Review: Inverted World by Christopher Priest - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall. This week's book review will skirt the edges of science fiction to a story about a city that cannot stop. No, I'm not talking about New York City.
Presenting the city in:
Inverted World by Christopher Priest:
Cover art copyright of Chris Moore/Artist Partners

'The city is winched along its tracks through a devastated world. Rails must be laid ahead of it and removed in its wake. If the city does not move, it will fall behind the 'optimum' and into a crushing gravitational field. The alternative to progress is death.

The rulers of the city make sure its inhabitants know nothing of this. But the dwindling population is growing restive. And the rulers know that the city is falling further and further behind.' - Inverted World, Christopher Priest [1974]

Inverted World delivers on its promise, presenting the story of Helward Mann (a fitting name if ever there was one) as he grows up in the city of Earth, coming to terms with the world around him in Earth's desperate struggle for survival. The people of Earth haul their city ever northwards, aiming for the ever elusive 'optimum' ahead of them, navigating a hostile landscape to do so. Helward Mann, thanks to his father's prestigious position, joins the guild of Future Surveyors and embarks on a journey that takes him away from Earth, learning about the world outside the city, the truth behind Earth's constant struggle north and the fate that awaits the city in the south.

The story is set in a universe that is the inverse of our own. We live in what is effectively (though not actually) an infinite universe on a finite planet. However, Inverted World is set in a finite universe upon an infinite planet. There's a rather impressive and enjoyable twist at the end, so not much more will be said on this beyond an explanation of the Inverted World premise.

Inverted World is told primarily from Helward Mann's point of view with only a few parts told from Elizabeth Khan's point of view, though nothing will be revealed of her either for much the same reason as above. Despite being entirely cryptic about book, I recommend reading it as it delivers a fascinating world setting and a twist that leaves you feeling delighted at the end.

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food for thought:

Naturally, there is one immediate problem with the book's premise. The concept of a world that has an infinite plane in two perpendicular directions is topographically impossible (the two planes would intersect each other after all as they rotate into infinity). However, that said, the concept and twist in this book is lovely. It is a complete reversal of the world we know, a world where the struggle to survive is paramount to all other things. 

One of the major themes in the book is the power of perception over our reality. We have no real way of knowing if what we perceive is actually 'real' in a factual sense, only that what we understand of the world can be verified by what we perceive. In fact, in our daily lives we take alot of things for granted which in theory are impossible, things which are verified by our perception but not by our scientific knowledge. The world around us is very different from what we perceive without the help of specialised equipment. Quantum physics proves that things exist because we detect it existing, even if we can't necessarily explain what they really appear as. For example, the electron is characterised as a physical sphere of negative charge within an atom, and there are experiments that can prove its nature as a particle. However, there are also experiments that prove the electron is not a particle but instead a wave. Quantum physics accepts that the electron displays the characteristics of a particle and a wave (despite the mutual contradictions) at the same time. It is comforting to think of electrons as a particle as this makes it easier to imagine the atom and we're all made of atoms. But even the concept of an atom is at odds with the day to day reality we observe. Atoms are proven to be 99.99% (recurring) emptiness. Given that we are made entirely of atoms then in theory we too are 99.99% emptiness and yet we perceive and interact with physical objects all the time. Likewise in Inverted World, while we accept Elizabeth Khan's perception as 'truth' (as we live in her perception of reality) we cannot necessarily say that Helward's perception of the reality around him is wrong. Reality and its perception is entirely subjective and quantum physics points out that we change the world by observing it. 

Likewise with one final example of the complexity of perception, there is no guarantee that any of use experience the same reality at all. When I look at the sky I can say 'the sky is blue.' You may be inclined to agree with me if you were to stand beside me. However, you and I could not prove that the colour we saw in the sky was the same, only that we had a mutually agreed term for what we perceived as 'blue.' As a quote, I would leave you with:
'All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.' - Friedrich Nietzsche
There are no truths, only agreed upon interpretations that are endorsed by the majority.

The book is also a fantastic celebration of human determination. The power to survive and prosper despite the odds arraigned against us is an uplifting tale. The world of the ironically named Helward Mann is grim, founded upon a need to survive at any cost and sustained by a weak hope and yet despite this, their civilisation has existed, triumphed against the odds for two hundred years. Two hundred years of stubbornness and refusal to simply give in. In a way, it is an analogy for our own personal lives, of our own personal struggles against the world around us for our own measures of survival. 
The alternative to progress is death.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Book Review: Gone by Michael Grant - 4thwallfly

Welcome to the Fly on the 4th Wall, this week's book is a young adult fiction book. Not entirely sure if it counts as science fiction but there's mention of powers and stranger things on the blurb at the back, so it's probably that new genre of urban fantasy (modern-day city-set fantasy). This week's book is:
Gone by Michael Grant
(Not literally Gone, it's just called that).
Cover art copyright of M-80 Design / Wes Youssi (2014)

'In the blink of an eye.
Everyone disappears.

Everyone except for the young. Teens. Middle schoolers. Toddlers. But not a single adult. No teachers, no cops, no doctors, no parents. Gone, too, are the phones, internet, and television. There is no way to get help. 

Hunger threatens. Bullies rule. A sinister creature lurks. Animals are mutating. And the teens themselves are changing, developing new talents - unimaginable, dangerous, deadly powers - that grow stronger by the day. 

It's a terrifying new world. Sides are being chosen and war is imminent.' Gone, Michael Grant [2008]

Gone is set more or less in the modern era, and follows the story of Sam (and a few others), a young man who (unusually for these sorts of books) doesn't wake up to discover the world is changed, but has it changed right before his eyes as every single adult disappears without warning. Like Lord of the Flies, this book is about the survival of children in a world without guidance (and like Lord of the Flies, is a book that highlights that children do not have an innate level of innocence about them at the end of the day). You can't help but wonder which of the characters will most resemble Piggy.

Gone is the first book of a series by the same name.

Click below for the full synopsis (click to open/close):

Food for thought

Gone reads extremely similarly to Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the theme being a story about how children attempt to survive in a world suddenly bereft of parents. The story has a twist on the usual coming-of-age story as these children are forced suddenly to stop being children and start being adults without any of the guidance that would normally come. Worse, in addition to the usual tensions and the extra tensions thrust upon them, they have to deal with the fact that their very world and selves are changing too.

The book also is surprising for a young adult fiction. Most young adult books treat their settings as 'safe' places. People don't usually die (at all) and more often than not violence is something that happens without the intensity of more mature thrillers. Gone delivers a darker, edgier world than the usual young adult fiction which gives a pleasant surprise. It does however, like Lord of the Flies, make a point that children are not innately innocent. It is a common belief that children are born innocent, but Gone is a book that aims to show that children, just like adults are capable of both great heroism and great cruelty. The cynic in me loves that because I find I agree with the sentiment. In schools there are always 'bullies,' little despots of little worlds. But in a world where suddenly there are no consequences then it seems reasonable to assume that bullies would go on to become cruel tyrants.

Sustainability is also a problem. Here is a world run by children who start their new world with little realistic understanding of the economy they have inherited. Through the story there comes an understanding that food supplies cannot last, but at no point does anyone suggest trying to determine whether they can make a sustainable living within the FAYZ, suggesting that they may simply be too myopic to really realise the importance of that. In a dire situation, hope is a powerful tool, providing the strength to keep going, but it should always be tempered with practicality. Plan for the worst, hope for the best is the motto I have in mind here. Though there is a question of whether it is fair to expect children to plan ahead so far, to entirely give up on the hope that their authority figures will rescue them (which is a very powerful thing for young adults in bad situations). There's a potential comment here though about the sustainability of our own ecosystem. It's pretty clear in the closed world of the Fallout Alley Youth Zone that sustainability isn't feasible. Resources are being consumed (literally) and not being produced and the book holds a mirror to our own world. Just because our world is large and visually infinite does not mean that it has infinite resources or can support infinite demand.

On a final note, as is common with many young adult books, the villain is given a name of significance, taking the name Caine after Cain (from the bible story of Cain and Abel). Much like the bible story, Caine is all set to kill his brother over jealousy and anger and indeed his punishment (though he fails where Cain succeeded), is to wander the Earth like his namesake in the Hebrew text. Caine's rather callous intelligence and charismatic leadership is also linked to Cain who is described as a city-builder.