Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Charles Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

Original title: The Journal of Researches (one volume of several produced following the voyage)
Published: Everyman, 2003

The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw many voyages of exploration by Europeans, most of which would have been followed by reports and books, ancestors of today's travel memoirs. Most of these voyages have now been forgotten, even the names they gave many places being swept away in our post-colonial world. The books produced are even more forgotten in general: the sort of books you sometimes see in the libraries of English stately homes, and maybe read by academics with related interests. The exception is of course this one (and this does not include the companion volumes with which it was originally published). Its survival is not so much due to its literary qualities, though it is eminently readable, but because of the use Darwin later made of this material; the obvservations made on this voyage, especially on the Galapagos islands, form an important part of the foundations of one of the most famous books of all time, The Origin of Species (also included in this Everyman edition).

The voyage began in December 1831, reaching the Galapagos in September 1835 after spending several years surveying the waters around South America (the principal purpose of the voyage), returning to England a year later; a lengthy circumnavigation of the globe. When the Beagle departed, Darwin was only 22. Without a reputation to uphold, or an academic post which would have made it politic to peddle old orthodoxies, he was a modern, up to date naturalist, surely better able to make use of his observations (and the attention to detail with which he observed should be the envy of many scientists to this day) than a more eminent older man, who would, moreover, have probably been reluctant to spend so many years away from European scientific culture. Darwin was a follower of Lyell, whose Principles of Geology, which had the same sort of revolutionary effect on that science that the principle of natural selection was to have on biology, had started appearing in 1830, the year before the Beagle set sail; he was given a copy of volume one by the Beagle's captain. Lyell attributed the character of the most world's rock formations to forces acting over lengthy period of time rather than to a series of catastrophes in the much more recent past. (Indeed, his book should be at least as stringly anathematised by Creationists as Darwin's own ideas.) Darwin was one of the first scientific observers to take part in such an expedition who was able to bear Lyell's ideas in mind, and he describes how they informed his observations at several places in The Voyage of the Beagle, and a long geological history is essential to the principles of Darwinian evolution. It is clear, too, that the ideas which became known as natural selection were in the air (the introduction to the Origin of Species lists quite a number of precursors) and early thoughts about this, as well as rival theories like Lamarck's, may well have influenced the way that Darwin looked at the plants and animals he saw on the voyage.

The Voyage of the Beagle is not all about the natural world. There are interesting observations on the ways in which people lived in the countries he visited, particularly on the gauchos of Argentina, and a lot of material about the effects of colonisation on native peoples and the institution of slavery. On both these issues Darwin had quite modern views.

In terms of style, Darwin is a clear and writer with fascinating information to impart, though perhaps not as good (and certainly not as amusing) as Gerald Durrell, who must be the current bestselling author of natural history travel books.

In the end, though, the principal interest of The Voyage of the Beagle is its formative role in Darwin's later thought, and this makes it completely unique.

It should be noted that the text here is the second, 1845, edition. There is an interesting foreword to the Everyman edition from Richard Dawkins, which (somewhat predictably, but with a certain amount of justification) he claims evolution to be the greatest scientific idea of all time.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Jeffrey Deaver: Speaking in Tongues (1995, revised 1999)

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999

This is an early thriller from Jeffrey Deaver, revised four years after the original publication. Like most of his thrillers, it is fairly conventional in its plotting and background. Megan is the daughter of a moderately successful lawyer and his estranged wife; following an incident which suggests a suicide attempt to law enforcement, she is undergoing therapy when she is abducted by a psychopath looking for revenge. Her parents, intended to believe that she ran away, quickly work out that her absence is unlikely to be voluntary - why buy and hide a birthday present for her mother and then disappear before the event? The story follows Tate and Bett's attempts to find Megan, while the kidnapper makes things as difficult for them as possible - framing them for crimes, deceiving those who might otherwise have helped the pair, and so on. Though very early in his career, Deaver is already putting together the convoluted and somewhat unlikely plots which have been his stock in trade.

What lets this novel down, and exposes Deaver's inexperience even after the revision, is the characterisation. It would be easy to fill out some of the less important characters; Deaver concentrates too exclusively on Nate and the kidnapper. His wife, Bett, is sufficiently a cipher that we never learn what kind of "businesswoman" she is - and yet how many people would describe themselves as a businesswoman rather than some more specific and informative title such as "investment consultant"? Even the kidnapper is nothing more than a device for making Tate's life difficult; he is rather unbelievably good at persuading people to believe what he tells them; for example, he persuades Megan's best friend and her family, who have presumably known Megan and Bett for ages if not Tate, that Tate is a child molester - I think if someone came to your door with this story, you'd seek confirmation from someone who might know, not an apparent stranger to the family. Certainly, if Speaking in Tongues could be said to have a moral, it is not to believe what strangers tell you automatically.

Speaking in Tongues is not one of Deaver's most successful novels; for that, look to The Blue Nowhere, or one of the Lincoln Rhyme thrillers (though these also suffer from over-elaborate plotting).

One other thing, a small detail, irritated me about this novel (as someone with a research degree in logic). There is a type of argument known as an enthymeme, which when I encountered it, was called specialisation (the Greek names, which date back to Aristotle, not being considered helpful for mathematicians). This basically takes the form "if all As are Bs, and C is an A, then we can deduce that C is a B". The most famous example is "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal.", but Deaver gives a slightly different example: "All cats see in the dark. Midnight is a cat. Therefore Midnight can see in the dark.". He then goes on to say that the classical formulation of the enthymeme is incomplete, because it also needs a line that states "All cats see in the dark, therefore Midnight sees in the dark." Now, this isn't true: what you in fact do is to note that the first two sentences take the form of the premises (parts that are assume to be true) of an enthymeme, and that therefore the enthymeme rule tells you that the conclusion is true; this isn't an extra part of the logic, but the application of a general principle. There is a much better expressed discussion of this point (though based on a different logical principle) in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach; the problem with requiring a new line of logic is that this starts an infinite process, all in effect identical: you also need to know that "All cats see in the dark, Midnight is a cat, and we know that when all cats see in the dark, then Midnight sees in the dark; therefore Midnight sees in the dark." (You can see why mathematicians find it easier to use symbolic notation!) Now, Deaver also goes on (much later in the novel) to suggest that the conclusion is false: Midnight is blind, so cannot see whether it is dark or not. In fact, the conclusion can only be false if one of the premises (that are assumed to be true) is actually false: either if Midnight is not a cat, or if not all cats can see in the dark (which is the reason why his example fails to be true). It has nothing to do with the general validity of the enthymeme. I suppose it's beside the point for this review (though it's the kind of error that will irritate readers who know more about a particular field than the author of a book, whatever the field happens to be), but the discussion is also beside the point in the novel itself.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson: Hunters of Dune (2006)

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006

The original Dune is one of my favourite books, as it is for many science fiction readers. (The blurb for this novel claims that it is the bestselling science fiction novel of all time.) Frank Herbert's own sequels, while good, were not in the same class as this classic and, particularly later on, began to introduce elements which diluted the force of Dune itself. So when Brian Herbert (Frank's son) and Kevin J Anderson began producing novels in the Dune universe, expanding on the detailed background to the story, I never bothered to read them, especially after I read some lukewarm reviews. This novel is a bit different: it is a sequel to Chapterhouse Dune, based on a rediscovered outline by Frank Herbert himself; it will be followed by (at least) two more. This sequel has been something that fans of the series have long wanted to see; Frank Herbert's death made it seem that the loose ends in Chapterhouse Dune would never be cleared up authoritatively.

The novel follows three major points of view, following on from the ending of Chapterhouse Dune. One is that of the community centred round Duncan Idaho, fleeing mysterious hunters in a stolen ship; the second is that of the Bene Gesserits left behind on Chapterhouse led by Duncan's wife, attempting to bring about a union with the Honoured Matres to combat an unknown threat from beyond the worlds of the Old Empire. These two are relatively familiar, involving many already established characters. The third is different, being that of a Tleilaxu geneticist, who has to face the twin blows of the defeat of his people by the Honoured Matres (though he himself was part of a group allied with them) and the discovery that the long time Tleilaxu servants, the Face Dances, have developed into creatures far beyond their original design, with their own purposes at odds with their erstwhile masters. While always present, particularly in the last couple of books, the Tleilaxu have never been as close to centre stage in Frank Herbert's work. They become more important thanks to the discovery of a secret held by the Tleilaxu Masters, which the reader of Chapterhouse Dune knows but the other characters only find out halfway through Hunters of Dune. This is that they have cells preserved from famous people of the distant past which can be used to reincarnate them; these people include the principal characters of Dune itself.

There is not actually very much plot in Hunters of Dune, particularly compared to the labyrinthine twists and turns of Dune (or even, to a lesser extent, most of Frank Herbert's other novels). It is like the middle novel in many fantasy trilogies, there to keep the traditional number of volumes but just describing relatively uneventful activity between the scene setting of the first and the climax of the third. It covers a longer period of time than the other novels, but I feel that everything in this novel could have more effectively treated as backstory for the later resolution of the saga. For example, it doesn't seem to be important to document the details of the attempts to unite the Honoured Matres and the Bene Gesserit, and anything from this story needed for the future plot of the series could be mentioned in passing.

There are problems in this novel which derive from the particular loose ends left in Chapterhouse Dune. It is hard to see just why the characters think that cells from thousands of years in the past are so valuable. I suppose that if someone said they were able to create a clone of Jesus or Mohammed, people would be interested today, and the clones themselves might be made to serve some political purpose. Here, though, the timescales are such that this would be more like resurrecting an Egyptian pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar for their insight into the problems of the Middle East. The Dune universe may be peculiarly static (in the thousands of years that pass during the saga, there are few important technological innovations), but new factions such as the Honoured Matres, and the impossibility of applying the prescience that several of the ancient cloned individuals possess to the majority of the humans alive at this point of the saga make it hard to feel that the contributions the clones could make will be significant. (Obviously the further novels in this conclusion will make a great deal of use of the clones, but it will take a really impressive coup de theatre to convince me that it makes sense.) There are other details which jar as Herbert and Anderson expand on them, which would give things away if I expanded on them.

In the end, the central problem in Hunters of Dune is that the lack of an exciting plot proves a difficulty beyond the abilities of the authors. Since the only interest here turns out to be the way that Frank Herbert tied up the loose ends, I would have preferred just to read his outline as he left it and saved myself the time required to read three or more full length novels. Further novels continuing this story will be ones I skim through, say in the local public library, rather than books I buy for re-reading in the future.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Barry Day: This Wooden 'O': Shakespeare's Globe Reborn (1996)

Published: Oberon, 1996

The story of how the Globe Theatre, where many of Shakespeare's most famous plays were first staged, was reconstructed in London near its original site is a fascinating one. From the dream first taking hold of American actor Sam Wanamaker to the completion of the project in the mid 1990s took around fifty years, meanly because of the disorganised nature of Wanamaker's enthusiasms combined with reluctance by the British establishment to take an American seriously - the assumption was that he wanted to create a downmarket Shakespearean Disneyland - and bad timing. The scheme came up against indifference to the heritage at the start, fears that it would be a distraction from plans to build a national theatre in the middle, the difficulty of fund-raising for a project which had nothing yet to see (especially as the plans kept on getting bigger with nothing tangible appearing), and the politics of developers and one of London's more extreme left wing councils throughout (leading to a massive lawsuit in the eighties).

Perhaps it would be better to say that the story "should be" rather than "is" fascinating. Despite the ringing endorsements, Day's telling of the tale is uninvolving, confusing, and riddled with irritating clichés and stylistic quirks. The illustrations exemplify the problems of the book: it is about a building project, but there are no pictures of the spectacular finished object. (Though to be fair, the book was written and published to be ready as a souvenir when the opening took place - but there are not even pictures of architects' models of the final design.) The first of these issues, that the narrative is uninvolving, stems to a large extent from the other two. Though we are told that Wanamaker was enthusiastic about the idea of reconstructing the Globe, it is never made clear to the reader just why they should share this enthusiasm. It is perhaps a difficult thing to convey in such a book - I became a convert to the idea through the revelatory experience that it can be to attend a performance in the theatre as a groundling in the pit. Generally, I seem to remember performances without much sense of their location: the interior of one West End theatre is, to the playgoer, much like any other. But at the Globe, particularly if you have a groundling ticket, the venue is inextricably and uniquely part of the performance.

The confusion in the story is due to the way that it has been structured. The individual chapters seem to take the history forwards, only for the next to leap backwards, and frequently go over some of the same events again. The narrative is also full of forward references, for example (one of many), "The Battle for the soul of the Rose Theatre was foreshadowed eighteen years in advance" (chapter 2, capitalisation Day's) is relating what is being discussed to something else that isn't described for another ten chapters, and is an unhelpful reference except to someone who already knows everything in This Wooden 'O' - who would not be in the intended audience. I did at times wonder if the book had been written as three or four separate long essays, which were then chopped up to make This Wooden 'O': one on London's Elizabethan theatres (which is very similar to the information found in the Everyman Companion to Shakespeare - had nothing new been discovered in the intervening twenty years?), one an obituary of Sam Wanamaker, one a description of the ideas of theatre historians about the layout of the Globe, and so on, but I have the feeling that even when re-ordered thematically like this the book would still be chronologically confusing. Much seems to be left out, too; aspects of the story that must have happened are glossed over. We learn, for example, of Mark Rylance's appointment as artistic director of the Globe from a caption to a picture, not from the text even though that quotes his ideas about the function of the reconstructed theatre at length.

Also confusing are contradictory pictures of Sam Wanamaker presented in This Wooden 'O'. The clichéd words "amiable eccentric" are used at one point, but Day gives little evidence in the rest of this book of his amiability. From Day's descriptions of Wanamaker's efforts to bring his vision to fruition, "complex, irascible, obsessed, disorganised eccentric" would appear to be more accurate; "amiable" seems to be an adjective used simply because eccentrics are frequently described this way.

The most irritating aspect of This Wooden 'O' is Day's writing style. The text is full of clichés of many kinds, so much so in places that it seems to be a parody of tabloid journalism. It becomes very wearing to read at the length of an entire book. The narrative flow keeps being strained to bring in some quotation or other, usually from Shakespeare; restricting their use to one per chapter - or even one per page - would help enormously with the book's readability. Some quotations should be even more restricted: how many times can the project really have experienced "the best of times, the worst of times"? Every second or third paragraph ends with an ellipsis, which appears to be Day's idea of how to signpost a remark he considers amusing: that is not the function of this punctuation!

This is a story that needed to be written, but it has been done here so poorly that this cannot be considered a definitive account.