Books

Technology-inspired fiction, and our latest challenge to would-be poets.

Solar

By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, £18.99

Meet Professor Michael Beard - a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist tackling the issue of climate change, but also a wimp, an inveterate womaniser (a serial husband with five marriages and countless affairs behind him), a glutton, a plagiarist and a plain criminal.

Ian McEwan, the acclaimed doyen of modern British literature, can hardly contain his disgust of his own protagonist, who “belonged to that class of men - vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever - who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women”. We see Beard in the throes of uncontrolled jealousy as his fifth wife, Patrice, fed up with his numerous adulteries, starts an affair with Rodney Tarpin, the builder - a violent man, with a rodent-like face, which “was too small for the head”. So firmly does Beard believe that everything in the world belongs to him that any justified rebellion by one of his assumed “possessions” (in this case, his wife), throws him into rage.

In actual fact, his scientific reputation is in tatters, the very Nobel Prize winning discovery of his is rather dated and the only thing that keeps propelling him through life is the inertia of his past fame.

This is probably why Beard decides to get involved in the lucrative climate change research but, short of ideas, ends up stealing the “artificial photosynthesis” technology from his employee Thomas Aldous - a self-made scientist and an idealist eager to invent “a different fuel” to save the world.

‘Solar’ is a sheer joy of a book: it is beautifully written and thoroughly unputdownable, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it contains a lot of serious science - the result of Ian McEwan’s many months of painstaking research into the physics of climate change. It is simultaneously a thriller, a work of high literature and a brilliant satire of some present-day science and technology institutions and the talentless bureaucrats who run them. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

Reviewed by E&T features editor, Vitali Vitaliev

For the win

By Cory Doctorow
Voyager, £14.99

It is rare to find a fiction novel based on gaming, and rarer still to find one that’s really engaging. However, Doctorow brings together real and virtual worlds successfully in a yarn that focuses on players, rather than the games themselves.

‘For The Win’ tells a tale about gold-farmers; workers often found across Asia that make a living from ‘farming’ money and items in virtual worlds. Found in MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) these are usually poor, indentured workers who will spend hours hunched in front of a PC screen completing quests and dungeons. These virtual worlds have economies to rival real countries and their bosses sell the farmers earnings for ‘real world’ cash.

Often considered as ‘bad guys’ by western gamers, this tale flips the coin, showing how greedy bosses exploit the teens, making them labour day and night and turning violent if they try to stand up against them or leave. Following groups from all over the world: a clan in the Mumbai slums run by a little girl, a group of friends who want to farm independently in China, even an American gamer obsessed with the East, they’re brought together in a political story about fighting for your rights.

Doctorow’s storytelling gets quite heavy at times, delving deep into politics, economics and technology, but by doing so terms are explained in ways people new to online gaming can understand. It’s essentially a gritty, political tale about organising virtual labour and fighting against corporate might, with MMO’s as the backdrop. An interesting story that sees the fight spill from the virtual to real world, the workers end up fighting for their lives as well as their rights. After reading this you’ll look at gold-farming in a very different light.

Reviewed by Keri Allan

Bad ideas? An arresting history of our inventions

By Robert Winston
Bantam Press, £20

As an optimist and inventor, I choose to live in a (head in the sand) positive world, avoiding negativity where possible, so I was a little apprehensive in reviewing a book called ‘Bad Ideas’. Also, raw data - names and dates of whom and when inventions came about - can be dull to read. It was therefore gratifying that this book was neither negative nor dull and, for the main part, entertaining and educational.

Bringing it to life right from the start, it tells a story of the strange world of inventions throughout history and the powerful effects they have on the inventors and society as a whole, both good and bad. It makes the point that ‘contained within every act of creation and innovation, there exits the potential, also, for our undoing’.

I must say it was refreshing to read an intelligent and balanced view on climate change and on our so-called reliance of oil, giving an eye-opening ‘Energy Returned over Energy Invested’ breakdown on other means of available energy sources.

Winston also makes a number of profound statements - “Science should be founded on evidence and debate about the evidence and presented to the public as such - not as truth, but as an enquiry”, advocating for better communication between scientists and the public. Unfortunately, as history has shown us - and is well documented throughout his book - we humans are not perfect and successive governments often get it wrong, using inventions unwisely and for political means, so his aspirations are unlikely.

As many inventions are discovered by mistake, our undoing - if, or when it comes - will probably be of the same ilk, an unexpected mistake, but with dire consequences!

Reviewed by Mark Sheahan, president of the Institute of Patentees & Inventors and inventor in residence at the British Library (mark@squeezeopen.com). Mark’s latest ‘Inventors’ Inbox’ is on page 26.

 

Our last PoE&Try competition requested your birthday verses for famous figures of science, engineering and invention. One reader, the mysterious KD of Dartmouth, provided a birthday encomium for St Cyril the Philosopher, credited with inventing the Cyrillic alphabet. Very left field, but KD’s second contribution had a more traditional subject:

Happy birthday Thomas Telford

You have worked across the whole board

To transform the way we travel;

So much is down to you -

Your canals and gracious bridges

And your roads along the ridges -

Though they’re only faced with gravel,

We’ll name a town for you.

 

Jim Ibbetson crafted a tribute to Britain’s other great engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It carried with it a strong aftertaste of our staggeringly popular Christmas limerick challenge:

Best wishes to IK Brunel -

You must have a story to tell.

With bridges and tunnels

And large ships with funnels,

You’ve certainly done very well!

 

It almost won him our fine array of quotation books but in the end - like the famous photograph of the smoking Brunel, now airbrushed in the war against tobacco - it was ‘close but no cigar’.

 

Ray Oliver sent us seven entries and admitted, “I fear I got a bit carried away”. Mathematicians formed the focus of his efforts. The eccentric British physicist Paul Dirac generated this tribute:

Greetings, Paul Dirac, on this your birthday.

Odd and surreal, with quanta you play.

A strange man, even your fellows declared,

But here’s to a chap who said it and dared.

 

Dirac may not have appreciated Mr Oliver’s gesture. Apparently Dirac once said: “The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.”

Les Emmans was another of our many readers tempted to prove Dirac wrong, prefacing his entry with an interesting explanatory note. His subject was Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the more famous Charles, and the ‘forgotten genius of the 18th century’.

Mr Emmans reveals: “As organist at the church where Erasmus is buried under the aisle, I walk over the great man’s grave most weeks!”

Hopefully, this extract from Mr Emman’s birthday verse will not induce Erasmus’s remains to rotate:

As an engineer, once I was trained

And with technical knowledge ingrained,

But now I’m retired, the works I’ve admired

Were written a long time ago...

 

In a crowded field, our winner is Colette Gates, whose work has featured previously in this column but has never before grasped glory. She emails all the way from Australia, which in itself seems worthy of some reward. Her subject is the Aussie inventor Lance Hill who in 1945 invented the Hill’s Hoist rotary clothes airer for his wife as an alternative to a prop and line.

Over the Hill? Certainly not!

We love you still, Sir, Lancelot,

Motor mechanic. Where would we be

Without your clothes hoist (rotary)

That dries our garb explicitly

Not needing electricity.

We celebrate your day of birth

In sun and air... and clean, dry shirts.

 

For those with a lisp, the last two lines rhyme perfectly. I hope Ms Gates’ own birthday is imminent. The books should make a lovely additional gift.

Thanks to all those who entered. It just remains to tee-up our next competition. In this we are looking for haiku in which each verse concerns itself with an element of the Periodic Table, reflecting its form and its characteristics. The strict definition of a haiku is the subject of much argument. For our purposes we mean only a succinct three line verse in which the first and third lines run for five syllables, the second line has seven. If it can evoke a mood, all the better. Here’s the sort of thing we’re hoping for.

Magnesium dust

Settles into small white hills.

They go in a flash.

 

Send your entries to E&T features editor Vitali Vitaliev at vvitaliev@theiet.org by 2 July. Good luck!

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