Archive for ‘science’

June 3, 2015

John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish, All Yesterdays

I really enjoyed this book and then I wrote this column and then this story came out.

(Pictures screenshotted from the kindle version–how great is that manatee?)


Watching the trailer for the rather abysmal-looking Jurassic World we all agreed that the only thing that might have redeemed it for us was for the dinosaurs to have had feathers. Naturally they did not.

I have let my knowledge of dinosaurs slip over the last couple of decades—at eight or nine I knew about as much as popular science would let me. I’d heard the theory that they might have had feathers, though I suspect my interest had waned before more concrete evidence was found. (I think I had also heard that Brontosauruses weren’t real, but can’t have been very convinced; when they were reinstated this year I was genuinely happy for them).Screenshot_2015-06-03-00-16-07

Part of the appeal of dinosaurs is that our knowledge about them has changed so much over time—even just over my own lifetime. I’m not sure it’s possible any longer to capture the sheer mystery and wonder of that first revelation a couple of centuries ago that at some point giant beasts had walked (or swum) the world, but we’ve had something else: we’ve seen our knowledge growing and changing, old mysteries solved (or at least provided with believable solutions) and new ones arriving to take their place.

In culture, however, dinosaurs have remained oddly static.

It’s at the level of popular culture that John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish’s All Yesterdays (featuring skeletal diagrams by Scott Hartman) is particularly fascinating. The authors’ point (Conway and Kosemen are paleoartists) is simple enough: that there is a certain amount of knowledge that we can gather from fossils, and that knowledge is mainly concerned with the musculoskeletal system—what goes on top of it—the integument—is not always as obvious, even as we continue to learn more about it. Popular images of dinosaurs tend to be the shapes of their skeletons with skin over the top. But as we know from the animals that we study in the present, nature isn’t always that obvious. All Yesterdays concerns itself not with what we know, but with the range of possibilities that might fit within the facts that we have. And so we have Plesiosaurs that camouflage themselves among coral, Leaellynasaura adorably covered with fluff and given a flagpole-like tail, semaphoring Carnotaurus, Protoceratops climbing trees because in our world lots of animals that are not specifically adapted for particular behaviours indulge in them anyway. This is also the reason that the authors are able to imagine dinosaurs playing, resting, coexisting with hostile species, having interspecies sex (the book is meticulously illustrated).

Screenshot_2015-06-03-00-20-19This project (speculating about the possibilities of bodies within certain fixed parameters) is one that is familiar to science fiction fans, though it’s usually directed at the future, rather than the past. In a later section, titled “All Todays”, the book does take us into the future. It imagines far-future scientists, studying the remains of what is our present and coming to conclusions of their own that are a little bit off—car crushing, predatory hippos, graceful, antelope-like cows, bipedal toads and vicious cats that crept into human homes before finishing off their inhabitants.

As convinced as I am of Kosemen and Conway’s points (and as approving as I am of fluffy dinosaurs) I can’t imagine real scientists adopting these images—an openness to possibility is probably a good thing for a scientist, but so is sticking to relatively solid fact. But it’s not to scientists that the authors are addressing themselves—they’re responding to popular imagery. This is clearest when they depict a peaceful, sleeping Tyrannosaurus or a Tenontosaurus which is, incredibly, not being torn apart by predators.

And if this book is addressing popular images of dinosaurs, it’s also addressing those of us who produce and consume those images. It’s okay to demand feathered dinosaurs from our terrible blockbuster movies. In fiction at least we can build ourselves a fluffier, less gray-green past.


December 28, 2013

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

I came to this book expecting very little. Gilbert’s the author of Eat, Pray, Love, so I don’t think my prejudice was entirely unjustified. And the weakest section of this new book is definitely the bit where our heroine travels to Tahiti and discovers that the locals are very different from 19th Century Americans (and also keep stealing her stuff). I think a good general rule might be for Gilbert not to write about white women travelling to other parts of the world.

But it’s also kind of fantastic on some other things.

From this week’s column:



An unintentional theme of my reading this year has been that of women who are absorbed (even obsessed) by their work. It’s telling that this is a rare enough theme for fiction that it should strike one as unusual—I don’t think I’d particularly notice a book about a man with a similar obsession. But we’re less willing to allow women single-minded dedication than we are men; the constraints of family and society and such a basic thing as space so often get in the way. None of this is particularly original; for one thing it’s all in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

But earlier this year I read (and wrote about in this column) Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, in which Lady Trent manages to defy convention and pursue her fascination with dragons in a world where fantastic beasts are real but so are eighteenth-century gender roles. And Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, whose elderly artists’ work and love are deeply intertwined. I also reread Dorothy Sayers’ brilliant Gaudy Night, which is entirely concerned with the idea that women may find vocations other than marriage and family to which to dedicate the whole of their lives.

And then there’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, the biography of a (fictional) woman botanist in the nineteenth century. Alma Whittaker is born into a household fascinated by botany, and has a genius for taxonomy. Eventually she chooses to make moss the focus of her life’s study, and through the lens that her specialization provides her, comes up with a larger theory of how nature works.

It’s tempting to go back to Virginia Woolf here. Woolf invents Judith Shakespeare, fictional sister to William, who has all of her brother’s inventiveness but none of his opportunities. No school, no time or place to work uninterrupted by family, a forced marriage and eventual suicide; all of these circumstances prevent Judith from writing the plays she might have done. No woman, Woolf concludes, could have written Shakespeare’s plays in the age of Shakespeare.

Perhaps no woman could have written Darwin’s work in the age of Darwin. Gilbert acknowledges Alma’s genius, but far more important to her career are the circumstances in which she is born. Her father is rich, having made a fortune growing and trading medicinal plants. Her mother is from a botanical family, is well-educated, and believes in the importance of an education. Alma is given an entire building in which to work and all the funds and encouragement she needs. Almost as important, perhaps, is the fact that she’s not conventionally pretty; at various points in the book she is attracted to men she knows, and it’s easy to imagine her life going very differently had one of them returned her feelings. Married women in the nineteenth century rarely had the opportunity to write treatises on moss and natural philosophy; nor did they get the chance to leave all their worldly possessions and set sail for Tahiti in middle age.

In the event Alma never publishes her great work, though various people urge her to do so. Presumably this is partly to do with the constraints of the historical novel, which cannot too drastically change the past. But I wonder if it’s also for reasons to do with her gender. For years she refuses to publish until one minor doubt has been cleared. Later she discovers that neither Darwin nor Alfred Russel Wallace (who independently arrived at a theory of evolution and who appears in this novel) had a solution either, but this did not stop them from publishing their work and being recognized as among the great scientists of their age.

Alma’s single-mindedness and privileged status often combine to make her particularly bad at relationships with other people, and this is one of the things that makes her work as a character. She’s flawed and frequently unhappy, but she does great work and loves it. Gilbert in her acknowledgements quotes Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies. “I will give you plenty of examples”, says de Pizan of the great women with whom she builds her feminist argument. Gilbert provides us with one.


July 9, 2013

Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons and Matt Kaplan, The Science of Monsters

I yelled a bit at Kaplan’s book even as I enjoyed it; Brennan’s I read over the course of a single night and at 6am I was demanding a sequel. This may be why I’m clearly playing favourites in this weekend’s column. Or I’m just trolling. Have some dragons.

(I had to put my copy of Kaplan’s book face-down and take a bad picture because no one had put that wraparound image on the internet. People who treat their books better than I do, please try not to be too scandalised)


In one of those strange and delightful coincidences where completely unexpected books find themselves in dialogue with one another, this week I read two books (both published in 2013) with oddly similar covers; a popular science book and a fantasy novel. Both featured dragons, intact in the front, but further back with scales and skin missing to show their musculature and bone structure. The first was Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, the second was Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters.

Brennan’s book is set in a fantasy world where dragons are real. Isabella (she has not yet become “Lady Trent” when this book ends) lives in her world’s equivalent of Regency England, where gender and class roles are clearly defined and where her sole responsibilities are to concern herself with ladylike pursuits and eventually marry a suitable husband. But Isabella has a fascination for dragons that will not go away- whether she’s pickling tiny dragons in vinegar, dressing up as a boy to join in a hunt, or choosing a husband on the strength of his library.

Because part of what makes A Natural History of Dragons so good is Isabella’s singleminded love of her subject. This is a love story in which the object of the affections is science; families and lovers are nice, but they’re not really that necessary. If Isabella has to be calculating, or manipulative, to get her way, it makes sense.

Brennan frames this story in such a way that the novel’s primary voice is the elderly Isabella, recounting the adventures of her younger self. As a result the text is frequently self-reflexive, with Lady Trent often correcting Isabella’s assumptions, both social and scientific. The rapid progress of scientific study in the nineteenth century and the exhilaration which could come with it are always clear here, even if this is not our nineteenth century (Lady Trent’s preface is written in the year 5658 of her world) and dragons cannot be our scientific specimens.

That sense of discovery and absorption in its possibilities also categorises Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters. Kaplan, living in a sadly dragonless world, takes for his subject human beings instead; specifically, our tendency to create monsters and the possible reasons that our historical monsters have taken the forms that they do. Kaplan is a science journalist who studied palaeontology; it’s not surprising that that is the discipline to which he turns for many of his answers. Fossils (of animals eating other animals, of dinosaurs, of incidents preserved in tar pits) come up frequently, as do things like shifting tectonic plates, the accumulation of methane in burial mounds, and the shape of an elephant’s skull. Much of this is fascinating.

In his acknowledgements Kaplan adds the caveat that he is not a classics scholar, and it’s true that in areas that don’t concern his particular areas of expertise the book is weak. There seems to be an impulse to find a single direct, material explanation for every legendary creature, and while this results in some wonderful aha! moments, it also sometimes rests on some very weak premises. There’s also a moment in which the author seems to think it wonderful that dragons (which within the book are defined as reptilian beasts that sometimes breathe fire) across the world are never depicted with fur. Well, no—because taxonomists of monstrousness wouldn’t call them dragons.

And I wonder if it’s this, as much as any difference in genre (fiction/nonfiction, fantasy/popular science) that really marks out the divide between these two dragon-bearing books. Brennan’s ostensible author-narrator is constantly self-correcting, examining and critiquing the problems with her own methods even as we read of her conclusions. Kaplan (as we all do, perhaps) tries to remake the world in order that it fit the narratives of his own area of expertise. The Science of Monsters may have a stronger basis in reality, but what if A Natural History of Dragons is the more rigourous academic work?


June 6, 2012

Kishwar Desai, Origins of Love

I had a short review of Kishwar Desai’s new novel in Saturday’s Indian Express.

Aruni Kashyap has a piece in the  Assam Times that is partly about his journey away from, and back into writing as an Assamese writer. Among other things he speaks of writing to an imaginary audience to whom he felt the need to explain Assam.

The thing that interested me most about Origins of Love (otherwise not destined to be one of my favourite books this year) is this question of audience. Who does Desai think she’s writing for? At times I suspected the book of doing something rather clever in centring the Indian experience; the white British characters are reduced to cultural stereotypes. Kate, for example, got pregnant in her teens: “She didn’t want to drop out of school or be stuck at home juggling milk bottles and living off benefits like so many of her friends. Besides, Terry (or Jack?) had disappeared quite soon after their evening together”. (Tuhin Sinha, author of That Thing Called LOVE would probably refer to this teenage sexing as “the domain of the prurient West”) The audience is expected not to know, for example, that “the different communities were quite divided in London. The Indians in Southall, the Bangladeshis on Brick Lane…”.  (Useful tip: apparently if you are a lady sitting in pubs in Southall locals will be scandalised, but you can charm a bartender into pouring more generous drinks by swapping stories of “back home”). Shops and labels are namechecked (Agent Provocateur and Harrods, anyway). Parallel to this treating the British as aliens that need explaining, there’s a sort of India Shining narrative. Subhash and his wife Anita are an “elegant couple – certainly a far cry from the gruff and often crumpled doctors he had dealt with in the NHS back home”. The sperm bank in Gurgaon is far more impressive than the one in London. The old empire has declined, everything about Britain is a bit tawdry.

But then suddenly we’re doing things the other way round – the tourists are wearing FabIndia clothes, cows are eating plastic bags on which they will choke to death, ‘locals’ take autorickshaws and there is a completely unnecessary explanation of the Ambassador car. So who is this for?

The other interesting thing about the book is that for five minutes I thought it might be science fiction.

None of these things serve to make the novel any good though.


A child conceived via in vitro fertilisation is found, mysteriously, to be HIV-positive. Her parents are dead, her family untraceable, and the surrogate mother has mysteriously disappeared.

Origins of Love consists of multiple individual plotlines woven together. There are the Pandeys, proprietors of a hospital in Gurgaon offering assisted reproductive technologies; Kate and Ben, an English couple who desperately want a child, though for different reasons; Sonia, one of the surrogate mothers and Diwan Nath Mehta, a customs officer who becomes embroiled in an attempt to make money from the embryos.  Tying all of these plots together is Simran Singh, the social worker who formed the focus of Desai’s earlier, Costa winning novel Witness the Night. Simran’s is the only thread of the story to be told in first person; it is she who, with the reader, pieces together these stories to work out what is going on.

And there’s a lot to work out. Origins of Love attempts to be both an exploration of a social issue (that of surrogacy in India) and a rather crowded mystery/thriller. But it soon becomes obvious that Desai is more interested in the issue than the story. Subplots that might in other circumstances have been entire novels are gestured at and then rather half-heartedly wrapped up; such as that of Ben, whose guilt and curiously over an ancestor’s actions in India lead him into perpetuating the same set of dynamics, or Renu, a rising politician who plans to use her child for her political ends. The couple around whom the mystery revolves, Susan and Ben Oldham, barely get any page time, making the various revelations about them rather lacking in impact.

As a discussion of the various issues around surrogacy, the book is more thorough. The lack of agency of the women who agree to become surrogate mothers is a point constantly made – even when characters make the original decision for themselves (Sonia thinks that the money will help her to escape an abusive boyfriend and return to her family), control is almost immediately wrested from them. The upper classes are not let off – the Pandeys may be sympathetic characters on the whole, but we are still treated to uncomfortable scenes in which Dr Subhash Pandey evaluates potential surrogates who can be most easily fobbed off as middle-class on ignorant foreigners. Occasionally Desai is too heavy-handed in the effort to make the reader see the point of this, and puts together the evidence of what the text has already shown us into convenient expository paragraphs.

This is a problem throughout. Show-don’t-tell is perhaps the most hackneyed literary criticism there is, but there is some truth to it. Unfortunately, Desai explains everything. Characters are reintroduced as if we had forgotten them in the last fifty pages, and Subhash’s discomfort with homosexual couples having children is something that must be told to us again and again. This need to explain is at its worst when it comes to the international aspects of the plot – it’s hard to tell who her intended audience is when the author is at one moment explaining London’s racial divides to the reader, and at the next explaining that ‘locals’ in Delhi would travel by autorickshaw, and that Ambassador cars with red lights on the top indicate an important person.

If Desai finds her voice at any point it is with the Diwan Nath Mehta plot. Mehta is a fundamentally decent man caught up in larger matters that he never anticipated and there’s something rather exaggerated and larger than life about the world as he perceives it. This makes for great satire, in the conspiracy theories of Mehta’s boss and in the form of caste-obsessed sperm bank officials who inform us that they are “well stocked on Brahmins”.  But there are also hints of a touching romance. This is in sharp contrast to Simran’s overwritten sections in which we’re given plenty of details (down to the colour of her underwear) but little in the way of feeling.

The problem with issue-based fiction is always going to be that it’s more about the issue than the fiction. As a book about surrogacy in India Origins of Love does exactly what it needs to. As a novel, however, it is incomplete, half-hearted and seems to think very little of its readers.



January 8, 2012

Kunal Basu, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure

Historical fiction that isn’t just historical fiction and isn’t necessarily set (when written by an Indian author) in India. There isn’t enough of it around. I like a lot of Basu’s earlier work, and I’m a big fan of how wide-ranging it is. But The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is not his best work.

I reviewed the book in Saturday’s Indian Express. An edited version below.



At the end of the nineteenth century, Portugese doctor Antonio Maria discovers that his father is dying of syphilis, for which there is no known cure. Antonio is unable to accept the painful and ignominious (syphilis sufferers are social outcasts) death that awaits his father. He looks to China for a cure, placing all his hopes in the rumour that few Chinese have syphilis and in the Yellow Emperor’s Canon of internal medicine.

In China he is established in a part of the Queen’s Summer Palace, though the Queen herself is never seen. Antonio is placed under the care of a doctor named Xu who undertakes to teach him the whole of the Nei Ching school of medicine, since it seems that the cure for syphilis cannot be applied without knowledge of the whole.  He divides his time between the Legation, a nearby colony of Europeans, and the Palace where he rapidly falls in love with Fumi (for his own reasons, Xu seems to prefer to leave his student with his assistant).

Through all of this, larger political events are taking place in China. The Boxer rebellion is brewing through most of the novel, breaking out properly in its final third.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure looks back to a fascinating moment in history. The delicate equations between the great powers at the dawn of the twentieth century may not be the subject of this book, but they are ever present. This is particularly evident in the interactions of the various foreigners (Americans, Japanese and an assortment of Europeans) at the Legation. In addition, there’s a strong sense of an end to power in both of the novel’s main locations. Portugal’s colonial prominence is all but over, and in China the almost phantom Queen (never seen, though when Antonio trespasses into the forbidden parts of the palace there is the implication that she has only just left) does almost nothing to assert her power.

Portugal and China are also notable for being relatively unusual settings for English language fiction. This has its disadvantages though, and over and over again one gets the feeling that the text doesn’t quite trust the readers to keep up without being fed quantities of historical context. Particularly in the early stages of the novel, we are subjected to many scenes in which things are painstakingly explained. It’s hard to do such a thing without being awkward, and here Basu’s writing is at its least elegant.


Antonio’s perspective is another difficulty. His impressions of China are entirely in line with those one would expect from a nineteenth-century European man. The problem, however, is that many of these assumptions also colour a great deal of later literature which takes them perfectly seriously – we’re all too familiar with the “inscrutable” Chinese, or the European who bothers to learn his native servants’ names being morally superior to his fellow countrymen. At times it is easy to remember that Antonio’s vision is imperfect. The Legation scenes recognise this with deadpan humour. And when his internal narrative comes up with “lovesickness, a disease no less mysterious than the rarest of female disorders” or “the secret workings of the Chinese mind, how it went about solving puzzles and inventing things” we’re being invited to roll our eyes at him. But all too often in his interactions with the natives the only thing reminding us of this is a prior faith in Basu’s abilities as a writer. And the binaries the book sets up are predictable and uninteresting; in Xu’s words “Western doctors deal with simple cause and effect …the Chinese look for reasons that might even lie outside the body”.

The search for the cure that lies at the heart of this book is an elusive one. Syphilis, a disease associated with sin, comes to mean more than itself. “What if it was immortal?” asks Antonio’s friend Arees, speculating that syphilis is “the price we must pay to be alive”. Antonio himself connects the mystery of syphilis to that of his lover Fumi, “two symptoms both arising from the same condition”. Even the name of the disease reflects this endless deferral of meaning; the “French Disease” in Portugal, it is named after the Portugese elsewhere and in China is “Canton Rash” (historically it has also been “the German sickness” and “the Christian disease” among others). In the real world a cure for syphilis would be developed within a decade of the events of The Yellow Emperor’s Cure; within the novel, this seems almost inconceivable.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure skilfully weaves together its various historical strands, resulting in an unusual, intelligent novel. Yet it is let down by its own simplicity in places, and (particularly when placed next to some of Basu’s earlier work) is eventually a little underwhelming.



October 18, 2011

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

I’ve spoken before on this blog about the weirdness of the third of Lewis’ space trilogy books. To people who have read those earlier pieces my most recent Left of Cool will contain nothing new. But here it is, for the sake of completion.



Most people know C.S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia series of children’s books. Many are also aware that he and J.R.R. Tolkien were friends, and that the two belonged to an Oxford writing group called The Inklings.

Some of Lewis’ strangest work is a direct result of this friendship. The story goes that Tolkien and Lewis had a bet, according to which one of them would write a space-travel story and one a time-travel story. Tolkien got the time-travel assignment – his “The Lost Road” was never completed. Lewis more than made up for this by writing an entire trilogy; Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra and That Hideous Strength.

All three contain a strong religious element. The first is closest to a conventional science-fictional novel – it is a voyage to Mars which draws much of its inspiration from Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. With its sense of the vast, unknown history of the planet it is occasionally magnificent despite its preachiness. Perelandra has Lewis’ protagonist Ransom (an Oxford philologist – probably a nod to Tolkien himself) travel to Venus, where he is called upon to avert the Fall. He must do this by arguing his case with the Venusian version of Eve. Unfortunately, the arguments are only particularly stimulating if you believe the forces of evil to be colossal idiots.

It is in That Hideous Strength, the final book in the trilogy, that Lewis touches the heights of strangeness. Unlike the first two books, this one is set on Earth. Like them it is concerned with evil scientists overreaching – the title is a reference to the Tower of Babel. Lewis’ villains keep alive the head of an executed murderer (with mysterious wires- Lewis doesn’t dwell much on the actual science) creating a horrendous abomination. Meanwhile there are college politics, an Orwellian organisation called N.I.C.E., a domesticated bear, and a butch, chain-smoking policewoman. There’s also the resurrection of Merlin, come to save Britain in her hour of need. Lewis completely mixes his interplanetary mythology with Arthurian legend, turning Ransom into the new Pendragon. As if this were not enough he also drags in references to Numénor, Tolkien’s take on the Atlantis myth. Since none of Tolkien’s writings on Numénor had been published at the time, it’s difficult to imagine what readers thought. Tolkien himself was reportedly displeased.

A major concern of That Hideous Strength is gender. Jane, half of the couple around whom the story is centred, has been ruined by such things as higher education and feminism. Her marriage is falling apart, and her failures as a wife have left her husband susceptible to negative influences. Worse, the couple have been using birth control! Merlin stigmatises Jane as ‘wicked’ when he meets her. Apparently she and her husband had been destined to conceive the child who would save England; thanks to contraception (evil science again!) that child was never born. It’s not the strongest argument against family planning that you will ever hear.

These are not the only delights afforded by That Hideous Strength. There’s the revelation that the dark side of the moon is actually a place of beauty and fertility (the barren side facing us is due to evil lunar scientists). There is a hilarious case of mistaken identity in which everyone talks in Latin to a confused homeless man. There’s a scene in which, in another reference to the Tower of Babel, all the guests at a formal dinner lose control over language and begin to speak gibberish. The bear kills and (I think) eats a villain. At one point, as the spirit of Venus descends to the earth, all the animals in the area begin to have sex, while the humans feel elevated and aroused.

My enjoyment of That Hideous Strength is of a sort that would probably lead Lewis to lump me in with the evil scientists. But for all its perversity, this enjoyment is vast and sincere. If only Lewis had given up academia (and religion) for a career in pulp SFF.


September 27, 2011

Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie

When I saw Jamrach’s Menagerie on the Booker longlist I was intrigued. By the time I’d read and reviewed it, it had made it to the shortlist. Not having read all of the other shortlisted books I can’t give it my unqualified support, but I’d be quite pleased if it won.

This review originally published at GlobalComment, here.



Jaffy Brown has lived all of his short life among the streets and sewers of London. Everything changes one day when he encounters a tiger in the street. Ignorant of what the beast is and compelled to touch it (“Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose”) he finds himself picked up in its mouth and dragged away, before he is rescued, unharmed.

The tiger’s (very apologetic) owner is Charles Jamrach – and so far, this is a true story. Jamrach did own a menagerie in Victorian London; in 1857 one of his tigers did escape and carry off a young boy and the boy did live to tell the tale. A statue in Wapping commemorates the incident.

Jaffy goes to work with Jamrach where he discovers a talent for looking after animals. This brings him into an often-antagonistic friendship with a co-worker, Tim Linver. An incident early in the book, where Tim locks Jaffy inside Jamrach’s shop for the night, is the means of introducing Jaffy to Tim’s family – including a sister, Ishbel, with whom Jaffy immediately falls in love.


This first part of this Booker-shortlisted book has been described in almost every review as ‘Dickensian’. It is accomplished, clearly the work of an extremely talented writer, but they are also in many ways (and in defiance of the title) the least interesting part of the book. The real story begins when Dan Rymer, who supplies Jamrach with his animals, receives a commission to hunt for a dragon that is rumoured to exist in the islands of Indonesia. Rymer, along with Jaffy and Tim, joins the crew of a whaling ship bound for the region. And it is the sea-bound sections of Birch’s book that raise the novel from check-the-boxes Victoriana into brilliance.

Jamrach’s Menagerie
 is very clear about its sources. At more than one point in the story characters refer to the Essex, the sunken whaling ship that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick.

Certain things I remember. The fo’c’s’le, Gabriel saying: “There’s an evil spot out there, they do say.”
Sam smiling. “Don’t frighten the little ones,” he said.
“Everybody knows about it.”
“I don’t,” I said.
Gabriel looked at me. “No? The place where things happen. Where the Essex was lost, and more since. A cursed spot upon the ocean.”
Everyone knows about the Essex, and all the others. It’s legend on the whale ships. It’s something of a joke.

Specific reference is made to Owen Coffin, a teenaged boy aboard the Essex who was sacrificed and eaten by the remaining crew after the shipwreck. “’I knew a man knew Owen Coffin as a lad,’ said Gabriel. ‘Sailed with his father, he did. Said Owen was a nice boy, and a good sailor like his dad.’” Like Melville, Birch draws on these stories for her own, and the references work to foreshadow events to come.
The whaling sections are brutal; the chase almost a seduction and the killing and harvesting utterly grotesque. It’s a relief to learn that all this is nearly at an end.

My clothes had dried upon me and become a second skin, and the bones and organs of the whale floated alongside the ship in a great snapping of sharks and a feasting of seabirds. I stood with Gabriel looking down. Morning had come.
“Take it all in, son,” he said. “Doubt you’ll get the chance again.”
“Why so?”
“The whaling’s done for,” he said, and grinned.
“No call for the oil no more. It’s all this new stuff now. They’ll always need the bone for the ladies’ stays, but they won’t be wanting all this oil no more.”
“What new stuff?”
“Oil under the ground,” he said.

This is not the only indication that the book is set at the end of an era. The quest for the dragon reminds one of the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here Marlow, the narrator, describes his childhood fascination with maps.

I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off.

As a child, Jaffy’s lack of knowledge made of the tiger “a mythical beast”.Jamrach’s Menagerie is set at what seems like one of the last moments when it is possible to discover dragons. There are still spaces in the world that are largely unknown., The sort of knowledge with which Rymer and his companions approach the capture of the dragon (just a rumour of a rumour of a tale told by a sailor) is the most the characters have to go on. Yet this will change. At the beginning of the book Jaffy is dreaming of dragons. By its end (in a reference that would otherwise be another predictable nod to the Victorian setting) he is reading Darwin.
But for the book the dragon occupies a strange in-betweenness, halfway between the mythical creature of Jaffy’s imaginings and the scientific truth. The ‘dragon’ or ‘Ora’ is, of course, a Komodo dragon and nothing like the dragons of Jaffy’s fancy (“It’s not a dragon,” I said. “It’s like he always said. A big crocodile”). But the harsh reality of science does not entirely take us out of the world of fantasy. The ‘dragon’ may not have wings or breathe fire, but there is something supernatural about it. “How was it we became so afraid of the dragon? Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more”. The “something more” that is attributed to the dragon (which seems to blight the fortunes of everyone on the ship. After its capture the ship slips into an alternate state, a nightmarish sense of stasis that seems a tribute to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. “Time changed”, as the narrator puts it:

And on and on in that dream—seven dark days and nights that had begun to feel eternal. The superstition of sailors is no more than the lone howling of millions of miles between you and dry land and home, making you know you are a thing that can die. Superstition, dark, spiky, high stepping, stalked with cloven foot upon our decks. And when superstition high-steps on a lone sea deck, far and far from every strand, as the old songs say—then, oh then …

Not just when sleeping, not just half asleep on my feet at the masthead, not just tipsy-drifting with a head full of gummy warmth, but always, every conscious second I was beautifully, startlingly afraid, with a fear crisp and invisible as the honed edge of a fine blade.

The quiet horror builds up over chapters in which nothing much actually happens – then climaxes as something does. But the sense of unreality that sets in in these chapters continues for most of the book.
A series of tragedies follows. The nature of these tragedies has been evident throughout the book – if the multiple references to the Essex had not been enough, conversations about cannibalism in the islands (and an unpleasant scene where komodo dragons feed off a dead member of their species) and the conviction that the ship is cursed would make it all obvious. But through the bleakness, the dark humour as the number of survivors in the captain’s prayer decreases day by day, there’s a dreamlike quality to everything. And of course we always know that our narrator will survive.

Jaffy is an odd narrator. Birch has his voice shift constantly between those of a child and of an educated adult looking back. Were this a particularly plot-driven book, this would be a complete giveaway of the ending. Jaffy is also entirely too good, which is a little disappointing; this may be a subjective retelling, but nothing about the plot suggests that its narrator is ever anything but blameless. The only thing that keeps him interesting despite this is the fellow feeling for the animals he encounters the whale, the tiger, Jamrach’s various creatures. Even the dragon – he is repulsed, afraid, and sometimes refers to it as a demon, yet Jaffy is able sometimes to identify with it.

A line from the Book of Job is quoted twice in the book; I am a brother to dragons and a companion of owls. By the end it seems to typify Jaffy, who is by this point running his own aviary. The final sections of the book, chronicling Jaffy’s return to London and his later life are rather perfunctory and disappointing. There are awkward encounters with families and an (in the circumstances) improbable recommencement of a romance. There is more Victoriana: a reference to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a client of Jamrach’s; Birch resists the temptation to namecheck another client, the far more colourful P.T. Barnum). It’s never bad – at her worst Birch is still an accomplished writer. But it lacks the magic of the seafaring chapters of the book.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is on this year’s Man Booker shortlist and it thoroughly deserves to be there. But if it wins it will be on the (considerable) strength of that central section alone.



 I spent a good chunk of that review wanting to make a connection to this book, which I read last year. There are the obvious connections – undiscovered creatures; shipwreck; cannibalism; heightened, feverish shipboard imaginings – but I suppose these are in enough ship-related stories to be quite normal. Certainly I can find no evidence that Birch has read this particular Poe work. Still, it would be nice to be proved right.
September 24, 2011

I am completely half afraid to think.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that I read or reread much of Flann O’Brien’s work this year – as is obvious I’ve been hopelessly behind when it comes to actually writing about what I’ve read. But the first thing I reread was also the first book by him I’d ever read: The Third Policeman.

The story- at the beginning of the book our nameless narrator gets into a creepy, hostile, co-dependent relationship with a man named John Diveney. He allows Diveney to convince him to conspire to kill a rich man and steal his wealth. But only much later does Diveney to reveal (or so the narrator thinks) the location of the loot- in the house of the man they’d killed. When our narrator goes to collect it, strange things begin to happen. He encounters the ghost of his victim, develops a conscience (called “Joe” for convenience) and is led in mysterious ways to a police station where everyone is obsessed with bicycles. A series of strange events follows.

The narrator is also a scholar of the works of the (fictional) scientist/philosopher de Selby. The book is full of references and footnotes about de Selby’s crackpot theories – for example that nighttime is the result of accumulated black air from volcanic pollution, or that sleep does not exist – instead we go through a series of fits caused by said black air. Other theories of de Selby concern his conviction that by reflecting oneself in a series of mirrors it is possible to see one’s own childhood self, and his insistence that he had mastered time travel.

This benign property of his prose is not, one hopes, to be attributed to the reason noticed by the eccentric du Garbandier, who said ‘the beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest’.

The de Selby sections are the best, the most absurd, and the funniest in the book. And though de Selby has no real relevance to the plot (in this book nothing does, so it hardly matters) his interpretations of science and philosophy work well within the logic of the world the narrator enters. This is, after all, a world in which a policeman spends his time making a series of otherwise identical boxes that fit into each other, even now that the more recent boxes are so small as to be invisible. A world in which the movement of atoms means that people who ride their bicycles too frequently become, in time, part-bicycle themselves.

The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

This leads to all sorts of complications. When such a man dies, do you bury his human form or his bicycle? What degree of perversion is inherent in riding someone else’s bicycle (or fooling them into riding your own)? And since shunning the bicycle and walking means turning to clay, what is the safest method of transport?

All these very serious issues are discussed in some of the most elaborate, high-flown dialogue you could hope to encounter. It’s glorious – particularly when (this made my second encounter with the book even more joyous than the first) you’re hearing it all in Irish accents.

The end of The Third Policeman explains away the silly science logic of the previous pages with an equivalent of an “it was all a dream!” ending that has ruined so many other books. It doesn’t spoil this (though I remember being disappointed by it when I read it some years ago). I’m not sure why this is, but I think it may be because a book can’t betray its own internal logic when it has none. Or something. Or maybe the rest of it is so incredible that nothing could spoil it? Either way it’s magnificent.

September 4, 2011

Mike Brown, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

Here is last week’s Left of Cool piece. I was either very clever or very tedious and titled the version in the paper “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nomenclature”. The original version is below.



When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet, a number of people were understandably very upset. They’d grown up with the information that there were nine planets in the solar system and these were their names: the addition of a tenth planet might have felt like an exciting new adventure, but to have their number reduced seemed a genuine loss.

Strangely enough, it is because a tenth “planet” had been discovered that Pluto was thus demoted. Mike Brown, the discoverer of this new celestial body, therefore became indirectly the architect of Pluto’s downfall. The question of whether or not “Xena” (now known as “Eris”) was a planet meant that the International Astronomical Union had to arrive at a single definition of what a planet was. The definition, when it was made, excluded both Eris and Pluto, and people scrambled to find new mnemonics to remember the names of the planets; one suggested mnemonic being “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature”.

In How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, Brown describes the events leading up to this momentous decision. Interspersed with the story of the various things Brown and his team discovered are sections about his personal life; his relationship with his wife Diane, and the birth of their daughter Lilah. Brown is funny and moving about his family and his personal foibles and these sections of the book are excellent. A scene in which Brown and Diane sit around calmly waiting for her contractions to become sufficiently frequent is particularly memorable.

Brown has the tendency (though presumably with the noble goal of being accessible) to address himself to readers who are expected to know almost nothing about the universe. We can’t all be astronomers, or even scientists, but if you were the sort of child who thought space was amazing, it’s a bit jarring to have someone kindly explain to you things you knew in primary school, such as the existence of the Kuiper belt. Luckily he is an engaging enough narrator that the painstaking explanations of everything are not as annoying as they might have been. Most of the time it’s easy to be swept away by the enthusiasm that permeates the book.

This is unfortunately not the case in the chapters where he discusses a couple of controversial moments in his career. These are the naming of “Sedna” and the discovery of “Haumea”, both dwarf planets. Brown certainly makes a strong case for his own righteousness, but in doing so he also somehow makes himself less sympathetic. To leave out any discussion of these issues would have looked suspicious or weak, but it’s a pity that they should have had to sour the book in this fashion.

It is on the issue of language that I find myself least in sympathy with Brown. The question of the status of Pluto is as much one of naming as it is one of science; to what extent must words have fixed, single definitions? How far are we comfortable with instability of meaning, and is it even possible to force a sudden change in the way a word is popularly used? In one section the author bemoans the varied and unscientific ways in which the word “continent” is used- his bewildered indignation is funny, yet as a literature student I found myself wanting to shout “that’s not how language works!” Brown does come around a little and pays lip-service to the idea that how a word is used might matter a little. Yet he when he refers to this as “emotional” or “sentimental” it seems unlikely that he really gets it.

I have in the past been indifferent to Pluto’s status. Yet framed by an argument about language and the naming of things, suddenly it seems like campaigning for its reinstatement might be a good idea. I’m quite sure this is not the reaction the author intended, yet How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is still an enormously entertaining book.

April 14, 2010


(Every post should start with a Kate Beaton comic)

Reading H.G Wells’ The First Men in the Moon I found myself preoccupied with the number of things about it that reminded me (mostly superficially) of later works. For example, in my head the Selenites look very much like the Bones, even though Wells tells us their bodies are insectoid.

They also look a lot like the underground dwelling gnome creatures from the land of Bism in C.S Lewis’ The Silver Chair. Lewis was worryingly present during my reading of this book (he has been far too present on this blog recently) – his Out of the Silent Planet is strongly influenced by The First Men in the Moon. Except that Lewis’ scientist is a rather scary imperialist and his religious man of letters is lovely and fits right in. Wells is a little more interesting with regard to his two major characters.

[Spoiler warning, but this thing has been out for more than a century]
The story: an out of work banker ruralises and considers becoming a playwright. He meets a scientist who lives in the area and is working on inventing a material that resists gravity. Alive to the commercial possibilities the banker (Bedford) gets involved. When Cavor, the scientist, invents the material, they travel to the moon where they lose their spaceship and anger some natives (by killing them). They also consume some magic mushrooms. Bedford finds the spaceship, loses Cavor, and flees to Earth taking with him lots of moon gold. Due to a Victorian equivalent of Balloon Boy the ship is lost (so is the child) and Bedford cannot return. Luckily he still has all that gold.
However, a scientist then begins to pick up radio signals from the moon which are from Cavor updating us on his life, the Selenites, and what he has learnt about them. Eventually he comes to a realisation that everything he has told them about Earth and war and colonialism (and the fact that he’s the only one who knows how to make Cavorite, the anti-gravity substance) means that they would be wise to kill him. So they do, and that is the end.

The science is off, as Verne would complain, but that is clearly not the point. Because this is a fascinating portrayal of men from Earth encountering new land. When he first realises the possibility of space exploration, Bedford is ecstatic.

My imagination was picking itself up again. “After all,” I said, “there’s something in these things. There’s travel–”

An extraordinary possibility came rushing into my mind. Suddenly I saw, as in a vision, the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres deluxe. “Rights of pre-emption,” came floating into my head–planetary rights of pre-emption. I recalled the old Spanish monopoly in American gold. It wasn’t as though it was just this planet or that–it was all of them. I stared at Cavor’s rubicund face, and suddenly my imagination was leaping and dancing. I stood up, I walked
up and down; my tongue was unloosened.

“I’m beginning to take it in,” I said; “I’m beginning to take it in.” The transition from doubt to enthusiasm seemed to take scarcely any time at all. “But this is tremendous!” I cried. “This is Imperial! I haven’t been dreaming of this sort of thing.”

Once the chill of my opposition was removed, his own pent-up excitement had play. He too got up and paced. He too gesticulated and shouted. We behaved like men inspired. We were men inspired.

The Moon, it seems, has plenty of gold. Bedford is ecstatic.

Cavor is not treated particularly well either. He doesn’t form a nice, unworldly contrast to Bedford and his grabby hands – he is callous (that the men who he employs in his research all die because of the cavorite is something he ignores), he never really shows much excitement at anything but science. When he receives his chance to be the narrator in the final chapters of the book, he comes across as quite as unpleasant as his companion. Bedford may think that writing a play needs only a couple of weeks, and he may think killing aliens and stealing their stuff is decent human behaviour – he’s worldly, but he’s also of this world, and human. He has probably read Shakespeare. He’s too much of a philistine to bring any reading matter on his trip, but then he reads the cheap magazines he picks up at the last minute to remind himself that people exist. He’s the one who can communicate – I don’t think it’s an accident that Cavor’s narrative, when it comes, is broken and full of static, or that it breaks down mid-sentence into the nonsense word “uless” that probably means “useless”.

And Bedford has genuine moments of enthusiasm and seeing (or I could be reading too much into this – he’s the narrator for most of the novel, so if Wells wanted to draw attention to something exciting he had few other options). But you have bits like this as a result:

I turned about, and behold! along the upper edge of a rock to the eastward a similar fringe in a scarcely less forward condition swayed and bent, dark against the blinding glare of the sun. And beyond this fringe was the silhouette of a plant mass, branching clumsily like a cactus, and swelling
visibly, swelling like a bladder that fills with air.

Then to the westward also I discovered that another such distended form was rising over the scrub. But here the light fell upon its sleek sides, and I could see that its colour was a vivid orange hue. It rose as one watched it; if one looked away from it for a minute and then back, its outline had changed; it thrust out blunt congested branches until in a little time it rose a coralline shape of many feet in height. Compared with such a growth the terrestrial puff-ball, which will sometimes swell a
foot in diameter in a single night, would be a hopeless laggard. But then the puff-ball grows against a gravitational pull six times that of the moon. Beyond, out of gullies and flats that had been hidden from us, but not from the quickening sun, over reefs and banks of shining rock, a bristling beard of spiky and fleshy vegetation was straining into view, hurrying tumultuously to take advantage of the brief day in which it must flower and fruit and seed again and die. It was like a miracle, that growth. So, one must imagine, the trees and plants arose at the Creation and covered the desolation of the new-made earth.

Imagine it! Imagine that dawn! The resurrection of the frozen air, the stirring and quickening of the soil, and then this silent uprising of vegetation, this unearthly ascent of fleshiness and spikes. Conceive it all lit by a blaze that would make the intensest sunlight of earth seem watery and weak. And still around this stirring jungle, wherever there was shadow, lingered banks of bluish snow. And to have the picture of our impression complete, you must bear in mind that we saw it all through a thick bent glass, distorting it as things are distorted by a lens, acute only in the centre of the picture, and very bright there, and towards the edges magnified and unreal.