Paperback reviews: A Delicate Truth, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking, Homecoming, We Need New Names, What Is Life?
Sunday 06 April 2014
A Delicate Truth by John Le Carré (Penguin £7.99)
John Le Carré continues to write novels which illuminate our age. Just as his great spy thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s helped define the Cold War era, so A Delicate Truth sheds light on our own cynical, corrupt, paranoid world, where government ministers make shady alliances with information-dealers, mercenaries, and right-wing American nutjobs. The novel begins with a top-secret, deniable counter-terrorist operation in Gibraltar to capture “Aladdin”, a jihadist arms-dealer. It’s overseen by a British civil servant deliberately chosen because he is a “low-flyer” who won’t ask too many questions, and manned by a motley collection of foreign guns-for-hire and British Army soldiers who are not officially there. The operation is badly botched and swiftly hushed. But fallout is inevitable; too many people know about it. Three years after the event, Toby Bell, private secretary in the Foreign Office, takes it upon himself to investigate. Bell is just about the only character who isn’t morally compromised in some way – and even he found out about Operation Wildlife by illicitly recording his Minister’s private conversations. It’s expertly plotted, with a cleverly parsimonious release of information, and builds to a painfully pulse-racing finish.
There’s an impressive confidence in the way Le Carré handles time and place, effortlessly, moving from Gibraltar to London to Cornwall, and from the past to the present. His descriptions of place are economically evocative, and he can make a character spring to life with a few telling details: like the mercenary soldier Elliott, who is “disturbingly muscular” and whose spoken English is so elaborate “you’d think it was being marked for accuracy and pronunciation”. This is a writer at the top of his game: you just want to step back and admire the technique.
Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking by Daniel C Dennett (Penguin £9.99)
An intuition pump is a wonderful phrase for something that is not new in philosophy: the thought experiment. Dennett presents a series of imaginary scenarios to help us think about big questions: evolution, agency, free will, consciousness, artificial intelligence. If Dr Frankenstein constructs a monster, Spakesheare, which writes a play, Spamlet, who’s the author? Other thinking tools include new terms for describing ideas: “a deepity” is a claim that sounds both important and true, but is only true if trivial, and only important if false; “a crane” is a mechanism that works while anchored to the ground, and “a skyhook” is a miraculous intervention from on high (evolution is a crane, Intelligent Design a skyhook). The book contains a demolition of John Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument for the impossibility of AI; and a clever argument in defence of a compatibilist form of free will. I’m not fully persuaded by the latter, but it made me think, which is precisely what it set out to do.
Homecoming by Susie Steiner (Faber And Faber £7.99)
Homecoming follows the lives of a Yorkshire farming family, the Hartles, for one calendar year. Joe and Anne are in their sixties, struggling to keep the farm going; their oldest son, Max, works on the farm, though he isn’t very good at it; their younger son, Bartholomew, has gone south to start his own garden centre. During the course of the year, crisis piles on crisis; and by sharing the viewpoint among these characters, Steiner is able to explore the dynamics of marriage, parent-child relationships, and sibling rivalry. It’s an absorbing story: one often has the sense of the characters being driven by their natures, inevitably pushed into unwise choices that make you want to shout “Stop!”
We Need New Names by Noviolet Bulawayo (Vintage £7.99)
They certainly have unusual names: the 10-year-old protagonist is called Darling and her friends include Bastard and Godknows. One of their little gang, the 11-year-old Chipo, is pregnant, courtesy of her grandfather; they are all ragged and starving, dreaming of a better life, living in the Zimbabwe shanty town of Paradise. Darling has an aunt in America, and dreams of joining her there: then, one day, her wish comes true. But America is not quite as she dreamed it ... It’s written in Darling’s naive/streetwise voice, full of slang and jokes, but the style becomes wiser, more cynical, and more regretful, as she grows up. Sometimes funny, often tragic, this is an original take on the ancient theme of exile.
What Is Life? by Addy Pross (Oxford University Press £9.99)
There seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between inanimate matter and the living stuff. Life, even in its humblest forms, exhibits purpose – it grows, moves around, achieves goals, reproduces itself. Darwinian natural selection explains how such varied and complex forms evolved; but how, from the raw material of unliving matter, did life ever begin? Pross explores this mystery and has a satisfying explanation: natural selection operates on inanimate matter too. I don’t pretend to understand the chemistry – but by using analogies about boulders rolling down hills, and cars driving up them, Pross does a good job of explaining the principle.
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