The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe, By Michael Frayn (Faber £9.99)
Ever since the Copernican revolution, we have had to accept our insignificance to an indifferent universe. The human race is "a curious little fleck of foam", as Michael Frayn has it, that has momentarily appeared on the surface of an ocean, and will just as soon disperse. And yet... in an extension of the old phenomenalist notion that if a tree falls in a forest without anything to hear, it can't be said to have made a sound, Frayn here argues that without us to observe and measure it, probe its secrets and appreciate its majesty, the "ungrateful universe" would in some sense cease to exist. This paradoxical relationship with the universe is at the heart of his long, but spry, ontological and epistemological enquiry, during which he considers the nature of truth as much as the truth about nature, science as a self-referential construct, the slipperiness of language, the difficulty of capturing the mind at work, and the all-round likelihood that nothing is as real or certain as we tend to imagine.
Philosophers who reviewed it were unkind, the discipline having long since moved into more specialised fields of enquiry. But for the rest of us it is difficult to resist the power of Frayn's vertiginous logical constructs. He doesn't have answers, only questions and elegant, playful ways of asking them. His demolition of the theory of parallel universes involves the socks missing from his laundry, for example, while he spends a full two chapters – "Why the Marmalade?" and "How the Marmalade?" – examining the thoughts that we all process, without even thinking, before breakfast.
Relativist to the end, he concedes that his musings are "a mere diversion, perhaps, if that's what they seem, or entirely pointless". But then, of course, things never are what they seem.
Wait Until Spring, Bandini, By John Fante (Canongate £6.99)
John Fante's first novel was published in 1939, the same year as The Grapes of Wrath and The Day of the Locust. Along with his subsequent ones, it went unnoticed for nearly half a century, until Charles Bukowski, describing Fante as his God, insisted his publisher reprint it. It transpires that Wait Until Spring, Bandini is every bit as rich, forceful and alive as the other Depression novels it shares a birth year with.
It was the first in a quartet of books about Arturo Bandini who, by the time of the next installment, Ask the Dust, is a fierce individualist, a hard-living, struggling writer in LA, and a clear antecedent of Bukowski's Chinaski. Here he is a 14-year-old, the first of three sons to Italian immigrants living in poverty in Colorado, who is angry at the world, maddened by his family, questioning his Catholic upbringing, in love with a girl, and desperate to strike out on his own. Fante's prose is exceedingly muscular, and yet tender with it. A perfect match for the tension he describes between this defiant adolescent and the crushing poverty and oppressive familial obligations he has to contend with.
Air, By Geoff Ryman (Orion £6.99)
It is 2020 and Kizuldah, a remote village somewhere in Central Asia, is the last place in the world to go online. But now there's a new technology, Air, which utilises quantum mechanics in some obscure way in order to beam the internet directly into the mind. The UN has decided to extend the technology right around the globe, and the Kizuldah villagers are among the first to receive a test transmission. "I'm sure the people who do this think they do a good thing," says Chung Mae, the spirited, adaptable, very vividly realised character at the heart of this novel. "It is good they want to help us... But how dare they? How dare they call us have-nots?"
Geoff Ryman is a proponent of "mundane" sci-fi, a movement very much concerned with the here and now. It is a misnomer, in this instance, for Air is pregnant with imagination, wit and the peculiar. But it is a novel about people far more than it is about technology; about families and communities instead of information networks, and about globalisation and the myriad changes it forces, for better and worse, upon established ways of life.
Armed Madhouse: Undercover Dispatches from a Dying Regime, By Greg Palast (Penguin £8.99)
Greg Palast is the American journalist and occasional undercover reporter who broke the story about Florida Governor Jeb Bush's rigging of the ballots in the 2000 Presidential Election that by rights was won by Al Gore. He has since uncovered similar irregularities in the 2004 elections, and explains how the Republicans are conspiring to cheat their way to continued power again next year. He's also got memos that show the White House knew the levees would break in New Orleans, as well as two documents, predating September 11, in which the neo-conservatives outline their plan to invade Iraq and seize control of its oil. Further whistleblowers helped with his mission to reveal the full extent of the Bush administration's corruption, arrogance, incompetence and callousness, and he appears to have all the evidence required to back up his shocking claims and demonstrate that he's not just paranoid.
The most comprehensive, as well as the most engagingly written, piece of Bush-bashing I've come across.
Moral Disorder, By Margaret Atwood (Virago £7.99)
Atwood's latest is an almost-novel, comprising 11 discrete short stories about the same Canadian woman, Nell, at different stages of her life. She is, at various times in the book, an obedient daughter, a resentful older sister, a meek mistress, a loving wife and a worried mother; a bright teenager, a publisher's copy editor, an amateur farmer and an older novelist. The book's discontinuous structure exaggerates the angles of the zig-zagged path through life that she has forged, but up until the very end of her life Nell has anyway been a woman uneasy in her skin and unsure of her next step in life. "My dreaming self refuses to be consoled. It continues to wander, aimless, homeless, alone."
Moral Disorder is about living with the choices that we make, and about the unpredictable patterns that a life tends to fall into. As always, though, Atwood is exceptionally precise in her rendering of this life, acutely attuned to its attendant ironies and comedy, and piercing in her observations.