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The Information by James Gleick

The Information by James GleickReview: The Information by James Gleick (Vintage, 2012)

‘In the beginning there was information. The word came later.’

James Gleick has never been shy of approaching big topics. I first came across him many years back reading his just-published Chaos which remains for my money the single best introduction to the mind-bending world of chaos theory on the market. Since then he’s tackled biographies of intellectual behemoths Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman as well as a thoughtful treatise on the apparently accelerating pace of modern life. However, he’s saved the best for this release. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood takes on the very concept of information itself, tracing its transmission and dissemination from African drumming through to modern-day quantum computing. A daunting task to say the least.

Thankfully he’s more than up to the task. The first half of The Information is essentially a fast-track history of our attempts at communication beginning as mentioned with African drumming. For many westerners our only exposure to this art has been a patronising, distorted or outright racist depiction of bongo-pounding savages in the darkest jungle. Gleick swiftly puts the lie to this outdated notion with a gushing account of the incredible complexity achieved by so simple an idea. However, key to this section as well as those following on from it is his razor-sharp analysis of the limitations inherent in them. The recurring notion of redundancy rears its head here for the first time and you’d better pay attention because it’s one of the stars of the show.

From here we travel spatially and temporally, stopping in at the Middle East and Ancient Greece to check out the invention of the written word. Given the gusto with which I rail against anti-piracy copyright barons in the internet age it was with no small chuckle that I discovered Plato himself was none too keen on this new-fangled ‘writing’. It wasn’t for the same reasons as the grisly media cartels – he maintained it would forever destroy our memories – but it’s interesting to note that technophobia has been present at every advancement in the informational arena. There are a few more pitstops along the way but I’ll not delve too deep here save to mention there early dictionary pioneer about whom we know nothing save that in 1611 he visited London where he may or may not have seen a dead crocodile. For an information pioneer this is a cruel irony indeed.

So much for the history, for me the exposition on the current state of information theory was the icing on the cake and it’s all down to one Claude Shannon, a little-known mathematician who by all rights ought to be a household name. I’ll leave the details to Mr Gleick but without Shannon we would have little in the way of telephony, internet, satellite communication, almost everything we currently take for granted. At this point in the books the heavier scientific concepts come into play but the author is a master at boiling down fuse-blowing theories and equations into easily handled chunks. At no point does the technical load become heavy enough to put the casual reader off and if anything they’ll come away greatly enlightened. Reference junkies will be happy too as almost a third of the book is taken up by comprehensive notes and a bibliography which had me salivating.

It’s hard to give an idea of the scope of The Information in a short review but take it from me that it’s one of those books which peels your eyelids back and lets you see farther and wider than you could have imagined before. James Gleick manages to achieve a near perfect balance between humourous historical anecdotes and masterful scientific presentation. The previous titles I read of his were true classics in the popular science genre and this is possibly his greatest to date. Simply essential for any citizen of the information age.

Buy The Information via the Vintage website.

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Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Red Harvest by Dashiell HammettReview: Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (Vintage, 1989)

“Who shot him? I asked. The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: Somebody with a gun.”

Some years ago, thanks in main to the literary preferences of then-Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli, I embarked on a lengthy hardboiled crime fiction kick. Starting with James Ellroy’s LA Quartet I worked my way through the cream of the modern noir fiction while also taking time to dip into Raymond Chandler to see where it began. For some reason though, Dashiell Hammett, equally if not more influential, never landed on my reading list. Not until recently when an article on the greatest antiheroes ever surfaced on sci-fi blog io9. This list was naturally predominated by space-pirates and their ilk, but there in the middle lay Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. This was as sure a sign as any that I had ignored him too long.

The protagonist of Red Harvest, incidentally Hammett’s first novel, is such a quintessential antihero that he doesn’t even have a name. Representing the Continental Detective Agency, he’s an anonymous rogue element sent into the town of Personville (aka Poisonville) to get to the bottom of a recent murder. Before long  he realises that Personville is a foul open sore of a town. The key players vying for control of their tiny, inconsequential turf care only about how much power they can muster, apparently all suffering from severe cases of small-dick syndrome. It’s remarkable how little time it takes for the Continental Op to become utterly sickened with the petty internal politics of the town and begin to clean house. What begins as a simple detective story soon descends into a beautifully amoral tale of double-crosses, revenge and buckets of blood.

The inhabitants of Personville are all larger-than-life dirtbags, par for the course in the noir world. All of them are armed to the teeth axes to grind, skeletons in their closets and scores to settle. Their mutual obsession with respect, control and power makes it all too easy for the Op to inveigle his way into their confidences. Little by little he spins a masterful web of half-truths and distortions such that each of his transgressions is immediately seized upon by his prey as evidence of a grand conspiracy against them. Where’s there’s smoke there’s gunfire and once the body count starts mounting there’s no respite to be had. The criminal elements of Personville need little encouragement to do the Op’s job for him.

Red Harvest is a revenge fantasy par excellence. Of course it can be read simply as the noir yarn it is on the surface and it will be enjoyed greatly. But try reading it while thinking a little about the world you inhabit. Bring to mind those politicians lining their pockets while stripping yours bare. Think a little about your bosses and their bosses. About the lady who cut in front of you in the checkout line or the guy who stole your parking spot. About the girl/guy who cheated on you/scratched your favourite CD/forgot your birthday. Soon you’ll be seeing their faces in your mind’s eye, plastered onto the bodies Personville’s doomed criminal population. It’s a cathartic read for sure.

Above all else it’s worth reading for his prose alone. The biting humour and the terse rhythm of the writing snare you quickly and don’t let go till the bloodbath reaches it’s climax. It’s easy to see how Hammett exerted such influence, still easily recognisable today, on the noir genre and beyond. But don’t take my word for it. Pick up this book now and, if you haven’t already, augment it with The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. See a master at work, then chide your current favourite author for ripping him off so mercilessly


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Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer Government by Max BarryReview: Jennifer Government by Max Barry (Vintage, 2003)

Earlier this year I gushed about Lexicon, Max Barry’s cracking tale centred around a secret society of adepts harnessing the hidden power of words to twist the desires and actions of others. Thing is, everywhere I heard the name ‘Max Barry’ it was in reference to a previous novel, Jennifer Government. Praise gushed out of every corner of the interwebs, making it sound as though Lexicon was just amateur hour. So finally I got round to reading it and damn, am I glad I did.

Jennifer Government throws us into a grim, capitalist dystopia, a world ruled by advertising and corporations. Conglomerations of corporate entities wage a war of loyalty cards, … squaring off against … to offer the best deals and garner more willing consumers to their stable. Such is the extent of big business’s encroachment into people’s lives that even names bear witness to their power. On accepting a job with a given company your old surname is replaced and you become a walking advert, hence the titular Jennifer.

The stakes are high in this world and morals tend to take a backseat to morals when it comes to turning a profit. So when Nike decide they need a hot new campaign to promote their latest line of sneakers they turn to marketing manager Hank Nike. In a burst of creative glory, Hank decides Nike needs to return to their 80s heyday when people murdered each other for the latest must-have basketball boots. No such thing as bad publicity, right? What could be better than mass shootings on launch day? But lacking the know-how or guts to personally orchestrate the operation, Hank outsources it to the privatised Police. Who then swiftly pass the buck to their competitors, the NRA.

Needless to say the plan does not go smoothly and Jennifer Government is called in to get to the bottom of the mess. She finds herself on the trail of Billy NRA and Buy Mitsui, both unwittingly caught up in the chaos. All trails lead to John Nike at the top of the pyramid and before long the situation has spiraled out of control into full-blown warfare between corporate gangs. In this dystopic theme park the rule of law simply means who has the finances to secure the best firepower.

Jennifer Government is a great example of how to do near-future world-building. The political and cultural landscape is just familiar enough to be realistic. All Max Barry has done is stretch it a little at the edges, a few tweaks here and there playing on our fears of society’s potential failings. He never pulls too hard though, never actually tearing, just exerting enough pressure to create a comically distorted parody of our current dilemma. Even as the action starts really escalating towards the finale you never feel like he’s taking it too far, rather reaching a logical, if hilarious, conclusion.

Barry has a real knack for creating characters too. It helped keep Lexicon grounded despite its fantastical premise and plays the same role here. Everyone in this book is remarkably human, full of flaws, not entirely good yet never entirely evil. Even the novel’s Big Bad, John Nike, is far more substantial than the one-dimensional cartoon villain you’d expect to find occupying the role. He’s a perfect counterpoint to Jennifer’s damaged heroine while the supporting cast – Hank, Buy and Billy – all manage to elicit a great deal of sympathy. They’re not evil, they’re just trying to get by in a world which has screwed with their morality centres since birth.

As a political satire Jennifer Government shares a lot in common with Lauren Beukes’s Moxyland and the YA works of Cory Doctorow. But even if politics aren’t your bag it’s still a cracking read – chases, explosions, subterfuge and plenty dark comedy to go around. And despite being a whole decade old – a lifetime in today’s light-speed culture – it’s still astonishingly relevant. If you liked Lexicon this is a must-read, and if you haven’t encountered Max Barry yet this is a perfect place to start.

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Filed under Dystopian, Science Fiction