‘Excellent Shift Of Viewpoint’

Score: 5/5

Charles Stross
£8.99

The Laundry series was fun - a bureaucratic civil service department tasked with countering the unspeakably evil magic everywhere and making sure it didn’t become public knowledge. It was maybe showing its age though and getting a little tired.

This book kicks things into a different gear. As well as seeing the beginnings of major changes in the overall story arc (I'm trying hard not to mention anything spoilerific...) this book is told from a different character viewpoint. Instead of Bob being the narrator, it’s Mo.

That one shift leads to a big change in perspective as well as taking the plot in an entirely different direction. My empathy with the character seemed higher (as did the frequency of my saying ‘No, don’t do that...’ to her in my head) and she seemed a more fully-rounded person than Bob.

Fun to read. I’m looking forward to the next instalment now.

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‘Fine Romp Through Science’

Score: 4/5

Marcus du Sautoy
£16.59

Marcus du Sautoy was over in Belfast for our Science Festival and SWMBO and I got to see him give his talk based on this book. It was thoroughly engaging so of course she bought me the book!

The book covers far, far more than he could mention in his talk - he only really talked about 3 of the ‘edges’ out of the 7 in the book. What he did cover was interesting though.

On the other hand, I did say to SWMBO we could gauge how deep a talk it would be by noting when he mentioned Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Gödel’s proof that there are true things in mathematics (or really any formal axiomatic system) that you cannot prove are true is an obvious candidate to cover when talking about the limits of knowledge.

Or so I thought, anyway.

Sadly, Gödel didn’t crop up until the questions at the end. Ah well.

It does get talked about in the book though. The book covers so many topics that Gödel’s incompleteness theorems aren’t covered in any great depth, but they are there and covered well. (And as a side note, this reminds me how remarkable Gödel, Escher, Bach was when I read it decades ago. I have an urge to read it again, but not at £19 for the paperback! I may hunt down a secondhand copy...)

I’m a programmer though (no kidding!) so one thing I’m really disappointed that didn’t get a mention in the book is the Halting Problem.

What is the Halting Problem I hear you cry?

The problem is to determine, given a program and an input to the program, whether the program will eventually halt when run with that input. In this abstract framework, there are no resource limitations on the amount of memory or time required for the program's execution; it can take arbitrarily long, and use arbitrarily as much storage space, before halting. The question is simply whether the given program will ever halt on a particular input.

And in 1936, Turing proved that sometimes you just couldn’t know:

Turing proved no algorithm exists that always correctly decides whether, for a given arbitrary program and input, the program halts when run with that input. The essence of Turing's proof is that any such algorithm can be made to contradict itself and therefore cannot be correct.

This well-known thing-you-cannot-know seemed like such an obvious candidate for a book on Things We Cannot Know that I’m genuinely surprised it doesn't make the cut. Turing gets 4 mentions in the index, but they’re all about the Turing Test rather than this.

That quibble aside, the tour of current science in the book does cover topics like chaos, quantum mechanics, relativity, time, consciousness. And my copy of the book is signed by the man himself. No, you can’t have it.

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‘More Big, Big Ideas’

Score: 5/5

Cixin Liu
£6.29

This book was truly remarkable. It’s one of those books I want to tell everyone who is interested in science fiction to read. If you like the science-heavy (and perhaps character-light) science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, I think you’ll like this.

You do need to start with The Three Body Problem, then The Dark Forest, but it’s well worth it.

The annoying translator from the first book is back, and he once again feels the need to litter his translation with footnotes. These footnotes really do break the flow of the book. I preferred the second book’s approach - it was translated by someone else.

But even with the annoying and sometimes klunky translation, this is an incredibly thought-provoking book. It’s packed with ideas, including some of the Big Ideas from current science. Some of the ideas are questionable - I did find myself saying ‘If they could do X, why didn’t they do Y...’ a bit - the applications of some technologies seems maybe a bit inconsistent.

Even so, they’re minor quibbles about an enjoyable blast through future possibilities.

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‘Paradox Free Time Travel?’

Score: 5/5

Edward Aubry
£14.99

(Side note: look, I know the last lot of books have all been 5/5. The next few are as well. They've all been remarkably good and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them. There’s also the inherent bias in that I’ve generally stopped bothering with books I don’t like, so yeah, there’ll be a lot of 4/5s and 5/5s. Still, if your taste matches mine, books with these scores are well worth reading. And if you don’t like seeing so many 5/5s, if you’d prefer I read more piles of wank like ‘Coalescent’, tough!)

Time travel stories must be difficult to write. It’s pretty easy to point out flaws, and most have obvious problems with paradoxes. It’s how they tackle the paradoxes that can be interesting. (And let’s all agree that the Back To The Future fading photograph is a bad approach, yes?)

This book has an interesting take on the paradoxes. I’m not going to go into details (no spoilers!) but I’m heartened that it’s at least addressed.

The story itself is interesting, and the sequences of events in and out of order gives a good perspective for the character.

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‘Series Now Consistently Good’

Score: 5/5

Ben Aaronovitch
£6.99

The previous book in the series got 5/5 too, and I think this series has reached a good level now. There’s a good balance between the individual story and the overall story arc that it’s worth reading each story on its own merit as well as wondering what’s going to happen next in the series.

I do wish he’d get over his obsession with telling us all the architectural details though.

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‘First Locked Room Mystery!

Score: 5/5

Israel Zangwill
£2.57

Before Death In Paradise, before Jonathan Creek, there was this - the first ever ‘locked room’ mystery.

I do like a good puzzle, and something about this particular kind of puzzle appeals to me. SWMBO knows this, so bought me a copy of The Big Bow Mystery for Christmas. It’s out of copyright now, so it’s quite cheap to buy but you can also just legally download it from Project Gutenberg.

The setting could take a bit of getting used to - it’s set, naturally enough, in the 1890s since that’s when it was written. If you’ve read enough Sherlock Holmes (also available free on Project Gutenberg...) you’ll be familiar enough with the language and idioms though.

Did I figure out whodunnit? Nah. By the close of the book I had a few scenarios in my head and one of them was right, but I hadn’t spotted enough clues and discarded enough red herrings to narrow it down. The art of the whodunnit seems to be to give just enough clues to allow things to be figured out in hindsight, while adding a whole heap of misdirection so that the reader can’t sort out what’s important and what isn’t. There’s plenty of misdirecting fun here.

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‘Diversity In Science Fiction’

Score: 5/5

Nnedi Okorafor
£7.99

This is a short book - I didn’t know it was a novella when I ordered it so I was surprised when it turned up at less than 100 pages. £7.99 for a novella? I must be getting old.

Anyway, I enjoyed the story. I think at its core it's about diversity and alienation, and it captures those problems well. The writing does a good job showing the effects of being in the ‘out group’. The science fiction aspects are maybe a little ropier, the politics and organisations more simplistic, but that still took a back seat and I was still cheering for the main character through it all.

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‘Rationality And Cognitive Biases’

Score: 5/5

Daniel Kahneman
£7.69

I finally finished this book! It took me a long time.

I started this before we went to New Zealand in 2015. I decided not to bring it on holiday there, and that pause made it difficult to get back into it. I still picked it up every now and then, but it never really grabbed me.

That’s a shame because it really is a good book. Evidence-backed descriptions of irrationality and biases in common patterns of thinking, detailed by the man who won a Nobel prize for the research.

It’s been a few years since publication though, and it turns out there are a few problems with the book contents. It’s still a remarkable book, and worth reading. Just don’t take as long over it as I took.

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‘Forecasting Seems Hard Work’

Score: 4/5

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner
£6.99

There’s a lot to like in this book. It shows how some folks who have disproportionately good results when forecasting actually go about creating their forecasts.

A lot of it focuses on a similar theme to Thinking, Fast And Slow, a book I started over a year before I started this book but I still managed to finish this one first. Maybe that says something about their relative readability. Or my ability to stick with things.

Anyway, this book also discusses rationality and biases, and how particular people in particular circumstances have ways to overcome those biases. It provides the basis of a toolbox for the reader to follow along and learn to overcome their own forecasting biases.

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‘Series Finds Its Stride’

Score: 5/5

Ben Aaronovitch
£4.99

This is the fourth in the series and I think it’s found its stride now. This was well-paced, had a nice plot of its own, but also carried the series forward.

More like this please!

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