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The fat of the land has become the fat of the supermarket; and the fat of the supermarket has settled around our waistlines. Hunger is not the spectre that stalks the lives of men and women in modern consumer societies: the enemy now is greed.

When I first read Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene I became fascinated with the notion of memes. I was enthused to discover that someone had invented a theory for ‘viral culture’, a unit that represented the transmission of ideas. Dawkins also wrote in a very clear way about evolutionary science, in a manner that engaged the reader and explained concepts that rarely escaped the academic lecture hall. While I do not always agree with Dawkins, as a proselytiser of scientific theories his status on the world stage is essential in contributing to the exchange of ideas.

So when Richard Girling, a writer for the Sunday Times magazine, opens his discussion of greed as a component of human nature with a summary of Dawkins’ notion of the ‘selfish gene‘, my expectations were raised. As I have said above, Dawkins is a fine writer, one who inspired vociferous argument from other equally eloquent science writers, such as Daniel Dennett and Steven Jay Gould.

Girling rephrases Dawkins’ argument in his own words, before segueing into an anecdotal discussion of greed. Western society is one with a preponderance of available food, possessions and sex, with Girling initially drawing a connection between contemporary actions and early hominid acquisitiveness.

The difficulties with even this initial section of the book arose for me from the opening chapter. There is a confusion of tone, the scientific discussion mismatched with jocular asides and observations of British society. For the majority of the book Girling makes comparisons between his observations of life in the UK with the various studies of greed under discussion. As a result the arguments presented feel insular, perhaps understandably so given his career in the British press. Still this felt limited.

Further problems emerge when he tackles the global economy, the history of the church, feminism and third world poverty. Perhaps you can tell where I am going with this. So much of the material here is familiar. Well of course, I hear you say, this is the 287th book you have read in as many days. You are going to retrace your steps every now and again.

When Girling mentions the gross profits earned by Goldman-Sachs, I remember reading A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. When the crimes of the Church fall under discussion, I sigh, having endured the horrific descriptions of abuse featured in Geoffrey Robertson‘s excellent book. His condemnation of the WTO and the World Bank is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

There is this sense that Girling has simply absorbed the work of so many other writers and theorists and is simply splurging his interpretation back onto the page. Greed is a fascinating theme, but there is no coherent argument throughout. Is this a work of science, sociology, or economics? Of course an account of this element of human behaviour should touch on these disciplines, but the book itself feels like it is dipping in and out.

You know what? I blame Alain de Botton. Opening with appeals to various received ideas and then indulging in conversational anecdotes, it is the same formula employed by that populist philosopher.

Indulgent, repetitive and superficial. I was not greedy for more.

The big lie of American capitalism is that corporations work in their own best interests. In fact they’re constantly doing things that will eventually bring them to their knees. Most of these blunders involve toxic chemicals that any competent chemist should know to be dangerous. They pump these things into the environment and don’t event try to protect themselves.

In the opening pages of Zodiac, Sangaman Taylor snorts a bag of nitrous oxide and he describes the effect as being like having “half of an orgasm backfired in the middle of my brain“. The first time I read Neal Stephenson‘s novel Snow Crash, my reaction was comparable to Sanagaman’s druggy delirium. Here was a writer, I thought, who got *it*. Two years ago I was reading an article about Stephenson in Wired magazine, where in his latest publicity photos the author had begun to resemble a benign monk. His novels have broken out of the cyberpunk genre and his latest series the Baroque Cycle a remarkably ambitious fictionalised account of the history of ‘natural philosophy’.

The man is my guru.

Zodiac, as it happens, is a relatively early book of Stephenson’s, although still bearing the stylistic traces of ambition, humour and erudition so common in his writing.

Sangaman Taylor is a genius-level environmental activist working with a group known as GEE in the Boston area. Where other students that graduated from the same colleges as himself wound up working for the major chemical companies, S.T. became convinced that only he could stand in the way of rampant profiteering and the flagrant breaking of environmental protection laws. Not above snorkeling around punctured effluent pipe-lines, traipsing through sewer tunnels, and then holding the press conference with the chemical samples he manages to obtain, there is nothing he enjoys more than beating the corporate P.R. reps at their own game. Part intellectual Robin Hood cum media darling, S.T. enjoys the fruits of his labour, even if he has to whip the tree-hugging suporters of GEE into line every once and a while.

When a member of a family with connections to the number one polluter of Boston Harbour stands for election, S.T. goes on the warpath. Searching for evidence that connects Alvin Pleshy, nicknamed ‘The Groveler’, directly to the dumping of toxic waste by Basco, S.T. discovers a highly virulent polycarbon chemical present in the waters of the harbour. Lobsters that have absorbed the substance have been left with liquified livers. Humans who come into contact with the water themselves are coming down with a deadly infection, one that was previously seen in Vietnam, where Basco has also run factories. Then there is matter of thugs on S.T.’s trail whenever he visits the harbour in his Zodiac motor boat, a gang of murderous Satanists high on P.C.P., an attempted assassination and a corporate headhunter from a Basco subdivision who wants S.T. on their side.

Through it all S.T. makes sure to make time for beer and Vietnamese food, to keep his thinking fluid. Not even being framed as an ecoterrorist can stop his unwavering drive to put his intelligence to a good cause.

At times this book reads like a lecture on chemistry, with long discussions of covalent bonding and the degrees of toxicity we are exposed to in everyday life. Stephenson makes for an entertaining lecturer though and Sangaman is a witty tourguide on this hellish investigation of corporate irresponsibility. The environmentalist message of this book is ultimately a positive one. One man can turn the tide against systematic abuses of the law through an astute application of intelligence and cunning (it also helps to have a gang of South Boston Irish on hand as well).

There is a near-Pynchonian degree of humour and invective on display here. The book itself may well be described as an ecoterrorist tract, yet it makes a sincere appeal for greater transparency for the sake of the public good.

A punchy, complex and winningly intelligent political thriller, with a strong environmental message. Excellent stuff.

There is a maxim about the universe which I always tell my students: That which is not explicitly forbidden is guaranteed to occur. Or, as Data said in the episode “Parallel’s,” referring to the laws of quantum mechanics, “All things which can occur, do occur.” This is the spirit with which I think one should approach the physics of Star Trek. We must consider the distinction not between what is practical and what is not, but between what is possible and what is not.

I used to think my inability to understand secondary school physics was due to my having to learn it in Gaelic for four years. Then I switched to an English language school and was quickly disabused of that notion. I just have no head for science.

Science fiction, now that I can understand, as the various technobabble and scientific theories introduced into the plot is only so much garnish on a narrative unbound by realism. An ad hoc explanation or two allows the readers to understand the story being told. Star Trek is that rare thing, a work of science fiction that can be enjoyed by both those more academically inclined (ie, not me) and those who simply enjoy a good story.

This is something Lawrence M. Krauss takes full advantage of with his book, a discussion of physics as applied to the fictional universe of Star Trek. As a professor of physics, Krauss is obviously excited to be able to pass on his insights into scientific theories without having to resort to ‘Idiot’s Guide To...’

Interestingly Krauss admits that it was the notion of a transport, that cornerstone of Trek, that initially piqued his interest in writing the book. In order to facilitate a stylistic choice – creator Gene Roddenberry apparently was forced to figure out a way of allowing his characters to visit alien worlds without landing the ship, as it resembled a fountain feature – the writers of the original show hit upon the notion of matter transportation. A special effect of swirly lights, having a continuity person on hand to make sure the actor hit the same mark when on a different set and the conundrum was solved. However, because Star Trek was such popular show with science geeks – and one which, lest we forget, pitched itself as an attainable future utopia for all of mankind – the show’s creators eventually felt that an explanation for transportation machines, replicators, warp drives etc. would have to be provided and would need to be, at least theoretically, explicable in real scientific terms. This is where Krauss comes in.

His assessments of the different levels of plausibility can make for amusing reading. One example of how, in his opinion, Star Trek managed to anticipate actual physics through its own creative efforts (no doubt dreamt up in a rush to meet a script deadline) is the concept of the black hole. Krauss points out that mere months before Archibald Wheeler first coined the term, Star Trek portrayed a very similar phenomenon, though in the series it was termed a ‘black star’.  Then there are examples of scientists “just for fun”, attempting to look into concepts pioneered by the show, such as when Miguel Alcubierre attempted to formulate a theory for warp travel.

Personally one aspect of Star Trek that always fascinated me was the concept of a holodeck. Krauss points out that the crew of the Starship Enterprise are unusually coy about how they use the facility to create any virtual environment they can imagine (oo look at this!). Like John Zerzan, whose Why I Hate Star Trek I recommend as an alternative discussion of the series, Krauss wonders if the crew were sexless drones, incapable of using the holodeck to fuel baser interests. Happily British show Red Dwarf had no such scruples.

Where I find myself becoming the traditional Star Trek geek, and thusly enraged to a nonsensical hysteria so much that I ignore the very worthy and informative project of The Physics of Star Trek, is Krauss’ repeated references to the character of William Riker as a ‘Lieutenant’. He was the Commander dammit! When Krauss himself becomes tellingly pedantic – such as sneering that Deanna Troy had no understanding of anti-matter containment – that only made my geek-rage worse. The ship runs on anti-matter, sure, but I wouldn’t know how to fix a car engine. Why should she know the in’s and out’s of how the ship runs?

Caveats aside this is ultimately a very entertaining discussion of physics.


Moulin told him of the fear of the disembodied voice. It terrified humanity in the eighteen seventies and it terrified humanity still. Hearing voices when there was no one there. A characteristic of mystical communion, of insanity. It was the preserve of the spirit world. The switchboard was a Ouija board to a sensitive mind and Chip should be aware.

I used to dream of becoming an astronaut. Then my cousin explained to me that if I did travel to the moon, an asteroid would punch a hole in my head.

That killed that dream dead.

Chip is a one-armed hotel receptionist whose best-friend is a one-legged cab driver. No one knows how Chip lost his arm. He constantly gives different stories behind the tragedy – shark attack among the more lurid examples. All that the people of the small town Chip has landed in know about him is that he is a) English and b) somewhat obsessed with shuttle launches.

As it happens, the town – and Chip’s place of employment E Z Sleep Hotel – is quite near a NASA launch site. The winner of a recent reality tv show, Sally, is on board the latest shuttle, courtesy of a bottled water company. The residents at the E Z Sleep Hotel are alarmed when Chip lets out a loud bellow to celebrate. As it turns out Chip has a very specific reason for having such an interest in space travel. See he has organised a very special party, with eight other guests. Most of them hate Chip with a troubling intensity. They are all, like him wounded, disturbed versions of their former selves. Through Sally’s memories we learn what happened to the group, while Chip in the present-day contends with an increasingly surreal assortment of hotel guests, including the owner of the E Z franchise itself, Mr Moulin, who has a very particular sexual fetish.

Cut-throat reality television contests, dementia, the Bilderberg group and some really foul-tasting mineral water, contribute to one very crazy night filled with mayhem and death. If Chip survives until the morning shift without losing another limb he will be doing well.

The majority of the book is occupied with long rambling conversations. This allows Nick Walker to indulge in blackly comic dialogue. One sex phone-line customer discovers that the ideal sexual fantasy is harder to acquire than he thought possible and Mr Moulin’s increasingly mad phone calls to Chip read like a parody of Hunter S. Thompson. The novel’s satirical targets are also hit hard and often. Reality television in particular is subject to a steady stream of mockery. The contestants rivalling Sally for her seat on the space shuttle are not even given names, in recognition of how the general public think of them – The Model, The Chef, The Radar Operator and The Comedienne. Hounded by a team of intrusive camera-men, the cast are each eliminated and left broken by the process. Sally is not so much the most suitable candidate, as much as she is the last one standing. Pointedly it is revealed that she was referred to by fans of the show as ‘The Black One’.

Unfortunately, despite the occasional chuckle, I found this book’s cynicism suffocating. Constant, needling mockery does not a plot make – the story contorts itself into stranger and stranger shapes. When members of the cast start suffering from more extreme injuries and/or death, it almost makes no impression at all. They have become cyphers, denizens of a bizarre and tortured satirical universe.

Maybe I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.

She reaches out with a careful finger. The butterfly startles, then allows her to gather it in, to walk it into her cupped palm. It has come a long distance. It must be tired. As tired as she feels. It has travelled continents. Crossed high steppes and emerald jungles to land here, amongst hibiscus and paving stones, so that Kanya can now hold it in her hand and appreciate its beauty. Such a long way to travel.

Kanya makes a fist on its fluttering. Opens her hand and lets its dust drop to the tiles. WIng fragments and pulped body. A manufactured pollinator, wafted from some PurCal laboratory most likely.

Windups have no souls. But they are beautiful.

Five years ago I read Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, an assessment of our society’s chances of surviving ‘Peak Oil’. Resource wars are no longer some grim prophecy of futurists – they are a increasingly likely outcome for first-world nations with a global reach. Speculative fiction can often play a role in navigating such grim portents. With this novel, the notion of a complete collapse of petroleum economies is taken as a given. What is proposed is a radical alternative that equally boxes in the described society of the future into yet more debilitating conflicts and regimes change.  

In the wake of devastating collapse of crops due to genetically engineered diseases, Thailand was one of the few countries left still standing. The young Queen in Bangkok rules over a much enlarged kingdom, with refugees fleeing religious persecution in China pouring over its borders and American company men attempting to curry favour with the regime by setting up new businesses in a country that has survived civil wars and plague. Anderson Lake is one such man, wandering the street markets of Bangkok examining the fruit on sale that speaks to hidden seed farms, secured away from prying eyes. As a farang he is barely tolerated; as a company man possibly connected to the same enclaves that accidentally released genetically engineered viruses years ago, it is a wonder he has not been killed.

His aide Hock Seng is a Chinese refugee who is juggling one too many schemes in order to survive. He tries to keep Lake happy, while also paying bribes to Thai officials, the white shirts, and skimming off the top for himself. He runs a factory for Lake that specialises in growing algae cultures that can be converted into energy. The machinery is prone to breaking down, there is a danger of rampant contamination and the city’s trade unions prevent him from keeping the workers in line. Still he plots and plans to escape Bangkok, even in the face of growing tensions.

Then there is Emiko, a windup, a genetically perfect humanoid, abandoned by her Japanese creators to the slums of Bangkok. Her life is conditioned by instinctual commands she cannot resist. She is programmed to serve, to seek out an authority figure. Unfortunately there are places in Bangkok that specialize in debasement for the purposes of entertaining farang businessmen and corrupt Thai officials. Her master Raleigh has her perform on stage, publically abused and violated sexually to drunken cheers. When she happens to overhear mention of a rogue genetic engineer hiding out in the city, she is introduced to a man who will gladly pay to hear more – Anderson Lake. He looks at her with a mixture of disgust and disinterest, but she thinks she can see a glimmer of pity in his eyes as well.

Finally there is the Tiger, Jaidee, the famously incorruptible white shirt on the hunt for conspirators within the houses of government itself. He trusts his partner Kanya with his life, but when he confiscates precious carg, he discovers who his true allies are.

There is so much going on in this book, so many overlapping plots, that at first it might appear quite dense. The Windup Girl, however, builds into an epic tragedy, a truly astonishing debut from Paolo Bacigalupi that fascinates in its description of neo-colonialism. At times it resembles an inversion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which showed audiences a vision of a future-America dominated by Chinese culture. Then there’s this article from io9 describing how Rian Johnson’s next sf film has received funding for depicting another Sino-futuristic setting.

I found the scenes of Emiko being raped horribly disturbing, but as a whole the book is undoubtedly an astonishing creation.

Researchers today estimate that over two billion dollars changed hands in 2009 in exchange for items that exist only within virtual worlds. When tens of millions of people start spending billions of dollars on virtual objects, there will inevitably be disputes that lead to lawsuits. The questions that these lawsuits raise seem unusual enough to warrant a separate field of legal analysis. The generic term for this new field is “virtual law.”

I have been really looking forward to writing this review, as not only do I get to talk about this book – I can direct you to where you can find the book in PDF form (Here). The author’s website has further information on his research. I should mention I was originally directed to Lastowka by io9’s article published this week.

That felt good. I like to share.

Greg Lastowka opens his book on the legal ramifications of online conduct by comparing three castles, representing three states of law. Firstly he introduces the era of the physical castle itself, a fortified site of power for regants and later gentrified land-owners. Property law today still descends from the relationship of those who lived on the land of these castle inhabitants, with ‘landlord’, and ‘tenants’, the tell-tale references to the past. Then we have Disney’s Cinderella Castle, that fantastical gateway to the Magical Kingdom(TM) that actually enjoys surprising autonomy in its zoning laws, courtesy of clever negotiation on the part of Disney with Florida state officials. Finally we have the castle of Lord Britain. You may not of heard of him. He exists in the game series Ultima, has occasionally served as an alter-ego for developer Richard Garriott.

Lastowka relays two interesting anecdotes in regards to Ultima. The first describes how ‘virtual property’, such as a castle that can be owned within the game by a player, has become so desirable that it holds actual financial value. This is something that is common to many game series. In fact developers now market downloadable content for games such as Oblivion to players for a nominal fee. Lastowka asks, if virtual property has value, then shouldn’t the laws regarding ‘real property’, also apply?

The second Ultima tale also presents something of a riddle. In what almost sounds like the beginnings of a fairy tale, it appears Garriott as Lord Britain witnessed a player being robbed by another player. He intervened and using his in-game abilities, defeated the thief. Then moments later the ‘criminal’, repeated the same act. Garriott this time banned the player from Ultima, only to be confronted with the argument that if the game did not explicitly ban such behaviour, theft in this instance, the player should not therefore be punished so disproportionately.

Lastowka discusses how other online and virtual platforms such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, even Facebook’s Farmville (and I would include social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and the like also) have continually frustrated legal precedence, as the laws relating to theft, assault, libel are bound to geographical jurisdictions. Where is the jurisdiction when the perpetrator and the victim are separated by thousands of miles, with the servers where the event, in situ, happened in an entirely different location again?

Even online behaviour is held to a different standard from the Real World. Are husbands and wives who indulge in in-game relationships with virtual avatars guilty of adultery? Can an emotional attachment to a stranger wearing a digital body be considered real? We have the tragic case of Qiu Chengwei, who committed murder after his virtual sword was stolen and the police refused to get involved. As much as the ‘Dragon Saber’, sword may not have seemed important to the police, in Qui Chengwei’s eyes it was something worth killing for.

How does the law regulate such acts if some see the matter relating to fantasy and others a profoundly personal reality? John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace articulates the feeling of many online pioneers, that the internet is a virtual state and not beholden to the legalities of the physical world. This is a notion that often crops up in discussions of online censorship.

However, such appeals to freedom and group self-policing do not account for the need for legal protection and prosecution of cybercrime. This conflict between the idealised anarchist online state and legal precedent continues today.

As a causal online gamer, I found this to be a very interesting book. It eschews legalese and is quite well argued. Recommended.

I swallowed a pill and recklessly lit a cigarette and concentrated on not throwing up. I don’t know how much it was actually motion sickness. A lot of it was fear. There is something very frightening about knowing that there is nothing between you and instant, ugly death except a thin skin of metal made by some peculiar strangers half a million years ago.

This is funny. I enjoyed reading Joan Didion’s book from yesterday, with its descriptions of immigrants and pioneers crossing the wilds of America and then I pick up this book – which once again describes a host of people setting out for the unknown. Except in this instance, Frederick Pohl is describing people catapulting themselves out into the vastness of space itself.

Robinette Broadhead hates his name. He has tried to go by Bob, or Rob, or Robbie, but none of these attempts at settling himself with a new title work. It’s an essential conflict within himself that he has lived with his entire life, one plagued by indecision and guilt. His mother was a miner and died when he was quite young. He blames himself for this and when he wins a lottery that would ensure he never would have to risk the same fate, he spends his earnings on a ticket to Gateway, a mysterious structure in orbit around Venus.

Gateway was built by an alien race known as the Heechee, long gone already. The humans who first discovered it found a docking bay of sorts, filled with a collection of vessels designed for interstellar flight. Those brave enough to climb into these spaceships and operate the controls were catapulted across the galaxy to strange new stars. Sometimes they would return with more evidence of the Heechee civilization and be rewarded generously by the corporation that controls Gateway. Many never return, or their ships do, with the crew long dead.

In cashing in his chips to avail of this opportunity Robinette has elected to pursue an even more dangerous career than the one that claimed his mother’s life. It did work out for him though. He made a huge score, one that has bankrolled a life of leisure and easy living. So why does he attend therapy sessions with a robot every week? What happened during his last trip out from Gateway that has caused him so much guilt? How could someone as interminably indecisive as him have become a winner?

Pohl alternates between Robinette’s therapy sessions with Sigfrid, who does occasionally utilise a holographic image of Sigmund Freud, and his life between journeys out into space on Gateway. Deeply in denial about what has occurred, this analysand makes life very hard for his robot analyst, cursing and abusing poor Sigfrid despite the fact that no one is forcing him to attend these sessions. No one has even ordered him to strap himself down each time. While Sigfrid finds it difficult to get Robinette to answer a simple question about last night’s dream, the reader is made privy to his experiences in training, his growing love affair with a veteran space traveller and his own sexual ambiguity.

This future society of Pohl’s devising is also very convincingly imagined. For one the human race is struggling due to a serious lack of resources. The discovery of Heechee artefacts was a remarkable stroke of luck. Much of the life of Gateway explorers relies upon luck. They do not understand the Heechee vessels they travel in, or even after almost two decades of exploration know anymore about that alien civilization than they did when they first discovered the station. Dumb luck is a recurring phrase within the book and these space prospectors toss themselves into the void with little hope of returning unharmed by the perilous journey.

The novel’s themes are all beautifully illustrated by Robinette’s profound survivor’s guilt. I also admire how Pohl lets us get to know his protagonist and the people in his life, taking the time to develop their characters. As the book progresses the tension surrounding whatever event caused Robinette to enter therapy despite his boundless success continues to build.

This is masterfully written, character-driven science fiction.

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