Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Encouraged by son to read this book, I have to say, it’s been a while since I’ve been so thoroughly fascinated, challenged, made to feel worried, guilty, ashamed and then infuriated by my reading material, and often in the course of a page.

The sequel to his phenomenal Homo Sapiens, in Homo Deus, Harari writes about where humans were in history, what we’ve become and where we might be heading. Drawing on a range of discoveries and thoughts in fields as diverse as the sciences, economics, philosophy, psychology, politics, humanism, liberalism, religion etc. he posits a series of facts alongside possible scenarios and invites the reader to think – deeply. Going back into early history, when humans formed an agricultural and quite violent society, he takes us forward to where we are now, a species that values not just information, but our ability to access and share it. Whereas once upon a time power was contingent on having access to a range of organic and  the kind of resources that could develop strong (as in mighty) cultures, Harari argues that nowadays, alongside some traditional forms of power, knowledge is the key. He argues that historians study the past not to repeat it, but be liberated from it.

Some of the most thought-provoking and disturbing parts of the book, for me anyhow, were what he revealed about human’s relationships with animals. I felt sickened and deeply disturbed by what he reveals and I found it shored up some personal decisions. Likewise, I found his contention (based on research and scientific evidence) that humans are basically, like all sentient beings, simply a series of algorithms at once perplexing and basic, fascinating. It’s this idea, mainly (but not exclusively) that leads him to posit that the new religion of Dataism might be our future. After all, if all we are as humans is a series of sophisticated algorithms, like other creatures with which we share the planet but who we currently feel are less sophisticated than us, what’s to stop computers, those powerful processors of data/algorithms in one day governing us? Might we, as intelligence and consciousness are uncoupled, go the way of the Dodo and other animals we have helped to extinction?

It’s a scary yet real notion and one which this book puts out there, along with some other very credible ideas, for us in the here and now to contemplate. Whether we want to change what could be a catastrophic future for all the creatures who share this planet with us is, in the end, up to us. It’s a huge responsibility – are we up for the essential challenge?

Excellent brain food which I think will nonetheless give many some indigestion!

 

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Breakthrough by Michael C. Grumley.

This book, Breakthrough, by Michael C. Grunley, was such an unexpected and pleasant surprise. Yet again, I bought on the basis of a Kindle ad (they’re working for and on me!), taken by the premise of the book and the many, many good reviews – and I was not in any way disappointed.

A combination of action-adventure, sci-fi and techno-thriller, with a large cast, Breakthrough starts by seguing between different scenarios and different characters – from a nuclear submarine beneath the Caribbean, to Antarctica, the Pentagon and a research group studying dolphins and interspecies communication. Incredibly cinematic in style, the narrative holds your attention, gripping you by the throat at times, as the various locations and the people in them are slowly brought together, united by an amazing and potentially deadly revelation.

There are those closest to power who want to act rashly before all the intelligence required to understand what is happening to the world can be gathered. Instead of listening to experts and accepting that their solution presents an even greater and catastrophic problem, there are those who think they know better and refuse to heed any warnings, regardless of the consequences or who they might hurt in the process.

The race is then on to save the planet and the global population, not so much from an outside threat or the inevitable consequences of drastic climate change, but from their very own – people they trust to act in their best interests.

Fast-paced, engaging, with charismatic and relatable characters (including the dolphins!), this is a terrific book that was hard to put down. It was also difficult not to substitute certain characters for well-known figures in contemporary politics which served to add a particular frisson to the narrative.

Enjoyed this so much, I downloaded the sequel (yay! A sequel) and am enjoying it immensely too.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Why oh why did it take me so long to read the beautifully titled, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr? I bought it not long after it came out, started it about a year later but, for some reason (I think the genres I’d been reading or what was going on in my life meant it didn’t resonate at that moment) I put it aside, promising myself I would get to it later as it was well written and I could tell the story would drag me in. Well, later came and went, it seems. That was, until a friend tweeted me a few days ago asking me if I’d read it and reviewed it and saying how powerful he found the book…

Powerful hey? That was enough of a prompt to send me back to the novel – starting from the beginning again – and basically surrender myself to Doerr’s magnificent prose and war-torn Europe. The central characters Doerr so carefully and delicately constructs (like the miniature houses the locksmith lovingly creates) insinuate themselves from the pages and, little by little, into your heart. There’s blind, clever and sweet Marie-Laure, the ambitious, soul-crushed, orphan Werner and his strong sister, Jutta; gentle dreamer with unshakeable ethics, Frederick; Etienne, and the dangerous giant with a passion for classical music, Volkheimer – all of whom are swept up in the dark forces that tore Europe apart and forever transformed its people.

Beautifully and heart-wrenchingly told, using various communication devices – from radios and sound to art, books and music, as well as science (particularly studies of various fauna) and the works of Jules Verne – as metaphors to tell the painful story of what happens to the central characters as their families, communities, cities and countries fight for dominance and/or freedom from that. The greatest battles are the interior wars the characters fight with themselves. Blindness also functions as both a metaphor and a reality. There’s the actual physical loss of sight, as well as being blind – usually wilfully – to what is happening within and around one. How even good people can be complicit in terrible things. Innocence is both lost and found, people vanish and reappear, have their greatest strengths tested and their weaknesses exposed. Dreams are destroyed and rebuilt and hope shines its effervescent light even in the dimmest of places.

I have read a number of war narratives with mixed responses and found this to be one of the most original and haunting I have found. My friend (John) was right – it is powerful, but it’s also moving, heart-warming, dramatic and painful at the same time. Your heart is masterfully juggled as you read – thrown high in the air, before being held softly in a palm or simply dropped. Gut-wrenching doesn’t begin to describe it.

This book isn’t an easy read, but it is a transformative one that I am so glad I was eventually led back to – thank you, John. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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Into The Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Having loved Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series and setting my sights from an early age on wanting to be a mermaid when I grew up, I couldn’t wait to read Grant’s latest book, Into the Drowning Deep.

When a ship, the Atargatis, destined to shoot a mockumentary in the mysterious Mariana Trench, intending to expose mythic deep-sea creatures – in other words, mermaids – as real, loses its entire crew in horrific circumstances, the whole affair is, basically, hushed up as a hoax. Nonetheless, there is shocking footage a few a privy to which tells a different and dramatic story, just as there are those who suspect that the crew stumbled upon something they shouldn’t have and paid the ultimate price.

Fast-forward to seven years later and another ship and crew are assembled by the same entertainment company that launched the first. Only this time, the purpose is to find out once and for all what the real fate of the people on board the Atargatis might have been and if what those who have witnessed the footage believe could possibly exist. Tying up the rights to any discoveries, scientific, televisual and otherwise, there are audiences to be entertained and good ratings to drive as well as a great deal of money to be made should all go according to plan – whether or not mermaids are real is, to the powers that be, secondary in the scheme of things. Included among the assembled crew are colleagues of those who never returned the first time and the embittered sister of the entertainment company’s face of the previous doomed voyage, Victoria. Determined to find out once and for all what happened to her beloved sister, Victoria, now a scientist, is also hell-bent on revenge.

The crew, scientists and others chosen to partake in this new voyage all have their reasons for being there. Friends and enemies are made, professional competitiveness rears its ugly head and all the problems associated with living in close proximity on a ship, even one afloat on a huge and dangerous ocean, come to the fore. But not even the petty jealousies and rivalries of the group can prepare them for what the deep is about to unleash upon them…

Packed with knuckle-biting excitement, characters that you love and loathe for their strengths and flaws, science and pseudo-science, this novel is a page-turner par excellence. The explanation for the crew’s discoveries, the fate of those on the former vessel and everything that happens once the Mariana Trench is reached is gratifying, nail-biting, frustrating and heart-stopping all at once.

Even though I don’t think I want to be a mermaid anymore, I couldn’t read this fast enough.

Recommended for lovers of sci-fi, fantasy, reimagining of myths, environmental impact novels, or just a darn good read.

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Origin by Dan Brown

If there’s one thing I really enjoy, it’s a page-turner of a book and, Dan Brown’s latest Robert Langdon mystery, Origin, is certainly that. Park your bottom, pour a coffee, wine or beverage of choice, put on the lamp, and begin…

Once again, the quiet, Mickey-Mouse watch-wearing Professor of Symbology, Robert Langdon (and now I always picture the wonderful Tom Hanks), is in the wrong place at the right time – the right time to thrust him into the middle of a murder investigation with potentially catastrophic, future-of-humanity-is-at-stake, life-changing consequences.

Attending the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to hear a former student of his, Edmond Kirsch, deliver a speech he claims “will change the face of science forever”, by delivering the answers to two fundamental questions that have perplexed scientists, religious minds and philosophers for centuries, what Langdon doesn’t expect is the murder and mayhem that unfolds. Though, really, on past experiences (I’m thinking Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol and Inferno) maybe he should.

After all, Edmond, a computer and high-tech genius who has made dazzling and accurate predictions for over twenty years that have gained him a global cult following, is no stranger to controversy. Not afraid to poke a religious hornet’s nest, the book opens with Edmond baiting three religious leaders by allowing them a preview of what he intends to release. For such a smart man, this seems like a dumb move as there are those among the faithful who will do anything to ensure his discovery is never revealed.

When the presentation to the world goes horribly wrong, it becomes a race against time as Professor Langdon (and his trusty watch), a beautiful female side-kick (is there any other kind?) and a very sophisticated piece of technology, work to ensure Edmond’s discovery is made public. As much as the good Professor and his helpers seek to do what they believe is right, there are those working against them who believe the same thing and will stop at nothing to ensure they fail, even if it means more bloodshed.

In the meantime, all eyes are turned to Spain – as conspiracy theories and theorists, a growing media pack, denizens of the internet and a digital and real audience simultaneously commentate upon what is happening.

Gaudi’s, Sagrada Familia

There’s no doubt, Brown has perfected the art of making sure his reader is hooked. Fast-paced, filled with didactic speeches (that are nevertheless interesting and entertaining), that reveal religion and science to be both juxtaposed and yet, not as polemically situated as one might think, Langdon’s mission is, indeed, an ideological game-changer… or is it? Tapping into the zeitgeist, Brown ensures that the questions tormenting many in the world at present such as the role of religion and faith in a technologically-savvy, rational world that constantly seeks proof and wonders can these two oppositional ways of thinking ever find common ground, are asked. Required to suspend your disbelief (which is fine), there are some strange plot points that frustrate rather than illuminate, and so impact upon the overall believability, even within this genre, of the sometimes OTT actions and consequences. Mind you, the glorious descriptions of Antoni Gaudi’s works does go someway to compensating.

As is often the case, the journey to uncover answers is often more exciting and revealing than the destination. Still, there is much to enjoy about a book that excites the mind and the mind’s eye, turns an academic into, if not a super-hero, then certainly a hero and, it seems, religious authorities into villains while concurrently overturning a great many expectations. There’s also a satisfying twist that many might see coming, but that doesn’t reduce the impact.

Overall, another fun, well-paced, Robert Langdon adventure, replete with groans, dad-jokes, and some fabulous facts. I hope he takes us on a few more.

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