Archive for December, 2017

Review: Artemis, by Andy Weir

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian, was nearly perfect. As I read it, I remember thinking: This is why I used to love reading science fiction. The film version starring Matt Damon, while passable, didn’t capture even a fraction of the magic of a book that was a paean to science.

Artemis, Weir’s second book, is set on the Moon. Like The Martian, its lead character faces a number of challenges, and solves them using science and reason.

And there the resemblance ends. Artemis feels wrong from the very first page and gets wronger as the book progresses. Though Weir gets that a human city on the Moon sometime in next century is likely to be populated by peoples of all countries (Artemis is the name of that city), its component parts are named after American astronauts. One of the four people immortalised in this way is Alan Shepard who was, um, the second man in space after the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Weir’s American-centric view of the world — in spite of making his lead character an Arab woman (who is Saudi only in name – she behaves exactly like a young American woman would) — can be summed up in this sentence: “Thank god [sic] Vietnamese uses a subset of the English alphabet.” (I wonder what alphabet the author thinks the French or Germans use — are these all “subsets of the English”?)

The plot is absurd, the characters two dimensional, even the imagined future city poorly thought out. I was so excited when I saw that the author of a great book like The Martian had written another – and so disappointed by this result.

Review: Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait, by Victor Sebestyen

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

This is the first major biography of the Soviet leader to appear in two decades, and comes as the world marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

It is a tremendous achievement.

Sebestyen has dug deep into the archives, reading through family correspondence, diaries and more to get a sense of who Lenin really was. He points out, for example, that Lenin was very close to a number of women, including his wife Krupskaya and his mistress, Inessa Armand, as well as his sisters. He had few close, long-term male friends.

The book is unsparing in its criticism of Lenin as the leader of Soviet Russia. One story it recounts tells it all:

In October 1919 Lenin asks the leader of his secret police (the Cheka) how many “dangerous counter-revolutionaries are being held in its jails at that moment. He’s given a written reply, giving the number of about 1,500. Lenin marks the page with an “X” to indicate that he read it. The Cheka interprets that to mean they are to be killed and hundreds of unarmed, defenceless prisoners are killed that very night in Moscow. Oops.

There are still people on the Left, particularly in Britain, who have a soft spot for Lenin. I urge them to read this book now.