Review: Superior by Angela Saini

Science journalist Angela Saini’s third book Superior: the Return of Race Science is a very timely survey of the history and contemporary impact of the attempts to use science to prop up racism and beliefs about race.

From Carl Linnaeus to the sinister Pioneer Fund, Saini maps the shifts both in actual understanding and the layers of post-hoc rationalisations for prejudices. She does this with minimal (but appropriate) editorialising and instead lets the views of a very wide range of interviewees inform the reader about how views have shifted or, in some cases, stubbornly refused to shift.

Much of it covered topics and personalities I was already familiar with and if you have read books like Stephen J Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the background. However, Saini takes a broader survey and branches out into topics like the misguided but often well intentioned use of race in prescription medicines. I found that the sections that covered areas I was already very familiar with where both interesting and provided good insights, although I obviously got more value out of the sections on topics I was less aware of.

Saini also charts recent events such as the rise of the alt-right, the renewed ideological racism in populist governments (in particular Trump’s America but also Modi’s Hindu nationalism) and demonstrates how the 18th century obsession with race is connected to modern concerns and pseudoscience.

The people-centred approach of the book gives it a very human quality. Saini has a knack at humanising many of the protagonists without excusing or apologising either for their mistakes or (in many cases) their bigotry. Rather, by focusing on the individuals her approach highlights their motives and in the cases of many of the scientists involved how they managed to fool themselves into thinking they had transcended their own prejudices and somehow found objective truths instead of discovering convoluted ways of having their own biased assumptions echoing back to them.

I listened to the audio-book version which is narrated by Saini herself. I really highly recommend this book both in terms of the insights she gives on the topic but also as an example of excellent modern science writing.

Currently Reading: A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

This is proving to be every bit as good as people said it would be. An ambassador from a space habitat that controls access to a key navigation route is sent to the heart of a hegemonic empire. Mahit Dzmare has spent her life studying the literature of the not-so-benevolent Teixcalaanli Empire and is both enamoured and wary of the culture she has to navigate. The death of her predecessor is not her only problem, as she finds herself amid the courtly machinations of the Teixcalaanli elite. Luckily she has the aid of the former (and now dead) ambassador but unfortunately he is an out-of-date back up copy and the implant he is stored in maybe broken…

It’s great stuff. A bit of Iain M Banks and a bit of Ann Leckie and a lot of originality within a familiar frame. I’m currently listening to the audio book version on my socially-distant solitary bush walks.

Now this may sound odd but…it also sort of reminds me of the recent Detective Pickachu movie. The parallels aren’t exact but there are these odd echoes between the two.

Currently Reading: The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota 3) by Ada Palmer

How behind am I in the books I intended to read some time ago? Not as far behind as the rest of you because I know you are all even worse and have to live in constant fear that the towers of unread books will collapse on top of you resulting in a headline in your local newspaper about the eccentric person who was eventually murdered by their own book collection.

So where were we? Palmer’s future society of hives (quasi-states that exist independent of physical territory) has learned of the conspiracy of elite leaders centred on Madame and also of the Humanist Hive’s OS operation – the selective assassination of people to keep society as a whole stable. The bountiful but uneasy peace between the many factions of the world is unravelling much as our narrator, Mycroft Canner, originally intended when he was a teenager and committed a series of brutal murders to shock society into conflict.

The possibly less murderous Mycroft’s previous accounts (Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders) charted the events leading up to the revelations. That account is now (in universe) public knowledge. In The Will to Battle Mycroft has been charged with maintaining a secret account of the run up to the apparently inevitable war between the Hives.

Central to the shift to a war footing is Achilles, as in the legendary Greek hero of the Iliad. Or maybe not. Achilles is both a former small plastic toy soldier (known as the Major) owned by the possibly magical child Bridger and also a transformed version of Bridger. The actual nature of Bridger/Major/Achilles is as yet unknown.

I will be continuing the Notes Ignota series, mainly because I enjoy reading the books this way, underlining words and adding question marks and chasing down references.

Currently Listening/Reading To: Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky + Hugo Novelettes

I wasn’t supposed to start something new until I’d finished all my Hugo reading and I have the most recent Expanse book sitting right there on my Kindle like an avatar of temptation. But, I needed an audio book because I was doing garden stuff and my finger just pressed the ‘buy’ button.

Anyway, so far the book starts in a similar way to Children of Time. Human terraformers, far from an Earth that is descending into political chaos, some inadvisable experiments in cognitive uplift on animals (and what an interesting choice of animal it is…) and some quirky characters. The spiders from the previous book are set to re-appear in the next section.

Meanwhile, in non-auditory mediums I am reading novelettes. Making use of JJ’s “Where to Find the Hugo Finalists…” post, the links to them are

Just on what I’ve read so far, this is a strong field and a tricky one to rank. There are some really interesting stories here in very diverse styles. Brooke Bolander’s radioactive elephants would be what I would bet on but there’s lots to be said about Tina Connolly’s story and Naomi Kritzer’s is quite strong also.

Currently Reading…Hugo Finalists

So my Kindle and I went to some high up places and did some solid reading. This is what has been read so far:

  • Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)
  • Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
  • Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing) – Novella
  • “The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018) – Novelette
  • Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
  • Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager

Left to go in the story categories are:

  • Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan) – Novel, (currently reading)
  • Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com publishing)
    The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com publishing) – Novella
  • Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson (Tor.com publishing) – Novella
  • The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency) – Novella
  • “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018) – Novelette
  • “Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com, 19 September 2018) – Novelette
  • “When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018) – Novelette

I’ll start posting reviews of novel finalists this week. In the meantime, here is a photo of my Kindle part way up the walk to Paro Taktsang aka The Tiger’s Nest Monastery. I had a chest cold, so I had planned only to do part of the initial walk up. In the end I did most of the big hike up but decided discretion was the better part of valour at this and hung out at this spot reading Revenant Gun. I always regretted not taking a picture of the Fifth Season by Machu Picchu (easily THE best pairing of book & location I’ve ever done) but this is a close second.

Currently Reading: The Labyrinth Index (Laundry Files) by Charles Stross

The narrator is Mhari Murphy this time, the corporate vampire recruited into the Laundry several books ago. Things, as they say, have already spiralled out of control before the book starts with many of the kinds of things the Laundry had tried to prevent in earlier books now well under way — notably a charismatic Lovecraftian demonic being safely ensconced as Prime Minister.

Also, still listenining to Jo Walton’s Thessaly series in audiobook format. I’ve nearly finished Neccesity and I’ll write some thoughts about all of them later.

Currently Listening: The Just City by Jo Walton

Whatttt????? I’m consuming TWO books at the same time???? What madness is this!

I had a substantial load of gardening to do and I’m a bad gardener and my mind wanders and I end up doing something else. So as a reward/incentive/life-hack I thought ‘audio book’. Lots of people like audio books but aside from some family road trips, I’ve never really tried them.

I used the Apple Store on my phone rather than Amazon and bought the first book I could find that was on my intended-to-read list but not actually lurking unread on my Kindle.

Jo Walton’s The Just City was an obvious choice. The immortal (and time traveling) Athena hears the prayers of numerous mortals scattered across time who, having read Plato’s Republic, earnestly wish to live there. Pulling these people through time she helps a mismatched group of philosophers and idealists establish a practical version of Plato’s vision on the as yet un-exploded island of Thera (modern Santorini).

Obviously this is all going to go horribly wrong.

Currently Reading: State Tectonics by Malka Older

I’ve been basically binge reading the whole Centennial series starting with Infomocracy. The series story arc, a mystery surrounding who is disrupting the global micro-democracy system and why (and also how), is coming to a head as another election cycle looms.

I’ve found the books work better when I get a solid chunk of time to read. Each chapter moves between multiple characters, with a focus on (typically) small events that build up to more substantial revelations. I find that it takes me a moment to get into the rhythm of the books which makes it harder to dip in and out of.

I’ll do a review of Null States and State Tectonics together when I’ve finished.