‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ by Becky Chambers

What a great title, I thought, as I passed this by in the book shop. Months later, having been lent it by Ms O, I can tell you it’s a great read.

It’s SF. It’s won awards. It didn’t seem to be my sort of science fiction, because it is a stream of constant invention rather than an exploration of one basic premise- like huge carnivorous plants (Day of the Triffids), or an alien artefact on the moon (2001- A Space Odyssey). After the first 20 pages, I nearly gave up, but I’m very glad I didn’t. Eventually the invention was thrilling. I’ll try to explain.

The basic premise is that a spaceship has been hired to make a long journey to a potential war zone (the small angry planet) to create a hyperspace tunnel. The ship is a motley collection of technology and is crewed by a motley collection of humans and other species, including an artificial intelligence. A lot of fun is in the description of the aliens (how can you not like a book which uses the phrase “chitinous blue exoskeletons”?), their interactions and relationships, even including inter-species sex. (No it’s not pornographic. But don’t let that put you off.) There is no real chief protagonist, though some of the crew get more attention than others.

Then there’s the technology and “science”- which eventually captivated me. Tunnelling through hyperspace- lockjaw clips- ambi- scribs- sib transmitters- voxes- modders- catastrophic cascade failures- fixbots; the list goes on and on. I don’t pretend to understand what all of it does, and especially how a spaceship can run on algae, but the creativity is addictive, without there ever being a cheap “magic wand” solution to problems.

In Ms O’s always highly intelligent opinion, a chief quality of this book is the personal interaction- the human or sapient element rather than the space opera element. There is however also a powerful plot. I have to admit that some of the personal moments actually made me cry. I feel some of the writing is a bit “young adult”, although I can’t find examples, but it’s a lovely book. Pleasingly there is a sequel, ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ which seems to pick up some of the unresolved elements. I look forward to reading it.

small angry planet

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‘Racing Through the Dark: The fall and rise of David Millar’ by David Millar

David Millar will be known, to anybody who has followed the Tour de France on ITV4, as a commentator, with a rather lovely voice and a very informed and clear outlook. Anybody who knows little about cycling will perhaps never have heard of him.

He was formerly a top professional cyclist, who achieved some notoriety additionally to his cycling fame when he was exposed as a doper. This book is, as the title says, the story of his fall and subsequent rise. It’s rather good, so much so that it has just earned an Oblique re-read.

DSCN6799Apart from beginning with some forward glimpses, the structure is pretty much chronological, to my pleasure; I have read too much recently which tries to be clever by dodging around in time and ends up being confusing. It’s very good on David Millar’s early life: born in Malta, raised in Britain and Hong Kong by his divorced parents. I found the everyday details of his early life as a professional cyclist absorbing, as with the subsequent account of his rise to success. It is written “in collaboration” with Jeremy Whittle, but reads very much as Millar’s own voice.

Gradually, one realises the pressures on him to start doping; how he is never going to achieve the success he craves and deserves if he doesn’t give up his intention to stay clean and ‘prepare’ for the key races. He is very good on the conspiracy of silence which stops people disclosing the real secrets of drug use. This is what kept Lance Armstrong’s image so clean for so long. (At the time of publication of this book, in 2011, the Armstrong scandal had still not broken.)

Millar tells the story of his fall matter of factly, explaining his motivation without making excuses. He doesn’t flinch from the details of injecting and taking precautions not to be found out. What is remarkable is how he recovered: he has since taken a very firm anti-doping stance, and had some success when he resumed his career. This is the ‘rise’ of the title.

It’s difficult to know how people who are not keen on cycling would take to this book. I think it’s a great human story, as well as a sporting one, told with humour and I believe honesty. Recommended.

(David Millar has published another book about life as a professional cyclist subsequent to this one, which I have not read. Both were in the bookshop I visited today.)

Lion (2016 film by Garth Davis)

A wonderful film exploring the emotions of adoption, loss and displacement.

The basic premise of this film, which will as usual sound simplistic, is that a young Indian boy from an extremely poor background gets lost and ends up a thousand miles from home. Yes, really. He is eventually adopted by an Australian couple, but as an adult realises that he has a deep need to find his birth mother and his brother. It is based on a true story.

I won’t give any more away, but of course it goes far deeper than that, particularly focusing on the complicated web of emotions involved, for the boy, his birth mother, his adoptive parents, his girlfriend, his adopted brother, and others. It is set, beautifully, at first in India and then Tasmania. I suppose you could castigate me for implying that the poverty portrayed in India is beautiful; but the photography is vivid.

Image result for Dev Patel LionThe acting is outstanding, particularly from Sunny Pawar as the young boy. It is very hard to believe he is playing a part, he’s so naturalistic and convincing. He says very little. Dev Patel (pictured: he from Slumdog Millionaire) is the boy as an adult and is extremely good, showing emotion without milking it. (He is also very beautiful. So I believe.) The adoptive parents, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, pack a real emotional punch for me; and here is where it gets difficult to write an objective review.

We are adoptive parents four times over, and although no film can depict every emotional state involved in adoption, as all adoptions are of course totally different, I don’t believe that this one could be bettered in that task. There is joy, sadness, heartache, loss, at all stages. They never go. It’s extraordinarily difficult to empathise with all the participants in adoption, and I believe this does just that. Of course I am going to have a particular identification with the adoptive parents. Phrases like “my real parents” really pack a punch for me, whereas they probably mean little for anybody not involved. Perhaps, if I am going to be at all picky, the parents are a little too wonderful; but perhaps I am just too aware of my own shortcomings.

I cannot think that any film could give you more of an insight into adoption and still be entertaining. Maybe it makes the adoption process look too easy, though of course I have no knowledge of what it is like in Australia. Maybe it does not acknowledge the cultural problems. BUT if you want to have a very good idea of the feelings involved in adoption, then go and see it….. Oh, go and see it anyway. It’s a great film. Why didn’t it get a shed load of Oscars?

Yes, I cried.