The Thing about the Thing Itself

9780575127739I recently finished The Thing Itself (2015) by Adam Roberts. I don’t want to reveal too much about this book because one of the pleasures of reading it is being surprised by the plot twists. And when I write ‘plot twists’ I don’t just mean revelations about the characters or developments in the order of events, I mean actual twists in the plot; moments when the plot twists into a new form or setting whilst adhering to an overall structure (albeit a structure which doesn’t become fully apparent until the end). Reading The Thing Itself feels like tracing your finger along one side of a Möbius strip: you go inside out and upside down, but eventually the twists connect together seamlessly.

The main plot follows Charles Gardner, a ‘Reading born and bred’ astrophysicist, and his experiences with Roy Curtius, a Kant-loving sociopath. There are other plots as well, which I won’t spoil.

Roberts knows how to use the perfect image to convey setting and character. Take this description of the sun in Antarctica, for example:

The sun loitered near the horizon. A cricket ball frozen in flight.

– p. 8

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Satire in the Age of Trump

In 2001 the critic and journalist Charlie Brooker was writing fake TV listings when he realised that reality had overtaken satire:

The problem, he says, is that some TV has become so bizarre, it’s pointless to try parodying it. “Touch the Truck made the point for me,” he says, referring to the show in which contestants stood round a truck touching it for as long as possible, with the last one standing winning it. “I was seriously considering just copying the listing from the Radio Times and putting that on the site straight.

Fast forward 16 years and the words of U.S. government representatives seem to be having the same effect. Take Sean Spicer, for example: the White House Press Secretary, the man who explains to the world the position of the U.S. government, spoke about dangerous five year olds, twice burped up some random letters and numbers which may have been his password, and endorsed (presumably by accident) a headline from satirical news site The Onion which stated that his job was to ‘spread misinformation’.

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The 2016 Man Booker Prize

In November I was lucky (*Kylie Minogue voice* lucky lucky lucky) enough to go the 2016 Booker Prize announcement dinner.

After a difficult journey — the train was cancelled so my Dad had to drive my mother and me into central London from Oxford — we arrived at the drinks reception in the very grand and beautiful London Guild Hall.

It was a particularly special night as my mother remembered going to the first prize dinner back in ‘69 when her father won. That, too, was also a very glamorous event, even though the prize did not yet have the international recognition it has today.

My mother and I at the dinner
My place at the table

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My food in Poland

Part of a series of posts about food I’ve eaten around the world. See: Iran

This year I spent a few days in Poland visiting a friend, Will Badger, who has lived in the country before and speaks the language pretty fluently.

I was looking forward to trying Polish food as I’d never experienced it before, with the notable exception of pierogi (more below). I wasn’t disappointed, and Will knew where to take me to get the best stuff!

My favourite meals were eaten in milk bars (bar mleczny): originally cafeterias for students and workers during the Communist times, still running today, serving good, wholesome, inexpensive food.

Oscypek  (smoked sheep cheese) with lingonberry jam. Salty, warm, melt-in-your-mouth, with a side of sweetness. I bought this one from a street vendor on a cool May evening in Warsaw:


Breakfast! Scrambled eggs, ham, cottage cheese, fresh bread, pancakes (nalesniki), and  coffee:

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My Food in Iran

This will be part of a series of food I have eaten around the world. Everything is delicious.

Koloocheh, a soft bready biscuit with a cinnamon filling (recipe here). This was comforting on a chilly December evening in Tehran, like eating a hug:


This was a nutty stew (probably Fesenjān) that our guide told me I, as a foreigner, wouldn’t like. I ordered it to teach him a lesson, but I did genuinely enjoy it. It had a strong, vinegary flavour, which I was fully prepared for that having eaten my Dad’s pickled walnuts which taste much the same:

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Celebrating Warcraft

Warcraft: The Beginning, the film adaptation of the video game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994) is now in the cinemas. It was ravaged by the mainstream press; at the time of writing it has a rating of 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it not just ‘rotten’ but rancid. The Herald Sun called it a ‘dull, soulless slurry of sucktastic SFX’. For The Guardian, watching the film was ‘like being bludgeoned by the war hammers of a thousand orcs’. One journalist working for the BBC was so angry he abruptly ended an interview with the director because he dared to defend his own film. To quote King Theoden in Lord of the Rings, ‘What can men do against such reckless hate?’

I went into the film expecting it to be a mess, but one that I would probably enjoy nonetheless, as I’m a fan of the video game series. Instead, I watched a film that I not only enjoyed immensely, but also considered a highly valuable and important contribution to the fantasy genre.

There’s been many attempts to make video game movies, and most of them have been terrible. Warcraft itself has been stuck in development hell for about a decade.

Still, studios keep trying to crack the formula that would translate the huge popularity of video game franchises into box office success, and Warcraft director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) was keen to crack the much harder artistic formula: how to translate a story from a video game, shaped by gameplay restrictions, into a cinematic story, unrestricted by anything except for length. Jones hoped that Warcraft would ‘right the wrongs’ of previous video game movies that had failed to make this leap.

For some journalists, the odds were stacked against Jones before he’d even started; The Radio Times questioned whether a video game movie could ever work, asking ‘can this kind of narrative really compete with the original version, where the adventure is [the audience’s] to choose and experience?’

The Radio Times suggests that game narratives are always interactive and defined by player actions, whilst film narratives are only passively observed, and never the twain shall meet. In fact most video games borrow heavily from the cinema.


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European Heartbreak

Like many people, I awoke to the news that the UK would leave the European Union feeling heartbroken, angry, and scared.

I have been a citizen of the E.U. since I was six, and now that part of my identity has been wrenched from me. I was proud to be European and British, the dream of Winston Churchill. Now I am no longer European and ashamed to be British.

I feel that a mistaken older generation have taken away the future of a younger generation. Vote statistics show that the share of ‘leave’ vote dramatically increased among the oldest voters so there is evidence to support that feeling.

I’ve never been more concerned and afraid for the future, but I I take some solace in nature and literature.

The land itself hasn’t changed. This is a social crisis on epic proportions but nature is as it was last week. The social and political crisis may yet destroy the land if we don’t do enough to tackle climate change, but for now, the land continues unchanged, unaffected by Brexit.

I still have fantasy and sci-fi to distract me, but also to inspire and guide me. I can look to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to see how things can get better despite cataclysmic events.

I can also look to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King to see how nature can guide us:

‘Merlyn had taught him about animals so that the single species might learn by looking at the problems of the thousands. He remembered the belligerent ants, who claimed their boundaries, and the pacific geese, who did not […] Countries would have to become like counties – but counties which could keep their own culture and local laws. The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok [a goose], and would to man if he could learn to fly’.

For the sake of peace and prosperity we must knock down walls and erase borders, whilst keeping our cultural and social identities. We should not retreat into our castles, pulling up the drawbridges. The world’s problems are our problems.