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A novel of ideas that is fun

All novels about the future are in some sense about the present. But they are also about the present's desire that there be a future, and one that we have some hope of understanding. One of the attractive things about 2312 is that its central characters, who are endlessly free to zip around the inhabited parts of the solar system, are nonetheless constrained by death, irritation and falling in love.

This is a novel that begins with a funeral and ends at a wedding, even if in the interim it has had hairs-breadth escapes, terrifying plots and a near interplanetary war. Kim Stanley Robinson is a supremely rational man, and we know that his female protagonist and the man she works with will win, and end up together. That is the only outcome consonant with good sense.

The feel of this book is a little sideways from that of Robinson's classic Mars trilogy, even if it seems to take place in a universe in which many of the same things happened. The environmental collapse of Earth was narrowly avoided, or at least mitigated. Humanity has spread out among the planets, moons and asteroids, and started turning some into unspoiled earths. Everything is a perpetual project of improvement. Where the Mars books were thought – experiments in how we might get there, historical novels about the future, here there is some sense that the spreading of humanity might not be an unalloyed good thing. There is a tone of ironic teasing that was not in the earlier books.

Sculptor Swann finds herself pulled into the heart of events by the death of Alex, her grandmother. Alex was part of a conspiracy to prevent various bad things happening – supposedly impossible meteorite strikes that helped trigger implosions of habitats, which nearly kill Swann. Wahram is a plodding scientist, Swann is a flighty artist: they have to remember that Alex valued both.

The Stranger's Child
The Stranger's Child By Alan Hollinghurst cador 

This is not, though, in the end a book about its own plot or its quirky characters. It goes back to the roots of the sci-fi genre and puts at its centre utopian and dystopian visions of the social models our descendants might inhabit, with a flashy travelogue around the places they might live. It is a novel of ideas that also sets out to be tremendous fun.

Cecil Valance is a poet, aristocrat and Cambridge undergraduate, whom we meet in 1913 when he visits his friend and clandestine lover George Sawle at his home, Two Acres. Cecil also finds time for a brief flirtation with George’s younger sister, Daphne, and writes a poem for her autograph album which becomes one of his most famous works — posthumously, as he is killed in the Great War. The first 105 pages are a preternaturally vivid and deliciously readable evocation of Edwardian Britain, which might have been written by Forster or Ford Madox Ford, and the excerpts of Cecil's poetry are a pitch-perfect parody of the early 20th-century English pastoral genre of verse, written in jingling tetrameters — the titles, alone, Two Acres, Soldiers Dreaming and The Old Companions suggest a kind of sub Rupert Brooke. The next section is an equally vivid evocation of Britain in the 1920s; and the next section, Britain in the 1960s; and so on, up to 2008, and in each era the effects of Cecil’s life and death on the survivors change, as the truth becomes overlaid by mythology. A novel about time, and change, and art, and sex, and death which is also as light as a soufflé. It’s clever, subtle, melancholy and amusing at the same time. I know it is a reviewer's cliché, but I did actually miss my stop on the tube while reading this.

This short, succinct book persuasively argues the thesis that what we loosely, emotively call "evil" is more precisely a lack of empathy. The thesis is not entirely new (Mary Midgley argued for something similar in her book Wickedness) but Baron-Cohen gives it a solid scientific grounding. He argues that evils like the Holocaust (the most conspicuous example of many such atrocities) are only explicable if we postulate an empathy spectrum, on which one's position is influenced by both genes and environment. He distinguishes between affective and cognitive failures of empathy, as exhibited by psychopaths and autistic subjects, respectively. He also draws a positive conclusion: he argues that empathy is an under-used and under-appreciated resource, and that we should research ways of increasing it. Otherwise, conflict and cruelty are certain to persist in human affairs.

Empire begins with the British Empire’s disreputable origins in piracy and the slave trade, and takes us through the story of its steady accretion of territory, the crises like the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Indian Independence, as Indian nationalists call it) and the Boer War, laying bare the peculiar combination of greed, arrogance, sanctimony and religiosity that sustained it, right up to its disintegration after World War II. Paxman writes with gusto and a shrewdly judging eye. This is no apologia for Empire, but a clear-eyed condemnation of it, tinged with a kind of bemused respect for some of the more outlandish Empire-builders: Richard Burton, General Gordon, TE Lawrence. Robert Clive, on the other hand, is shown up as a scoundrel and a brute. It's not huge on analysis, but the storytelling is great. — The Independent