Book Review: ‘Science and Secularism’ by Dan Dana

Science and Secularism by Dan Dana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


‘Science and Secularism’ is a journey, described three times and in three ways.

It starts with a brief life story – how the author got to the beliefs he holds now. Next come the Haiku sets, evoking his wonder at natural phenomena – a wonder which, he argues here, needs no additional thought of a ‘creator’ of any kind.

The final section sets out the most typical argument in favour of atheism: that there is no measurable evidence for a ‘creator’, nor any logical explanation of how such a thing could exist.


The opening section, with its description of the revelations about different religions, about merging into broader and broader ‘families’ of faith, is a nice sequence – representing literally a broadening of the mind.

The logic is sound: with so many religions, which in some places contradict each other but each of whose followers believe is the ‘right’ religion, which one is right? And whichever it is, the others, if they’re different, must have something wrong with them.

It is rather spoiled by an ambiguity in the third paragraph, near the beginning, in which the sentence structure implies that the adults in the culture to which he was born – or possibly adults in most cultures – had no understanding of Science. Also, to be honest, I wondered how one can breach a moat.

By taking the “there’s a huge variety of religions among people, leading to inevitable contradictions and thus the question of which one is correct” line of argument against religion as truth rather than the more traditional “There is no direct evidence of God” line, the author has also indirectly tackled the “yes but there’s no direct measurement of ‘love’ either – only of the effect it has upon people” counter-argument to the latter. After all, unlike with any ‘God’, all human beings are in agreement about what ‘love’ is, and what it does.

So: is Atheism a faith? The argument posed here is that it is not, because with no direct evidence for any god(s), it’s the most reasonable thing to believe.

The haiku sets are in two sections: Secular, and Science.

Among the Secularism Haiku (sets 1 – 10) I most appreciated the second, with its joke about ‘Not collecting foreign stamps’ bordering on the Zen. Does ‘nothing’ – i.e. the lack of things – have an existence all of its own?

The Science Haiku (sets 11 – 27) evoke the ‘sense of wonder’ the non-religious feel, without the need to invoke a ‘creating power’ of which to be in awe. Even after more than half a century of fascination with astronomy and cosmology some of us, myself included, still feel like “a wide-eyed passenger hurtling through spacetime.”

I loved the wry humour of “this haiku’s not infinite – I’ve reached the edge now.”
The penultimate haiku, in praise of water, which exists in a tiny range of temperatures and makes life possible, included a nice metaphor – Mars’ skeleton key – while the final haiku sets out our stark existential choice.

The Haiku sets are followed by the final section, dedicated to debunking Creationism, the angle taken being that Pandeism (the belief that a creator, having created everything, now becomes the things they have created and so is no longer directly detectable). This has in common with the more conventional religions, the question “where did that creator come from?” The hypothesis of non-linear time is an interesting one – that there was literally no time before the act of creation, in much the same way that you can’t travel further north than the North Pole.

My problem with this final section is that it suffers from the same shortcoming as Dawkins’ ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, namely the desire to invoke in the reader awe of what there is in nature, while at the same time taking meticulous care to avoid any spiritual angle, religious or otherwise. This puts a severe limit on the imagery and metaphor, and neglects the observer/writer’s relationship with the world being described – and all good writing is, in one way or another, about relationships.

For an idea of what’s missing, Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us’, for example, while a scientific and factual description of the world of the oceans, maintains a sense of beauty and awe in the reader by endowing the world described with a certain mystery – as if to say, here is what we know, but also here is our place in it; here is what we have in common with it; and finally an implication that there is always more out there that we have yet to understand. None of this can be done, it strikes me, if one adheres too strictly to the ‘material’ outlook at the expense of all else.
The narrative then turns to Supernaturalism – the mystical belief that entities exist beyond empirically observable reality, outside the laws of nature, specifically the Standard Model of particle physics. The coverage of recent advances in cosmology and other sciences is wide-ranging and thought-provoking, but to me, referring to some phenomena as ‘supernatural’ simply begs the question of what lies outside the standard model but is yet to be explained by a better scientific model.

To those who, like me, have not grown up in a religious milieu, and who’ve not had to ‘escape’ from a religious upbringing, this final section seems a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
However, the Haiku sets and philosophical sections together would make a thoughtful gift for friends who are wrestling with the contradictions between alternative world views – religious and non-religious. Or indeed with the many contradictions between and within religions.




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Book Review: ‘Downtime Shift’ by Robert Holding

Downtime Shift by Robert Holding


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Downtime Shift’ has a great premise: agents of the 29th century are sent back in time – a whole number of turns from ‘Point Time’ round a ‘loop’ of some 800 years to ‘Down Time’ (our own time) – to steer their past events in order to tweak their present-day, perfect civilisation, a civilisation completely overseen by the EYE, a vast and complex AI.

We meet Evelyn in the prologue which alludes to her intense training preparing her to take her place as one of these agents: a ‘Shifty’. It is implied that she was somehow ‘surplus to requirements’ in her pre-training life, but this is never fully explained.

Tension builds slowly as one is led to wonder what the motives of Psychologist Dr Janeen Hellander are: does she not want Evelyn to complete the task assigned her? And if she doesn’t – if she’s a saboteur – will General Tarran McAndre find out?

We get a lot of Evelyn’s inner world – the account of her meditation at the close of chapter 1 is particularly evocative, as are many of the landscape descriptions throughout. The landscape, it turns out, in a way has its own secrets…

What made the story drag a little for me was the lack of much conflict or suspense after that. Everything just seemed to go off too well, with hardly any obstacles or surprises for the two main characters.

There was plenty of psychological to-ing and fro-ing, with different characters ‘squaring up’ to each other for lack of trust, feeling-out for each other’s weaknesses. In many of these encounters the reader is made to hop between the characters’ points of view, which not only makes the narrative hard to follow but also destroys the tension – if you know what both are thinking, you know what the outcome will be – and worse, you are not properly ‘in’ the mind of either.

The dearth of dialogue ‘tags’ or small beats during the long exchanges of conversation made the logic hard to follow at times, and a programme (‘Echo’) is mentioned only once throughout – we never get to find out what it is.

The story, at its heart, is a lively and futuristic exploration of two questions in ethics: the classic ‘trolley problem’ – should you deliberately kill in order to save a greater number of lives? – and the more contemporary question of to what extent we should allow Artificial Intelligence to take over our lives, even if it is for the common good.

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Book Review: Babel

Babel by Gill James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the second book in a Young Adult trilogy with an exciting ‘premise’: in a fractious interplanetary empire the Peace Child is half-negotiator, half-hostage. With an interesting twist on the classic ‘prophecy/chosen one’ narrative, we meet Kaleem and wonder, what will he be called upon to do, and will he be able to deliver?

The story opens with a ritual euthanasia (‘Switch-off’) whose Master of Ceremonies, although evidently quite experienced with his role in a practice which appears to have been customary for some time, is nevertheless haunted with guilt.

Only in the story’s closing chapters do we find out why.

The cultural background has some reflections of our own world, including culture shock – we meet young women who are dealing with the differences between progressive planet Zandra and more ‘traditionalist’ planet earth (‘Terrestra’). One point that puzzled me and which was never fully explained was the agonising over why they ‘had to teach’ somebody from Terrestra ‘about there not being a God’, when this didn’t seem particularly necessary.

We get to meet the two main characters very much ‘from the inside’, with plenty of inner monologue of their thoughts and plans and, in a nice ‘nothing-ever-changes’-type touch, Rozia’s diary. Her notes seem a little soppy at first, but we soon see her true character. The portrayal of awkward teenage love is particularly realistic.

Although many of the earlier chapters end with wrap-ups, there are still some good points of tension:

What was Kaleem’s mother’s involvement with the immiserated and resentful ‘Z Zone’?

Will Kaleem’s antagonist succeed in raising the population there against him?

And will Kaleem succeed in reconciling the freedom-embracing, impoverished but life-loving people of the Z Zone with the more ‘civilised’, complacent, and even a little selfish (through having had life too easy), people of the Normal Zone?

An interestingly prescient aspect of the plot is the source of the movement against ‘Switch-Off’ in the Normal Zone. No spoilers, but they wouldn’t have been ‘the usual suspects’ for radical thinking when the book was written, back in 2011.

The story confronts the reader with a moral dilemma – ‘Switch-Off’ vs. letting people fall ill and die naturally. The premise is that the fight against illness will sharpen people’s minds and empathy, and indeed the medics’ expertise in dealing with imperfection, for example when people get injured, or have to deal with new diseases such as the ‘Starlight Fever’ mentioned as an incident in the past in the opening chapter.

My one criticism would be that the prose is uninspiring – there’s too much “he was anxious” “she was relieved”, “there was something bad going on and he had no idea what it was,” and the like, when better and more immersive expressions could easily be found. And we never get convinced of why ‘Switch-Off’ is so dreadful that it must be stopped – other than its being the only way of reconciling Z-Zone with the rest of Terrestra.

‘Babel’ is a very Moral tale – bordering on too moral (depending upon your point of view). The choice of name for the population management programme particularly jarred, at least with me.

However, in the end the ‘Chosen One’ trope gets a nice twist, and we are left wanting to know what happens in the next book of the trilogy.



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Book Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ by Suzanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


In the dark, cold winters of the dawn of the nineteenth century, a mysterious visitor arrives at the venerable ‘Society of Magicians’, expressing a desire to ‘restore magic to England’.

The Society of Magicians – argumentative but mostly harmless elderly gentlemen who would no more practice any magic than they would ‘expect astronomers to re-arrange the Cosmos’ – are of course for the most part outraged at the very notion.

And so we meet Mr Norrell, his formidable book-hoarding habit, and his exploitation as a sort of travelling show by the dreadful Drawlight, who’s only in it for the money.

We do not meet the first titular character until ‘Volume 2’, with a portrayal of events in his family background reminiscent of Gormenghast. This episode appealed to me the most in the entire book, because it was among the few in which any character evoked any sympathy, or displayed anything but superficial motivation.

We constantly hear of the desire to ‘restore Magic to England’ – usually as a simple, bald statement – but nothing in any of the characters involved ever seems to bring out any deep reason for wanting to do so. Some of their actions, including one central to the plot in which Norrell suddenly decides, after all his disparaging comments about him and about the futility of the exercise, to take Strange on as a pupil, appear arbitrary and contrived.

I have to admit that with the exception of Lady Pole and slave/King Stephen, I found it difficult to care enough about any of the characters to read on through a thousand pages and find out what became of them. I couldn’t even get excited about ‘restoring magic to England’ in the end because nobody seemed to have any deep reason for wanting to do so, nor much of a personal stake in the outcome.

Indeed, too many of the characters seemed purely to be playing tricks on each other for no deeper reason than ‘because they could.’ Partly for that reason, the plot read more like a series of episodes than a rounded ‘story’. Even the end was inconclusive.

If you love the idea of getting lost in a book with prose as evocative as Dickens’, with landscape and buildings almost more real than the characters who move through them, and you don’t mind that the tale meanders along where it might ‘chuse’ to do, than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is for you. If on the other hand you want characters who are more than just quirky, and you’re the sort who likes to follow people whose fate you care about, then there are better books to spend your time on.






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Book Review: ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How grim was life in London, with the Industrial Revolution (and for that matter the British Empire) in full swing? Behind the bright, prosperous façade of Regent Street, who were the mudlarks, toshers and the original Dustmen, and how did they live? What kind of landscape did they move through: its sights, its sounds; its smells? The opening scenes of Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’ plunge us right in. They could be straight from Dickens. We even get to meet Karl Marx – or at least, his filthy, squalid rented room.

And what happened when, in the torrid late summer of 1854, cholera struck?

You could almost paraphrase this story as ‘A Vicar, a Yorkshireman, and a bureaucrat walk into a pub’ – because had the rapid growth of London never happened – the very growth that put urban lives in peril – then Henry Whitehead, John Snow, and William Farr would never have met, and the problem of how to stop Cholera in its tracks not have been solved. Or at least, not before tens of thousands in another generation had suffered.

We follow these characters both in their daily rounds of work and in their pursuit of answers – and then irrefutable proof – of Cholera’s mechanism, as they go door-to-door for detailed information in the stricken and incongruously named Golden Square and its surrounding sewage-ridden, impoverished streets.

We find out why the detailed work and irrefutable proof was needed, as we meet the characters of the medical establishment: from a small local committee, through the newly-formed public health apparatus, all the way up to ‘The Lancet’. Why did they doubt this straightforward and obvious explanation which we, nowadays, take for granted: that Cholera is water-borne? What was the fault at the medical establishment’s heart, and how was it eventually overcome? Steven Johnson takes us effortlessly from microscopic, to urban, and worldwide, scale.

Within walking distance of where I live, near his birthplace in North Street, York, is a monument to John Snow – a replica water-pump, complete with removed handle. I picked up ‘The Ghost Map’ through wanting to know the story behind it. It is beautifully and thoroughly told, complete with references and index.

My only tiny gripe would be that it was never ‘translated from the American’ – references to ‘sidewalks’, ‘diapers’ (yes they play a crucial role!) and ‘stories’ (as in, floors of buildings), when talking about Victorian London, can jar a little.

I’d recommend ‘The Ghost Map’ to anyone who enjoys a look into history, a classic detective story and, although it was written in 2006 (making some of its descriptions of contemporary epidemiology and mapping a little dated), a thought-provoking and prescient take on where we are now.

Oh – and the pub? It’s still there. It’s now called ‘The John Snow’.




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Book Review: ‘Follow Him’ by Craig Stewart

Follow Him by Craig Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A haunting hallucination, a disturbing power relationship, and the sense of impending doom pull the reader into the very first page of Follow Him.

Much of Part 1 is too ‘male gaze’ for my tastes, including the sex scene and the supposition that the woman involved – but not the man – ends up ‘sacrificed’. Too obvious, guys – in fact the trope is nicely twisted as she returns later as a vital part of the narrative, and he ends up paying a price too.

The characters begin to show their true depths as the plot progresses. Their backstories, their emotional ‘pressure points’ so ably abused by the cult, and how they came to join it, ring realistic to a worrying degree.

The second part reads like a taut, psychological thriller. Nina’s inner dialogue initially comes across as a little too sentimental and verbose, and her Catholicism could be a little more three-dimensional, but she toughens-up, and becomes more self-consistent, as her journey to rescue her man plunges her deeper into the darkness that is the Shared Heart.

Will he love her again? Will she get over-run by the part of her that wants to punish him? Will he stop blaming her for the blood-stained incident in their past that wasn’t her fault (in fact, if they are being held up as an embodiment of Love, should he have been blaming her – before he joined the cult – at all? This rather jarred – again, male viewpoint.) Will the nosy neighbour accidentally betray her as she hides the man she loves in the only place that offers space enough for her to begin the process of reconstructing his mind? Will the cult find them and reclaim him? And if they do, what might they do to her?

And finally: where do the collective nightmares of this Crowley-like cult come from? Will they, in fact, be revealed not to be nightmares at all..?

Like a Horror version of Ken Follet’s ‘The Hammer of Eden’, but one in which the cult is darker and the Demons are real, this tale is literally not for the faint-hearted!




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The old days, when the news was full of Brexit

Five Escape Brexit Island (Enid Blyton for Grown Ups)Five Escape Brexit Island by Bruno Vincent

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Want a spiffing adventure in which 5 plucky Brits come up against a dastardly villain? Complete with phrases like “They moved some the rubble aside as quietly as they could, and discovered…” or “‘Gosh. This is exciting,’ said Anne”?
Will they, their plight apparently hopeless, finally get the better of Evil Cousin Rupert? Or will they be stranded in the Brexit Camp forever..?
Classic old-school adventure with proper 1960s stodgy prose but a wicked topical twist.

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Book Review – ‘The Guilt of Innocents’

The Guilt of Innocents (Owen Archer, #9)The Guilt of Innocents by Candace Robb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love to read these adventures set in York as it was back in the day – and as large chunks of it stil are! This one full of lively characters, many by now a little older and wiser than in the first one I read.

What particularly appeals to me are the Author’s Notes after the tale – the searches in our city’s archives where she got the information and inspiration; the way a tale comes together in an author’s mind.

Why not 5 stars this time? Only that I found some of the prose a little more pedestrian than in the 1st tale. Sentences like “Owen was concerned about…” when it could have been put in a more interesting way.

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Very short book review – ‘Sapiens’, by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A broad sweep through the prehistory and history of humankind with a fascinating thesis about ‘what makes us different’ – even from the other human species like the Neanderthals (I shan’t spoil it for you). Never a dull moment among our ancestors’ twists and turns.

Why did I not give 5 stars? Only because some of the final chapters’ speculation about the future seemed, to me, a little dated and let the rest of the ‘story’ down. But perhaps that’s just me.

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