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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (capillus lucidorum)

Pavlov’s Dogs Had Soft And Shiny Fur Because He Gave Them Lots Of Conditioning

Andy Weir’s first novel The Martian was a hugely popular book. It also got turned into a hugely popular movie. I hope he made lots of money from it. He certainly deserved to. He followed it with Artemis which had rather poor reviews. I have no thoughts about Artemis because I haven’t read it. He has recently published his third novel Project Hail Mary and in my opinion, it’s utterly brilliant. It has award winner written all over it. Honestly, if it doesn’t win everything in sight, there is no justice in the world.

Andy Weir is playing to his strengths in this new book in the sense that he has re-used many of the tropes that made The Martian so successful. One man who is (mostly) alone is faced with a lot of scientific and technological problems that he has to solve if he is to survive. But having said that, I must point out that the book is not just a re-write of The Martian. It has a much better structure, together with very different scientific problems for to the protagonist to come to grips with. Furthermore the prose is a lot smoother – clearly Andy Weir is learning his literary lessons well. Practice is definitely making him a lot more perfect.

So what’s it all about, I hear you asking? Well, I’m happy to tell you, but I’m afraid that I’m going to have to be a little vague on occasion in order to avoid massive spoilers. Also you need to be aware that the rest of this discussion will, of necessity, contain minor spoilers. It simply isn’t possible to avoid them. So read on at your peril. You have been warned.

As the story opens, the first person narrator finds himself waking from a coma. He seems to be suffering from amnesia. He can’t remember his own name and he doesn’t know where he is or why he’s been in a coma. He’s lying in a bed and above him a pair of robot arms under the control of a computer zoom down periodically to check the tubes and catheters that are keeping him alive. The arms also turn him every so often so as to prevent bed sores. Eventually he manages to struggle out of bed and he goes exploring. There are two more beds in the room with him and each of them contains the desiccated husk of an ancient corpse. He begins to realise that he and the people in the other beds have all been in a coma for a very long time, possibly for years. He has survived. Unfortunately his companions have not.

Here’s the first spoiler. Eventually he finds out that his name is Ryland Grace and he is on a space ship. He and the two other crew members have been kept in hibernation while the ship has been travelling from Earth to the Tau Ceti star system. Now that the ship has arrived it is time to get to work. There is a scientific conundrum for the crew to investigate. But of course, given the circumstances, Ryland will now have to do the work of three people if he is to bring the mission to a successful conclusion. That’s a big responsibility, to say the least.

The solar system in general and Earth in particular is in danger – I’m not going to tell you what from. Suffice it to say that if a solution to the problem is not found all human life will become extinct. Spectrographic evidence suggests that almost all of the nearby stars are also suffering from the same problem that is threatening the solar system. However Tau Ceti, alone among the nearby stars, is quite free of the danger. So if there is an answer to the threat, perhaps that answer lies in the Tau Ceti system. Project Hail Mary is the last hope of humanity – a star ship sent from Earth to Tau Ceti in a last ditch attempt to find out how to avert the looming disaster.

We learn all this in flashback. Periodically memories surface in Ryland’s mind, memories of his  life on Earth, of his involvement in the initial investigations of the problem, and of the dawning realisation of just how serious it really is. Ryland has been involved in Project Hail Mary right from the very beginning and now, all alone in the Tau  Ceti system, he will be involved in it all the way to the very end.

From now on the narrative has two major threads. One consists of detailed incidents told in flashback that show how Project Hail Mary got going on Earth and the other concerns itself with what is happening now as Ryland starts to explore the Tau Ceti system.

Here comes another small spoiler. Before very long, Ryland spots an alien space ship. He makes contact with it and learns to talk to the creature who is piloting it. Like Ryland, the alien is the sole survivor of the ship’s crew and like Ryland he is here to try and find what it is about Tau Ceti that keeps the system free from the peril that is threatening both his own home planet and the Earth. Ryland can’t pronounce the alien’s name, so he calls the alien Rocky. Ryland and Rocky agree to join forces to investigate the anomaly that is Tau Ceti…

This is a very cleverly structured story. The flashback mechanism allows important information about Ryland’s project to be presented dramatically without any tedious infodumps. No great continuity is required between the flashback incidents; only the highlights are necessary in order to provide Ryland with enough data to shine a light on whatever his current problem happens to be. Consequently the pace of the narrative never flags. As a bonus, Ryland himself turns out to be a very good explainer, and his thoughts about his past and present situations as he brings his scientific expertise to bear on his problems are both amusing and fascinating. Even his most abstruse speculations are presented with clarity and humour and it is this more than anything else which makes the story so absorbing.

So far, almost everything I’ve said about the story could also have been said about The Martian. So what is it about Project Hail Mary that makes me believe that it is a much better book? Quite simply, it’s the fact that it has a lot more characters in it (both human and alien) than The Martian had. Furthermore, Ryland’s relationships with the members of the project on Earth and with Rocky in the Tau Ceti system are much more convincingly presented than were the rather perfunctory relationships that The Martian largely glossed over. Ryland is a much more believable person than was the narrator of the earlier book, a much more rounded, more human (if you like) person. In this novel Andy Weir has learned how to write about real people and real aliens as well as about real science.

The book is not without its flaws. Ryland soon learns that Rocky is a brilliant engineer who can fabricate any device that is required. Rocky builds these devices out of a substance that Ryland calls xenonite because all his attempts to analyse it tell him that it is made out of xenon  – element number 54 on the periodic table. Xenon is a colourless, odourless gas. It is one of the so called noble gases, elements which are so inert that it is almost impossible to get them to react with anything at all! Under the proper, fairly extreme, conditions xenon will react with fluorine (the most reactive element in the periodic table) and the resultant xenon fluorides will themselves play nicely with oxygen to produce xenon oxides (however xenon itself will not react directly with oxygen). That’s pretty much all it can do.

And yet Rocky simply mixes two liquids together and out pops xenonite, a complex metallic compound (for want of a better word) which can be extruded into any required shape. My inner chemist shuddered in horror at this and I could hear my chemistry degree vomiting quietly to itself in my filing cabinet drawer. No, no, no. A thousand times no. Andy Weir is a brilliant physicist and mathematician, but he’s really not much of a chemist and therefore neither is Ryland Grace. To be fair, Ryland does mention that xenon is a very unreactive noble gas but he seems to have no idea whatsoever as to exactly why it is so unreactive, even though the reasons for it do largely fall into that area where chemistry and physics overlap with each other. Consequently everything the novel has to say about xenonite is sheer nonsense.

However by this stage of the story I found that I was enjoying myself so much that I just rolled my eyes a bit and carried on reading, eager to find out what would happen next. Something like xenonite is essential for the detailed working out of the plot – that’s why Andy Weir invented it and why he gave it to Rocky of course. So I decided to  let him get away with xenonite for the sake of the story. Just this once, the sheer strength of the narrative flow was enough to force me to suspend my disbelief (albeit more than a little unwillingly).

Something else I admired about Project Hail Mary was the clever working out of all the plot implications. Andy Weir leaves no ‘i’ undotted and no ‘t’ uncrossed. Every single loose end is tied up neatly in a pretty pink bow, even the ones you’d have sworn that he’d long ago forgotten all about. For example, remember that at the start of the book Ryland wakes from a coma with no memory of anything at all? Eventually, as his memory starts to return, he puts his amnesia down to a side effect of the process that has kept him in a hibernation coma for so many years. He’s happy with that explanation and so was I when I read it. It made perfect sense. But towards the end of the book Ryland has another flashback memory in which he learns the real reason for his amnesia. And it pulls the rug right out from under his feet. As a result, his understanding of his own role in Project Hail Mary is completely changed… In my opinion that’s a very clever bit of business and it proves that Andy Weir has developed an excellent understanding of dramatic structure along with all his other virtues.

In short, Project Hail Mary is a truly superb and very clever, book. If you don’t read it, you’ll regret not having done so.

Venus on the Half Shell and Others is a collection of stories from Subterranean Press that might be by Philip Jose Farmer. Certainly his name appears on the cover but if you look at the table of contents you will see that every story in the book claims to have been written by someone else. For example, the title story Venus on the Half Shell is by somebody called Kilgore Trout. Oh…

Farmer was a very mischievous man. One of his hobbies was the writing of stories as if they had actually been written by other authors. Usually, as a bit of a meta joke, the claimed author was the fictional creation of another (real) author. Kilgore Trout, for example, was a character who appeared in several of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. Vonnegut described him as a writer of the most appallingly pulpish SF stories. And that is exactly what Venus on the Half Shell is. It is so squirmingly, trashily bad that it’s actually really rather good!

Vonnegut was apparently rather embarrassed by the success of Venus on the Half Shell. Not only did it sell very well indeed, many people were firmly convinced that Vonnegut himself had written it. No matter how often he denied being the author, some people refused to believe him. Because of that, Vonnegut refused to give Farmer permission to write any more Kilgore Trout stories, so this one is the only one we have. How sad...

Venus on the Half Shell and Others is an almost complete collection of Philip Farmer’s "fictional author" stories. For some reason, the two stories about a private investigator, a dog known as Ralph Von Wau Wau (as by Jonathan Swift Somers III), have been omitted – if you are interested, you will find them in the collection Pearls From Peoria, which is also published by Subterranean Press.

Venus on the Half Shell and Others also contains one story that is not claimed to be by a fictional author. Instead it is a re-casting of an actual novel but told in the style of a completely different novelist. However even though the putative author is a real person rather than a fictional one, the story still fits perfectly within the philosophical theme of the collection. Admittedly I’m biased – the piece is my very favourite Farmer story ever. It’s an extraordinarily funny tale called The Jungle Rot Kid On The Nod and it is a re-telling of the story of Tarzan of the Apes written in the style of William Burroughs rather than that of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And if that incongruity doesn’t make you laugh before you even start to read the thing, I don’t know what will.

I once read an interview with Farmer in which he admitted that he’d also tried the experiment the other way round. He had attempted to re-write William Burroughs’ novel The Naked Lunch in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Not surprisingly, he failed miserably. But there are days when I find myself rather wishing that he’d succeeded. I’d very much like to read that novel…

The final story in the collection is The Adventure of the Peerless Peer as by John H. Watson M.D. the famous amanuensis of Sherlock Holmes. It is the most delightfully clever, witty and extraordinarily silly Holmes pastiche that I have ever read. Not only that, it contains what is certainly the most ridiculous, breathtakingly over the top scene in the whole of literature. Holmes, Watson and Tarzan (yes, him again), fleeing from a horde of African killer bees, are attacked by Zu-Vendi warriors (the Zu-Vendi, you will recall, were a lost tribe discovered by the explorer Allan Quatermain in the eponymous novel written by Sir Henry Rider Haggard – Farmer really did like to borrow from absolutely everybody). Holmes, as everybody knows, is a world class authority on the habits of bees and he is well aware that the insects communicate with each other by dancing. So in desperation he strips off, paints himself in alternating yellow and black stripes and dances in front of the killer bees. His dancing is so fluent and so persuasive that it forces the bees to turn their ferocity onto the Zu-Vendi. The warriors run away, hotly pursued by the bees and the day is saved! Only Philip Jose Farmer would have the gall to even think of such ludicrous nonsense, let alone have the courage to write it down and actually publish it! I really don’t know how he got away with it. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t himself when he wrote it. He was John H. Watson instead...

In case you haven’t already guessed it, I thought Venus on the Half Shell and Others was an utter delight and I chortled and giggled all the way through it.

J. K. Rowling wrote her way to fame and fortune by transplanting the traditional British boarding school story into a fantasy setting. Now Chaz Brenchley has taken the logical next step and his novel Three Twins at the Crater School presents us with the traditional British boarding school story set on Mars. It’s an utter delight from start to finish.

The Mars of the novel is a rather Edwardian place with some fairly scary indigenous Martian monsters to liven things up a little. Brenchley plays very fair with the reader – on the surface of the narrative his schoolgirls epitomise the Edwardian ideals that  all the very best traditional school stories are built upon. The structure cannot be faulted. Nevertheless, beneath the surface, he subtly undermines the tropes of the genre by deftly interrogating the classic school story attitudes on class, race and society and often he finds them wanting. But, quite rightly, he never lets that get in the way of the story.

And what a story it is! It is a tale of plucky, honourable schoolgirls building friendships with the new girls who are being shown the ropes of their new school by the prefects and the teaching staff. Of course the girls soon find reasons to break the school rules as they are forced to deal with lethal Martian fauna and the occasional Russian spy. As one always does, in these kinds of stories.

The novel is constructed with consummate skill. It’s a rattling good yarn as well as being rather thoughtful and occasionally subversive. Those of us who grew up with Thomas Hughes, Angela Brazil, Enid Blyton and Frank Richards et al (and who among us did not?) will absolutely love the book. Sequels are promised. I can’t wait.

A Nomad of the Time Streams is an omnibus edition that collects Michael Moorcock’s three novels about the adventures of one Oswald Bastable in several alternative versions of the twentieth century. The novels are The Warlord of the Air (1971), The Land Leviathan (1974) and The Steel Tsar (1984).

Moorcock has lots of fun with the stories. All his usual characters have bit parts to play in them. The enigmatic Una Persson is Bastable’s guide through the eras (though Bastable doesn’t realise that until very late in the series). The grossly corpulent Beasley appears as a wheeler and dealer in a parallel America. He is no longer a bishop and he appears to have given up his habit of eating chocolate covered nuns, but he’s just as nasty as ever he was. Major Nye and Colonel Pyat hover in the background. And it isn’t all that hard to figure out who Cornelius Dempsey really is.

Even some "real" people (whatever that means in this context) have their parts to play. In The Warlord of the Air we are introduced to one Lieutenant Michael Jagger, a crew member of the airship that is under Bastable’s command. We also meet Ronald Reagan, a very irascible and emotionally unstable leader of a troop of boy scouts whose hysterical tantrums eventually lead to Bastable’s dismissal from his job.

In The Land Leviathan Bastable, temporarily on the run in an anarchic Britain that has degenerated into a series of semi-independent city states, shoots and kills the tyrannical Major John, overlord of the West Sussex village of East Grinstead. If that last reference is a bit too obscure for you, let me explain that when Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister of the UK she was replaced by the utterly wet and ineffectual John Major, a grey man so colourless that he vanished from view whenever you looked straight at him – he had the reputation of being the only man ever to have run away from the circus in order to join a firm of accountants, and while that’s not quite literally true it certainly describes his personality perfectly. Clearly such a man was always destined to be the tyrannical overlord of an Eastern village that is to be found in the West. Such confusions typify him...

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that The Land Leviathan was published in 1974 and John Major served as Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997 – before 1990 I doubt if anybody would have recognised his name. Therefore, you will say to me, the John Major referred to in the novel must be a different John Major. So there!

Well, you can say that if you wish, but you would be quite wrong. Moorcock revised (and in the case of The Steel Tsar completely re-wrote) the novels several times over the years. He made huge revisions to all of them for White Wolf's publication of the omnibus edition in 1997. The John Major incident snuck in there at some point in one of those revisions. It wasn't there in the original publication. So there, right back at you!

But the books aren’t just light-hearted literary fun and games. Two major characters in the series are Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known in our version of the twentieth century as Vladimir Lenin) and Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, who we know as Josef Stalin. Interestingly the roles they play in the novels are not exactly the roles they played in our version of the twentieth century, though there are clear parallels to their early lives in our reality. And the Djugashvili of the novel, the Iron Tsar himself, does eventually turn out to be not too far removed from the Stalin that we have cause to know and hate.

In one fairly trivial sense, these novels can be thought of as being nothing more than adventure stories told in a flawless late nineteenth century prose that perfectly mimics both the style and the structure of the tales of derring do that were so hugely popular when the nineteenth century morphed into the twentieth. Perhaps at that level they are Moorcock’s homage to such stories. He’s certainly on record as being very fond of the genre.

In another sense they can also be thought of as early pioneers of the novelistic style that would later come to be called steampunk. It is certainly possible to read the stories as nothing but hugely thrilling steampunk adventures, and just leave them at that.

However both of these ways of reading the books completely ignore their subtext, and I think you’ll miss a lot if you approach them at that level. The novels all have a very serious purpose behind their fun and frivolity. It isn’t a coincidence that Lenin, Stalin and their ilk have such important roles to play. Moorcock uses the novels to explore themes of racism, imperialism, socialist and anarchist politics, and the impact of technology on society. They are among the most overtly political of his early books, for those who have eyes to see it, and you’ll miss much of their impact if you don’t do quite a lot of reading between the lines.

The late Mike Resnick often remarked that he thought his novel Kirinyaga was the best thing he ever wrote, and I don’t think he was wrong in holding that opinion. Which ever way you look at it, the book is a tour de force. The project was originally conceived of and written as a series of short stories which Resnick specifically intended to be gathered together and published as a novel (so to that extent it isn’t really a fix-up). The stories follow on naturally, one from the other and the whole is probably greater than the sum of its parts as their cumulative effect hits you in the heart again and again and again. Furthermore, when the stories first appeared, many of them won a multitude of awards, and so did the novel when it was finally published. It’s hard to argue with that kind of success.

The narrator of the stories is Koriba, a mundumugu of the Kikuyu tribe. Mundumugu translates roughly as witch doctor, or wise man. Koriba feels very strongly that Kenya, the tribe’s ancestral home, has been irredeemably corrupted by the twenty-second century technology that he thinks of as "European". He believes that many modern day Kikuyu are themselves nothing but black europeans who have lost all touch with their tribal traditions. In an attempt to combat this, he and a group of like-minded colleagues have established a new Kikuyu homeland on a small planetoid they call Kirinyaga, which is the name of the sacred mountain on top of which lives Ngai, the ruler of the world. Kirinyaga, Koriba believes, will be a utopia where the Kikuyu can return to their roots, farming the land and worshipping Ngai without any foreign technological or cultural interference.

But utopias are always just impossible dreams that crumble away under the strain of maintaining themselves. And so Kirinyaga turns out not to be the success or the paradise that Koriba had hoped it would be. It comes under threat both from within and from without. Each of the threats is detailed in the individual chapters and stories that make up the book.

The novel is subtitled A Fable of Utopia and that notion is reflected in the fables that Koriba constantly recounts in an effort to explain the world and its reasons to the people who live on Kirinyaga. His fables tell stories about the animals of the savannah who invariably face insurmountable problems when they try to change who they are by attempting to do things that go against their nature. By drawing parallels between his animal fables and the Kikuyu lifestyle, Koriba reinforces again and again the notion that change is anathema. The point is hard to miss though as time passes Koriba’s fables start to sound less and less convincing to many of the people who make up his audience. They experience tragedies that could easily have been prevented and they start to ask themselves (and Koriba) why? That’s the trouble with utopia –  it encourages stagnation and it abhors change. Unfortunately that troublesome lesson is one that Koriba himself is quite unable to learn even though the fable that is his life (that is to say the entire novel) reinforces the point. Consequently he remains oblivious to the fact that he is living inside a paradox which he has no way to resolve. Sometimes fables are like that...

The mundumugu, is the ultimate authority on Kirinyaga. So Koriba is both judge and jury for every situation that threatens the racial traditions which he defines as being the whole of the law. His position as mundumugu means that he wields the power of Ngai, and so when his parables are no longer enough to sway the villagers, he does not shy away from asking Ngai to curse the entire community in order to bring them back into line. In one story, he invokes a terrible drought which will persist until the rebels give up their bad ideas. And of course, the drought happens, just as Koriba promised it would...

Because he is one of the founders of Kirinyaga, and one of  the authors of its charter, Koriba has a computer in his hut which allows him to communicate with the technicians who keep Kirinyaga ticking over. The Kirinyaga Charter forbids the technicians from interfering directly with the social organisation of Kirinyaga proper. But no such strictures apply to Koriba himself of course. After all, he’s the mundumugu, he’s the man in charge. He can require them to interfere, because he is the boss. The charter says so. Therefore, in order to implement his curse, he tells the technicians to adjust the orbit of Kirinyaga so as to change the climate and cause the drought that he has invoked. The irony of using technology to bring about the non-technological situation he wants to achieve is completely lost on Koriba of course. He is so utterly certain of the correctness of his ideals that for him, any means justifies the end. He sees no moral ambivalence in that at all. So the drought stays in place until the villagers are brought to heel, whereupon, miraculously, it ends. Ngai always implements Koriba’s curses. That’s why he’s the mundumugu. There’s something curiously circular about that idea.

The entire novel is told by Koriba, and so naturally it reflects his own world view exclusively. That is the book’s greatest weakness because it is completely impossible for any rational, compassionate person to have any sympathy whatsoever with Koriba’s words and deeds. He is arrogant, inflexible, hidebound, blinkered and utterly convinced that his way is the only way. Evidence to the contrary is simply ignored. He refuses to change. He never bends or compromises in any way whatsoever and he never seems to suffer any pangs of conscience even when his actions lead directly to several very tragic deaths that could so easily have been avoided if he’d had any sympathy in his soul. Even the ultimate failure of his utopia and his own return to Kenya does not move him in any way. He continues to practice what he has always preached, having seemingly learned nothing at all from his experiences on Kirinyaga. It’s hard to enjoy a story told from the point of view of such a thoroughly bigoted, and ultimately very stupid, person. It says much for Mike Resnick’s skill that he makes the reader recognise all this and yet somehow he still manages to engage the reader’s attention all the way through to the end. This is a book that is very hard to put down.

Tell me, have any of you used the internet today? Even if you don’t own a computer, I’ll bet you still used the internet. Did you take money out of an ATM? Did you pass a plastic card over a paywave terminal? Did you type in a PIN somewhere? If you did, you used the internet. It’s ubiquitous these days. You can’t escape it unless you are a complete and utter luddite, and it’s getting harder and harder to be one of those.

The internet as we know it today could not exist without cryptography. When you interrogate your bank account to see how overdrawn you are or when you ask your doctor for a repeat prescription, you don’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry looking over your metaphorical shoulder and reading all your confidential information. Cryptography keeps your secrets away from the prying eyes of the bad guys. Long live cryptography!

Also, when you ask your bank for information about your account, how do you know that you really are talking to your actual bank? Perhaps you are talking to someone who is only pretending to be your bank so that they can steal your money and maybe your whole identity as well when you innocently tell them all about yourself. Cryptography can also solve this problem for you. It provides a mechanism which guarantees that the person at the other end of the communication channel really is the person that they claim to be.

If you want to know how all of this works, you can’t do any better than to read Crypto by Steven Levy. It explains a lot of quite complex ideas very clearly.

People have been using cryptography to keep their communications secret for as long as people have been communicating with each other – hundreds, possibly thousands of years. More and more elaborate and ingenious encryption mechanisms were invented as time went on, but the fundamental nature of the process remained unchanged. The theory as well as the practice of cryptography was thought to be well understood. But then, in the 1970s, a group of American mathematicians (Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, Ralph Merkle et al) developed something they called public key cryptography. It was the first major cryptographic innovation for, quite literally, hundreds of years and it took the cryptographic world by storm. It is this new insight which drives the modern internet.

In the days when I used to run training courses for computer people I often found myself in the position of having to teach my students how all these cryptographic implementations worked. Cryptography is so vital to the modern computer environment that you simply can’t do anything of a technical nature without sooner or later needing to understand how it all hangs together. Of course, the very best way to learn about a subject is to try and teach it to somebody else. Partly that’s so that you can stay the traditional one chapter ahead of the student and partly it’s so that when they ask awkward questions you don’t end up with egg on your face. I’m actually allergic to eggs, believe it or not, so clearly I had a double motivation to come to grips with the subject. Consequently I immersed myself quite deeply into my cryptographic studies and I flatter myself that I ended up understanding it rather well and that I managed successfully to communicate that understanding to my students.

So because of my background, I felt that I was well qualified to read and comment on Steven Levy’s book. I settled down in a comfy chair to see just what he had to say. I must admit that I was very impressed with the way he presented and explained the nature of cryptography. I started to wish that I’d had the book available to me when I was preparing my classes. I could have stolen a lot of useful ideas from it. Yes, it really is that good.

I was, of course, quite familiar with the names of the people who invented and developed public key cryptography, but I knew nothing at all about their personal lives or what it was that had originally motivated their research. I was also vaguely aware that at one point their ideas had got them into some sort of trouble with the American government and its security services, but I knew none of the details. Levy’s book shed a lot of light on these aspects as well and because that part of the story was new to me I found it quite fascinating.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that the developers of the system were, shall we say, mildly eccentric. Actually, let’s not pull any punches – many of them were completely nuts.  Whitfield Diffie, for example, refused to learn to read until he was ten years old because he enjoyed being read to by his parents far too much to bother figuring out how to do it for himself. But once he’d finally taught himself to read he started to absorb every book in sight and he never looked back. He eventually graduated from MIT with a degree in mathematics and he noodled around for several years doing not very much of anything, earning peanuts from small, uninteresting research posts. The stuff he did work on was generally stuff that he wasn’t supposed to be working on but he worked on it anyway because he thought it was fun. This did not endear him to people, a fact of which he was not unaware. Also although he believed in what he was doing, he was not at all convinced that anybody would ever want to make use of it. Levy records that on one occasion Diffie’s wife came home to find him with his head in his hands, weeping. She asked him what was wrong and he told her that he felt he was never going to amount to anything, that she should find someone else, that he was just a broken-down old researcher. You can’t help feeling some sympathy for him.

I was also interested to learn that Diffie and Hellman’s ideas were very nearly left dead in the water by Ralph Merkle’s complete inability to explain what he was doing. He was so inarticulate and his vocabulary was so abstruse that his listeners were invariably lost within a sentence or two. Merkle was a brilliant mathematician but he was socially inept and a terrible communicator. He was his own worst enemy and, at times, everybody else’s enemy as well.

And of course there was always the elephant in the room – the American military establishment as personified by the NSA, an organisation so secret that it refused to admit that it even existed (so much so that people joked that NSA stood for No Such Agency). Diffie, Hellman and the rest of them felt strongly that their work should be made public. The NSA wanted to keep it secret. They were horrified by the thought that foreign governments might start sending messages that the American government couldn’t eavesdrop on. There was no meeting of minds here, so there was always going to be conflict. All the big guns were on the side of the establishment, simply because it was the establishment. Nevertheless the NSA (and through them the American government) were eventually forced to back down. It was the perfect rapture of the nerds! Weak and powerless and naïve they may have been, but nevertheless they managed to win the war. The details of that struggle are utterly fascinating and again Levy gives us chapter and verse and explains exactly what went on.

Steven Levy has done a marvellous job of documenting the people and the ideas that have made the modern internet what it is. You owe it to yourself to read his book.

Andy Weir Project Hail Mary Ballantine
Philip Jose Farmer Venus on the Half Shell and Others Subterranean Press
Chaz Brenchley Three Twins at the Crater School Wizards Tower Press
Michael Moorcock A Nomad of the Time Streams White Wolf
Mike Resnick Kirinyaga Del Rey
Steven Levy Crypto Viking Penguin
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