Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jared Diamond, Lara Feigel and Marco Roth.

The Love Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

Lara Feigel’s reinvention of biographical writing breathes danger, excitement and passion into wartime London. Interweaving letters, diaries, fiction and civil defence records, The Love Charm of Bombs traces the restless, crossing paths of five writers – Graham Green, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke, Elizabeth Bowen and Hilde Spiel – as their proximity to death brings with it an aphrodisiacal consciousness of being alive.

Much like the shattering effects of the Blitz, Feigel’s work has divided critics. Nicholas Shakespeare’s review for the Telegraph praises The Love Charm of Bombs as “intelligently written, seamlessly presented and with something of the quality of a tapestry.” Yet he laments its wandering conclusion: “it might have packed more punch had it broken off with the all-clear siren and not followed her disparate group into the slow, grey post-war years.”

Craig Brown applauds the book’s ability to capture the “strange euphoria of war”. Like Shakespeare, however, he criticises its “bitty”, sprawling nature. Writing in the Daily Mail, Brown said that the five writers rarely come together and remain distanced from the public “almost as if they were members of a different race”. Feigel’s diligent provision of lengthy synopses are also “unnecessary to those who have read them and meaningless to those who have not.”

The New Statesman’s John Sutherland welcomes Feigel’s innovative remoulding of biography into “life writing”. The author, a lecturer in English and Medical Humanities at King’s College, London, “has written a wonderful book in a critical genre in which she is a pioneer.” Sutherland’s review focuses on the “metropolitan orgasm” in literary London and the way in which war stimulated culture, as seen among Feigel’s chosen writers. “Like slow bruises, great fiction emerged (love stories, most of them) in the postwar, post coital years.” Remarking on the dawn of “new biography” he adds: “Let’s hope they are as good as this one.”

 
The Scientists by Marco Roth

This memoir by Marco Roth details his adolescence, growing up in New York as the only child of members of the "liberal Jewish elite". But his father, a hematologist, had AIDS; the book charts Roth’s discovery of the real reason for the existence of his "microscopic sibling HIV". The Scientists will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Tim Adams, writing in the Observer, notes that “The Scientists seems an odd title for such a literary quest”; with connotations of order and process, this book “departs from any such rational scheme in favour of the more chaotic and obsessive, hopelessly self-absorbed stuff of his life”. The author’s prose, he says, is “effortlessly erudite and often startlingly precise. He writes beautifully.” However, this “compulsive memoir” is in Adams’s opinion also tinged with a hint of desperation; perhaps the pressure of success from his social standing, or the urgency with which Roth was “born, or doomed” to write this book.

Publisher’s Weekly also admires Marco Roth for documenting the “silence and shame” he grew up with, having such a socially respected father who suffered from AIDS. The sense of this memoir being a necessary eruption for the author is also captured in this review, with its description as “powerfully forlorn”, it is deemed “a ferocious literary exercise in rage, despair, and artistic self-invention.”

Jessica Winter’s review of The Scientists, in The New York Times, delves into the journey of self-discovery Roth endured whilst writing his memoir. Roth’s aunt, Anne Roiphe, had previously written a book which strongly suggested that Marco’s father has been homosexual, and that he may have contracted AIDS “in the more usual way”. “This quasi revelation," Winter writes, "required a recasting of his own identity - if his aunt’s assumption was correct, he writes, ‘then my own existence was like a prop, a decoy to throw off nosy people like Anne’”. It may be because of this that Winter finds the tone of the book “intensely private” in the sense that Roth does not venture into any of the social, political or cultural debates surrounding the topic of AIDS. Winter notes Roth’s “almost paralytic analysis . . . a compulsion to perform an autopsy on the smallest event, exchange or artefact”. But it might be this, she suggests, that gives The Scientists its peculiar power.


The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

Variously described as a biogeographer, evolutionary biologist, psychologist, ornithologist and physiologist, Jared Diamond bridges the gulf between primitive society and modernity in The World Until Yesterday. Picking up from the theory of environmental determinism he introduced in Guns, Germs and Steel, the author argues that traditional societies still have something to teach us.

Soon to be reviewed by the New Statesman, the book has been both praised and condemned.

The Telegraph’s Tom Payne was “riveted by the thought-provoking study”, though remained unconvinced by the some of its central arguments. “I put this book down not completely convinced that I could incorporate many of its teachings into my life,” he said. “But it did leave me riveted, thinking hard and, I dare say, [commenting on the New Guinean’s child-rearing practices] a bit less begrudging of bed space if someone wakes up crying with a cold tonight.”

In an exhaustive review that surveys anthropological ideas, Wade Davis endorsed the spirit but not the execution and conclusion of The World Until Yesterday. Reviewing the book in the Guardian, Davis argues that Diamond’s narrow focus on environmental determinism overlooks the importance of ideas. The author’s observations are “original” and “wise”, but his conclusions are “uninspired and self-evident”: “One could be forgiven for concluding that traditional societies have little more to teach us save that we should embrace healthier diets, include grandparents in child rearing, learn a second language, seek reconciliation not retribution in divorce proceedings, and eat less salt.” Diamond is praised for his New Guinean studies. However, his “limited” experience and research elsewhere means that “a book of great promise reads as a compendium of the obvious, ethnology by anecdote.”

By contrast, Peter Forbes's review in The Independent praises Diamond’s recalibration of primitive history: “Jared Diamond is one of the few people who have changed the way we see human nature and our history.... he has formulated some very powerful ideas that counter our habitual arrogance.” Forbes, too, remarks Diamond’s bias towards New Guinea, “the region and the people he loves”.

17 August 1939: Members of the 3rd Women's Territorial Service, leaving Croydon station for their fortnight's training under canvas, kiss their husbands and boyfriends goodbye. (Getty Images)
GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution