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13 October 2021

Reviewed in Short: New books by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb, Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan, James Dyson and Sarah Hall

What is History, Now? by Carr and Lipscomb, AI 2041 by Lee and Qiufan, Invention by Dyson and Burntcoat by Hall.

By Pippa Bailey, Will Dunn, Michael Prodger and Leo Robson

What is History, Now? by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £20

Sixty years ago, EH Carr changed the study of history with a series of lectures at Cambridge, later compiled into a book, What is History?, in which he posited that “by and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.” What is written as if it were inarguable fact is in reality influenced by the historian’s own experiences and motivations and, indeed, by the experiences and motivations of those who wrote the original source material.

In What is History, Now?, Carr’s great-granddaughter, Helen Carr, and Suzannah Lipscomb, both historians, address the key issues of how we approach and retell history today. A deliberately diverse group of essayists, including Onyeka Nubia, Sarah Churchwell, Maya Jasanoff and Rana Mitter pose questions such as “Can and should we queer the past?”, “How can we write the history of empire?” and “Can we recover the lost lives of women?”. Given recent debates about statues, empire and whether it is right, or possible, to “rewrite history”, this is a timely collection, varied and thought-provoking, “for everyone intrigued and perturbed by the recent debates about how and whose history should be commemorated”.
By Pippa Bailey

AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan
WH Allen, 480pp, £14.99

This book by the sci-fi novelist Chen Qiufan and Kai-Fu Lee, a former president of Google China, is recommended as a credible vision of the future by the CEOs of Microsoft and Salesforce, among others. By sheer coincidence, belief in an AI-powered future drives investment in all their businesses. Chen’s ten stories are use-case scenario after use-case scenario, each a depressing snapshot of the AI future: school, romance, healthcare and work are all governed by software, and the undigitalised are “invisible”.

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Ultimately, AI is not just great for business, it seems, but for solving the problem of humanity itself. When a government tries universal basic income to counter job losses from automation, substance addictions become endemic – until a CEO gets people working with AI. In this future, the only people who can be trusted to have money without work are wealthy tech investors. Occasionally, the book’s writing is bad enough to raise a laugh (in a tender moment, one lovestruck teen says to another: “Objective function maximisation”), but its real insight is that those at the forefront of technology are thinking about how their wealth accretion will affect the rest of us – and they’re fine with it.
By Will Dunn

Invention: A Life by James Dyson
Simon & Schuster, 352pp, £25

James Dyson’s career as an inventor and entrepreneur has been built on ugly ducklings. As product design goes, inventing a must-have vacuum cleaner is one of the more unlikely routes to billionairedom. But, as with all Dyson’s inventions – from a wheelbarrow with a ball in place of a wheel to hand driers and hair curlers – good looks are as important as utility. As Dyson relates in this breezy memoir, he didn’t train as an engineer but went to the Royal College of Art, so his applied skills were painfully learnt, with his cyclonic vacuum cleaner needing 5,127 prototypes to perfect. Nor, he confesses, have things become easier with experience.

This is an old-fashioned autobiography telling an old-fashioned penury-to-lucre story, and there is a whiff of the corporate brochure at times. Nevertheless, Dyson’s is an extraordinary tale in which he progresses from wince-inducing debts while developing his vacuum cleaner to opening his own private university for aspiring designers and engineers. Its graduates and their peers, he believes with winning optimism, will use technology that combines “lean engineering and material efficiency” to solve the world’s ills.
By Michael Prodger

Burntcoat by Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £12.99

Sarah Hall’s latest novel – her first in six years, following a pair of lauded short story collections – is a tale of sensuality and creative adventure told in the face of bodily decay and social collapse. Edith Harkness is a sculptor, now in her late fifties and dying of the deadly virus – AG3 or Nova – whose victims she is memorialising with a work of public art. Resident in a slightly tweaked version of the north of England, she recalls, in higgledy-piggledy flashback, childhood pains, artistic glory and sexual ecstasy (“the moist flare of your tongue was an accelerant”), as well as the coming, roughly two decades earlier, of contagious disease. Her rambling house – the source of the title – is where she keeps a studio, and was once home to her Turkish lover Halit.

Hall’s prose is flinty – she has a taste for words like “brackish” – but is also capable of unabashed reverie and moments of poeticism that verge on the abstract. At times the novel feels like a mere mood piece, an exercise in atmospherics. But it grows as it moves along, and becomes a piercing record of a life and its evanescent beauties.
By Leo Robson

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Margaret Reynolds, Michio Kaku, AK Blakemore and Jay Griffiths]

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This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm