Book review: ‘The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future’ by Fiona Reynolds

An enlightening journey through history’s many attempts to secure and protect what is beautiful in the world.

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Beauty is a complicated subject. We all know what it is, but as time goes by we become less comfortable with speaking about it, or so says author Fiona Reynolds in this stunning new publication from Oneworld.

Describing beauty of the natural world has become something sacred and very personal, where once it ran free within government documentation and legal literature, it is now replaced by more clinical attempts of ‘protecting biodiversity’ and ‘conserving habitats’. So much is the case that today, even while striving to protect natural beauty with climate change legislation and environmental protection orders, we do more than ever to ignore it.

Heeding the words of John Ruskin in the 19th century, Reynolds highlights the ever increasing drive for economic growth and desire for material possession in modern times. “Wherever I look of travel in England or abroad,” wrote Ruskin. “I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty. They seem to have no other desire or hope but to have large house and to be able to move fast.” How much has changed since this time?

It reminds me of a recent news story about a real estate tycoon in the US who built the most expensive house to ever go on the market. The house is available for $250 million and comes complete with its own private cinema, massage parlour and luxury cars. What was the aim of this dwelling? To tap into the niche, super wealthy market of people willing to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a yacht, but who barely surpass $10 million when it comes to housing. A fantastic business venture if ever there was one – build a man a dream house and his friends will surely want one too – but it doesn’t do much to inspire hope in a future where consumerism isn’t everything.

Reynolds believes this state of economic affairs – where people strive for bigger and better possessions, and only things of monetary value have any real worth – makes it more difficult than ever to protect what matters, including the environment and our future.

In The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future Reynolds collects words and aspirations of figures past and present who all endeavoured to achieve one thing: protection of the Earth and conservation of its natural beauty. The book examines ideas about nature, farming and urbanisation, explores mountain sides, secluded woodlands and protected heather-rich moorland, and delves into romantic thoughts and war poetry. Beginning with the impassioned minds of friends behind the Kyrle Society of the 19th century, whose calls for environmental protection gave way to the modern National Trust, Reynolds shows how definitions of beauty have been rearranged and reconsidered throughout history, before becoming somewhat lost within the fast-paced consumerist lifestyles of modern day.

The Fight for Beauty is at once intriguing, fascinating and incredibly moving. What could serve as an interesting account of the importance of the countryside throughout history is, on a much deeper level, a fervent call-to-arms to protect what, once gone, is gone forever. For Reynolds at least, inspiration from the past and from nature itself could provide an alternative path forward from human development, one where beauty is not forgotten.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

‘Science Fiction by Scientists: An Anthology of Short Stories’ edited by Michael Brotherton

Science and science fiction may seem like two sides of the same coin, but much of the genre gracing bookshelves and cinemas today is actually missing an integral piece of the puzzle – the ‘science’.

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Without science, says Michael Brotherton, sci-fi is little more than a western set in space, or a fantasy set in the future. As a lover of all things scientific and a trained astrophysicist, Brotherton characterises science fiction as providing a glimpse into amazing futures not outside the realms of possibility, or terrible and grotesque scenarios that we should try to avoid.

It may not surprise you to learn that many renowned sci-fi authors were trained in science – Isaac Asimov had a PhD in biochemistry, and Arthur C Clarke was known for his essays on space travel. Perhaps it is the accuracy, or indeed the believability of their fiction, the notion that these situations are not outside the realms of possibility, that makes their work so profound.

As editor of ‘Science Fiction by Scientists’, Brotherton introduces the latest generation of science-trained sci-fi writers, among them current researchers pursuing a love of fiction on the side, retired experts, or those who have set aside prosperous careers to write full time.

In ‘Down and Out’ by Ken Wharton, the reader meets Ogby, a strange, spiderlike creature living within the nutrient-rich oceans of a mysterious, ice-​encrusted land, with odd perceptions of gravity, sinking to the bottom of her habitat by filling one of her many gaseous bladders with air.

In ‘Supernova Rhythm’, Andrew Fraknoi writes of an optimistic young research scientist who discovers a strange pattern of exploding stars in galaxy NGC 6946, and so finds that there may be life forms billions of years ahead of us developmentally, whose actions we cannot possibly understand.

Alongside tales of obscure lands, terrifying futures and pending zombie apocalypses, the authors have taken time to explain a little of the science behind the sci-fi, unveiling origins of the tales and shedding some light on their motivation. In this way, we learn that Obgy is an alien lifeform from Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter, who scuttles upside-down upon the layers of ice enclosing the moon’s subterranean ocean; that a new musical piece created by a group of astronomers uses notes supplied by supernovae in far-off galaxies and that future scientists could theoretically sequence the DNA of hundreds of species of animals to be contained, and later deployed, within a single piece of fruit.

‘Science Fiction by Scientists’ is an interesting and intriguing anthology of short stories, which is sure to set the reader’s mind in motion a little better than the average collection of sci-fi shorts. Leisure is combined with learning to leave not just a sense of wonder and amusement, but also the desire to find out a little more about each author’s particular field.

For those interested in exploring further, a more challenging read comes in the form of ‘Murder on the Einstein Express and Other Stories’, also from Springer. This short anthology by assistant professor in mathematics and physics Harun Šiljak, touches on the realms of the theoretical, physical and computational to create obscure tales, including an Alice in Wonderland-type adventure set within the realms of mathematical analysis.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘The End of Ownership’ by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz

If you buy a book at the book shop, you own it, and are free to do exactly as you wish with it. You might be surprised to hear that the same is not true of ebooks and other downloaded media. In fact, as Aaron Personowski and Jason Schultz discuss, the digital world is an incredibly complicated place when it comes to ownership.

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Chances are if you own an iPod, Kindle or even a desktop or laptop you are no stranger to the world of the digital download. It is becoming more and more common to simply pay for a digital copy of a song, book or film, rather than worrying about cumbersome physical objects. Who even has time to wait for an Amazon delivery these days, anyway? The digital download has done wonders for the instant gratification of consumers, but at what cost? Like it or not, each time you click ‘pay now’ on a digital purchase, you are entering a new and confusing world, rife with rules, regimes and regulations that restrict how you interact with your downloads.

Authors Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz use their book to delve into the complex, jargon-ridden world of the rights of digital consumers, to uncover the mystery of whether we can really be considered ‘owners’ of our digitalia. As the owner of a physical object you enjoy certain freedoms; if you have a collection of print books, you are free to annotate them, modify them, or even destroy them if you want to. The same however, cannot be said to the ‘owners’ of downloaded goods.

Every time you buy an ebook from Amazon or a song from iTunes you sign an end-user licence agreement (EULA) – let’s be honest, you have probably never read it – the contents of which are far removed from the freedom we enjoy with physical ownership. Consumers do not actually own digital purchases, they license them and have the permission to read, listen to, play, or watch them. Slightly more worrying is the fact that the company providing the software used to access these files effectively has control over a user’s digital library.

Here’s an interesting case. In July 2009 Amazon remotely, and without warning, wiped (irony of ironies) George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ from all Kindle ereaders, following a dispute with the publishers.

Small fry, perhaps? Permissible collateral damage? Well, what happens when devices, or corporations, become obsolete? That’s what happened to HDGIANTS Inc, a former distributor of high-quality audio and video files. When it went bankrupt, its servers were switched off, and with that, portions of the digital libraries of thousands of paying customers evaporated.

So how content should consumers be with their content? A bookshop cannot, as Schultz and Perzanowski point out, creep into your house in the middle of the night and reclaim the contents of your physical shelves – so why can digital providers? Is it fair that book lovers and audiophiles are charged prices akin to a physical copy for a digital download that is completely at the mercy of publishers and licensers? What is the benefit to the consumer of opting for digital files? Are the benefits of reducing waste and getting instant gratification really worth it?

‘The End of Ownership’ presents the confusing world of the digital consumer in wonderfully accessible prose, replacing hideous jargon with the simplest of analogies, from thieving bookshops to the goblins from Harry Potter. It will answer the questions you have regarding digital ownership, and it’s inevitable that more than a few of them have never even crossed your mind.

In an increasingly complex world, plagued by unreadable (certainly unread) terms and conditions, it is more than a little refreshing to have something explained in good, plain English.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

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Equality, prosperity and power are just some of the aims of feminists past and present – but what would a world controlled by women actually look like? In her fourth novel, author Naomi Alderman inverts traditional gender roles to create a world where women quite literally hold all the power and men tremble at their feet.

Love it or hate it, utopian and dystopian fiction has a lot to say about how people live their lives and the desires, dreams and fears that lurk under the covers of society. Dystopic works throughout the 20th century have explored totalitarian states, brainwashing, societal complacency and overpopulation. They reflect societal fears of a future in which too much power has been lost to the state, through the wonderful world of science fiction.

This genre suits feminist complaints by questioning the conventional exercise of power between the sexes, often delving into frustrations of women in a patriarchal society. Previous works explored the prospect of women-led civilisations in which gender roles are reversed or worlds where women live alone, having somehow discovered the secret to asexual reproduction.

There is a reason you don’t get many all-male utopias, but I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more novels that explore what a world would be like where women not only ruled, but ruled with power. So many science-fiction novels strived to illuminate societal inequality through exaggeration and role reversal, or the creation of purer, softer societies where women rule each other with soft hands, but I have yet to come across a book which inverts the status to devastating effect.

‘The Power’ is just such a novel.

Naomi Alderman’s latest novel is a manuscript written 5,000 years in the future, documenting the rising power of a female elite. The story begins with the ‘Day of the Girls’, when teenage girls across the world wake with a strange new power. It starts as a subtle throbbing sensation between the collarbones and crackles across the skin, filling the air with electrostatic discharge and the smell of rain and rotten fruit, before emerging as a spark of light from the tips of the fingers.

What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being frightened of men?

A slight warning, while not fully divulged in this review, the book contains one or two themes that some readers might find disturbing.

Through the guise of a fictional future researcher, Alderman follows the stories of four characters and how they are affected as the world begins to change. We meet Roxy, a tough, foul-mouthed daughter of a London crime lord who is out to seek revenge; Allie, a dual-heritage girl from Jacksonville who, having suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of her foster father, rebrands herself as charismatic faith-leader Mother Eve; Margot, the aspiring New England Governor along with her confused daughter Jocelyn; and Tunde, a plucky Nigerian journalist who strives to uncover the ugly truth behind the rising female power.

‘Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

A few videos emerge across social media platforms showing girls seemingly electrocuting men with their hands. The initial reaction is one of disbelief, but as more and more begin to appear, society is forced to attempt to address this strange new phenomenon. As childish tussles give way to deadly brawls and schools are forced to begin gender segregation, the very fabric of society unravels and young women are recruited to fight a bitter battle between the sexes that ravages Eastern Europe.

In Alderman’s present, electricity is no longer a thing of convenience, but a power to be held within the hands of women, to throw off the shackles of oppression. The future, however, is anything but bright, and all thoughts of equality are thrown to the wind. Ideas of a softer, more maternal society give way to hordes of women who rule with iron fists, as men are assigned their place on the bottom rungs of the ladder, forced into submission as slaves to the female race.

The storyline is complex and multi-layered, presenting a future where women have forgotten the male-dominated times of the past – the systems overthrown within the main body of text – and men are thought to be the fairer sex. This book is so much more than the latest attempt at a feminist dystopia. It is refreshing and insightful, combining a gripping storyline alongside an interesting analysis of societal ideas about equality and fairness within gender roles.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Head in the Cloud – William Poundstone

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What’s the point in knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up? In this new release from Oneworld Publications, William Poundstone sheds light on the importance of knowledge, even when Google is just a stone’s throw away.

It is often said that we are living in an information age. Gone are the days of trawling through text books and library archives to find the material to complete your latest homework assignment. The internet possesses all the information you could ever need – and then some. Pick up your smartphone or connect to your computer and you have a wealth of data available at your fingertips. But while it’s true that it is incredibly easy to look up facts on Google, it’s not so easy to remember any of them. Some have argued that having such a wealth of information available to us is making us stupid.

In his new book, ‘Head in the Cloud: The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google’, William Poundstone turns this theory on its head. Being better connected doesn’t necessarily mean we are better informed and the internet is not making us stupid, he argues. Rather, it is making us less aware of what we do not know. We’re living, Poundstone believes, in the golden age of rational ignorance. People are more interested in the lives of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West than bothering to learn who painted the Mona Lisa and millennials use acronyms such as BTDTGTTAWIO (been there, done that, got the t-shirt and wore it out), but are unable to recall the single word uttered by the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s famed poem.

So what does being well informed actually mean? Does it really matter?

Speak to any self-proclaimed gamer and you will likely tap into a wealth of information that’s missing from the mind of the average Joe. Perhaps you don’t have a clue what processor lurks within your PC, or how to overclock the latest Nvidia graphics card, and why would you? Unless gaming happens to feature high on your list of priorities, you’ll probably never need to know this random information.

Equally, some of you will have got through life just fine without ever having known the catchphrase of Poe’s raven. If someone was to ask you who invented Post-It notes, what year Tinder was developed, or what the fastest land mammal on earth is, you could retrieve the answer from the cloud within a fraction of a section of clicking ‘search’ on Google. This poses the question: ‘What’s the point of knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up?’

Interestingly, it turns out that the benefits of staying well-informed extend much further than being everyone’s go-to teammate in the monthly pub quiz. Poundstone reports results of internet surveys analysing the rate of public knowledge, with outcomes suggesting that better informed individuals are, on the whole, healthier, happier and quite significantly wealthier. Not only this, but factual knowledge is heavily correlated with personality traits, including political opinion. Did you know, for example, that those who are able to locate a country on a map are less likely to be in favour of invading it? This is just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill-informed voters.

‘Head in the Cloud’ is hilarious, humbling and brutally honest, and will likely make you doubt yourself, and everyone around you. This book is not merely a declaration of the woes of an ill-informed public, it also serves to highlight the benefits of broadening your horizons, offering insight and advice on how to best use todays media to stay informed. If you take only one thing away from this book, let it be the knowledge that there is no such thing as irrelevant information and that you could probably benefit from a little more time spent with an atlas, encyclopaedia and Oxford English Dictionary.

This review was first published in print for E&T magazine

Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidences – Joseph Mazur

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Whether surprising, creepy, or downright weird, we all love to hear about coincidences, but just how usual are these seemingly uncanny events that so often creep into our daily lives? In this new release from Oneworld Publications Joseph Mazur aims to find out by delving into the mathematics behind coincidence.

Picture this: you are sitting in a café in Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete when you hear a familiar laugh at a table nearby. You look over and lock eyes with your own brother. You had no idea he would be there, and he is just as surprised to see you. Of all the places in the entire world, what are the chances that you two have ended up in the same place, at the same time, seemingly unbeknownst to one another? It seems hugely unlikely, and yet this is exactly what happened to author – and coincidence enthusiast – Joseph Mazur, back in 1968. Uncanny isn’t it?

This story is just the kind of thing the average mind laps up with delight. Coincidences make magnificent stories, be it a crazy tale of pure luck that unfurled just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, a thrilling near miss, or a series of hugely unfortunate events. Tell a crowd a story of coincidence and they will response with surprise and wonder. Yet far from being unusual, coincidences are actually fairly commonplace. In fact, even the finest coincidence can be explained as mathematically predictable.

Of course, coincidences are not solely of the ‘uncanny’ variety. On any given day, we encounter a stunning variety of factors that dictate the path our lives will follow, and a five second change in routine could see you meet the love of your life, or get crushed to death by a falling flowerpot. The ‘what ifs’ of life fill everyone’s existence, with even the most logical mind susceptible to obsessing over the smallest factor which could hold the key to changing the course of history. You could spend your life trying to understand coincidences that govern life, but as Mazur’s beloved Uncle Herman once put it: “Everything that happens just happens because everything in the world just happened.”

In Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidence, author Joseph Mazur attempts to demystify the mathematics that dictate coincidence, to show the reader that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time. After all, in terms of population, the world is a really, somewhat inconceivably huge place.

Through a delightfully written collection of some of the seemingly strangest coincidences, we learn that it is possible for a person to win the lottery four times, fans of plum pudding move in similar circles, and, in the case of George Washington at least, dreams really do come true. Mazur combines stories of coincidence with practical mathematical methods of appraising the likelihood of events occurring, exploring the nature of coincidence frequency to explain why they happen, and more importantly, why we are still so surprised by them.

The key to understanding coincidences is in mathematics, but the author concedes that there could be an element of fate in any situation, some larger entity at work governing the coincidence that we encounter throughout our lives. After all, it sometimes feels good to believe that there is a grand plan governing that which we cannot explain, and no one wants to believe that the coming together of soulmates is dictated by maths. What’s more, when you write a book on coincidences, you notice more than ever, Mazur muses, after having accidentally vacuumed up page 2072 in his 2262 page dictionary. The very page he would later need to look up the word serendipity. Now what are the chances of that?

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Only Planet – Ed Gillespie

I wouldn’t call myself a climate enthusiast – mainly because I find the term itself a bit troubling – but low-carbon energy and sustainability are high up my list of work-related interests. As I find myself creeping towards middle age, I am increasingly concerned by the world we may be preparing for future generations.

Gillespie’s talk didn’t offer any earth-shattering revelations, but it was humbling and thought-provoking, serving to highlight just how terrifyingly unknown our path really is. Our future on Earth, Gillespie said, is “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous” – no one can know what will happen to the world as temperatures increase. They are rising, though, despite what climate change denialists might say, and something needs to be done about it.

“Climate change will see a displacement of people that is going to be biblical.”

There are a whole host of factors contributing to changes taking place across the world, but rooted at the core of all of these is consumption. Analysis shows that consumer spending and GDP have almost doubled since 1970, while life satisfaction has stayed the same. We are, however, seeing a strange shift in spending habits in some cases, where people are encouraged to opt for low-carbon alternatives using the most bizarre and contradictory of methods. A perfect example is Tesco encouraging customers to buy low-energy lightbulbs in return for air miles – somewhat defies the point, don’t you think?

“Our approach to climate change is like turning up to an earthquake with a dustpan and brush.”

We are suffering, Gillespie proposed, from the so-called bystander effect, a strange situation where, when there are a lot of people involved in a particular problem, the average person just hopes that someone else will do something about it, rather than taking matters into their own hands. You’ve probably done it before – how much do you really think your own carbon footprint matters? It’s everyone’s problem, though, and it will take combined efforts to find a solution.

As an environmental entrepreneur, Gillespie has undoubtedly gone above and beyond what the average Joe could achieve in a lifetime. He founded sustainability firm Futerra and sits as a non-executive director for Zero Carbon Food. He is also a London Sustainable Development Commissioner, an investor in Foodtrade and has helped fund numerous eccentric and sustainable business models.

It’s a crazy amount of work, and no one is expecting everyone to commit their lives to combatting climate change, but the message is to do something, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. One of the easiest positive choices we can make in the fight against climate change is a choice to curb our own consumption. In fact, I think Gillespie’s most impressive feat, and indeed the one we can take the most inspiration from, is giving up flying.

In his talk at Savoy Place, Gillespie recounted what he saw as the hypocrisy in preaching climate change while still opting for the quick, easy method of travel that is flying. “I couldn’t justify it,” he said. “So I gave it up.”

Giving up flying doesn’t mean giving up travel, however.

In 2007, Gillespie embarked on an epic year-long round-the-world trip, opting for slow trains, cargo ships and body-filled buses over aviation. His first book, Only Planet, the story of this remarkable journey, was published by Wild Things Publishing in 2014.

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A round-the-world trip without planes – how does that work? Obviously, after listening to this enlightening talk, and vowing to do more to reduce my carbon footprint, I had to find out for myself.

The book begins at the end, with Gillespie and his girlfriend Fiona on the last leg of their trip, playing table tennis with Vadim, an ex-heavyweight Ukrainian boxer, and the steward of the Horncap, the cargo ship that was their refuge above the oily black waters of the Sargasso Sea. Amid anecdotes spouted from mouths of cargo-ship cruisers from the bar side, Gillespie recounts his reasons for setting out on his extraordinary journey: to experience the voyage itself, not just the destination.

Forsaking planes and their associated destructive carbon emissions, we’d set out to rediscover the joy of travelling though the world, not just over it. We’d wanted to experience the intimate transition of landscape, culture, people and language, soak up the sights sounds and smells of the journey and not just bunny-hop around the globe in an aluminium sausage.

Over the next 300 pages, the reader is taken all the way from the Bay of Biscay, to Puerto Limon in Costa Rica, experiencing culture, practices and locals far removed from the blinding white cliffs of Dover. Gillespie is feasted upon by bed-bugs in Prague, drinks fermented yaks’ milk in Mongolia, and receives the gift of a large pink sausage from a Chinese gentleman upon the waves of the Bohai sea. Border arrests and drug searches do little to impede the travel – with little to no onward plan, what’s wrong with a little communication with the locals? However intrusive it may be.

This isn’t just a book about travel, though. The central running theme is that of sustainability. Throughout the journey, Gillespie delves into the philosophy of often slow, low-carbon travel by reconnecting with the communities in the countries he travels through. In just over a year, Gillespie and Fiona covered more than 40,000 miles and passed through 31 countries. They discovered the impact of over-consumption in the furthest corners of the earth, from the effect of the new, harsh winters on the nomadic people in the deserts of Mongolia, to the over-fishing of tuna in the South China Sea.

At its heart a book where the often-conflicting worlds of sustainability and travel meet, Only Planet serves to do more than whet the appetite of the wannabe traveller or so-called climate enthusiast. Liberally illustrated with dramatic photography and awash with the most hilarious of first-person anecdotes, the book shows just how far removed we have become from the traditions of community and experience, swept away in a sea of over-consumption and instant gratification. A truly inspirational and riveting read – with the occasional spelling mistake it has to be said – this book will likely change the way you look at travel, from both an ecological and spiritual point of view.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.