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Posts Tagged ‘Scarlett Thomas’

I discovered Scarlett Thomas’ books through fellow book blogger Bina from If You Can Read This, who recommended Thomas’ ‘PopCo’. I read ‘PopCo’ and loved it. Then I got to know about Thomas’ ‘The End of Mr.Y’ from Bina’s review of it. I got the book and read the first chapter and found it quite fascinating. I kept it for a rainy day, but the book ended up being in my shelf and spending a quiet life there. (It has been exactly a year since I got the book which is a really uncanny coincidence!) Then more recently I read a review by Steph from Steph and Tony Investigate, and Steph gushed about the book. It tempted me to get the book from the shelf and read it immediately. Then Jo from Bibliojunkie said that she was planning to host a readalong for this book, and I couldn’t resist joining in. I finished reading it yesterday, and I loved it. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘The End of Mr.Y’ is about Ariel Manto who is doing her Ph.D in thought experiments, with specific focus on a Victorian writer called Thomas Lumas and his book ‘The End of Mr.Y’, which is mysterious book which seems to carry a curse with it and no known copy of this book is available. Her guide Saul Burlem disappears from the university one day and no one knows what has happened to him. Ariel is not assigned a new guide though, and she continues doing her research in her original area of interest. Then one day one of the buildings in her campus collapses, because the tunnel which runs below the building collapses. Ariel walks home and while doing that she ends up in a second-hand bookshop. After browsing for sometime, she asks the bookshop assistant whether they have any of Thomas Lumas’ books. Ariel is in luck. The bookshop assistant shows her a box which is filled with books of Lumas. And, surprise, surprise, it has ‘The End of Mr.Y’! Ariel reads it and discovers that it shows a way to travel to a different reality where one can enter the minds of others. But for doing this one needs a concoction and the page which describes this concoction is missing. By this time, Ariel is obsessed with the idea of entering other’s minds and tries to search for the concoction. By luck, she finds the torn page in one of Burlem’s books in his room. Then she reads on how to make the concoction and travels to a different reality. While in this alternate reality, Ariel discovers that there are villains chasing her, who seem to want to either kill her or know the secret of the concoction from her. The adventures she has in this alternate reality, the people she meets, the creatures she helps, the people who save her, how she falls in love, the secrets she finds about Burlem and Lumas and the real world and what she does to save the world form the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘The End of Mr.Y’. I loved it first because of the underlying concept – that one can travel to an alternate reality and travel to other people’s minds and travel across time through those minds. And one can do that by having a simple concoction – how awesome is that! In some ways this book reminded me of the movies which have stories based on getting into an alternate reality by connecting oneself into a machine or through a video game – like ‘The Matrix’, ‘eXistenZ’, ‘The Game’ and ‘Tron’. Even ‘Avatar’. I also loved the book because of the way Scarlett Thomas makes concepts like deconstruction, poststructuralism, the existence of God, Big Bang Theory, Theory of Relativity, Four dimensional Spacetime, the Mobius Strip, Quantum Mechanics, the Uncertainty Principle, Homeopathy and the works of people like  Einstein, Heisenberg, Derrida, Baudrillard and Samuel Butler accessible to the general reader, without oversimplifying the complexity. I discovered this aspect of Thomas’ writing while reading ‘PopCo’ where Thomas takes the reader into mathematics and cryptography, and in ‘The End of Mr.Y’, Thomas goes even further and covers a wide range of subjects. I think that is a wonderful strength of the book. However, if one is not used to reading about a lot of science or philosophy in a novel, this might put off some readers. It worked for me wonderfully though.

 

What follows is probably a spoiler. But I couldn’t resist discussing about this. So, if you are planning to read this book, please be forewarned.

 

One of the interesting things that I learnt from the book was how if we assume that the Big Bang Theory is correct (which most scientists think is), then there should either be a God or there should be many worlds / universes with parallel realities. I haven’t heard of this interpretation before and it made me think. The logic behind this interpretation goes like this : one of the interpretations of quantum mechanics says that a subatomic particle doesn’t exist in a particular position or in a particular state, till an observer sees it. It is supposed to exist in what scientists call a ‘Collapsible Wave Function’ – having many forms at the same time. When an observer sees it, the subatomic particle takes up a particular state, position and has a particular velocity. The effect of observation by an observer, determines all these things. This is supported by quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and has been proven by experiments. The Big Bang Theory says that in the beginning the universe was small like a subatomic particle and had infinite mass, which was called a singularity. Then it exploded into the Big Bang and has become the universe as we know it. The argument goes that this subatomic particle-like-singularity would have existed as a collapsible wave function and for it to explode or assume a position or a state or a velocity, an external observer should have observed it. This observer could probably be God. I found this explanation quite interesting, because I haven’t heard of it before. This seems to be the strongest supporting argument for the existence of God that I have read. Are the religious guys listening? 🙂

 

The alternate explanation says that a subatomic particle doesn’t exist as an unresolved wave function before it is observed, but it exists in different states in parallel universes. When an observer observes it, he / she sees one of the states. So at the time of the Big Bang, the primordial subatomic particle, the singularity existed in many different states in different universes, and when it exploded, it resulted in many parallel universes at the same time.

 

From the little I know, scientists avoid questions on what happened before the Big Bang or how it came about (by saying that time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, which I feel is a totally unsatisfying explanation and a cop out) and try to not talk about the ‘Many Worlds / Universes’ interpretation. To prove logically that either one of two controversial possibilities has to exist, was quite something to me. I need to read more on this.

 

There is also a lot of roaring sex in the book, which one expects from a typical Scarlett Thomas novel now. Thomas is also not afraid of using four-letter words and while some readers might find this a bit off-putting, Thomas seems to say implicitly that she can write about such things as well as anyone else.

 

I didn’t know how to react to the ending of the story – Scarlett Thomas herself says this about the ending : “Ian (Stewart) warned me that because of its epilogue, this novel could be read as a ‘shaggy God story’. In the end, I decided to risk it and left it in.” I am not able to say whether the ending is happy or sad – maybe it was bittersweet. It reminded me of the endings of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’ and Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’. If you liked the endings of these movies, you will love the ending of ‘The End of Mr.Y’ too.

 

I made a list of things that I want to do, after I read ‘The End of Mr.Y’. This list has these items right now :

  1. Read Scarlett Thomas’ ‘Our Tragic Universe’
  2. Read ‘Flatland : A Romance of Many Dimensions’ by Edwin Abbot
  3. Explore on the Big Bang and the Many Worlds theory
  4. Read a VSI or a graphic novel introduction to Derrida
  5. Explore some of the works of Samuel Butler

Other reviews

 

Here are links to other reviews of ‘The End of Mr.Y’ that I liked. I have borrowed the idea of providing excerpts from reviews, from other bloggers – Thanks for the inpsiration, friends!

 

Bina’s Review – “The End of Mr. Y, like PopCo, is mainly a novel of ideas. Sure, the plot moves fast enough, but Thomas throws in wild mix of topics ranging from Derrida to quantum physics. This is the part I loved best, Thomas has the ability to explore complex ideas but still keep the action going…The quest for reality, God and love spans the whole novel. The beginning is a quick introduction to the relevant thinkers and theories, and with then really gains momentum with Ariel’s travel to the Troposphere. From then on you can never be quite sure what is real and what is not; there is the novel within the novel, a reality within reality, and there is so much talk about thought experiments that no one can miss that novel one is holding is one big thought experiment in itself. As Ariel says, “let me become part of a book”.”

 

Steph’s Review – “Most of the objects of my Sapphic affection tend to be these really brilliant brainy ladies (who have kick-ass senses of humor), so it should come as no surprise that I am now inducting Scarlett Thomas into my club of “Women I Would Go Gay For”…I really love the way Thomas infuses her novels with philosophy and physics…, how she isn’t afraid to tackle big questions and intellectually demanding concepts. In this book there was this whole discussion on the concept of multiple universes and how it relates to the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics that kind of just blew my mind in the very best possible way. It is really gratifying to find an author who is not only convinced that her readers are capable of intense thought and contemplation but practically demands that of them.”

 

Jo’s Review – “I am attracted to this book because of its cover. Nothing else…One of the things that put me off about the book though was that it was rude and shocking at parts…I like the fact that the book is indeed ambitious, ingenious and abstract that makes me as a reader, thinks about the relationships between all those complex ideas introduced. Scarlett Thomas is a writer in her own league and I admire her for that.”

 

Jenny’s Review – “As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story.”

 

Leeswammes’ review –  “The solution of why certain scientific discoveries have been made was interesting, very clever…There was a lot of scientific discussion, a bit too much for me. Luckily, I have an interest in popular science and most of what was discussed wasn’t new to me. I can imagine that some people might find this slow to read and hard to understand. In the end, I did enjoy reading the book and when I closed it I was satisfied that I’d read a good book.”

 

If you like an intellectual novel bursting with ideas, you will love ‘The End of Mr.Y’.

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I got to know about ‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas from fellow book blogger Bina. After reading Bina’s lovely review and some enthusiastic recommendation from her, I couldn’t resist reading it. I finished reading it a few days back. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

Here is the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

Alice Butler has been receiving some odd messages – all anonymous, all written in code. Are they from someone at PopCo, the profit-hungry corporation she works for? Or from Alice long-lost father? Is someone else on her trail?

The solution, she is sure, will involve the code-breaking skills she learned from her grandparents and the key she’s been wearing around her neck since she was ten.

PopCo is a grown-up adventure of family secrets, puzzles and the power of numbers.

What I think

‘PopCo’ is about a young lady, Alice Butler, who works in a toy company, who has had an interesting childhood spent with her grandparents and who has the secret to a treasure but which is in code. The sad events of her past (her mother dying young, her father abandoning her for pirate treasure, her schoolfriends being snobs and how she tries to be part of the ‘in-group’), the exciting events of her past (Alice learning about cryptography and cryptanalysis and mathematics from her grandparents and the interesting experiences she has with her friends), her experiences from the present (her experience of working in a toy company and the unflattering opinion she has about her employer), and the secret behind the treasure map that her grandfather was working on and the connection it has with the chain on Alice’s neck – how all these come together, form the rest of the story.

From my perspective, the two main themes in ‘PopCo’ are cryptography and Alice’s thoughts on the corporate world. There is a treasure story, a love story and a story of growing up which is woven along with these two main themes. The cryptographic and mathematical part of the book is quite excellent. Scarlett Thomas, mostly through Alice’s voice and sometimes through the voice of her grandfather and grandmother takes the reader through the science and art of cryptography and cryptanalysis – on how messages can be encoded and decoded, what are the strengths and issues with old cryptographic techniques and what are the new techniques prevalent today, and how codebreakers have been working across the centuries to pry the secret out of coded messages. On the way Thomas talks about the Caesar cipher, the Vignere cipher, the Enigma machine, the scientists who worked during the Second World War at Bletchley Park to break the secrets of the Enigma, about the genius of Alan Turing, about Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, about the beauty of primes and about how the Riemann Hypothesis has been baffling mathematicians for more than a century now and about how proving it might put the whole security apparatus today (including computer security) at risk. There is a wonderful bibliography at the end of the book, which has some excellent reading suggestions on mathematics and cryptography like ‘The Code Book’ by Simon Singh and ‘The Music of Primes’ by Marcus du Sautoy.

The parts of the book which were about Alice’s thoughts on the corporate world were quite interesting. In some ways it looked like the views of a passionate environmentalist or an anti-corporate person who dislikes corporate propaganda and who bats on the side of animals, individual freedom, and workers in developing countries. Irrespective of where one stands on these issues, it is difficult to disagree with some of what Alice or some of the other characters in the book say on these issues. For example, one of the things that Alice says is that today most companies spend very less money in making a product (which is probably made in developing countries at rock-bottom cost with workers there being paid a pittance and not having much rights) while they spend a lot of money in marketing the product and in brand building. This is probably quite true in many cases, with a few exceptions. Another thing that Alice says is that to promote its products a company might operate websites which look independent and which give positive reviews about the company’s products, making potential customers believe that these reviews are independent. This also might be true – companies are ready to use any strategies to promote their products these days and don’t worry about the ethics of their marketing strategy. One of Alice’s friends says that cows are kept pregnant every year so that they continue to give milk and their calves are killed as soon as they are born. I was surprised and shocked when I read this, because I thought that cows always gave milk. But what the book says is logical, because it is a biological fact that only pregnant mammals and mammals which have recently given birth to young ones give milk. I will have to do some research on it and find out if this is true. Harassing cows so that they continue to be useful – this is a really cruel thing to do.

There are also interesting descriptions of how things happen in the corporate sector – on how weekend retreats happen, on what companies do to stimulate employees’ creativity during such retreats and inspire them to come out with new product and strategy ideas etc. If one has been to such retreats, one can identify with some of these scenes in the book.

I liked the character of the heroine, Alice Butler, and her personality traits – always rolling up a cigarette and smoking, trusting homeopathic medicine when she is not well, her attitude of not caring about money or growing up on the corporate ladder, her attempts to fit in with the ‘in-crowd’ in school and then discovering that she will always be an outsider, her relationship to her grandfather and her grandmother, her love for mathematics inspite of being a literature grad. I also liked Alice’s grandparents – her grandmother is a mathematician and is trying to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, while her grandfather is an unofficial mathematician and cryptanalyst himself, having fought on the side of the French resistance in Occupied France during the Second World War. Both of them inspire Alice’s love for mathematics and cryptography. Some of the other characters in the book are quite interesting – Ben, Alice’s new romantic interest, Chloe a colleague of Alice’s who is mysterious, Georges who is Alice’s superboss and a few others. But many of these secondary characters are not developed as deeply as the main ones.

I also liked the cover of the book – it looked like the book had been dipped in ink and the ink had seeped into the covers 🙂

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from this book.

With the people at PopCo there is a dilemma. If you dress like them, you fit in. If you dress in an opposite way to them, or in things so ridiculous they would never consider wearing them, you are cool, daring and an individual – and therefore you fit in. My constant conundrum : how do you identify yourself as someone who doesn’t fit in when everything you could possibly do demarcates you as someone who does?

My hair doesn’t respond well to getting wet, and it doesn’t seem to enjoy becoming too dry either. It’s like a fragile hanging garden that I constantly have to tend to prevent it from wilting and dying.

‘Concept-driven’, ‘High concept’, and ‘Concept-led’ are forms of criticism that emanate from Richard Ford, Carmen the second’s boss. His role in the company is to come into Battersea every so often and trash all our ideas. ‘It’s got an intriguing feel,’ he will say. ‘But ultimately it’s too concept-driven’. Nobody has ever worked out what he means by this, or why it’s a bad thing. Surely kids’ toys are always concept-driven?

When the air hits my face outside, it is like an unexpected kiss.

People threw food away before the siege of Leningrad because they didn’t know what the next day would bring, and a few months later they were boiling up handbags for soup. You never know if you will wake up one day to find your mother dead or your father gone or that war has broken-out. You just don’t know.

‘Do you think that in a hundred years’ time we’ll all be living in these games, working in virtual industries buying and selling imaginary products, while some invisible underclass of people actually collects the rubbish and makes our food and does all the work in the real world?’

      Her question hangs in the air for a second and two. I am tempted to say that we already are almost living in this world…

This is called a power law, or is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Principle. What is the Matthew Principle? It is, of course : “for whomsoever hath, to him shall be given”, otherwise known as “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer”.

Ben probably lives in one room in some inner-city house-share in Reading, with mouldy coffee cups and science-fiction novels in little piles by his bed, probably a mattress on the floor. All his possessions would probably sell at auction for less than Georges would spend on a meal. Why am I thinking like this? It’s almost embarrassing to find myself thinking like this. Surely the point of love is not simply to find two guys and then go to bed with the poorest one?

I always knew that bad things happen in the world. I am not an idiot. But my attitude has always been that just have to try to get through life, for as long as possible, without deliberately making things worse but, also, aware of the fact that you can’t make anything better. In the end, there’s probably no four-dimensional being watching us to see if we make the right choices. There is no judgement. You live your life and hope that you won’t be involved in any wars and then what? It’s all over, and you become earth.

…we all know that actual objects don’t’ matter any more. What matters instead is the logo, the idea, the lifestyle, the brand. Companies are now required to spend millions of dollars establishing this brand, paying sports stars and actresses to endorse it, paying marketing gurus to tell them how to make it ‘go viral’ and so on. How can they compete otherwise? Perhaps there really is nothing left over to actually pay to make the product. Perhaps that’s why the people who make it have to live in poverty, and why the materials are substandard and glue shows on even the coolest trainers. They pay only to make the label, nothing else.

She walks into the room, everything about her soft and somehow feathery.

I was thinking about the SF. The Supreme Fascist. It’s what Paul Erdos called God. It’s his version of the Supreme Being, I suppose. He said that life is a game that you can never win, because every time you do something bad the SF gets one point, but every time you do something good, neither of you score. The game of life is to keep the SF’s score as low as possible but however you play, it’s a game you can never win.

My skirts moves in ways I hadn’t ever noticed. When it brushes against my knees, the sensation is like being licked by a cat.

We sell the sort of attachment to objects and sentimentalism that means that a kid will run back into a burning house to rescue a toy rabbit, but Dad won’t swerve in the car to avoid a real one. That is the real power of brands, when you think about it. One rabbit has a label on its arse, another one doesn’t. You can love the one with the label and everyone accepts that. Risk your life for a real animal and people say you’re mad.

Of course, branding is traditionally what happens to animals, slaves, property. Now, of course, the mark is worth more than the object.

If someone worked out how to predict primes, the Internet would crumble in a day. There’d be no e-commerce, no secure sites, no credit-card transactions.

As I was driving up a steep hill, with fields on either side, I suddenly become aware of a strip, like a ribbon, of pale blue light on the horizon. At first I didn’t know what it was. Then I realised that this was the last part of sky that hadn’t yet been taken by the already impressive sunset : a baby blue sliver of day, which I could only just glimpse through the trees. At one point, when there were no trees, I saw it span the whole horizon; the day dying before my eyes, with blood everywhere. Then a hedge obscured it and the whole, tantalising scene was just gone.

      Higher ground. I had to get to higher ground. Instead of taking my usual turn-off, a downhill section like driving into the centre of a very deep bowl, I turned off randomly, pushing the car upwards, further, trying to find a place to look down on the dying sky. I had to see it; all of it. For some reason nothing else mattered and I raced against the clock to get up the hill before night-time reached critical mass and the sunset was gone. Finally I found the perfect viewing spot : an abandoned, darkened shell of an old burnt-out petrol station. Switching off my car headlights made all the difference. The sunset now spanned the entire horizon in front of me : miles and miles of sky. Behind me, it was already night-time. But I was like a furtive god up there, surveying the last long sliver of the day, still with its afternoon-blue set beneath not just oranges and reds but grey, black, purple : all these swatches of sky bruising and smearing together. You couldn’t draw this. You couldn’t capture any of this in a photograph. I had never even seen anything like this in my life. This was the sky ripped in two with its insides spilling out. Black silhouettes of trees and houses looked like burnt-out ruins set against the bright mess in the sky. I realised that I was actually sitting in a real burnt-out ruin, randomly, on my own, with no family left in the whole world. I started to cry.

      And it all made sense. The world was beautiful, even if people you loved died. In fact, if this sky was a kind of death, then maybe it wasn’t so bad. Was heaven in there somewhere, behind all those colours? This sky made me believe, for the first time, in heaven. It made me believe in heaven and ghosts and the afterlife in a way I had never imagined I could or would. This wasn’t an intellectual belief, with empirical proof or rational argument. This was a feeling of miracles and love and a vast, infinite future. This was a sky from fiction, and I believed in it, then. I believed in it all. If this was nature, then maybe nature was all right. Maybe death was as natural as this sky. And suddenly I didn’t need that brown veil any more. All I felt was hope; and the loss I felt about my grandfather’s death seemed to bleed away with the remains of the sky until I was sitting there in complete darkness with my face wet, unable to move.

Further Reading

You can find Bina’s review of ‘PopCo’ here.

If you are interested in Cryptography, you can try reading Simon Singh’s ‘The Code Book’. It is excellent. If you would like to get into the mathematical part of cryptography and are not intimidated by pages filled with equations, you can try reading ‘Cryptography and Network Security’ by William Stallings. It is a recommended textbook in its field.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘PopCo’. It is an intelligent novel on contemporary themes with a treasure hunt thrown in. You will enjoy it if you like reading novels based with secret codes.

I can’t wait to read ‘The End of Mr.Y’, Scarlett Thomas’ next novel, which according to Bina, is about quantum mechanics, Schrödinger’s cat, many worlds theory and other exciting topics. I also read in Wikipedia that Thomas’ first three novels were about an English literature grad solving mysteries. I can’t wait to get them too – they look so intriguing and they look like mysteries with literary clues 🙂

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