Evolution by Stephen Baxter

Grafton, 2003, 766 p.

 Evolution  cover

You can’t fault Baxter for ambition. This is potentially a daunting undertaking, to tell the story of human evolution – from those first small, nocturnal mammals scrabbling about under the feet of the dinosaurs all the way through modern Homo Sapiens to its far future descendants – via incidents from the imagined lives of individuals living at possibly pivotal moments in that great chain. It wouldn’t have been an easy task for anyone.

The story is told in three sections Ancestors, Humans, and Descendants, topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue and interrupted by an Interlude between sections One and Two. There is a further episode set in the same time as these three framing passages though it is included as the last chapter in Section Two.

By its nature the narrative of Evolution tends to the episodic and that, for a novel, can be a problem. The reader is no sooner taken into the lives of our various protagonists than is brought out again, hurrying onward ever onward, usually leaping millions of years, jumping from habitat to habitat. But that, of course, is evolution. Our own experience of life, of story, is not even a blink in those terms.

The early chapters – set in the days immediately before the impact of the Chicxulub meteor (Baxter has it as a comet, with its huge “Devil’s Tail” spanning across the sky in its approach) – can at times read as the transcript of a lecture on palæobiology. Baxter has clearly done a power of research (and of course without that his story would have been much the poorer) but the way he introduces some of the creatures is usually not novelistic. Then there are the information dumping paragraphs describing the geological processes altering the animals’ environments and the Earth’s climate: necessary to the overall picture, but again not novelistic.

The influence of Richard Dawkins on the author’s vision is perhaps evident in the importance Baxter gives to sex, the passing on of genes, in the motivations and actions of his ‘characters’. There is a persistent insistence on the compartmentalisation of early primates’ brains. The beginnings of religion are described as an attempt to make sense of the forces shaping the world via a new way of thinking. The importance of food scarcities on the development of certain human behaviours is noted. By contrast the effect of the beginnings of agriculture on the health of human teeth (not good, the grit in the resultant bread from the grinding of the wheat between stones wearing them away) and of nutritional health more generally (lack of dietary diversity leading to deficiency disease, stunted growth) is almost a throwaway. But ‘civilisation’ lies this way. And its fall is due to the same impersonal forces of nature as did for the dinosaurs, though with a different mechanism. (Sixteen years on such a natural cause need not necessarily be looked to. As a species many of us still seem inclined to blindness to our own possible contribution to a mass extinction event.)

So; does it work? The book is an intellectual undertaking but not on a Stapledonian scale. A lot of the scenarios while differing in detail tend to the similar in their outline; ancestors, humans, or descendants encountering some new phenomenon, species, or climatic pressure. Baxter’s strengths as a storyteller lie in this sphere rather than in characterisation. His protagonists and those with whom they come into conflict are in this case too pragmatically designed to fulfil the niches assigned to them to fully come alive. Some of the future scenes also seemed to owe more than a little to H G Wells. (Baxter has of course since written a sequel to War of the Worlds.) As an introduction to the convoluted history of human evolution, though, this is a good starting place even if more recent discoveries have rendered it slightly out of date.

Pedant’s corner:- Written with USian spellings. Otherwise; “The smoke from the volcano” (we’ve previously been told that the smoke was due to forest fires,) “like an featherless” (a featherless,) “his clan were gone: (was gone,) “forever looking over their shoulder” (shoulders,) “was a kind of primates” (a kind of primate,) a missing full stop, auroras (aurorae,) “the laellyn group were overcome” (the group was overcome.) “But Capo’s troop were responding” (Capo’s troop was responding,) “‘one group of experimenters were’”” (one group was – but this was in dialogue,) “in the shape of their backs, skulls, trunks” (in the shapes of their backs, skulls, trunks,) epicentre (centre,) “Dust had already laid down by the fire” (lain down,) fitted (despite, earlier – and later – the USian form of the preterite, fit,) “just as his spear had flow” (had flown,) tepee-style (tepee-style,) a missing full stop, “where the sun was staring to set” (starting,) “that was why there was so many of them” (there were so many of them,) “raised to shoulder, height above the ground” (no comma after shoulder.) “It took Hononus and Athalaric many weeks reach Jordan” (It took Honorius and Athalaric many weeks to reach Jordan,) Neandertal (is this a USian spelling of Neanderthal?) A sentence lacking a name – or pronoun – as its subject (on page 671,) “for these pits were mouths. These deadly maws” (maws are not mouths. They are stomachs.)

Garden, The House of Dun

Like most National Trust properties the House of Dun (see previous post) has a well-kept garden.

Formal garden from one of the house’s windows:-

Garden

Pergola. It looks a little like a spider-

Garden pergola

Box hedging by house:-

box hedging pano

Stone in box hedging commemorating the house’s opening by the Queen Mother in 1989 after its restoration 300 hundred years after the house’s designer William Adam’s birth:-

Box hedging dedication

Some of the planting:-

Garden , House of Dun, Montrose

Morton 6-1 Dumbarton

Scottish League Cup*, Group E, Cappielow Park, 16/7/19.

Ouch!

We could have done without such a thumping.

I suppose it’s a sign of our lack of cohesion. The team hasn’t had any time at all to gel. But it’s a bit of an embarrassment nonetheless.

Still, we lost 7-0 at St Mirren in the League Cup in August 2008 and went on to win the league that year.

Do you hear the sound of someone clutching at straws?

*Betfred Cup

The House of Dun

The House of Dun lies in the parish of Dun, west of Montrose. The present house was designed by the famous architect William Adam. Two of his drawing designs for the house can be seen here.

One of the resons I wanted to visit is because The House of Dun is the ancestral home of Violet Jacob whose Flemington and Tales of Angus I read four years ago now.

Estate entrance:-

Entrance, House of Dun

Game Larder, in entrance courtyard, House of Dun. How the other half lived:-

Game Larder, House of Dun

House of Dun:-

House of Dun

Rear view:-

House of Dun, Montrose

Model:-

Model, House of Dun

Side view:-

House of Dun, Montrose

Latest from Interzone

 This Is How You Lose the Time War cover

It’s that time again.

I’m awaiting the arrival of Interzone 282, not least to find out if I’ll have two reviews in it. It seems ages ago I sent off my review of The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, and I did the same for Beneath the World, A Sea by Chris Beckett not long after.

Still a new book has arrived for review (to appear in Interzone 283?)

This is a collaboration between Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone and is titled This Is How You Lose the Time War.

Should be fun.

Beauly Boer War Memorial

My previous posts on Beauly are here and here. I didn’t see a memorial to the World Wars of the twentieth century when I was there but I have since found out it’s situated on a hill to the south of the town. Maybe next time I’m up that way.

However in the centre of the town is a large memorial, “Erected by the Lovat tenantry and fuears… to commemorate the raising of the Lovat Scouts by Simon Joseph, 6th Lord Lovat….” (For full wording click on picture to where it can be enlarged.) It is also inscribed “Cape Colony” in the lower rectangle.

Boer War Memorial, Beauly

Northern facet. In the upper rectangle, “Of the Lovat Scouts the following fell in action or died of wounds or disease….” plus “Diamond Hill” in lower:-

Boer War Memorial, Beauly

Eastern facet. Bronze Frieze in upper rectangle. “South Africa” in lower:-

Beauly Boer War Memorial

Bronze frieze detail:-

Bronze Plaque, Boer War Memorial, Beauly

Southern facet. Names of Officers of the Lovat Scouts in upper rectangle. “Wittebergen” in lower:-

Boer War Memorial, Beauly

Annan Athletic 0-1 Dumbarton

Scottish League Cup* Group E, Galabank, 13/7/19.

A win! A win I wasn’t expecting – certainly not after only signing five of the players on show within the previous forty-eight hours.

But this ought to be tempered with caution. Annan were far from impressive even if they are only one tier below us. But compare last season’s equivalent game at Spartans – two tiers below us – where we only got a draw.

With nine new players starting I had no idea who was who to begin with – apart from Kyle Hutton and Stuart Carswell, the latter now Sons captain and the stand-out player on the park.

We had the better of the early stuff, several efforts on goal (Annan’s first did not arrive till 40 mins in – their second was only a couple of minutes later but both were wide of the mark; indeed, crosses aside, Jordan Pettigrew in Sons’ goal did not have a save to make in the entire game) and a lot of corners in our favour but I still never felt our defence was comfortable. Too many years watching Sons does that to you.

New right back Lewis Crawford – a local lad – was solid and got forward well, he had our first shot on goal but it was blocked and not long after a header which unfortunately was straight at the keeper. He’s no Sam Wardrop though. Rico Quitongo on the other flank seemed defensively sound and got forward too.

Paul Crossan (P J Crossan on the club’s squad list) looked effective on the wing, reminiscent of Andy Stirling in build. He cut inside well and looks to be an upgrade on Bobby Barr.
Ryan Tierney up front held the ball up impressively but whether he’ll be able to do it against better defenders remains to be seen. He took his goal well though. Neither of our front two is on the tall side but Tierney still managed to win quite a few balls in the air. Mati Zata in midfield, though, looked like a fish out of water, not really getting into the game at all.

An Annan fan sitting near me said to his mate sometime during the second half that Dumbarton looked organised. How that’s so is a miracle given our lack of time together or maybe it’s just a reflection of Annan’s lack in that regard. Or (at the risk of getting ahead of myself and despite Sons fans less than enthusiastic embrace of the signings so far) do we simply have better players than them?

Three games against teams in higher divisions now before the league starts. Make the most of the win.

Beauly Priory

Beauly in Inverness-shire (see three posts ago) is home to the ruins of a mediæval Priory and apparently French monks who lived there are responsible for Beauly’s name (from beau lieu, beautiful place.)

Beauly Priory Remains

Beauly Priory Gable End Wall

Beauly Priory Ruins

Beauly Priory

Ruins, Beauly Priory

Live It Up 56: Don’t Talk to Me About Love

In the sixties and seventies Scottish pop acts who had success in the wider world weren’t all that numerous. By the eighties things had improved a bit. Altered Images were to the forefront.

Here’s a Top of the Pops appearance of theirs from 1983. I didn’t remember quite how much electronic instrumentation there is in this.

Altered Images: Don’t Talk to Me About Love

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1980, 280 p. First published in 1811.

Expectations count. When you’re told something is good – excellent even – your anticipation is heightened, but perhaps also tinged with the thought, ‘Well go on. Impress me then.’

So what do you say about an acknowledged classic of English literature? Well, the first thing is that the past was different. This was written over two hundred years ago. They did things – and wrote – differently there. There is a prolixity to the prose here also present in Walter Scott’s novels (an only slightly later vintage) – though Austen is by far the better stylist and aphorist – yet to begin with I found this more of a slog than Scott and the similarly vintaged Mary Shelley stories I have read in the past few years were a smooth read by comparison. I don’t suppose my familiarity with Sense and Sensibility’s plot due to TV series and film adaptations helped with this.

For expectations count. I had been told that Austen’s dialogue was exquisite, but what I found in the first few pages was very little in the way of dialogue but instead, screeds of exposition, a large amount of telling rather than showing; backgrounding if you like, but still.

I don’t give up on books though. Not even poor ones. And this is by no means a poor book. It just didn’t grab me overmuch.

People don’t change, but social circumstances do. The constraints Austen’s characters – and the author herself in the writing of them – were under are/were formidable. She was writing for her time and a degree of prolixity would have been welcome back then.

Sense and Sensibility demonstrates behaviours recognisable today – Mrs John Dashwood’s selfishness disguised as concern for her offspring, well-meaning but overbearing neighbours, imputations derived from the slimmest of evidence, money driving people’s motivations. The centre of the main plot, though, Marianne Dashwood, is seen through her sister, Elinor’s, eyes and is shadowy as a result, Colonel Brandon, nearly always off-stage, seemed more of an absence than an agonist in the book, Willoughby’s attempts/protests at self-exculpation, though underlining his cupidity, are an unlikely ploy.

I’m not giving up on Austen, though. My expectations tempered, my exposure to her style as a prime, I’ll need to see what I make of the rest of her œuvre in the light of those.

Pedant’s corner:- There are some 1811 spellings – ‘dropt’ ‘wrapt’ ‘farewel’ ‘stopt’ ‘befal’ ‘seisure’ sooth for soothe etc, sprung for sprang and sunk for sank, but some which may be exclusively Austen’s, ‘chuse’ (but ‘choose’ also appears,) ‘scissars’ ‘wo’nt’ (but ‘won’t elsewhere) ‘stilish’ ‘expence’ (yet expenses for the plural, and, later, expense for the singular,) ‘extatic’ (but ‘ecstasy’ and ‘ecstacy’ later.). Otherwise; the Miss Dashwoods, the Miss Careys, the Miss Steeles (the Misses Dashwood, the Misses Carey, the Misses Steele,) “carried away be her fancy” (by her fancy,) “the whole party were assembled” (was assembled,) “in whatever shop the party were engaged” (the party was engaged,) “these kind of scrutinies” (these kinds of scrutinies,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “in her way to the carriage” (on her way sounds more natural to me.)

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