Accelerando, Wolf Hall, and other texts

I’ve been reading (and watching) a few different things recently. I’ll start with the larger ones, and go from there.

Wolf Hall

I ended up enjoying Wolf Hall, by the end. It’s a fun watch, and a fascinating period of history. And before I dive into the other aspects, I’ll say this. Whoever did the sets and design work did a brilliant job – it looked rich, beautiful, and authentic (in as much as I can judge that, which is not much at all).

I found the story somewhat jarring at first. Many of the things that you might use in a narrative to make it intelligible for the listener weren’t obvious (context, narrative drive, clarity on what’s actually happening). Which is probably fine for those who know the details of the history. I didn’t, and so at times it felt like I was being asked to look at someone’s family album – significant to them because of all the emotion they associated with it, but it didn’t feel earned in the story.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about Mark Rylance’s performance. He does a brilliant job with what felt to me to be a very limited range of emotions in the script – a dour, contemplative silence. Which is great if that’s all the script calls for, and mostly that’s what Wolf Hall does – it just seemed a shame that there wasn’t anything more.

Accelerando

I loved Accelerando. It’s a great read. There’s a few things happening, and I’ll try and pick apart what I liked so much. [Spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about the ending in a little, but it doesn’t matter too much]. 

One of the central ideas in Accelerando is of change, hurtling forward. Every chapter or two Stross welcomes the reader to a new decade, with a few paragraphs to orient in a completely new context. He outlines what’s changed, and a little bit about why. Now granted, as some reviewers point out, some of the ideas are completely implausible. In the context of the book, I was happy to ignore that. What it did do, was create a sense of context, of time barrelling past, rolling away – which perhaps more than any narrative point, is part of what makes the book fun.

A second aspect relates to how Stross treats his characters. Now, some reviewers point out that they’re flimsy, and the connections with the characters aren’t terribly strong. This is probably fair – the book could have done much better in that regard. But I think was Stross does capture, is a very plausible scenario, of humans left behind, unable to compete with intelligences that dwarf us by orders of magnitude. That was a fascinating experience to evoke, and I think Stross did it well.

So there were plenty of negative reviews, and I can see some of the critiques. For me the negatives outweighed the positives. If you find step level change fascinating, this may be the book for you.

Other things

Here and there I’ve also been reading different articles, some of which were excellent. Among them:

  • James Fallows has what I think is a great blog post on the recent Iran deal, particularly in thinking about it from a historical perspective. I don’t know enough about the negotiations to really draw firm conclusions, but I think his use of history is thoughtful, and worth thinking through.
  • I’ve been thinking about the power of the spoken word, recently, and how a story told and heard is different (I think in some ways, but not in others), from a story read. I’ve been listening to The Moth and Now Hear This, both of which are fascinating, both because of the stories, but because of the opportunity to hear stories, told live. In that context, there’s also a reading by TNC of his new book, Between the world and me – fascinating to hear the actual voice of someone whose written voice I find so compelling.

What I’ve been reading this week

I’ve had some time off, and a few trips have meant I’ve had the chance to do a bit of reading.

TNC’s ‘Letter to my son‘ is heartbreaking and exceptional. Well worth reading. I’ve also been reading Accelerando,  which I’m only partially into. So far it’s fun – based on the first few chapters I’d recommend it as a good read.

What took the bulk of my time, though, was working my way through volume I and II of Jennifer Hocking’s biography of Gough Whitlam. I’m not quite finished, but I’m into the portion where she covers Whitlam’s post-Parliamentary career, so I think it’s worth stopping to reflect.

Hocking’s done a brilliant job of researching exhaustively, and presenting it simply and readably. Chronologies and political interactions that are inevitably complex and intricate are generally presented in a way that gets to the main issues, without too much extraneous material.

Her allocation of material is interesting too; it’s an entire volume to cover the period before Whitlam even becomes Prime Minister, starting with ancestors a few generations back. That’s undoubtedly important to give context, and it does provide some – my own interest was far more in his period of government, and obviously of his dismissal.

There’s a lot that could be said about the dismissal. I feel as though I could read several more books on the topic before I’d heard every view. As a minor footnote, I’d add that if you’re interested in the dismissal, the 1932 incident is also worth reading up on.