Book review

A Wizard’s Guide To Defensive Baking

by T. Kingfisher

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This book is a delight from beginning to end. Mona is a young baker who has magical skills, but they are strictly related to baking – she can revive stale bread, she can make dough rise better, she can even animate gingerbread people and make them dance. She’s happily working in her aunt Tabitha’s bakery, enjoying delighting people with her blueberry scones, when early one morning she comes to open the bakery and finds the body of a dead girl. And things begin to go downhill from there – an assassin is preying on the minor magical talents of the city, and Mona may well be on their list…

Mona – who is, after all, a fourteen year old girl – soon finds herself in an world run by adults, entirely confused as to why the adults haven’t just done the obvious things and sorted it out. Unfortunately, they haven’t, and things go from bad to worse. Mona – with a little help from her baking skills – does her best, but definitely feels overwhelmed by the responsibility thrust upon her.

Some great characters in here, deftly played out by T. Kingfisher, too, with perhaps my favourite being Bob, the animated sourdough starter (our starter is called Adam, so I’m quite happy to see a named character in this guise). And although this is a book entirely suitable for a YA audience, it’s also entirely suitable for grumpy old men like me. It’s a bit dark, but also whimsical and charming – and yes, I did seem to have something in my eye at the end (+1 for waterproof Kindle!).

Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for charm.

Book review

The Risen Empire

by Scott Westerfeld

The Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld

If you like your science fiction with an emphasis on the science, as I do, then this is likely to be a great book for you. Set a few thousand years in the future, humans have spread out not only to the “80 Worlds” of the Risen Empire, but further, fragmenting and managing their own evolution as they go. In this future, we haven’t conquered the speed of light for travel, but we do use quantum-entangled particles for faster-than-light communication across the worlds. To make a multi-world system plausible you need some new science, and in this universe we have conquered gravity, at least to some extent. This allows anti-gravity on ships, which can allow us to live with much higher accelerations, so interstellar travel is still a matter of years not hours, but it is practical.

The final discovery around which the book is centered was the creation of immortality. Fourteen hundred years before the book’s setting, a brilliant scientist in search of a cure for his sister’s terminal disease created of a symbiote that can be implanted in the very recently deceased, and which brings them back to life – for ever, assuming no massive traumatic injuries. He first uses this on himself, and then on his sister. Fourteen hundred years later, he is the Emperor of the Risen Empire, planets are divided between the living and the “dead” (i.e., the resurrected), and the Emperor’s sister is treated as semi-divine. Unfortunately, as the book stars, we find she has also been captured by the terrorists known as the Rix, who view humanity as merely a stepping stone to planet-sized artificial intelligences.

Enter our hero, Laurent Zai, commander of a space frigate with the mission of freeing her. Complications, as they say, ensue.

There’s a lot to chew on in this book, as well as the intriguing plot. What does the creation of immortality mean to humanity? Does it stifle our creativity – science is often seen as being done by the young, who have to wait for the old to die out before their new theories take hold? How does it affect the transfer of wealth between generations?

‘If the old ones lived forever? Possessed all the wealth, controlled the military, and brooked no disagreement? We’d still be living there, stuck on that lonely fringe of Orion, thinking ourselves at the center of the universe.

We meet Nara, a senior member of the Senate, who is a fierce opponent of immortality. Laurent becomes her lover, and in many ways the book is about the contrast between their love, and the dead hand of the immortals and their worlds. She views immortality as the ultimate con trick:

‘Humanity is central, Laurent, the only thing that matters. We are what puts good and evil in this universe. Not gods or dead people. Not machines. Us.’ ‘The honored dead are our ancestors, Nara,’ he whispered fiercely, as if silencing a child in church. ‘They’re a medical procedure. One with unbelievably negative social and economic consequences. Nothing more.’

Then there’s the Rix – are they what they seem to be? What’s their ultimate motivation?

The Rix Cult did not recognize hard boundaries, especially between animate and inanimate; Rixwomen (they had disposed of the unnecessary gender) moved freely along the continuum between organic and technological, picking and choosing from the strengths of each.

The beating heart of the book for me is still the excellent extrapolation from the few inventions the author allows himself. Of especial note for me was the brilliant space battle, between Zai’s frigate and the incoming Rix.

It’s great writing throughout, with entirely credible weapons and their effects, and the various characters really leap off the page – Nara, Laurent and Hobbes, his Executive Officer, the surviving Rix commando on the planet, even the immortal Emperor. Different sub-sections take their points of view in turn, and it’s very effectively done.

Four and a half stars, rounded up to five for that great battle scene.

Book review

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles

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This is a beautiful book, with near-perfect pacing and charming characters. In it we follow the Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, as he finds himself under house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel in the same square as the Kremlin.

Alexander is a man brought up to the grander things in life, as an aristocrat in the early 1900s in Russia, and as the book progresses we see something of the life he once had. As the book opens, in a tribunal after the revolution of 1918, he finds himself sentenced to live his life from a tiny attic room in the hotel. The conditions of his confinement also strip away almost all of his possessions, and leave him with no ability to leave the hotel. However, the Count is also a man who was once told by his guardian that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them”, and so he sets out to master the straits in which he finds himself.

We get to know several of the staff in the hotel, who in the coming years become close friends of the Count. We meet, for example, the Maitre d’, who is a master of his restaurant craft:

And when the woman holding the wine list asked for a recommendation, he didn’t point to the 1900 Bordeaux—at least not in the Teutonic sense. Rather, he slightly extended his index finger in a manner reminiscent of that gesture on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling with which the Prime Mover transmitted the spark of life.

The prose throughout is beautiful, and as Alexander gets to know a number of the regular guests, they too are sketched out with a delightful touch. And of course it is the way that their individual tales intertwine with his that makes up the warp and weft of the story:

By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.

Nowhere is the story too trite, either. There are even one or two jokes about how it’s not being trite:

“Ten years ago tomorrow, while I was biding my time in Paris, my sister died.” “Of a broken heart . . .?” “Young women only die of broken hearts in novels, Charles. She died of scarlet fever.”

Although there are serious themes in the book, the touch throughout is light, but not trivial – depending on who is in the spotlight. Compare:

Nina Kulikova always was and would be a serious soul in search of serious ideas to be serious about.


As the Count turned to go, an American who had commandeered the piano began performing a jaunty little number that celebrated a lack of bananas, a lack of bananas today.

It’s a great book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Five stars, well deserved.


King of Thorns

by Mark Lawrence

King of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #2)

We find the young Jorg Ancrath shortly after where we left him at the end of “Prince of Thorns”. He’s still ill-tempered, a murderer, destructive, sly, and entirely ruthless. He often seems to act at random, and at best his loose goal might be avenging the deaths of his sister and brother, but mostly he’s just rebelling against being told he can’t do things, or he’s expected to do other things. That’s how Jorg works – instinctively, brutally, reflexively, but still somehow brilliantly:

‘Is this going to be one of those times when you pretend not to have a plan until the last moment?’ Makin asked. ‘And then turn out to really not have one?’

Jorg is a king, now, but it hasn’t quietened his nightmares, which are now haunted by a mysterious copper box. And it hasn’t smoothed one iota off his sharp tongue- we’re sarcastic about everything, if it deserves it:

The bladder-pipe, a local Highlands speciality, is to music what warthogs are to mathematics. Largely unconnected.

Meanwhile, Jorg finds himself opposed to the man who would be Emperor across the whole continent. It’s not that Jorg doesn’t like him, or see why he might be a great Emperor, it’s mostly just his innate stubbornness, and unwillingness to bow down to others, ever. So Jorg finds himself in his castle, with his very young new bride, poorly defended, with twenty thousand of the would-be Emperor’s troops marching towards him. Only his wits – and maybe a handful of peculiar artifacts – might help him.

Occasionally, you get glimpses of the broader setting of this book, from which these artifacts derive – we find that we’re in a long post-apocalyptic future:

When a game cannot be won, change the game. I read that in the book of Kirk.

These kind of “Easter egg” insider nods to the broader science fiction/fantasy genre are delicately done, and a delight to find.

The book is told through two intertwining timelines, one taking only a few hours, while the other takes months, until eventually they come together. I thought this was very well done, and a great narrative device. It’s a form that works very well for other genres, but I haven’t seen it used here, and I rather like it – fantasy as smart fiction, even if it still takes in some of the tropes on the way.

But it’s not all smart asides and clever references. Some of Mark Lawrence’s writing here, as in his other books, soars high above us:

Still the music, the deep slow melody, the high and broken counterpoint, as if the mountains themselves had become the score, as if the glories of hidden caves and secret peaks had been wrapped around the ageless majesty of the ocean and turned into the music of all men’s lives, played out by a woman’s fingers, without pause or mercy, reaching in, twisting, laying us bare.

Five stars, very well deserved.

Book review

Dispel Illusion

by Mark Lawrence

Dispel Illusion by Mark  Lawrence

This is the deftly-written conclusion to the excellent Impossible Times trilogy, and I enjoyed it as thoroughly as the first two. This isn’t a book you can read without having read the first two in the trilogy – the plot line is complicated enough as it is, with several different timelines going on in different chapters, and you’re definitely doing well if you don’t need to read the helpful recap at the start of the book.

It’s a book that quite literally begins with a bang – a time-distorted explosion, of course, as it’s a prototype time machine that’s blowing up here.

“The two saving graces of explosions are that from the outside they’re pretty and from the inside they’re quick.”

It’s a book about time travel. Time travel as invented by Nick, the lead character, and the real-world implications of that. (My favourite is still that if you travel through time, you are going to also need to travel through space, otherwise when you reappear in your new time, the Earth’s orbit will have moved it from under your feet!) Time travel is, according to mathematics and the laws of physics, perfectly possible:

“The mathematics of time don’t care about ‘now’, they just ask what value you want to set ‘t’ to. There’s a special connection between consciousness and time. Einstein said, ‘Time is an illusion’, and the great Douglas Adams had even greater doubts about lunchtime.”

That reference to a Douglas Adams line is one of the reasons I loved this book, by the way. I grew up very much in the era in which this book is set, and I love all the references to the culture that Nick grew up with. I also played Dungeons&Dragons enough to get the references there, so this was always going to give this book a +3 in the saving roll against my affections. I also grew up in the early days of the World Wide Web, so references like this make perfect sense to me:
I didn’t have time to write any code but the machine linked into the World Wide Web and the Lynx browser enabled me to navigate through literally hundreds of pages of information held on computers all across the planet. Well, mainly in America.

Of course it’s also a book about friendship, and how that changes through time and space. The group of friends we met in the first book are still together – and still playing the same epic D&D campaign that they started in their youth. But they’ve grown up, and grown into their respective characters. One of the nice things is how the tone of the narration has changed very credibly, as we moved from Nick as a teenager in book 1 through to threads of his adult life in the current volume. Although he’s in many ways the same Nick underneath, he’s definitely grown up in this book, and more able to deal with the situations in which he finds himself. Growing up will do that to you:

“Always the child standing there wearing an old man’s clothes, an old skin hanging from old bones, and wondering where the days went, remembering how marvelous it had been to fritter away so many slow and sunny days. And wanting more.”

It’s also a book about enemies: again, the bad guys follow you through time, both forwards and – if you give them a chance – backwards. Miles Guilder is still funding Nick’s research, and he’s still not a nice man. Charles Rust is still very much present as Guilder’s heavy, and he still very much does not like Nick. The interactions with these two drive much of the plot of the book, in ways that are foreshadowed in the earlier volumes, but still reveal in surprising and clever ways in this book.

And Mr Lawrence writes some beautiful lines, here as in all his books, that do such a great job of revealing our shared humanity, even in very tiny ways.

“The stories of our lives don’t behave themselves; they don’t have clear beginnings, and even death isn’t a clear end. We just do what we can, we take what kindness and joy we find along the way, we ride the rapids as best we’re able.”

I loved this book. I perhaps loved the first in the trilogy even more, because it caught me by surprise, but there was so much of that spirit still in here that it’s a solid five stars all the way for me.

Book review

The Writing Life

by Annie Dillard

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Re-read #3 for me on this, I think. It’s such a beautiful little book, only a little over a hundred pages. The prose shines like the highly polished brass of a cannon, gleaming in the sun, catching your eye with its beauty whilst simultaneously capable of blowing your mind into tiny little pieces. I found myself captivated, reading sentences or paragraphs again and again.

It’s about us reading a book:

“The line of words feels for cracks in the firmament. The line of words is heading out past Jupiter this morning. Traveling 150 kilometres a second, it makes no sound. The big yellow planet and its white moons spin. The line of words speeds past Jupiter and its cumbrous, dizzying orbit; it looks neither to the right nor to the left. It will be leaving the solar system soon, single-minded, rapt, rushing heaven like a soul.”

It’s about the process of writing a book:

“I had to discover a method to remind myself that I had water boiling on the stove… so I stuck a clothespin on my finger. It was, as it happened, a strong clothespin, and I had to move it every twenty seconds. This action, and the pain, kept me in the real world until the water actually boiled …. So that is how I wrote those nights, wrote a book about high holy art: moving a clothespin up and down my increasingly reddened little finger. Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.”

Much of it is of course just the process of being alive – all of our lives.

“What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”

All of it is remarkable, and much of it is also very poignant. The final chapter, on its surface about Dave Rahm, a geologist who also happens to be a world class stunt pilot, makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I read it. The clouds part, and just for a moment, your imagination conjures up, with the help of these little black shapes on bits of smashed trees and rags, a thing of Platonic beauty.

Breathtaking stuff. Five golden stars.

Book review


by John Varley

Millennium by John Varley

I love this book – and not least because it’s an old old copy, dating back from my youth, that has followed me across the years, and I’ve read perhaps a dozen times over that time. I feel re-joined somehow with my younger self.

This is not inappropriate for a book about time travel. Here we find Louise, the heroine, reaching back from the far future to our century. Here, her path crosses with Bill Smith. And here, Bill leads a team of air accident investigators who find themselves investigating an appalling mid-air collision between a DC10 and a 747. In which they start to find some very odd things – digital watches running backwards, for example. What exactly is going on!?

The lead characters are great – Bill is nicely written, deeply flawed man: a functional alcoholic with a relentless streak that doesn’t look like it’s going to save his career. Meanwhile Louise is trying to save humanity, one body at a time. And the plot is suitably time-twisty, without any serious impact for being 35 years old, so I’m not going to share any more of it.

Find an old copy somewhere, sit back, and enjoy the ride!

Book review

Breaking The Spell

Religion As A Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel C. Dennett


This is an thorough and well-argued review from Daniel Dennett of the ways in which religions might have emerged as natural phenomena in early humans, and how the pressures of evolution on this new set of social constructs might have then produced many of the traits we see in today’s religions.

His argument adds important elements to a pure psychological view of religion, although it certainly starts there. In the early chapters, Dennett argues that humans have what he calls an “intentional stance”: that in order to best predict the world, we tend to think of things in the world as rational agents, and figure out the desires, and thus the actions, of that agent. This works brilliantly for other humans, and it works pretty well for the animals that early humans might need to hunt or escape. Thus it’s easy for us to see how we might extend the same logic to other things – the weather, diseases, and so forth. From this, we can see how we might have grown to attribute apparently random changes in (say) the weather to an unseen entity behind the weather itself, and to then see the changes in the weather as reflecting true intentions of that entity. If you want to get it to rain, therefore, it makes perfect sense to try and communicate with the entity behind it, and to get the entity to cause it to rain. We attribute “agency” to the weather, and it makes sense then to try and bargain with the agent.

(As I write this, we’re in lockdown due to the COVID-19 epidemic, and this desire to treat the disease as an entity with intentions, capricious or malignant though they might be, is very visible in the way many people talk about it.)

From here, Dennett grows the argument. Everything we value, or are fearful of, we value or fear for reasons. This view of the world gives us challenges in everyday living, which early folk religions enabled us to handle, psychologically. Once in the culture, these folk religions were susceptible to the same evolutionary pressures – this time at the level of “memes” that thrive or die out – as humans themselves, only many many times faster that physical evolution. Only the best variants of these beliefs will propagate – and “best” means most successful in meeting our deep psychological and physical needs.

As human societies grew, specialised intercessors to these agents emerged (“shamans”, he calls them for convenience). Dennett goes on to suggest that these shamans, and others, had time to become more reflective, and so from these early folk religions, organized religions began to emerge. Sometimes, the simple beliefs in the folk religions were bolstered or even entirely replaced by carefully crafted reasoning. At this point, it might have become necessary to put some of these religious views out of the reach of “gnawing skepticism”, as Dennett puts it. This leads to an interesting way of splitting the world:

“This winnowing has the effect of sequestering a special subset of cultural items behind the veil of systematic invulnerability to disproof – a pattern found just about everywhere in human societies. As many have urged, this division into the propositions that are designed to be immune to disconfirmation and all the rest looks like a hypothetical joint at which we could well carve nature. Right here, they suggest, is where (proto-)science and (proto-)religion part company”

Dennett rightly spends a fair while on this point. Is it right that we treat religion, by definition, as “systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation? … No religion lacks these effects, and anything that lacks them is not really a religion, however much it is like a religion in other regards.” Dennett rightly points out that this view wasn’t shared by the shamans themselves: if they saw they were losing their flock to the shaman down the road, they were quite prepared to take on new approaches and ideas – to evolve. So one of the important features that emerged as folk religion merged and became organized religions was this secrecy and systematic invulnerability to disconfirmation.

Now we see Dennett broaden the view out from the leaders to the groups who also believed. He sees this as in many cases an entirely rational decision to join on the part of individuals, who would see benefits from being part of a group regardless of possible supernatural benefits from the gods themselves. There are also many possible psychological benefits in belief, but there is a darker side as well – tribalism in humans is very often reinforced by conflict, and the tendency of religions to spark conflicts and wars from prehistory to the modern day is terrifying. Of course it could be argued that they were being co-opted by pre-existing power structures, but none the less the features of very many religions do seem to be shaped, and often thrive, on conflict.

At this point, Dennett spends a while talking about “belief in belief”. This, he argues, is a very powerful force, in religions and elsewhere, and can completely transform them. For example, he points out that many feel it’s important to maintain the belief in democracy, regardless of its flaws. So we tend to play down the flaws and play up the benefits, and in doing so lose track of the logic which may (or may not) support the arguments for its value. Similarly with science – we may believe in science, we may believe that “e=mc2”, without knowing (or caring) how it is so. None the less, we believe! And, he argues, the same is true of religions. Even very devout followers may not share identical views on details of doctrine, and many lay believers will turn out to have quite different interpretations of major points. But it doesn’t matter – what matters is that they all share the belief in the importance of their beliefs.

Finally, Dennett looks at religions today. He starts to talk about whether religion is, all things considered, a good thing. Is religion good for people, he asks? There is definitely evidence that belonging to religious organisations can improve the morale, and hence the health, of participants. Believers would also argue that the meaning it gives their lives is immeasurably valuable. More specific experiments, for example on the benefits of “intercessory prayer”, give mixed results, and include at least one notorious case of academic fraud. Finally, almost all religious people see their religion as the foundation of their morality. On this point, Dennett comments

“I have uncovered no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don’t believe in reward in heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises than people who do. The prison population in the United States shows Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others – including those with no religious affiliation – represented about as they are in the general population … Indeed, the evidence to date support the hypothesis that atheists have the lowest divorce rates in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest.”

There is a lot I really liked about this book. The arguments are thorough, carefully constructed, and evidence is sought wherever possible. Some technical material is present in appedices, a couple of which I found useful I am, I should point out, not a religious believer of any creed, although I do think that there is a deep human need (which I feel) for the spiritual, and so I can’t comment on how a theist would have felt. I hope they would have been able to read the arguments through to the end, and Dennett I feel does a good job of presenting the best arguments on both sides.

There were a few irritations, for me at least. The very first chapter or two nearly caused me to give up, as Dennett spends an entirely unnecessary (for me) amount of time justifying the whole enterprise. He’s also very fond of italics to emphasise key words in his paragraphs, and sometimes this is perhaps too heavy handed. But it’s a forgiveable style. Four and a half stars, rounded up to five on final consideration.

Book review

Grey Sister

by Mark Lawrence

Grey Sister by Mark  Lawrence

The second of Mark Lawrence’s Book of the Ancestor trilogy was another great read for me. Nona, our hero from the first book, is now two years further in to her training at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. In this volume, though, we get to see more of the world in which the Convent is set, and more of the politics that plays itself out through the empire which surrounds it. In particular, there’s more politics in this book – in a good way.

Every law of church or state seeks to separate you from your anger. Every rule is there to tame you – to take from your hands that which you should own. Every stricture aims to place the vengeance that is yours in the grasp of courts, juries, justice and judges. Books of law look to replace what you know to be right with lines of ink. Prisons and executioners stand only to keep your hands from the blood of those who have wronged you. Every part of it exists to put time and distance between deed and consequence. To lift us from our animal nature, to cage and tame the beast.

The physical world itself is a masterful creation by the author, and a great backdrop in the series. In this volume, it comes into the foreground, too. Huge mountains of ice press in on a narrow corridor around the equator, kept clear only by the nightly heat from the focus moon. We see a few more hints of how people came to be on this world, and we get to see some more of the world itself.

We find out more about some of the characters who were introduced in the first book, such as Zole, the “Chosen One”. I really enjoyed her mask of frostiness, from behind which the odd glimpse of humour would sometimes sneak:

‘How did you follow me without my noticing?’ ‘Carefully.’ Zole looked up, pocketing a few coins. ‘Do not feel too bad about it. I am the Chosen One, after all.’ Although there was no hint of a smile Nona suspected that she might have witnessed Zole’s first joke.

Nona herself is still key to the action, and she’s joined by her friends as she has to fight assassins, intrigue, and her own demons to survive. Friendship is a constant theme – the bonds formed by it, and their value. And there’s plenty of action, too: the last third of the book is one long relentless chase, and the twists and turns certainly kept me reading into the night.

Nona let Keot take her tongue, her voice becoming a snarl, something alien. ‘I hunger for their deaths. I want their blood to spill. I’ve been trapped, boxed, poisoned, abused, and now it’s my turn. I don’t fear destruction. It’s the desire to survive that slows you, girl. I—’ Nona wrested control back from Keot, coughed and added in her normal voice, ‘if that’s all right with you?’ Clera, pale now, backed against the tunnel wall, her eyebrows raised, and offered her palms in the ‘be my guest’ gesture.

Overall, four and a half stars, rounded up to five for the action in the final chapters. Great stuff, and I can’t wait to read the last one!

Book review

On Human Nature

by Edward O. Wilson

On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson

A really important and profound book on how we’re a social species, and that although our overall nature is significantly shaped by environment (mostly culture), the set of possible shapes that our nature might take is still profoundly constrained by our genetics. We are not a blank slate at all, despite what some sociologists might claim. Instead, we can:

“hope to decide more judiciously which of the elements of human nature to cultivate and which to subvert, which to take open pleasure with and which to handle with care. We will not, however, eliminate the hard biological substructure until such time, many years from now, when our descendants may learn to change the genes themselves.”

To investigate the limits of genetics, and the flexibility of the human responses to it, Wilson looks at four of the “elemental categories of behavior”: aggression, sex, altruism, and religion.

On aggression, for example, Wilson leaves no doubt that our genetics are those of an aggressive primate, while our culture has striven to remove most of it from our societies.

“Throughout history, warfare, representing only the most organized technique of aggression, has been endemic to every form of society, from hunter-gatherer bands to industrial states … Virtually all societies have invented elaborate sanctions against rape, extortion, and murder, while regulating their daily commerce through complex customs and laws designed to minimize the subtler but inevitable forms of conflict. Most significantly of all, the human forms of aggressive behavior are species-specific: although basically primate in form, they contain features that distinguish them from aggression in all other species.”

In response to those who point to the tiny minority of societies that appear to be pacific, Wilson asks us to look at even their history.

“Among contemporary !Kung San, violence in adults is almost unknown … But as recently as fifty years ago, when these Bushman populations were denser and less rigidly controlled by the central government, their homicide rate per capita equaled that of Detroit and Houston”

None of this is to deny our ability to overcome our genetic tendencies. But first we must recognize that they exist, and the patterns through which they show up in our societies.

“Our brains do appear to be programmed to the following extent: we are inclined to partition other people into friends and aliens … We tend to fear deeply the actions of strangers and to solve conflict by aggression …. (These) learning rules of violent aggression are largely obsolete. We are no longer hunter-gatherer who settle disputes with spears, arrows, and stone axes. But to acknowledge the obsolescence of the rules is not to banish them …. We must consciously undertake those difficult and rarely traveled pathways in psychological development that lead to master over and reduction of the profound human tendency to learn violence.”

This same style of treatment is given to the other topics. For sex, for example, we start with why there are genders at all – and why two of them, versus the thousands of genders in some fungi, or the haplodiploid arrangement of some bees, wasps and ants. From there, we look at what sexual differences seem to genetically exist in humans, and why they might have evolved. His treatment of homosexuality is very sympathetic for the time it was written (1978), and is generally directed towards potential kin-selection benefits of a predisposition to homosexuality, which is perhaps a little dated, but not too far away from my understanding of contemporary views.

Perhaps only in the final chapter, entitled Hope, do I find myself disappointed. Not with Wilson, but with humankind. Wilson’s view is that a correct application of evolutionary theory would uphold three core values: the nobility of the individual (benefiting humankind over their own individual genes), diversity in the gene pool (to allow enough room for human brilliance across any field to emerge), and universal human rights (because power is fluid in our societies in the long term, and any long-term inequity will be visibly dangerous to its temporary beneficiaries). Perhaps he is right, and we’re just not there yet!

Wilson writes all this in 1978; I read a copy of the 25th anniversary edition from the early 2000s, but the subject matter is still just as important today. And very little of it is dated. 4.75 stars, rounded up to 5 for brilliance of exposition.