Tag Archive | books

Of Brains and Men

A short one from me, for once!  But I needed to get this out of my head, either for general discussion with you clever people, or later research / procrastination (delete as appropriate).

Watching Game of Thrones last night it struck me how many stories we keep track of, whether it be long form TV drama, soaps, movie franchises, comics, novels or games.  I’m in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and will no doubt pick up the latest from George RR Martin whenever he finishes it.  Star Wars is 1/3 the way through a new trilogy, itself part of a wider set of stories in a universe where there are plenty of tales to tell.  I’m sure many of you are in a similar situation, whatever genre you’re into or medium you prefer.  You may also be a student of history, and have a deep understanding of the people and stories of a particular time.

Now for each of these fictional or historical universes, we understand those characters, their motivations and relationships, the rules that govern their worlds that don’t necessarily apply in ours.  They’re stored in our brains and we switch back into them each time we pick up a book or switch on the TV.

A certain amount of our brain’s capacity relates to these social rules and relationships.  Certainly, we see from Anthropology  that there seems to be a correlation here: Dunbar’s Number suggests that the average size of a social group for different species of primate relates to the volume of their neocortex.

So here’s my hypothesis: that as language evolved, and we recounted stories of our exploits, tales of our ancestors, our brain capacity grew, even if we lived in small groups.  Our stories became more fanciful, we invented fiction.  And now we see a huge proportion of our lives are based around these other worlds and relationships that are not our own.

This prompts a number of questions:

  • As a species are we continuing to expand our neocortex because of the diverse and complex stories we consume?
  • As individuals do we sacrifice real-world relationships for fictional ones, or does this help us expand our capacity?
  • Does the exposure to more points of view and a different set of rules help us to empathise  with others and adapt to situations outside our usual experience?



Four fantastic novels that are ripe for filming

Over the years I’ve seen many of my favourite books made into film, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. About 5 years ago I  mentioned a couple, and I intended to follow up with a description of some of them.

Since then, we’ve seen HBO in particular changing the game by getting excellent scriptwriters to convert series like Dexter, Southern Vampire Mysteries (True Blood) and Game of Thrones, as well as supporting the big budgets needed to fulfil the stories.  Longer story arcs have become familiar to the viewer, so that longer novels or series of books do not necessarily need to be reduced to a movie format.

Here’s a few of my favourites that I’m still waiting for.  There’s a few pie-in-the-sky ideas for potential actors or directors, but perhaps you’ve read them and have your own thoughts?  Alternatively if you fancy something different, these are widely available, either on e-book or cheaply through Amazon.

Jill Paton Walsh – Knowledge of Angels 
The story follows a shipwrecked mariner from a secular city who lands on a mediterrean island during the time of the Catholic Inquisition. His arrival challenges the religious order, who are bound by law to execute him if he will not recant his secular ways.  The Mariners’ convincing rebutals, intelligence and good nature cause great troubles among the theologians.  The situation is complicated by the discovery of a feral child, who the authorities try to use to prove the existence of God, the knowledge of angels.

This would be relatively cheap to film somewhere in the Adriatic, perhaps, would look lavish and has Oscar potential from a number of diverse characters.

It’s the kind of thing that would be perfect for Peter Weir, though perhaps Neil Jordan?  Adrien Brody, Ron Perlman, Ben Kingsley would be perfect in various roles.

Jill Paton Walsh – A School for Lovers 
On the back of the previous book, I checked out this romantic comedy, based on Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.  Lighthearted, yet far more intelligent and satisfying than so many of the tired romcoms that we see year in, year out.

Once again, relatively cheap to make, meaning you could easily attract some big stars.  I could probably see Stanley Tucci as the “Puck” character, perhaps directing it as well?  The other 4 (yes, you only need 5 main actors) could be anyone really, just have to be well matched.

Julian May – Saga of Pliocene Exile 

Like many others, I was disappointed with last year’s Terra Nova, which shares a similar scenario, i.e. people are sent back to prehistoric ages from the future through a one-way time portal.  But here, the ancient and future worlds are well thought out and described, and the “metapsychic” abilities have their own natural logic.

But it’s not just the fantasy and sci-fi, there are themes of deception and politics, of human resourcefulness, but also the psychological and sociological impact of being part of a globally connected community, or of being exiled or otherwise excluded from that.

With exotic aliens, castles, fearsome beasties, big battles and touching romance, it could be a great follow-on to Game of Thrones.   It’d probably need a similar budget and probably a similar sized cast!

May wrote four more books that explored the development of metapsychic abilities in humans, and their eventual admission into a space-faring community of aliens. These allowed the story to come full circle but give the potential to extend the series or even shoot them as movies in their own right.

Maria Doria Russell – The Sparrow 

When beautiful singing is heard from a distance planet, a small mission is sent out to make contact and explore (as you do). However when the sole survivor returns, it’s clear that some horror has occurred, and the book follows his interrogation in parallel with flashbacks to the coming together of the team and the mission itself.  Like Knowledge of Angels, there are important spiritual and philosophical themes here which add weight to the sci-fi.

Out of this list, The Sparrow has come closest to seeing the screen, with 3 screenplays since it was first published in 1996, and Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas attached at different points.   The author writes here of her dilemma, which due to the nature of the story (not to mention the final reveal!) is more of a problem than for the other books in this list:

There’s a big market for science fiction action movies, but despite the success of films like “Moon”and “Inception,” there’s no market for science fiction drama. As one insider told me, “Not even George Clooney could get anybody to go see  ‘Solaris.’”

I don’t want to spend the rest of my life apologizing to people who would feel betrayed by a screen adaptation that didn’t face up to the central issues of the story.

Russell may eventually get her way as another of her novels,  “Doc” is being made into an HBO series.

Which of your favourite books are you aching to see, and who do you see being involved?

Speed demon

I recently passed the local library for the first time in a couple of years (just no time!) and picked up Tony Buzan’s Speed Reading book.  I’ve been working through the exercises and self tests and have jumped from 271 words per minute to 385 since Monday.  For someone who reads so much I was disappointed to find that my reading rate was only average!

Lightning Eyes by formica

The art of reading fast isn’t voodoo, Buzan reckons it goes back to the fact that most of us learned phonetically or by subvocalising, and then we never learned to increase this speed.  There’s a big correlation between education level and reading speed, and it’s not because they’re more intelligent necessarily, more that they’ve had to read more things in a limited amount of time.  Because of this, anyone can learn to read faster.

The basic principles are: our eyes and brain process words very quickly up to about 1/500 of a second per word.  They also take in information over wide area at once, meaning you can read more than one word at a time.  So as you improve, you learn to read along a line without stopping at each word, then take two lines at a time, then scan downwards through the page.

Although the next challenge is to make sure all your reading material is laid out optimally!  I found a web app, Spreeder, that takes a chunk of text and presents it to you word by word, in chunks at a speed and size you prefer.  So you can play with the settings and see what 220 wpm (average) looks like.  Then adjust the speed, size of text and size of the paragraphs to train.

What I’d like now is a Firefox plugin for this so I can take any page and Spreederfy it with my normal settings!  There’s a bookmarklet that just about works, I can live with that I suppose.