Wellcome Book Prize: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell [Blog Tour]

Following on from my blog post on The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, I’m here today as part of the blog tour, showcasing the wonderful To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell, which is published by Granta Books.

The prize celebrates the many ways in which literature can illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness. If you’re not too familiar with the Wellcome Collection, then I highly recommend you check the museum out – it’s a great destination for the curious and often has intelligent, engaging and thought-provoking exhibitions on. The museum was originally established under Sir Henry’s will in 1936, and is now a global charitable foundation, which aims to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive.

Here’s a quick reminder of the other shortlisted books:

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shortlist

The winner is set to be announced at a ceremony on Monday 30th April 2018, which is being held at The Wellcome Collection, and the prize is being judged by:

  • Hannah Critchlow, Neuroscientist, author and presenter
  • Bryony Gordon, Journalist, author and mental health campaigner
  • Edmund de Waal, Writer and Artist
  • Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Journalist
  • Sophie Ratcliffe, Writer, critic and academic 

A little more about To Be a Machine: 

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Transhumanism is a movement pushing the limits of our bodies–our capabilities, intelligence, and lifespans–in the hopes that, through technology, we can become something better than ourselves. It has found support among Silicon Valley billionaires and some of the world’s biggest businesses. In To Be a Machine, journalist Mark O’Connell explores the staggering possibilities and moral quandaries that present themselves when you of think of your body as a device. He visits the world’s foremost cryonics facility to witness how some have chosen to forestall death. He discovers an underground collective of biohackers, implanting electronics under their skin to enhance their senses. He meets a team of scientists urgently investigating how to protect mankind from artificial superintelligence.

Where is our obsession with technology leading us? What does the rise of AI mean not just for our offices and homes, but for our humanity? Could the technologies we create to help us eventually bring us to harm? Addressing these questions, O’Connell presents a profound, provocative, often laugh-out-loud-funny look at an influential movement. In investigating what it means to be a machine, he offers a surprising meditation on what it means to be human.

Author: Mark O’ Connell
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Granta Books

My initial thoughts: 

One thing that really draws me to To Be a Machine is that it looks at the influence technological innovations have on humanity and humanity’s future – ever since I was a young age, technology has fascinated and scared me in equal measure, so this a topic that really intrigues me. Also, in my career to date I’ve worked with a number of huge technology brands and it often astounds me that there’s no end to the use cases of new science and innovations – particularly when looking at new developments within hacking and robotics, I often end up thinking what next?

Whilst I’m yet to finish reading To Be a Machine, I’ve found it to be really thought-provoking, clever and engrossing so far. It manages to explores a really complex, and at times dark, subject matter in a chatty, candid and digestible way. I’m looking forward to finishing it off to see what the rest of the book holds.

Today I’ve also got an extract of To Be a Machine – read on and enjoy:

A broad definition: transhumanism is a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself. There is another way of seeing this, an equal and opposite interpretation, which is that this apparent liberation would in reality be nothing less than a final and total enslavement to technology. We will be bearing both sides of this dichotomy in mind as we proceed. For all the extremity of transhumanism’s aims—the convergence of technology and flesh, for instance, or the uploading of minds into machines—the above dichotomy seemed to me to express something fundamental about the particular time in which we find ourselves, in which we are regularly called upon to consider how technology is changing everything for the better, to acknowledge the extent to which a particular app or platform or device is making the world a better place.

If we have hope for the future—if we think of ourselves as having such a thing as a future—it is predicated in large part on what we might accomplish through our machines. In this sense, transhumanism is an intensification of a tendency already inherent in much of what we think of as mainstream culture, in what we may as well go ahead and call capitalism. And yet the inescapable fact of this aforementioned moment in history is that we, and these machines of ours, are presiding over a vast project of annihilation, an unprecedented destruction of the world we have come to think of as ours. The planet is, we are told, entering a sixth mass extinction: another Fall, another expulsion. It seems very late in the day, in this dismembered world, to be talking about a future. One of the things that drew me to this movement, therefore, was the paradoxical force of its anachronism. For all that transhumanism presented itself as resolutely oriented toward a vision of a world to come, it felt to me almost nostalgically evocative of a human past in which radical optimism seemed a viable position to take with respect to the future. In the way it looked forward, transhumanism seemed, somehow, always to be facing backward. The more I learned about transhumanism, the more I came to see that, for all its apparent extremity and strangeness, it was nonetheless exerting certain formative pressures on the culture of Silicon Valley, and thereby the broader cultural imagination of technology. Transhumanism’s influence seemed perceptible in the fanatical dedication of many tech entrepreneurs to the ideal of radical life extension—in the PayPal cofounder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel’s funding of various life extension projects, for instance, and in Google’s establishment of its biotech subsidiary Calico, aimed at generating solutions to the problem of human aging. And the movement’s influence was perceptible, too, in Elon Musk’s and Bill Gates’s and Stephen Hawking’s increasingly vehement warnings about the prospect of our species’ annihilation by an artificial superintelligence, not to mention in Google’s instatement of Ray Kurzweil, the high priest of the Technological Singularity, as its director of engineering.

I saw the imprint of transhumanism in claims like that of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who suggested that “Eventually, you’ll have an implant, where if you just think about a fact, it will tell you the answer.” These men—they were men, after all, almost to a man—all spoke of a future in which humans would merge with machines. They spoke, in their various ways, of a posthuman future—a future in which techno-capitalism would survive its own inventors, finding new forms in which to perpetuate itself, fulfill its promise.

Have you read any books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist? Which one do you think will win this year? 

You can catch the other blog posts on the tour, here:

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Baileys Prize Shortlist Wrap-up

When the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced earlier this year I made it my mission to get through all of them before the winner is announced (the prizegiving is taking place 7th June 2017). I got on pretty well and (thanks to my local library!) I read five out of the six. The only one I missed out on was The Sport of Kings – I didn’t have enough time to get stuck in before I had to send it back to my local library as it was reserved for another member!

Here are my thoughts on the 2017 shortlist:

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Penguin / Viking) – 4/5
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Set in a contemporary – and almost dystopian – world, The Power is a feminist study into what would happen if true, unlimited power was in the hands of women. In this new world, with the flick of a wrist, women can emit an electrifying force and this emergence of power soon leads to corruption. I honestly didn’t know what to think once I had finished The Power – it blew my mind. It was fascinating and terrifying; I still regularly think about it and I read it over 3 months ago now. I definitely encourage you to read this, whether you’re male or female, as I think everyone will take something different from The Power. Ultimately, it questions gender, power and religion. Trigger warning: there are some harrowing scenes throughout, featuring sex-trafficking, death, rape and civil war.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) – 3/5
FirstLove
What First Love lacks in length, being the shortest novel on the shortlist, it certainly makes up for with emotion and grit. The main character, Neve, is in an unhappy, abusive and seemingly loveless marriage with Edwyn. But there is more to it. It appears that her formative years have played a huge part in contributing to her current situation as well as her mental state; or is it actually Edwyn’s fault they’re in the predicament they are? Riley writes pithy dialogue which is true to life, giving us a glimpse into Neve and Edwyn’s marriage behind closed doors. We never truly understand their backstory. First Love is raw and disturbing in places, but it lacked a real story – the timeline felt confused and it is missing a satisfying ending, however I’m certainly keen to read more of Riley’s work to see how First Love compares.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien (Granta) – 3/5
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Spanning many, many years of Chinese history, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic, expansive study into the realities of life under Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. Family loyalty, music and brutality all feature heavily in Thien’s writing. I’ll admit that I had some trouble reading this – it took me at least 100 pages to get into the story, in addition to this there are so many characters, often with multiple names and nicknames that I had to wrack my brain to figure out who was who at times. It is a fascinating read, but also felt quite heavy-going, which made it hard to emotionally invest in the characters. Whilst this isn’t my favourite book of the shortlist I can definitely see why it has been nominated as it is a fantastic piece of historical writing that offers insight to the country’s fragmented state of affairs.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (Virago) – 3/5
DarkCircle
Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Kent countryside, The Dark Circle charts the beginnings of the NHS at the end of the Second World War. Second generation Jewish immigrants, twins Lenny and Miriam, are sent there in their teenage years to recover and gain strength. Linda Grant’s characters, whilst diverse, felt lacklustre; there is something missing for me as I didn’t care what happened to them, which is never a good sign. If the plot was stronger and quicker in places I think I would have been more connected to their stories. It is a moderately enjoyable read, but it certainly felt wayward in places, particularly as the story progressed to hear about their later lives.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adébáyò (Canongate Books) – 5/5
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Spoiler: I absolutely loved this book. Set in Nigeria, Stay With Me is a mouthpiece for Yejide and Akin, a married couple whose troubles push them to the brink of separation. The themes of individual identity, heritage and societal expectations of women are explored as Yejide struggles to conceive; she cannot offer Akin the family his family have always dreamt of. The plot then thickens, set against a backdrop of Nigerian politics. Stay With Me weaves a stunning and engaging story of deception and love. Featuring many twists and turns, the narrative flows effortlessly. It swiftly switches perspectives, between Yejide and Akin, making the reader challenge their assumptions of what the female or male view of marriage should be. I felt wholly invested in this book and was sad when the book ended – Adébáyò manages to fit so much in less than 300 pages! I was also astounded to hear that this is her debut novel. Without a doubt, I will be keeping an eye on what Adébáyò does next as I’m sure she has a bright future ahead.

My prediction

Based on my overall reading experience I would absolutely love Stay With Me to win as it drew me in and enveloped me with its layered commentary on marriage and the pressures of being a woman. Having said that, I don’t think it will win – I think The Power will. It has so many themes that are prevalent and important in today’s predominantly patriarchal society. Until we have full equality between men and women I think this will continue to be an important, eye-opening read. It is clever, powerful (sorry, I couldn’t resist…) and really, really is something special. It is such a unique novel. Either way, I’d be happy if one of these fantastic novels won the prize! Now, we just have to wait until 7th June for the winner to be unveiled.

December Reads

 

In December I read a total of five books and was on a race against time to finish my Good Reads challenge of 52 books. I’m happy to report that I managed to complete the challenge with just a couple of hours to spare!

Nomad – Alan Partridge (Orion Books) – 2/5

If you’re a die-hard Partridge fan, I’d recommend this to you as I’m sure you’d love it as it has all the weirdness and wit you’d expect. However, if you’re looking for a good book to read, then steer clear – in true Partridge fashion it’s a shambles in places and the plot is all over the place. Looking back I wish I’d listened to the audio book of this as I think it’d be much more enjoyable if it was read by the dulcet tones of Steve Coogan.

After The Crash – Michel Bussi (Orion Books) – 4/5

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Translated from French, Bussi’s debut novel has been subject to rave reviews the globe over. The book starts with a plane crash, where 168 of the 169 passengers are killed instantly. The miraculous sole survivor is a three-month-old baby girl. Two families, one rich, the other poor, step forward to claim her, sparking an investigation that will last for almost two decades. Is she Lyse-Rose or Emilie? Throughout the book we follow the girl’s journey through a web of lies and secrets to discover who she really is. I loved the suspense that Bussi built – it was packed with twists and turns, which kept it gripping throughout.

Disclaimer – Renee Knight (Black Swan) – 3/5 

Imagine if the next book you picked up was all about you, your life and your secrets. Well, this is exactly what happens to Catherine, the lead character, in Disclaimer. The story unfolds as we learn more about what really happened on her holiday that fateful day. I picked this book up at a charity shop for 50p so didn’t have too high expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised. I was kept captive from the first page and found it gripping and tense in places. The twist didn’t shock me too much, but it still wasn’t expecting.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (Bethany House Publishers) – 3/5

I’ve read this plenty of times before – this time I picked it up as I fancied something festive and seasonal just before Christmas. I won’t say too much about this one as I’m sure you’re all familiar with Dickens’ tale and the infamous Ebenezer Scrooge.

The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss (Granta) – 4.5/5 

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Without a doubt this was my stand-out book of the month, and what a fantastic book it was to finish my year of reading on. The Tidal Zone is about the relationship between a father and his daughter, who collapses and stops breathing one day, and the foreboding sense of loss that follows. I loved how Moss’ writing captured the everyday details of life so perfectly, so beautifully. Throughout the novel there are parallel storylines and the paradox between the destruction of family life and the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral after the bombing worked so very well. The only reason I didn’t give this 5 stars is that I felt I knew too much about the book before I started it (because of countless fantastic reviews and booktube videos!), which affected my enjoyment – I think if I’d gone in blind it would have been a five star read for me. A full post will follow for this one.

Mini Christmas Book Haul

 

As a bookworm and long-time book lover people often shy away from buying books for me for Christmas and birthdays, unless they’re ones I’ve explicitly asked for. This year I was pleasantly surprised, receiving a few books from family – I’ve included the blurb of each, below.

The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss (Granta)

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Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed.

In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence.

The Museum of You – Carys Bray (Cornerstone)

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Clover Quinn was a surprise. She used to imagine she was the good kind, now she’s not sure. She’d like to ask Dad about it, but growing up in the saddest chapter of someone else’s story is difficult. She tries not to skate on the thin ice of his memories.

Darren has done his best. He’s studied his daughter like a seismologist on the lookout for waves and surrounded her with everything she might want – everything he can think of, at least – to be happy. 

What Clover wants is answers. This summer, she thinks she can find them in the second bedroom, which is full of her mother’s belongings. Volume isn’t important, what she is looking for is essence; the undiluted bits: a collection of things that will tell the full story of her mother, her father and who she is going to be.

But what you find depends on what you’re searching for.

Gold from the Stone – Lemn Sissay (Canongate Books)

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Lemn Sissay was seventeen when he wrote his first poetry book, which he hand-sold to the miners and mill workers of Wigan. Since then his poems have become landmarks, sculpted in granite and built from concrete, recorded on era-defining albums and declaimed in over thirty countries.

He has performed to thousands of football fans at the FA Cup Final, to hundreds of thousands as the poet of the 2012 Olympics, and to millions across our TV screens and the airwaves of BBC Radio. He has become one of the nation’s best-loved voices.