Skip to main content

Sex, Botany & Empire – Patricia Fara ****

It’s tempting to call this book a little gem. Despite being written by an academic, it’s an easy read and fulfils the promise of the title admirably. For most of us in the UK or the US, Joseph Banks is an unknown character. Australians will know him much better, as he was also largely responsible for the founding of the penal colony that would eventually become a great nation. Banks was present on Cook’s voyage of scientific discovery and imperial plunder, and traded on this ‘expertise’ for the rest of his life.
So it is a good book – a gem indeed – but I still felt somewhat let down because of the other key word in that description – little. This is the shortest full-priced popular science book I have ever come across. Not only is it small – this hardback is about the size of a mass market paperback – its 157 main pages are in large print. In fact it seems an almost deliberate attempt to clone Longitude – both very short books about a little-known figure who made a small but significant contribution to scientific history without really being scientists.
It’s actually stretching things a little to call this popular science, as there is hardly any science in it. It’s more a compact biography of a man who was a powerful scientific administrator (as well as a political force). This doesn’t take away the fact that Banks is a fascinating subject (despite the title, it is about Banks – Linnaeus is really just a reference point). Mocked for his sexual adventures on Tahiti and for being an effete dabbler, he nonetheless managed to take control of the Royal Society for 40 years, proved a major influence on the adoption of the Linnaean classification structure, changed the sheep breeding world and was responsible for Australia becoming the UK’s preferred prison destination. Can you resist?
Paperback:  
Review by Jo Reed

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…