Infinities within infinities within infinities

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“Infinities within infinities within infinities”, as one character observes. Iain Banks’s new novel can be a confusing place to be. No reality here is more than an aspect of an endlessly complex system of completely separate though ultimately related existences between which the leading actors “transition” (a verb here) more or less at will. SF-sophisticated fans of Iain M. Banks may feel instantly at home in this mesmerizing “multiverse”, while long-term readers of Iain Banks will be prepared for what awaits them; but newcomers may struggle to find their way. Yet however many worlds we traverse in however many time schemes, we are always recognizably here on earth: Transition is not about space travel, as traditionally conceived. Instead, a fast-moving action flits back and forth between a Venetian palazzo; a Limehouse loft; a Paris cabaret; a casino; a derelict industrial unit outside Chernobyl. It might be any airport thriller, except for the less familiar locations, from the mundane (a British bus stop) to the fantastical (the Himalayan seat of a world emperor of the future). All these places are provisional, the articles indefinite: “I live in a Switzerland”, says Transitioner Temudjin Oh.

more from Michael Kerrigan at the TLS here.

The tragic twilight of Leon Trotsky

From Salon:

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No matter what your political orientation, if you believe — or ever did believe — in the potential betterment of humanity, then you've got something to learn from the strange and tragic story of Leon Trotsky. It's a tale of pride and power and political failure, of genius turned to the service of dogged, dogmatic conviction, of a supremely intelligent man who destroyed others in the name of a cause that then destroyed him. It was a story that finally reached its end in 1940, in a legendary encounter with an assassin armed with a mountaineer's pickax, as Stanford professor Bertrand Patenaude illustrates in “Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary,” his gripping, cinematic new book about the last years of the Ukrainian Jew who was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein. (Whatever your feelings about Trotsky, the story of his murder by Ramón Mercader, the suave Stalinist agent who had wormed his way into the heavily guarded Trotsky compound outside Mexico City, may give you sleepless nights.)

More here.

Deeply held beliefs make it easy to accept the absurd

From Scientific American:

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Once, while visiting Brooklyn, I got a call from a fellow Bronxite, back on the mainland. When I revealed my location, he said, “Brooklyn?! What time is it there?” Despite the interborough bafflement, Brooklyn has been a genuine part of the land of the free since day one, that is, July 4, 1776. So when Lena Horne was born there in 1917, she automatically became a U.S. citizen. About 25 years later Horne was asked to give two concerts at Camp Robinson in Alabama, one to white servicemen, the second to black GIs. But she refused to do the second one when she saw that black Americans were sent to the back of the theater. Who got the good seats up front? German prisoners of war. Journalist Nat Brandt’s book Harlem at War: The Black Experience during World War II quotes Horne as summing up the situation thusly: “Screw this.”

Today, of course, the commander in chief of the U.S. military is black, and President Barack Obama gets the best seats in the house. A black president, however, causes great cognitive dissonance in some. But members of the “birther” movement have found a clever solution: Obama isn’t really president! Because he wasn’t really born in the USA!

More here.