Brief Answers from Detective Stephen Hawking

I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen Hawking recently – in some ways, the complete opposite of reading detective fiction. Then again, Hawking was a detective of sorts – searching for answers to mind-boggling questions from physics and cosmology.

My favourite Hawking book is his last one, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (from 2018, the year he died). It’s a pocket-size compendium that summarizes his work by addressing ten big questions – e.g., “How did it all begin?” – mysteries beyond the purview of even Sherlock Holmes.

Hawking didn’t believe in creation myths; on the other hand, he admitted science doesn’t know exactly how the universe started. He writes clearly, which doesn’t mean reading him is always easy. When he gets deep into black holes or singularities, your brain can go into its own black hole. 😉 Fortunately, he soon brings you back to earth – to good-old 4-dimensional spacetime.

Hawking was one of the greatest scientific minds of the last 100 years. He stood on the shoulders of Einstein, Newton, Galileo, and Aristotle. Like Aristotle, he was also a philosopher. To me, that is Hawking’s true genius. Through science, he tried to understand humanity.

A Hawking quote:

“I have led an extraordinary life on this planet, while at the same time travelling across the universe by using my mind and the laws of physics …. On Earth, I have experienced highs and lows, turbulence and peace, success and suffering. I have been rich and poor. I have been able-bodied and disabled …. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not for the people I love, and who love me.”

John le Carré, King of the Spy Thriller

In memory of John le Carré (the penname of David Cornwell), who died in December 2020, I’ve been revisiting his novels. Many spy thriller heroes are almost superhuman. Le Carré’s heroes are flawed humans who rely on endurance and ingenuity.

My favourite le Carré novels are The Tailor of Panama (1996), The Constant Gardener (2001), and Our Kind of Traitor (2010). PS: All three were made into movies.

The Tailor of Panama. The protagonist, Harry Pendel, a transplanted Londoner, is a wonderfully humane creation. Once a convict in England, he is now a tailor in Panama City – and bumbling spy. As Panama crumbles around him, he learns the values of family and integrity.

The Constant Gardener. The novel opens in Kenya: “The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at 9:30 on a Monday morning. Sandy Woodrow took it like a bullet, jaw rigid, chest out, smack through his divided English heart.” From there, the story spans the globe. Le Carré exposes not only the divided heart of England, but of the West as a whole.

Our Kind of Traitor. The plot turns on the open-heartedness of a young British academic, Perry Makepiece. However, the true star of the novel is Dima Krasnov, a Russian money launderer who wants to defect to England. Dima is brilliantly rendered. Part-bully, part-romantic, part-egalitarian, he drives the story to its inevitable end.

Gifting Books: The 2020 Holidays

Not so long ago, nouns didn’t double as verbs. You didn’t gift a book. You gave one. 😉 But grammar evolves. It’s 2020. It’s the Holidays too. To give a book is to give a window into another world.

Here are three titles I recommend:

NON-FICTION

Feel Free by Zadie Smith, 2018. Thirty-one engaging essays, ranging from pieces about Smith’s homeland (England) to literature, dance, art, and popular culture. Smith is a rare writer: although she’s erudite and lofty, her prose is warm and inviting. I’d love to have a conversation with her – on any topic.

FICTION

Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson, 2020. A 2020 Giller Prize finalist; sequel to The Outlander, a Giller Prize finalist in 2012.

In Ridgerunner, Adamson entwines two genres – mystery and western – to create a captivating morality tale. The characters inhabit a Wild West that’s both lost and still with us.

Last but not least, my crime pick:

Exit Music by Ian Rankin, 2007. As I did last year, I’m suggesting a novel by Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir. Although Rankin has written many recent novels, I rate Exit Music above them. It’s the seventeenth Inspector Rebus novel. Rebus is three days from retirement but he’s not going out with a whimper. Ach, nae, not John Rebus. He revels in righting wrongs.

Unwitting Accessories

Criminology studies show that many murder victims do something that leads to their deaths: e.g., they cheat, hoard money, or assault someone. In such cases, from one point-of-view, they trigger their own demises. They are accessories to their own murders – unwitting accessories.

“Accessories, AMP? How can you call them that? They didn’t conspire to kill themselves.” Agreed, they didn’t, not in the strict sense of the word. {Just to be clear: I am not an apologist for murderers. I don’t blame murder victims for their deaths. They were killed; they were not killers.} I’m expanding the meaning of the word accessory, bringing a new version to life – well, to death. Crime fiction approaches death directly. Homicide detectives don’t euphemize or obfuscate; they pursue the Grim Reaper with open eyes. They believe a person’s actions have consequences.

I’m with them. I don’t know if there’s life after death. I can’t say if there’s a heaven or hell. However, there’s one thing I’m sure of: What we do in life counts.

Our Blue Beauty

There are billions of us riding on this blue beauty, the Planet Earth — through no volition of our own. We were simply born. We accrued health, wealth, and/or happiness. But a madness has been monopolizing the airwaves, one called entitlement. Caveat: If you’re here for detective fiction, give this blog a miss.

The sloganeers say we deserve Michelin-star meals, haute couture fashion, etc. Maybe we do. But the earth can’t provide everything we deserve, not for so many of us. Eight billion humans can’t all live like kings or queens.

To bring things closer to home — Canada, that is — I hear pundits saying the country’s population (now about 38 million) should be 100 million. They say it’s a big country, and it is, but the vast majority is north of the 50th parallel. And what if we want nature to flourish? I doubt Canada will experience overpopulation in my lifetime. However, let’s think of the planet as a whole. For its sake, let’s avoid going over nine billion. Which leads to a thorny proposition, yet not a new one: population control.

I realize there are numerous quagmires. For example, who implements said control? I don’t have answers – except fictional ones – but I do see a clear choice. Either we all try to live like gods, or we live like mortals — equal mortals — somewhat constrained yet content, our needs well met.