After a precisely calculated and perfectly executed voyage, the Mars Orbiter Mission reached its destination on September 24, 2014. The Indian Space Research Organisation, which oversaw the mission, had succeeded in doing what Russia, the United States, China, and Japan had failed to do: send an unmanned probe into orbit around Mars on the first attempt. The project’s success captured headlines worldwide, and a photograph of the cheering women on the administrative staff in the operations control room went viral on the Internet. Subsequently, articles about the female scientists and engineers who were central to the success of the project were widely published.
Perhaps never before had the participation of women in a space mission been so visible, even though women had been making fundamental computational contributions to astronomy and aeronautics for well over a century. Three recent books—Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe, Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (which has also been turned into an Oscar-nominated film), and Nathalia Holt’s The Rise of the Rocket Girls—show some of what they accomplished.
People who willingly censor themselves are vulnerable to moral challenges of many kinds. They have never been victims and never will be, despite their occasional show of tear wiping. Each time they display their servility, they bring warmth to the hearts of the authoritarians and harm to people who protest. Their craven stance, as it becomes widespread, also becomes the deeper reason for the moral collapse of our society. If these people believe that their choice to cooperate is the only way to avoid victimhood, they are embarking on an ill-fated journey in the dark.
Roberto Bolaño once said that all novels are detective novels. Binet takes this idea and expands upon it, showing that both novelists and detectives are semiologists. “With Barthes,” Binet writes, in one of the regular authorial interjections, “signs no longer need to be signals: they have become clues.” We recognise that the skills we need to solve the mystery of Barthes’s murder are the same as those we are using to understand the complex cultural and intellectual currents that run through the book. This is a novel that establishes Laurent Binet as the clear heir to the late Umberto Eco, writing novels that are both brilliant and playful, dense with ideas while never losing sight of their need to entertain. The 7th Function of Language is one of the funniest, most riotously inventive and enjoyable novels you’ll read this year.
“The face is the soul of the body,” Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote. We see faces differently than we see anything else. Our brains appear to process them differently than they do any other objects, making greater use of the fusiform gyrus; this is why we can suffer associated disabilities such as prosopagnosia (or “face-blindness”). The face is the locus of communication, recognition, and empathy, the seat of the human — and the source of scores of misunderstandings.
It is also, as William Empson argues in his posthumously published The Face of the Buddha, a locus of artistic and cultural meaning. “The art of a given culture and period commonly has a favourite facial type,” Empson notes, “and if the later expert is content to have no idea why this face was found satisfying there is not much reason to suppose that his reaction to the work of art is even similar to what the artist intended. Indeed the human face itself is little known.”