Friday, 12 September 2014

Referendum 2014, #indyref

Or: A southern Northerner looks north

In just a week's time, my home for the first half of my life will be voting on whether it should secede from my home for the second half of my life. Before the result is known, I thought that it might be a useful exercise for me to record my views on such a momentous subject. In no small part so that I can't rewrite my personal history in the future to suit the outcome of the referendum vote. But also because it's a subject that's probably exercised most Scots across most of their lives to some degree. As such, opinionated I most certainly am.

So, where to start? I suppose the obvious place is "which way would I vote?". Which is perhaps not-so-obvious since, as a long-time resident of England, I don't actually have a vote [*1]. But glossing over this mere technical detail, what's my overall take on the question at the heart of the rapidly-approaching referendum: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" I'd like to be able to say that I'm somewhat ambiguous on the subject, that I can see and appreciate that it's not a simple question, but, quibbles asides, I'm firmly in the "No, thanks" camp.

A big part of this for me is that my gut reaction to expressions of nationalism of any stripe is to suspect (and usually find) bigoted small-mindedness. Or, worse, malevolent insularity and racism. This is exactly how I feel about English nationalism - that has always struck me as a veil shielding underlying National Front-esque racism. I don't see Scottish nationalism in anywhere near the same way [*2], but I do still find that this is often cloaked (credit where credit's due: it's not hidden) in transparently ridiculous anti-English sentiments. Either way, nationalism for me is always to be treated suspiciously.

A larger part can simply be bracketed under the heading "Identity". When I was young, Scotland's relative insularity and resulting homogeneity meant that it was actually difficult for me to identify what being Scottish actually meant - I was simply constantly awash in it. By the time I was old enough to see further afield, all I could see of Scottish identity was an anti-English, chip-on-its-shoulder attitude that was pretty far from progressive (though some of this was understandable under the evil Iron Lady). Going first to university in Scotland, and then to England itself (by way of a formative stint in Los Angeles), exposed me to much more diversity and gave me more perspective, as well as the realisation (rightly or wrongly) that my values were more broad British than provincial Scots [*3]. And down the years this has stuck - quite possibly in no small measure because I've been south of Hadrian's Wall for so long.

By "identity" here, I'm thinking of the whole gamut, rather than the minutiae. So cultural touchstones like literature, cinema and art, in which I discern variability but certain common threads across the United Kingdom. The BBC, as a specific example, looms large on this front (melodramatically, I might even say I'd die for this National Treasure were it not for the likes of Strictly). But I'd also include the gloomy, sarcastic, ironic sense of humour of the UK - again, it varies, but it also unifies (even if the Scottish variety can be a bit more sweary). There's simply something reassuring to me that two people from opposite ends of Britain can agreeably moan on about the Tories, the trains or how the former is running the latter (not to mention the NHS) into the ground [*4].

A deeper part of this - again, for me, your mileage may vary - is what we think of when we think of "history". More or less everything that I think of under this is the modern history of the UK as a whole. And I'm not just thinking of the "admirable" bits like WW2 - to me, Britain's malign history as an imperial power is at least as an important part of things too [*5]. All of it binds the whole of the United Kingdom together, and it's not possible (for me, at least) to credibly think of separate pasts for England and Scotland. True, there's what I call "Braveheart history", over-emphasised in high school [*6], but it relates to a past that's simply too remote and too alien relative to the present-day to have any real meaning for it. In short, when I think of national history, I think of British history, for better and for worse.

A more minor part of my "Better Together" [*7] sentiments stems from the fact that I simply abhor secessionism. In a world blithely walking into a climatically-compromised Anthropocene age, few organisational things strike me as more stupid than having to put more chairs around the table when things are getting sorted out. As such, the proposed secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom seems unlikely to facilitate any efforts in global governance. Not, of course, fatally (splitting the UK isn't like splitting the US would be), but a complication that the world would arguably be better off without [*8]. This is, of course, allied to my unfashionable One World State views, so can be discounted as such.

A related reductio ad absurdum I'd make is why not continue seceding all the way down to the region, town, family, individual? Take Thatcher at her word, decry "Society", and continue devolving further. Of which, I can't help but raise an eyebrow at the stifling - by no less than the Scottish Parliament itself - of an attempt (admittedly by some cranks) for a further referendum aimed at separating (oil-rich) Orkney and Shetland from the Scottish mainland. What's good enough for the goose ...

Leaving aside these mere feelings about the place of Scotland within the United Kingdom, I'm sure most of us with a dog in this race have also considered practicalities. As reports on the news (the BBC, naturally) have been constantly been reporting, it is, however, difficult to work out how these stack up. There are simply too many if ... then ... else loops in the wider economy for anyone to be sure. Chances are, Scotland can almost certainly make a good fist of it - plenty of other similarly-sized countries do. But, equally, it's difficult not to see dark clouds such as demography, currency confusion [*9], stranded assets and nervous investors as being at least on the horizon. And just because there are already successful countries of the same size, it doesn't follow that Scotland can immediately transition into one of them. What if it takes decades? Anyway, where people fall on the hope-fear axis is liable to steer their decisions on this score. And I do think it would be wrong to focus too much on the fear side - always leaning this way would stop one getting out of bed in the morning.

Anyway, this is rambling on far too long (no change there then ...). I've other, lesser grumbles, not to mention some bitterness at the thought of my fellow Scots cutting and running and leaving us stuck with harder-to-dislodge Tories (on which particular point, I think Irvine Welsh's excellent essay puts me in my place), but it's hardly helpful discussion or constructive criticism. In a week the truth will out. If "no", then I'll be a little bit relieved, and will be hoping that the nationalists take defeat gracefully and wait a generation before revisiting secession again. If "yes", well, things will be interesting. But it's not for nothing that the saying "May you live in interesting times" is viewed as a curse.


[*1]: Which I'm totally OK about - I haven't lived in Scotland for more than 20 years now (though have probably racked up more than 6 months there in that time). But there's a little bit of me niggled at the possibility of having my nationality changed underneath me.

[*2]: In part, I suspect that the key difference here is that Scottish nationalism is not a minority pursuit. As such, its racists (and there are some) are completely diluted out. Meanwhile, English nationalism has been associated with racists for so long (decades?) that it's at the point that racism is basically assumed (English Defence League anyone?), and it thankfully languishes as a niche pursuit.

[*3]: Which is not to say that England doesn't have its own provincialism to deal with, or that Britain is necessarily always broad in its outlook. There are plenty of recent and not-so-recent examples to the contrary.

[*4]: The NHS itself is highly symbolic of unity across Britain. For most people, much more so than the BBC. And the attitude that accompanies the NHS, namely that only nations of savages would do without such a shining beacon (that, to be fair, occasionally requires polishing), is also - for me - a hallmark of national unity.

[*5]: Skeletons in our national closet, while embarrassing to say the least, are useful reminders of the limits and follies of national pride. There's something dislikeable about cultures that gloss over their shortcomings, that prize a muscular patriotism over the harbouring of occasional self-doubts. Scotland, if it does become independent, needs to be wary of this. The campaign has, at times, brought out a lot of alpha-male posturing on the assumed magnificence and exceptionalism of Scotland.

[*6]: Of Braveheart itself, well, I can't let this pass by unremarked. Less so, because of its ghastly (and intermittently inaccurate) hagiography of the life and times of William Wallace, but more because the film has become a grubby touchstone for a particularly unthinking form of nationalism. Without wishing to be rude about Scotland's heroes, I'm pretty sure that they wouldn't recognise the modern nations of Scotland or England, or empathise with the disgruntlement of contemporary nationalists. They'd probably mostly be wondering about where their servants were. Much as England is about the Magna Carta, there's a lot of weight put on history that has only a tangential bearing on our world today.

[*7]: Who came up with this? Admittedly, selling the status quo is difficult at the best of times (hope beats fear), but this just sounds crass.

[*8]: I will, of course, draw a veil over Scotland's role in future climate change measures when its balance book appears to be relying on oil money to keep on an even tiller, and when its nationalist demagogues decry nuclear power.

[*9]: This seems a tricky one to me. Sure, Scotland can keep the pound, but what's the point of being independent if your economy is at the mercy of decisions made elsewhere? Admittedly, this is arguably not dissimilar to the situation Scotland's in now anyway, but there'd be little incentive in the future for said decisions-made-elsewhere to factor it in at all after independence. Plus, how wise is it to use the same currency as your much larger neighbour that you've possibly just pissed off?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Worst. #Coupland. Ever.

Down the years, I've fitfully bemoaned the fall, then further fall, of one of my favourite authors, Douglas Coupland. Like the worst sort of earnest fanboy, I greet the arrival of each of his new novels with credulous excitement, only be cut down by grim disappointment at best and head-shaking disbelief at worst. But he's really done it this time.

With Worst. Person. Ever. he's reached a new nadir in which his remaining talent for spotting zeitgeisty themes (of which, yes, he's still got it) is utterly squandered in (yet) another random tale helmed by a deliberately offensive - and eponymous - narrator. Raymond Gunt (I kid not) is Coupland's worst folly to date - a character whose irredeemability seems initially a clever conceit, then an annoying one, then ultimately a catastrophic self-inflicted gunshot wound to whatever Coupland set out to achieve here. It can be a good thing for a novel to puncture precious taboos, but the reader needs to be brought along for the ride, not abandoned - as here - by a writer riding the one-trick shock-pony. It also helps to aim one's barbs precisely, but Coupland instead favours a blunderbuss approach that leaves one wondering what, exactly, he was hoping to wing. An ending, too, might have been a good idea, but this seems one of the novel's lesser crimes.

The best I can come up with this time is that, hopefully, this is rock-bottom.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Cloud Atlas

It's common for successful novels to be deemed "unfilmable". Typically, this covers those novels where the "action" largely takes place within the mind of a character, or where a novel's strength is drawn from the voice of a colourful narrator. But the novel Cloud Atlas by the British novelist David Mitchell (no, not that one) presents a different class of problem.

Organised as a disparate sequence of six stories, the novel runs from the 19th century Pacific through to a distant, post-apocalyptic Hawaii. This baroque structure is then further complicated by the ingenious splitting of each story, bar the final one, into two parts hinged on a cliffhanger. And then it's rounded off by having each story take a completely different setting and form, including a austere diary, a pulp thriller, a retirement home-set farce, and a future corporate dystopia. Strangest of all, it somehow hangs together, in spite of the only formal connections being inconsequential cross-references and the possession by certain characters of a comet-shaped birthmark. What it all means is very much left to the reader, but it certainly left me with a pleasing, if passing, sense of the connections between people.

Given the preceding, not the most obvious novel to film, and I was certainly surprised to hear that it was even being considered for translation to the screen. Even more so when I heard that no less than the Wachowskis were helming it. Known best for their rather bombastic Matrix trilogy (one genuinely excellent film, two self-absorbed travesties), they certainly didn't strike me as even on the radar for adapting such a work.

All of which goes to show how one (well, this one) can so easily prejudge, and misjudge, things. The resulting film, while still far from unqualified recommendation, actually hangs together very well, and is probably about as good a version of the book as it is possible to make. One early concern that I had was that the innovative structure of the book was ditched in favour of a narrative that jumped back and forth between the component tales pretty willy-nilly. But since the stories contain connections in content, themes and pacing this actually works pretty well. For instance, the novel's cliffhangers that divide each story into two halves, are interlocked in the film in a way that seems surprisingly natural.

It's not all plain sailing, however. Some of the texture of the novel, in particular the different forms of the original stories (diary vs. letters vs. pulp), gets lost along the way, though that's more a limitation of film in general than this film in particular. The story that arguably loses out most here is the final, post-apocalyptic one, where the voice - and perspective - of the protagonist, Zachry, is pretty pivotal to the arc of the story, but this largely has to be covered by Tom Hanks' adopting an intermittently incoherent dialect for the film. And the film makers have definitely made a few changes that make the conclusions of the stories veer a little more into heart-warming territory. Nothing too serious, mind, but it did serve to make the resolution of the film a little more pat.

Notwithstanding my earlier praise, however, I'm not sure what someone unfamiliar with the original book might make of it all. It is still a pretty confusing film, one that may be extremely difficult to follow except by multiple viewings. So though I left as a qualified fan, the film's reputation as a fiasco is easy to understand. On the one hand, a film should stand or fall based on whether it's accessible, but on the other hand, surely there's a place for films that require a little more dedication from viewers? Of course, if that dedication requires the pre-consumption of the source novel, perhaps not. So, overall, though teetering on the brink of disaster more-or-less throughout its running time, I'd still label it a "secret success". But one might need to read that novel first ...

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Before Midnight

Sequel to 2004's sequel to 1995's original [*], Before Midnight runs - at least on paper - the risk of all threequels, of wasting the hard-won goodwill and critical spoils of its illustrious predecessors. Thankfully, it doesn't, and it caps off the trilogy (... so far - I won't be surprised if another appears in 2022) extremely satisfyingly. Not, however, for those uncharmed by said ancestors - this will be the same old chatty bore-fest that you suffered through twice already. So give it a skip if you found Céline and Jesse intolerable the last few times around the block.

That said, Before Midnight is much more of a risk than Before Sunset. That film had "only" to re-establish a romance that the audience probably all wanted to see return. Here, we're another 9 years down the line and, unlike the preceding 9 year gap, Jesse and Céline have spent the entire time together. So making their extended romantic interlude interesting for the audience isn't a given. Simply making the film another enjoyably rambling conversation between two people that slowly edges them towards hooking up at the end wouldn't work, and the film's writers - who include its two stars - don't take this path.

To be fair, there is plenty of enjoyably rambling conversation [**], but it's used more sparingly, and positioned between scenes in which the conversation between Céline and Jesse is much more edgy than before. And the conversation doesn't stop at edgy, tipping over into anguish as the fractures in their relationship are first exposed and then explored. As such, it's not an easy watch like its predecessors, but in allowing the stresses and strains of long-term relationships (the demands of children, fading attraction) to be painted in realistically, it's much more grown-up. Satisfyingly so, ultimately.

As such, and much like that towering giant of successful threequels before it, Toy Story 3, Before Midnight shows other films how to do it. Not just a simple, crowd-pleasing retread of its predecessors, but one which retains their charms but finishes them off with a recognition of deeper waters beyond easy film screen romance. Whew - I'm totally glad they pulled it off.


[*] Not forgetting the brief appearance of Jesse and Céline in the also-excellent Waking Life.

[**] "Enjoyable", that is, if you've already bought into the modus operandi of the films of extended, playful and semi-philosophical banter between the leads.


In passing, I can't resist mentioning Jesse's outline of his planned new novel to his holiday friends. In just a few minutes, the film sketches out what could be a great little book (or, arguably, film), based around characters who're all intriguingly cognitively impaired. I'd read it already.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Blue Remembered Earth

It's been a while, but I'm finally back to Alastair Reynolds. And, once again, he's pulled a new universe out of ... well, out of wherever it is that he pulls his imagined futures from. Unusually, this one, Blue Remembered Earth, is explicitly labelled as the start of a new sequence of novels. Bar the first outings of his Revelation Space series, Reynolds has gotten into the (good) habit of standalone novels - even when they are still set within his favoured future - so this is a bit of a change. But a change for good or ill?

It's the 2160s. Climate change is largely resolved (Kilimanjaro has snow once again), the developing nations of the early 21st century are now its new technological titans, humans are both augmented and peppered throughout the solar system, and Africa still - miraculously - has elephants. Opening with the studies of the latter by its chief protagonist, Geoffrey, the novel quickly establishes his "black sheep" status, a shirker-scientist within a powerful family. But the mysterious death of his reclusive explorer grandmother, Eunice, on her private space station changes everything, ultimately sending him on a journey across the solar system. Along the way he engages the help of his sister, Sunday, who also lives in semi-exile from their family in a libertarian, anti-surveillance commune on the Moon. Between them, they slowly piece together their grandmother's renegade life from clues she appears to have deliberately left for them to find. Clues which point to a radically different biography for Eunice, new physics that will transform life in the solar system, and distant secrets around other stars.

Another curate's egg this one. On the positive side, Reynolds does a good job (again) of building an interesting new universe, and populating it with striking concepts, not all of which rely on outer space thrills. So we have, among other gems, augmented elephants, their miniaturised lunar cousins, an AI Eunice as a self-aware art project, and artificially evolved Martian robots. But Reynolds sacrifices most of these to the expediencies of a fast-moving plot, particularly deleteriously in the case of the augmented elephants, where an emotionally interesting subplot concerning interspecies murder gets pretty rudimentary treatment. More disappointing, however, is this fast-moving plot itself, which gradually reveals itself as a succession of MacGuffins that simply serve to move Geoffrey and Sunday from point A to point B to point C. That they have all been carefully put in place by a secretive Eunice gives them a veneer of intrigue, but ultimately they boil down to a chain of cryptic breadcrumbs that the grandchildren can follow without thinking too hard along the way. As such, the novel's ostensible twists and turns feel far too canalised, and, as a reader, I was less thinking about what was to come, and more just wading through to the next breadcrumb.

So, overall, not a particularly satisfying read. Lots to like, but strung together in something less than the sum of its parts. That it's a planned series of novels seems unfortunate - like that of another favourite author read recently. But Reynolds has form in working imaginatively within a series, so I won't write the series off yet. We'll see.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Gods Without Men

The formation and dissolution of a UFO cult; a British rockstar slowly losing it; war games for an displaced Iraqi teenager; and the disappearance, then the reappearance, of a young autistic child. All taking place in the Californian desert near a strange rock formation known as the Pinnacles.

And that's about as close as I got to understanding things. I really enjoyed reading this extremely well-written novel, but I haven't really the faintest idea what it all meant. Though the stories are all connected by a location, and by occasional random intersections, if there was a deep explanation for their co-occurrence within the same pages, I completely missed it. But, strangely enough, even in the end I wasn't too bothered. I enjoyed the individual tales enough without being able to discern what Hari Kunzru was doing here in Gods Without Men. The tale involving Jaz, Lisa and the wayward Raj, in particular, really gripped me, even when its resolution teetered on the supernatural (or space alien).

Anyway, if anyone ever finds out what it's really all about, do let me know!

The Honey Guide

Next up, The Honey Guide by former BBC journalist turned novelist, Richard Crompton.

Set during the run up to, and the bloody aftermath of, the 2007 elections in Kenya, this novel takes what seems a common path these days of placing a social or political commentary within the reader-friendly confines of a crime novel. Centre to the action is a Maasai detective, Mollel, a widower following the 1998 bombing of Nairobi's US Embassy, with a young son that he struggles to engage with. Though he is only passing through Nairobi, the discovery of the body of a young Maasai woman, initially lazily presumed a prostitute, leads to Mollel's assignment to the case, accompanied by a cocky local detective, Kiunga. Against the backdrop of the preparations for the election, and for the trouble expected in its wake, Mollel and Kiunga gradually trace the origin of the dead woman and uncover the circumstances leading up to her death. But their investigation takes them into the path of powerful interests, both political and religious, threatening both their jobs and their lives.

A bit of a curate's egg this one. Taken as a whole, it's a fairly good read, and very interesting for someone like me who knows only vaguely of Kenya's political problems. Crompton does a creditable job introducing the reader to the country and its people, and it feels thorough without coming across as a dry history lesson. As ever, using the police procedural format allows the novel to go to places that are exotic, but within a reassuringly familiar framework. So though one isn't quite sure which facet of Kenyan society will next present itself as a hurdle for the policemen, their goals and methods are comfortably recognisable. And the twists and turns of Crompton's tale do weave in genuinely interesting details of Kenya's struggle with corruption and, at times, tribal politics.

Given all this, it seems rude to be critical, but Crompton also misses a few tricks along the way. One somewhat confusing aspect is that, though billed as a "Mollel mystery", Kiunga steadily competes for the reader's time - and affections; he's a lot more chipper than Mollel - as the novel progresses. For readers like me, raised on novels with a central detective that's named on their covers, this is a little distracting. Worse is the rapid unspooling of both plot and character details late in the book, which rather undoes some quite careful set up. For instance, after stalling the investigation, several pivotal characters are suddenly altogether too quick to resolve things as the novel's pages start to run out. And the hinted backstory of Mollel - but also that of Kiunga - is rushed out in a rather contrived scene that finds both spilling their guts during an extended ascent up the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where the election results are being collated and corrupted. These aspects sap the novel's credibility somewhat, making it feel a little like Crompton was rushing to meet a publisher's deadline.

But for a first novel - and one that's already labelled up as being the start of a series - it's a good start by Crompton. And it's not as if that other famous detective, John Rebus, had a solid first outing!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Eater

It's time again to clear out the pile of finished books from the side of the bed. Let's see if I can do this quickly-and-concisely rather than ponderously-and-never ...

First up, Eater by one of my favourite science fiction writers from the 1990s, Gregory Benford. By way of summary: astronomers are surprised to detect what turns out to be a small black hole entering the solar system, but even more surprised when it communicates a desire for conversation with the Earth. But dreams of a scientific bonanza from this ancient galactic traveller quickly turn sour as its requests for information turn into demands for much more.

What to say? Well, a great premise ruined by clumsy execution and an excruciatingly bad ménage à trois. Though borrowing liberally from Fred Hoyle's classic novel The Black Cloud (a previous read), it heads off in its own interesting directions before becoming bogged down in some painfully bad "relationship" nonsense between the central astronomer characters. As the novel progresses it also relegates the Eater, which was shaping up to be the most interesting character by a country mile, into a cartoon villain whose hinted subtleties get completely lost in a ridiculous plot where humanity, well on its way to getting humbled by the cosmos, inexplicably and implausibly turns the tables. The only interesting bits are those where the Eater philosophises away, but this is but a faint echo of Benford's alien intelligences from his Galactic Center Saga. There, he did a creditable job of making believable the thoughts of beings on a scale epically removed from humans. Here, his efforts to do the same are simply wasted when interspersed by the thoughts of beings that seem cribbed from a bad "young adult" novel.

Disappointing from someone such as Benford.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Earth Abides

What would it be like to be the last person alive on Earth? This theme is one that's drawn so many writers and film directors that it's now very - possibly overly - familiar to readers and viewers of science fiction. But how does one of the classic novels that explores it, 1949's Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, fare against the oversupply of post-apocalyptic genre fare?


It's the middle of the 20th century. Isherwood Williams - Ish - is a graduate student doing ecology field work in Black Creek in backwoods California. Bitten by a rattlesnake, and many miles from any help, he holes up in his spartan cabin until he is well enough to return to civilisation. However, driving out of the sticks, he finds - at first gradually, but later transparently - that it has apparently vanished from the face of the Earth. In his absence, a measles-like disease has struck the world, leaving humanity's works with no hand at the tiller.

As his initial shock wears off, Ish decides to travel America to investigate whether anything, or anyone, has survived the plague. Travelling east, he gradually finds pockets of humanity, some making ends in this new world, some descending into sedate insanity. But it becomes clear that civilisation is at an end, and Ish returns west to his hometown where, dispassionately, he studies how the natural world responds to the absence of its previously most-fêted offspring. Inbetween his efforts to make a comfortable life for himself, he watches the cyclical rise and fall of populations of animals freed of human control, as well as the gradual fall into disrepair and dysfunction of the human-built world. Unexpectedly, he discovers Em, a woman living nearby, similarly scraping a post-civilisation living. In short order they become a couple, and then a nucleus for a small group of survivors - and their children - to condense around.

As the years pass, Ish begins to grow concerned that all of humanity's learning and knowledge will be lost, and he vainly attempts to spark an interest in the next generation. Instead, Generation Post-Apocalypse gradually adopts less sophisticated, but more sustainable, ways of making a hunter-gather living, while simultaneously receding into superstition and mythology. In time, through triumphs and tragedies, this new way of life prevails as Ish's generation gradually fades away, and Ish himself becomes "the Last American", his memory and awareness dimmed by great age. At the end of his life, Ish comes to accept the passing of the old world he knew and sees the new world as just as transitory. In a moment of clarity, he observes that "Men go and come, but earth abides".


The short answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph is that Earth Abides stacks up extremely well against other novels and films (and videogames!) that tackle the end of civilisation. The above outline doesn't really do justice to the detail that Stewart has invested in his vision for the world. Particularly the effort that he puts into imagining the changes - biological and infrastructural - that follow from the loss of humans. In sending Ish across the country, and in playing out across the full length of his life, Stewart covers the full range of changes, from those that would happen immediately, through to those that would only happen gradually over years.

But leaving aside the breadth and depth of Stewart's playing out of the future, what was more impressive to me was the journey that he sends Ish on. Many end-of-the-world tales conjure up a convincingly human-free future, but few transition to mulling-over the limitations of our lives quite so well. While the narrative at first steers the conventional way that would ordinarily lead to the protagonist rebuilding civilisation, Stewart instead gradually makes the utter enormity of the task facing Ish and Em clear. And unlike similarly-themed novels such as The Road or Oryx and Crake, where hope of civilisation's restoration is wholly (or largely) absent from the narrative, here it's first dangled in front of the reader, before being steadily revealed as an impossible mirage. The future faced by the characters in Earth Abides is a sheer cliff of impersonal difficulty that simply cannot be scaled by them.

Beneath the novel's surface interests in civilisation and ecology, there's clearly more going on. It's difficult to miss the prevalent use of biblical themes and names (the novel's title, for instance), but Stewart also threads the novels with a series of philosophical strands. Some of which I picked up on, some of which only dawned on me when I read the novel's Wikipedia entry! As a more personal aside, I came to interpret Ish's struggle with the future of humanity, and then his acceptance of his passing role in steering it, as being a thinly veiled parable of the struggle that we all face in our own lives. At first, when young, the world seems malleable to us, but as time passes we gradually perceive that its course is far more circumscribed by history, inertia and the opposing wishes of others. Stewart, who was in his 50s when he wrote Earth Abides, was perhaps weaving us more than a simple story to divert us from our daily lives.

The novel does, however, have its, well, quirks. Chief among these are a series of anachronistic slip-ups down somewhat politically-incorrect avenues. For instance, early in the novel, Ish runs into an African-American family eking out a modest existence on a farm. His brief report of their quietly dignified stand against the calamity was possibly quite enlightened for its time in pre-civil rights USA, but it certainly raised my 21st century eyebrows. More troubling is the novel's treatment of the character of Evie, a young woman with either congenital or post-calamity mental health issues. Here the characters come across as the worst sort of eugenicists, at first contemplating euthanasia before finally settling on a pact to categorically prevent her from having children. While one can see the logic in the characters' concerns, they contemplate a semi-Nazi "final solution" for altogether too long to my mind. Such issues often arise in novels from the early- or middle-20th century, and, in context of their times, were probably actually liberal positions, but they certainly give the modern reader pause. Of course, in another 50 years, perhaps some of our forward-thinking attitudes will seem similarly neanderthal (to use what is almost certainly an example of this).

Notwithstanding the preceding, it's difficult not to recommend the novel. It does such a good job of the "empty Earth" trope, that it's a must-read for science fiction fans. And its depths reward readers prepared to wade into them. Though, as I've now spoiled for new readers above, the existential irrelevance of humanity and human lives perhaps makes Earth Abides not for the faint-hearted.

Monday, 26 August 2013

American Gods

As Carole's book group is (inexplicably) doing this novel tomorrow, I thought that (finally) I'd better get my thoughts down so that I can chip in in absentia.

American Gods by the British writer Neil Gaiman, is centred on Shadow, an ex-con released back into the world just as his waiting wife is killed in a car wreck. Bereft, he quickly finds himself bodyguard to a mysterious stranger, Mr. Wednesday, who involves Shadow in a series of cons as they journey across contemporary America. These travels include meetings with a succession of otherworldly characters that Wednesday is trying to persuade to join him, seemingly on a crusade. As events unfold, it becomes clear that Wednesday is actually a latter-day incarnation of the Norse god Odin, and that his various contacts are similarly disenfranchised old gods, at sea in a modern world where the new gods of television, the internet and the media have displaced them. Touching a raw nerve with these proud, supernatural has-beens, Wednesday intends to lead them into battle to restore some of the power and grip on humanity's imagination that they once enjoyed. But Wednesday's scheme is not quite what it seems, and there are other, deeper plots that even he is not aware of. Initially seeing himself as an outsider to this war, Shadow comes to realise that he has a pivotal role in deciding its outcome.

First the good. American Gods is easily one of the most imaginative novels I've read in quite some time (but see later, or here). Gaiman's central idea of old gods as isolated, largely powerless shadows of their former selves, cut adrift in modern America is simply brilliant. And he milks humanity's back-catalogue of dead religions, European and otherwise, to create a fantastic array of outlandish characters, all scraping precarious or anonymous livings in a society that no longer has any need for them. It's quite a feat making the reader, especially this reader, more than a little moved by the plight of once mighty gods kicked to the kerb by the materialism of the present-day and the gods that this has spawned. And the novel's main story arc is enjoyably twisty too, with a nice final act (or almost final act, see later) realisation of the gods, old and new, of what's really going on.

But, unfortunately, it's not all good. While I did enjoy the novel at the time, and am enjoying it even more in retrospect, it's frequently a bit of a chore to read. The downside of Gaiman's imagination is that he's not reined it in, and has stuffed the novel to the rafters with material that, while clever and fun to read, ultimately simply distracts. What's actually a relatively slight - but good! - plot becomes buried by just too much ancillary "stuff", to the point that I frequently lost track of why what was happening was happening. (And the novel's over-long coda involving a malevolent old god is definitely a stretch too far.) Even when a novel is full of imagination - perhaps especially then - it needs not to lose focus, lest the reader be overwhelmed. I did manage to claw my way back by the end, but I still needed to read Wikipedia's potted summary to get the whole thing straight in my head. Which is something of a shame for an otherwise masterpiece of imagination.

My other criticism is one that I've made before in another review of a fantasy novel, one that - I would argue - applies more widely to fantasy as a genre. Namely,

... that the underlying rules to which the novel is working are either flexible or completely absent. Characters die but can be brought back; inescapable situations suddenly have secret backdoors; mundane objects are revealed as powerful table-turners. Essentially, deus ex machina is the defining feature of the genre. After a certain point, the fun drains away when you realise that the corner into which the author has just painted his characters is probably something that can be (will be) got around with a few deft strokes of the pen. And, conversely, it can create situations where the reader might not unreasonably expect a reversal that never actually comes.
American Gods is no different in this regard. Which I don't really hold against it - since this comes with the genre - but it ultimately diminishes such novels for me. I simply can't engage with their characters in quite the same way as I would with a normal novel, where there are some things that you simply cannot come back from. Of course, my favourite genre - science fiction - also has more than its fair share of "gods from the machinery", but I'd argue that it tries to play a little more fairly within its own rules. True, gods do sometimes still appear, but SF novels - the good ones anyway - will retrospectively bend over backwards to explain where they came from. Fantasy novels are quite happy to flip Gandalf from Grey to White with nary a second glance.

So, in summary, a great - if completely sprawling - read. I'd more or less wholly recommend it, even for skeptics of the fantastical, but I'd encourage both paying close attention and making sure that one takes a good run at it. A solid 7 / 10.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Existence (or something like it)

More than 20 years ago, David Brin wrote his gargantuan, world-encompassing novel, Earth. Similarly to John Brunner's classic novel, Stand On Zanzibar, its central plot was revealed only gradually, built up step-by-step from the perspective of dozens of characters, each with a different view of the world they live in. It took on just about every environmental theme going from climate change to overpopulation to extinction, then threw in space stations, errant micro black holes and the Tunguska event, and a smattering of technological forecasts, including a then-prescient treatment of the world wide web. Epically long, it was also epic in its scale and ambition, and it more or less worked, culminating in an genuinely impressive climax in which the Gaia hypothesis was made flesh.

Flash forward to today, and Brin has written Existence, which is easily as large, and again builds its world from the bottom-up, fragmenting its narrative across a cast that includes - among others - an elderly astronaut now on orbital clean-up detail, a mischievous science fiction writer, a climate-displaced Chinese scavenger and a trust-fund baby with a penchant for illegal space flight. This time, while environmental matters still hover at the edges, the main focus lies with humanity's lonely position in the cosmos. This apparent loneliness doesn't last many pages into the novel, when an unexpected find in Earth orbit answers the question "are we alone?" firmly in the negative. Or seemingly so, at any rate. But the answer comes with caveats, and as the novel progresses it becomes clear that the answer is also plural.

As I was refreshing my memory and writing the above, I was struck how much the two novels share - at least in summary. What they don't share is that while Earth's epic page-count makes it an engrossing page-turner, Existence's comparable length makes it a gruelling chore. In part, I think one of the reasons is that all of Earth's scattered narratives serve the whole: an all-encompassing treatment of environmentalism. By contrast, Existence is much less coherent, and serves up amateur rocketry, (virtual) space aliens, muddled extropian thinking, uplifting animals and settings or situations that, while interesting on their own, read as disconnected in the novel. For instance, the wealth contrast between the scavenging lifestyle of Bin and the super-entitled, playboy adventures of Hacker makes sense at first in world-building, but Brin really doesn't do anything with it. And, by the end, this sort of detail has been completely left behind.

As a result, while Existence is sporadically interesting and enjoyable, it is ultimately a tedious read. Were it about half its length - a feat of editing that wouldn't be as difficult to achieve as one might imagine - its sins would be much more forgiveable. As it stands, Existence is only intermittently clever, and while it has some interesting ideas, it spaces them widely within a plodding millstone of a book. If I turn to Brin again, it will only be when his page count drops to the vicinity of 300.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Familiar recollection

It's interesting that it happens so often across narrative forms of art, but I'm not sure why so many works start so vivaciously but fizzle out so disappointingly by the end. Presumably it's simply easier to come up with a hook than it is to turn it into a convincing story? Or perhaps publishers and their ilk just don't care how something finishes up once they've got you intrigued enough to dip into your wallet? Either way, it seems to occur pretty regularly across books, films and even videogames.

And so it is with Gareth Powell's 2011 novel, The Recollection. It's very far from a total bust - in fact, it's absolutely fine until the closing chapters - but it's always a bit of a let-down when something enjoyable is wrapped up by the author in a manner that's suggestive of a publishing deadline. Still, the good: a neat set-up that has mysterious "portals" appearing across the world in the present-day, and an engrossing journey as they're plumbed by a man somewhat guiltily seeking out his missing journalist brother. The not-quite-so-good: a parallel far-future story that's never quite as well-realised - most of the time you're simply waiting for the reveal that unveils the connection with the present-day story. The bad: a truly lame ending that inflates - and then super-quickly deflates - a by-the-numbers "ancient evil".

I'd say it largely comes down to the pacing here - the set-up's done at the right speed, the third act's done in an unseemly rush. To be fair, the book's sufficiently short that - although it ends unsatisfyingly - it doesn't undo all of the good work by the time it's done. I've read plenty of longer books that take so long coming off the rails that one really begrudges them by the end. This isn't one of them, and there's still just about enough in there to make things interesting, but I just wish authors (and film-makers and game creators ...) would just take the time to ensure that they don't undo all of their good work as they race for the finish line.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

When I died for the 1000th time

Among my friends, I have a justifiable reputation for playing a lot of videogames. But while it’s certainly true that I play games a lot, I don’t actually play a lot of different games. In fact, most years I only get through 4 or 5 titles, and some years a single title can suck up almost all of my gaming hours (yes, I’m looking right at you Fallout 3).

So it’s perhaps not too surprising that the whole warfare genre typified by the likes of the Call of Duty and Medal of Honour series has almost completely passed me by. Particularly so given my penchant for sci-fi-esque titles that broadly eschew the gritty realism that such titles purport to represent in order to favour high-power lasers or gravity guns.

However, my innocence is all over now. As just one of a succession of (fabulous) birthday presents from C, I received Call of Duty: Black Ops II, the latest in that game series, and apparently one of the headline titles for the games industry for Christmas 2012 (and, by coincidence, the same game that I bought my brother for his Christmas). Clearly she knows me far too well.

So, what’s it all about, and how did I get on?

To answer the first, the setup is an interesting mash-up of infamous CIA interventions from the 1980s, with near-future cyber-terrorism from 2025. The common thread is Raul Menendez, leader of a family drug cartel during the Cold War, and professional kill-the-rich rabble-rouser in a future world that pits China et al. against the US in a new cold war.

In the past, you (generally) play as Alex Mason on a series of missions, the black ops of the title, in Africa, Afghanistan and Central America. In the future, you play as his orphaned son, David Mason, through a series of high-tech assaults in exotic, usually Asian locales. But in both time zones, Menendez is the accomplished antagonist against whom the Masons, both father and son, are pitted. Along the way, periodic cut scenes involving Alex Mason’s comrade, Frank Woods, shed a flickering light for David on Menendez’s history and what his ostensibly nefarious plans are.

To begin to answer the second, I would direct the reader to the title of this post. The thing that sticks most prominently in my mind about Black Ops II is how often I died. Initially, this was just down to me having to get used to new controls, and developing a new “situational awareness”. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that, for me at least, the game was pretty fiendishly difficult. Of course, because of my long history and vast experience of shooting the heads off of virtual enemies, I did choose to play on one of the harder skill levels, but I suspect I’d have still gotten seriously nailed regardless of the skill level.

In large part, my repeated deaths and reincarnations were just down to Black Ops II simply being so much more frenetic than what I'm used to. No sooner has one arrived in a new combat zone than you’re being shot at from every direction by a veritable army of people with a much better grip on the situation than you do, and it just doesn’t let up. Normally, I play titles where I've either got a more limited set of foes to deal with, or stealthily taking bad guys out one-by-one is more of an option. Not so here.

Instead, the game is a roller-coaster of running and gunning from one hidey-hole to another (at least as I played it!), all the time trying one’s hardest not to miss shooting all of the many assailants put in place to stop you. You do get a lot of help from friendlies (including some semi-immortal close colleagues), but in the heat of battle I frequently found myself gunning these red shirts down because I was so paranoid about getting wasted by an errant enemy that I’d somehow missed blowing away.

But is it any good?

The short answer is that I'm probably not the best person to ask. As this type of game is a whole new world for me, overall it was a pretty fresh experience. Sure, I've run around and shot NPCs for years (actually, as of now, they've probably shot me more on balance), but I can now appreciate that warfare games are (or can be) more than just doing the same as usual but in combat fatigues carrying realistically-modelled weapons.

On the plus side, it's a solid piece of enjoyable action. It looks and sounds great, has a pretty engaging (if short) story, and has enough variety in setting and combat to never become boring. And I particularly liked the way that the game shoved actual historical figures (or references to them - the U.S.S. Obama!) into the storyline. The worryingly-plausible robot weapons were pretty fun too.

On the down side, getting killed so often can get a tad frustrating - especially when respawning puts you immediately back in harms way. The game's health system is also a little bit ludicrous - you can basically replace half your body weight with enemy bullets so long as you take the precaution of letting this happen gradually. And for all of the interesting places that you visit, the relentless pace pretty much kills careful exploration dead. Finally, the much vaunted system of "choices" and "multiple endings" is really quite lame compared to other titles I've played - until I consulted Wikipedia after finishing, I hadn't realised that I'd actually made choices.

That said, and stepping back a bit, I'd also have to add that - for me at least - the game really captures something of the whole "fog of war" experience. While I eventually found my nerve, I did spend a large fraction of my time effectively panicking on the battlefield and making all kinds of misjudgements. More than in any other game I've played, Black Ops II makes it easy to see how quickly confusion can set in, and why mistakes get made on battlefields. I was responsible for more than my fair share of friendly fire incidents.

Another aspect that pleasantly surprised me a little was that, though it's all rather gung-ho, the game is unexpectedly ambiguous about the black hat / white hat distinction. "Unexpectedly" for a game that is - that the CIA doesn't wear a white hat is hardly news. But Black Ops II is really (again - for a game) quite nuanced in its treatment of Menendez. He does bad things, but he has both personal and social reasons for doing them. As I got more and more of his backstory, I even began to wonder if the game might offer a side-switching choice for David Mason.

So, overall, I really enjoyed myself, despite the game's short length and my low battlefield half-life. I won't be switching over to games like this, but it was definitely fun. How it stacks up against its rivals is, however, something I can't answer. Yet, anyway.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Number 4

WP_001226 by Dr Yool

WP_001226, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
My post-Christmas stash ... every last calorie must go!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Number 3

WP_001215 by Dr Yool
WP_001215, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
C's last Christmas mince pie ... shortly before its demise.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Number 2

DSC06708 by Dr Yool
DSC06708, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
A rather glorious Southampton sunrise.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A new project

WP_001191 by Dr Yool
WP_001191, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
Prompted by a friend who previously had a go herself, I've begun a new photography project: 365 days of photographs. They're quite a common pursuit on Flickr, and while I've thought about it before, it's tended to be a week or two after January 1st when, somehow, it feels like I've missed the boat. Anyway, my January 1st is shown above - appropriately the spent top of a champagne bottle. Here goes nothing!

Click here: 365, 2013

Friday, 14 December 2012

When not to pardon

In the news today there's an item about a group of worthies (and they are genuinely worthy) trying to get the government to posthumously pardon the computing pioneer Alan Turing. Infamously, and in spite of his sterling war record, he was prosecuted for "gross indecency" in 1952 (basically, he was gay), and that this - possibly via the "medical" treatment he received for his "condition" - led to his suicide a few years later, when he was only 41. Anyway, this isn't the first time that a call has been made to have his conviction quashed, but it got me thinking about it again.

While his conviction is both outrageous and bizarre to me, and while I can understand the motivation to have this ridiculous mark against his name removed, I can also see that it - arguably - serves a purpose. Namely, by needlessly slurring the name of one of our brightest and best, it provides us with a helpful reminder of our nation's less than civilised past (and recent past at that). Our history, particularly that in close proximity to WW2, is frequently lauded as some sort of Golden Age, usually to service particular political ends. Details, such as this conviction, that reveal it to be little of the sort are a helpful corrective that lets us (and future generations) gauge history more accurately and less self-aggrandisingly.

Admittedly, there's a sense in which none of this actually matters. Turing is long dead, and no sensible person would view his conviction as anything other than homophobic folly. And revoking it would not likely expunge from the history books the fact that, regardless of his brilliance, he was persecuted to suicide by a bigoted state apparatus. But I'd still argue that, for us to correctly perceive history and our antecedents - both for good and for ill - we should be careful about retrospectively imposing the values of our age, however well-intentioned.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Sublime Culture

While I was complaining last time about the infrequency of Iain M. Banks' visits to the Culture, I seem to have polished off his most recent outing, The Hydrogen Sonata a mere 15 months later. And having raced my way through this scarce resource in only a fortnight, I think I need to be introducing rationing and not complaining in the future.



The backdrop to this Culture novel is the imminent "end" of the Gzilt, one of the civilisations involved in the creation of the Culture, but which pulled out of membership at the last moment. Now, ten thousand years later, the Gzilt are preparing to "sublime", a technological process that transfers the minds of its citizens (biological and artificial) to the elevated plane of existence accessed via the universe's additional dimensions. But as the final countdown ticks down, some long-buried and unwelcome history is floating to the surface, leading to dissent in Gzilt ranks and jeopardising the sublimation. Alerted to this, a loose affiliation of Culture Minds begins to investigate the source of these last minute troubles, only to uncover a link that points back to the origins of the Culture, and to the reason that the Gzilt turned down membership.



As usual, Banks has done a great job with this book. Ten novels into the Culture series and he's still able to draw new stories and angles from his creation. This time tackling both the formation of the Culture and the mysterious phenomenon of subliming, topics only alluded to in the background before. While he demystifies the latter to a pleasing degree, easily satiating this reader's hunger, he's careful not to squeeze every last drop out of it, potentially saving it for further visits in the future (the end of the Culture itself?). And, as usual, he weaves in journeys to remote and exotic corners of our galaxy, creating imaginative settings such as the wind-swept mountains of Cethyd, sculpted by a long-vanished civilisation to produce bellowing, trance-inducing sounds. And no sojourn with the Culture would be complete without the knowing, ironic commentary of the Minds, here keen to get to the bottom of the Gzilt conundrum, but unsure whether it's their place or what to do with what they find out.

All that said - and it does seem rude to complain - The Hydrogen Sonata does still suffer from the same flaws that I identified in Surface Detail. Namely the over-familiar and bloke-y Minds, the feeling that very little is really at stake, and the lack of any resonant underpinning theme. The hyper-threading that stretched my patience last time is also still here, but to a more tolerable and comprehensible degree on this occasion. Another aspect which is beginning to bore is the novel's immersion in the life and times of Involved civilisations. Sure, Banks has a lot of fun with how these have evolved in byzantine ways, but somehow such an "overpopulated" galaxy of near-equals isn't as interesting as what happens at the fringes of the Culture's reach, far from the madding crowd of fully-formed societies. Banks' earlier novels spent more productive time in the backwaters, most notably with The Player of Games. Admittedly, his weakest Culture novel, Inversions, went way too far in this direction, but generally I'd say he needs to head back to the boondocks.

So, overall yet another enjoyable romp with Banks and his Culture. He's still miles away from being dull, or from taking any serious missteps with his signature creation. But I'd appreciate him delving back into the more benighted corners of his universe, back to where deeper and more weighty themes seem more likely to be found.



P.S. One very specific criticism that I forgot to make above is that the central mystery that the plot is predicated on uncovering is (... without getting into spoiler territory ...) pretty unsatisfactorily resolved. Both in terms of the clunky way that it's parachuted in at the end of the novel, and in its actual nature. I think that Banks showed too much of his hand early on, when he'd have been better playing things much closer to his chest.

A welcome advent

WP_000821 by Dr Yool
This past Saturday, 1st December, I got a bit of surprise - pictured above - when I went downstairs to make the tea. While I'm pretty sure that it's age-inappropriate, it's a very welcome gift from C.

And one that's eminently turn-able into a Flickr project.  To wit, the link below should gradually be populated by offspring from the shameless corporate mating of Star Wars with Lego.

Advent Calendar 2012

Unfortunately, with my December plans reverting to their default setting (i.e. Christmas week in Carnoustie), I won't be seeing the contents of windows 23 and 24 until the 30th (unless, I suppose, I can persuade C to use her phone's camera).