Monday, 31 October 2016

Book Review - In the Shadow of the Sword - Yes It's F*cking Political, Everything's Political

Tom Holland has made quite the name for himself with his narrative histories. His first, Rubicon, is about the rise of Julius Caesar and the transformation of Rome from the Republic it had been to the Empire usually envisioned by those of us raised on Hollywood sword and sandal epics and the UK history syllabus.

Here, Holland covers a far more complex and controversial era of history, the world of late antiquity centred on what we now refer to as the Middle East. This fits in nicely with my current undertaking of patching the massive holes left in my knowledge of world history by the aforementioned UK school syllabus. It particularly snuggles like a jigsaw piece against Judith Herrin’s superlative history of Byzantium which, naturally, focused on that great city itself and the world beyond only inasmuch as it bore directly upon it.

The setting here is the Eastern edge of the late Roman Empire where it abuts the most Westerly of the great Asian empires - initially the Parthians, then succeeded by the Sassanians. Each, much to the surprise of most people with a Western Classical education, was easily a match for mighty Rome and inflicted at least as many defeats and humiliations upon it as it upon them (the most striking of which is the fate of Emperor Valerian who, after being captured by the Parthians, spent the rest of his life being used by King Shapur I as a stool to mount his house and, on his death, having his skin flayed and gilded as a throneroom trophy).

Holland throws in vignettes like this to wonderful effect - such as the introductory account of the bloodthirsty religions zeal of Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar, before ending with the startling line “So perished… the last Jewish king to rule in Arabia.”

The author spends most of the book with background of how the two great empires grew and changed through the first 600 years or so of the Common Era - more detail on the Sassanids as Rome is more familiar to his audience, although he sketches in such things as the Gothic conquest of Italy and Spain and refers to a few things with which we are more likely to be familiar to ground the narrative. He takes us through the difficulties that Parthia has with the ‘barbarians’ on its Northern and Eastern frontiers that it massively underestimates and leads to its collapse (if I’ve learnt one thing from reading history, it is NEVER pursue bands of mobile mounted archers however much the taunt you), along with an overview of their culture and religion.

Along with this, as part of the timeline of Constantinople, we are shown the rise of Christianity in Palestine - the response of Rome to the various Hebrew insurrections, leading ultimately to expulsion from Jerusalem, the foundation of the Holy Land as a place of pilgrimage from Europe following Constantine’s conversion, the ascetic monks such as Simeon on his pillar. We also get a potted history of the schisms of Christianity, Nicea and Chalcedon, the Arians and the Copts.

Then, in the third part of the book, we are introduced again to that fragment of the region under the control of neither superpower. To the south of the fractious border is Arabia, a land considered barbarous by both Romans and Sassanians, although they are both also quite happy to pay the tribes as mercenaries. This disregard despite the fact that this area has housed the kingdom of Sheba, made wealthy beyond imagining by being the major supplier of Frankincense but fallen on hard times by the rise of Christianity and their dislike of such pagan practices as the burning of incense. From this area comes a third force, one which gives some editions of this book its alternative (and rather inflammatory) subtitle, “The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire”.

And this is where the controversy comes in. Holland shows how Islam rose not only as a political force as much as a religious one, but that it was a melange of the Hebraic history of the Arabian peninsula (as foreshadowed by that introduction with King Yusuf), the Manichaeism of late Iranshahr (Sassania), along with influences from others in the area such as the Biblically maligned Samaritans, the philosophy generated by the Christian schisms and the close textual analysis and argumentation of the Jewish yeshivas. Most controversial of all, the author points out the signal lack of contemporary accounts of the Qu’ran, Mecca and Mohammed’s direct influence. He shows Islam (or the Mohammedan faith, which came to be called Islam almost a century later) as a political construct, as riven with dissent and infighting as any other human political process. Perhaps most shockingly of all, he suggests that the hadiths, the sayings of Mohammed used as an adjunct to and expansion of the Qu’ran, are made up out of whole cloth the best part of a century after his death to justify interpretations of the extremely vague Qu’ran - or, indeed, to entirely re-write it, such as to upgrade the punishment for adultery from lashes to the traditional Jewish death by stoning. Mixed in with the jockeying for position as the power behind this new and vast empire, this shows that Islam and its holy texts are no more trustworthy and god-given than those of Christianity or Judaism, Zoroastrianism or Hinduism. They are products of human societies, of political power struggles that have a background and a frame, that both use belief and are a vector for it.

While Tom Holland’s fourth history book (he also write fiction - I really should investigate that!) is not without flaws, it is remarkably well written, well argued, as well as well researched and referenced. I have yet to read a narrative history as good as his debut, Rubicon (although that is on a par with saying that I have yet to hear a symphony on par with Beethoven’s ninth or Mahler’s fifth. Okay, anything by Mahler) but I think that is because the relatively narrow focus of the internecine power plays of Roma perhaps lend themselves more easily to the narrative history style without oversimplification. Holland obviously must simplify somewhat, but he really does seem to try to include as much relevant information as is humanly possible. As with his book Persian Fire about the Greco-Persian wars (Thermopylae and all that) this can lead to a temporary overload of information, that I dealt with by putting aside the book for a few days on occasion to allow my brain to process it. I do also feel that he sometimes gives myths of Christianity an easier ride that those of other religions, putting them down with argumentative foot- or endnotes. While this may be purely as he expects the audience to be already more familiar with these, it does mean these appear to be accepted more uncritically.

In all, an utterly superb addition to my knowledge of the history that has formed our world, told in an utterly compelling, absorbing and informative manner.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Book Review: Yellow King Tales volume 1: solid pallor and a tattered robe

After finding the recent Pulver edited anthology A Season in Carcosa a very mixed bag, I thought Id try this collection by the man himself. It starts very, very strongly; the first five stories are gloriously creepy and scary, modern-set noir-tinged Yellow King tales fraught with menace and madness, utilising many of the tropes of Chambers' original stories to stunning effect. Publication dates aren't listed for individual stories, but I can well imagine these were an influence on the original True Detective TV show.

Unfortunately, nothing else in the book hits that level of quality. There are many good stories but, for me, nothing great and frankly too much filler. Part of the problem was, perhaps, reading it as a block rather than dipping in, as Pulver's reliance on Cassilda and other fragments from the Yellow King play becomes somewhat repetitive.

In many of the stories the author also writes in a style that is neither prose nor poetry (or possibly both), going from normal block paragraphs to

setting out
the words




white                                                  space

and make use

experimental ways.

I didn't find this very effective - although, full disclosure, I have never been a fan of shape poems and find stream-of-consciousness writing generally insufferable, so perhaps I'm the wrong audience. The longer of these pieces I found myself scanning through as there didn't really seem to be a great deal of content within the form. There are also a couple of stories that are fine, but then have sudden Yellow King references shoehorned in at the end for no apparent reason, and much to the detriment of the tale.

I will definitely return to Pulver, perhaps trying some of his longer work or something not so narrowly focused as he can undoubtedly be a great writer.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Book review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

In many ways, this is a straight-forward, old-fashioned space adventure. A deep space vessel - in this case, a tunneling ship, used to cut stable wormholes for interstellar travel - takes a job that turns out to be less straightforward than anticipated, and we see how the crew deal with that, and how it affects their relationships. (And I'm not trying to belittle the story or the genre; I know any story, when broken down into its basic elements, seems simplistic).

The difference here from the vast majority of these sorts of stories is the focus. While they usually put the adventure itself in the spotlight and character tension rises from that, Becky Chambers concentrate on the characters and their relationships from the start. We begin by being introduced with a new crew member - Rosemary, who seems very much a surrogate for both the reader and Chambers herself - although the third-person viewpoint quickly diversifies among the multi-species crew so we see events from different perspectives. There is a great deal of introduction to this universe, the GC (Galactic Community? Galactic Council? Something like that) to which humanity is a a fairly recent entrant after leaving a polluted Earth to repair itself and splitting into two factions - those settled on Mars and the Exodans, who live almost entirely in their ships and space stations.

The relationship-focus and the grimy, real-feeling level of the tech - along with a sharpness of wit and dialogue in the writing - are certainly why this book has attracted so many comparisons to Joss Whedon's Firefly although, if anything, here the story takes even more of a back seat to the personalities. The events are largely low-key (about which I am not complaining as I am thoroughly sick of save-the-universe stories) and the 'small, angry planet' of the title, and the main mission, does not even figure until the last fifth of the book - although, I guess, it is a long way there. It is, however, these relationships and the characters that carry the story and set it apart. The characters are fairly well realised and it is these relationships - both with each other, and outside of the family of the crew - that give us the bulk of the interest and peril. And they are very much a family, something to which focus is brought by the mention of the family structure of the reptilian Aandrisk, of whom Sissix, the ship's pilot, is a member. They are born into and raised by a hatch family (of probably unrelated individuals to their parents), choose a feather family - or, rather, a succession of feather families - of like-minded individuals throughout their adult lives, before settling into a more (but not entirely) stable house family to raise young given into their care when they are older. As well as an intriguing social structure that holds echoes of many ancient human tribes, it is a clear metaphor for the friendship groups we build and which are - often and for many people - more important than the families into which we are born.

Along with the very 'liberal' political (both small 'L' and small 'P') - there is no distinction made between binary or same-sex relationships, indeed interspecies relationships are touched upon, and gender issues are foregrounded - I imagine this is the sort of SF that makes the Sad Puppies rabid. So, kudos to chambers for that.

However, this is 'just' about gender politics (in fact, i'd say it isn't about gender politics at all, but I guess, unfortunately, taking the position that who you love is no big thing is a political stand). The theme of the book is about identity - those relationship identities, yes, but also about what it is to be a person. As well as the personhood of each of the alien races, the status of AIs is one of the big questions that this society has yet to address.

Even if you are perfectly happy with the type of SF that this - which I absolutely am - there are problems with the book itself, on its own terms. The crew of the Wayfarer are a bit too nice to each other - with the exception of Corbin, the stand-offish, persnickety algae tech (one of the power sources for the ship) who nobody else really likes, they all get on far too well with none of the annoyances that you would expect of people living in close confines for long stretches of time. I would have liked to see more interpersonal tension, if only in small ways.

However, Chambers does generally write the characters and relationships well, but this can't be said for some of the physical threats. There is a big action scene near the end that you can almost miss if you're not paying attention - yes, partly there is confusion as it is from the view of the crew who aren't expecting it, but even so the whole thing needed rewriting. But, hey, it's her first novel.

There is a far more important flaw, though. In showing us that all the five species who make up the crew are people, with the possible exception of the wonderful Dr Chef, we lose any sense of their alien-ness, except when it's explicitly stated as with the Aandrisk family structure. Okay, the fact of their personhood, that "we're all the same under the skin", is kind of the point but, for all the diversity in the liberal outlook, this has a homogenising effect that slightly undermines the message. The only species that did seem at all alien were those that were threatening - the Toremi, the civilisation to whom the Wayfarer is travelling, and the militaristic Quelin, who seem to have it humans generally (and who I pictured as the being like the Vogon guard tasked with throwing Arthur and Ford out of the airlock in the TV version of Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy...) This does seem to leave us with the lazy idea that explicable and similar means friendly whilst different and confusing means an enemy, which I doubt very much is what Chambers intended and, I'm sure, something she'll address in the further volumes. And, again, it's a very hard thing to write, but here it is very, very important.

Oh, and just one more thing. This isn't a complaint about the book at all, but about many of the reviews. Stop calling it space opera, it isn't. Space opera is the grand guignol of the spaceways - it is big storylines, overblown, huge events painted on a massive canvas in broad strokes. Often with fat ladies singing. It is Peter Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds and the sorely missed Iain M. Banks.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Book Review: Lexicon by Max Barry - the Power of the Word

Words have power. We all know this, especially as readers we are aware of the magic of words. And if we have seen any applied neurolinguistics - the magician Derren Brown, for instance, using his training and the force of his personality to either guide people’s choices or, more disturbingly, seemingly bend them to his will, both with the careful hidden placement of trigger words - we see the shared route of the two meanings of the word ‘spell’.

Max Barry posits that something even more powerful and immediate can be achieved than that which we see in the edited Derren Brown TV shows, that there are words and phrases that can control us all, different ones depending on our ‘personality segment’, and that an organisation exists of people who train in and wield this power.

Emily Ruff, a vagrant getting by on small con-jobs and sleight-of-hand tricks is recruited for training and becomes embroiled in a something even darker, their idea that there are ‘barewords’, ur-words in some primal proto-language that bypass the cortex and can control anybody, instantly and completely.

Barry presents what is both a superb, engaging, white-knuckle thriller and also an exploration of language and control. Through fragments from media stories and message board discussions between chapters he draws parallels between the blunt-force over-riding control of these ‘magic’ words and the more subtle and pervasive and more real - and hence more frightening - power of media manipulation. The book also touches on the philosophical idea of how much language creates reality by affecting our perception of it, as well as motifs of trust and loyalty and power.

This is a dark book - I haven’t given it the horror tag for nothing - but, as always with Max Barry, it is also deeply humanistic and is threaded through with real humour. Read it and, if you haven’t already, read Jennifer government too, for good measure.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Death Spiral UK

If the Labour implosion has achieved anything, it is that it has raised me from despair to fury. I’ve seen interviews with a succession of Labour MPs, grandees and apologists (some of whom are Tory party members, fercrissakes!) saying that Corbyn should step down, but it is the reasoning that is really making my blood boil.

I have heard people opine that he has been a leader with no direction, and no policies, and done nothing to show opposition to the government - and then watched a clip of today in Parliament where, as usual, Cameron did nothing but hurl personal insults and Corbyn shrugged them off with dignity, and attacked the PM on policy, pushing his consistent agenda of an alternative to the destructive austerity measures. Just like he has done day after day, week after week, since he became leader.

The other argument sounds more convincing at first hearing; that, while Corbyn may have a massive mandate for leadership from Labour party members, the MPs who are opposing him have a bigger one - but this is utterly false. Yes, MPs WERE elected by the votes of the electorate, but as representatives of the Labour party. This may have been where there was a real race between getting a Labour MP or a Tory or SNP or (possibly) a LibDem or, as in the constituency in which I live, where Labour are going to win and it is a question of how much by. The difference is in that those of us who voted for Corbyn as Leader were trying to shape the focus and direction and future of the Labour party, to turn it once again into a political party that represents the majority, that represents the greater good of society and fights for inclusiveness and justice and pulling everyone up together, rather than the spineless Tory Lite that the party has become. Yes, many of us would vote for the the Greens or the Socialist Workers party if we weren’t stuck with this stupid electoral system, but we are so we need to try to (re)shape the main party closest to our views back into something that represents us.

So instead of taking stock of where we are after the referendum, seeing if anything can be done about the result and deciding on how best to proceed if not, the Blairite wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party took the opportunity to stage a coup, and much of the rest of the PLP followed suit; I don’t know what was going through Tom Watson’s mind, but I am particularly disgusted with him. Corbyn has said he will not step down, and he has shown himself to be a man of his word. However, I for one would not blame him if he caved to what must be intolerable pressure, threw up his hands, and said “FUCK THE LOT OF YOU!” If it comes to another Labour leadership election I shall be voting Jeremy Corbyn. If he doesn't stand, or is ousted, I am frankly cancelling  my membership and, I am sorry to say, I am done with the Labour party for good.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Book review: When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has long been one of my favourite authors, ever since I read her debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum. When she turned her talents to crime fiction with Case Histories she brought her wonderful skills to that genre, but it is with the third installment of the Jackson Brodie series that she’s really blown it out of the water.

The book opens with a prologue set 30 years ago, with Atkinson showcasing her complete mastery of character and the seemingly effortless way she builds a scene so real we are immersed in it. A woman takes her three young children for a walk in the Devon countryside. They are displaced from London due to her absent husband’s whim and she is at once trying to keep the children active and entertained, make the most of the situation and walk off her obvious frustration. As with the rest of the book, each piece of description and dialogue and inner monologue or realisation tells us all of this, every bit building and advancing the story (although you might not realise it for a long time) but utterly subtle and realistic. So beautifully and immersively is this scene constructed, the brutal denouement is like punch in the stomach.

The rest of the novel is in the present day and, while the first chapter features the titular main character of the series, Jackson Brodie himself is absent or, at most, on the periphery, throughout the great majority of the story. Instead, we see the tale unfold largely through the eyes of Brodie’s erstwhile colleague/sparring partner/potential love interest DCI Louise Monroe and sixteen-year-old Regina (Reggie) Chase. Reggie is a wonderful character, caught in between so many different worlds; looking younger than she is but wiser than her years, a working class girl who had received a scholarship to a posh school but had to drop out, her mother has recently - suddenly - died and Reggie lives in the unchanged flat with the ghosts of her memory and has a job as a babysitter and home help for Dr Joanna Hunter, who is posh and beautiful and capable and Reggie’s ideal mother figure.

This is a literary novel both in that it is in the literary genre and in the quality of the writing, but it is also definitely a mystery novel. The story unfolds like a puzzle-box, every part of the story intertwining (most often in entirely unexpected ways) and with clues laid out in full view that the reader only realises were clues when the subtle “TA-DA!” of revelation occurs. As well as enmeshing the stories of Louise, Reggie, Jackson and Joanna Hunter (along with Louise’s new, too-perfect husband, and her colleagues, Reggie’s millennialist classics tutor and her criminal, possibly sociopathic, brother, Joanna’s upwardly-mobile, wide-boy Glaswegian husband) she weaves them together thematically - motherhood and loss, partnership and the suitability or otherwise of our choices, the risks posed to women by strangers and those close to them.

This is a terrific book, up there with Behind the Scenes and her more recent, much- and rightly-lauded Life After Life. Every character is built with depth and breadth (even Sadie, Dr Hunter’s German Shepherd) and the way every aspect interweaves - plot and character, motivation and theme, even location - is breathtaking, but done so well and so subtly that it is only breathtaking in retrospect. The resolution of the mystery is truly shocking at the same time as being utterly right and the bow on top is the final paragraph of the penultimate chapter which brings everything full circle and where you realise that Jackson Brodie is the central thread in the tapestry, after all.

You should read this, it is wonderful.


( first published on goodreads )

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Book review: The Secret Books of Paradys volume 3, The book of the Dead by Tanith Lee: Book of the Meh

I will argue that, at her best, Tanith Lee is in the same league of Gothic writing as Angela Carter; multilayered fictions about sexuality and possession and identity, built of startling imagery and metaphor. Unfortunately, The Book of the Dead, the third quarter of the Paradys cycle, is a long, long way from her best.

There are many problems with this book. Paradys, that shadow Paris where vampires and shapeshifters and magic roil beneath the surface, a main character throughout the previous stories, is barely present. Most of the tales here are barely connected to it and, even in those that are, it is the flimsiest of painted backdrops. The stories themselves are generally weak, feeling throwaway and somehow unready, and not even saved by forming together into any sort of thread as had the tales in the previous volumes. The protagonists seem to be involved for no good reason - these are not tragedies where a character brings doom upon themselves by their own greed or recklessness or malice or hubris, more they feel like failed attempts to try for a kind of Lovecraftian random universe - and often the stakes are so low and the motivations so pointless that it is to no effect.

For example, in the story Morcara’s Room we start with an interesting set up. A young woman grows up unusually strong and sure of herself for the time period, self-assured and dominant and, being an only child, inherits the estate. She dresses how she chooses and selects her lovers with impunity. Her downfall occurs the first time a man spurns her, although we are simply told this, not shown it, and in such passing detail that her reaction - to shut herself in a tower chamber and commit suicide - is so melodramatically over the top as to be absurd, even in context of a gothic tale. To compound matters, this is merely the backstory; in the present a traveller comes to the estate to find an elderly brother and sister living in the house, who tell him this story - of their ancestor, her death, that there was a warning on the door “all who enter will die” and the servant who broke down the door fell down the stairs and broke his neck. The cursed tower has been sealed for many years (after a subsequent death for which the siblings bear some guilt) and the denouement is this rather arrogant interloper stating that this was not a curse but a simple statement of fact: all who enter the tower room will die, because everyone dies in the end. The whole thing reads like some very early gothic story you’d study in a literature class and you’d have to give a pass because the once-original ideas had become cliche.

Indeed, each of the stories feels as though Lee is trying her hand at a different era of horror writing, without really committing to it. The segment Lost in the World finds a man obsessed with obscure travel writings of a previous century journeying to Africa to try and locate the hidden valley they mention, finding it, being trapped, and (spoiler) being killed by one of the pterosaurs that inhabit it - although the final image here of his aerial view of what he had taken as a huge, ruined temple is a nice idea, the story as a whole is disjointed and messy, and reads like bad Lovecraft, complete with period casual racism.

Definitely a highly disappointing effort, and I’d probably have chucked this part way through had it not been multiple tales. I hope the final part of the Secret Book of Paradys, The Book of the Mad, finishes on a higher note.


Review originally posted at goodreads

Friday, 25 March 2016

Book review: Lyonesse by Jack Vance - a Mythic Fairytale of High Fantasy

Aside from the Dying Earth books, I’ve not read much Jack Vance. Which is odd, as I do adore those, the complexity and richness of the language, the sly wit and dark humour, the anti-heroes so well rendered. Lyonesse is a quite different beast. In some ways it feels far more of a traditional fantasy than the much earlier tales of Cugel the clever and Turjan and Chun the Unavoidable. It is definitely more of a true novel; most of the Dying Earth books are portmanteau made up of episodic short stories, while this is a distinct single tale.

The novel is set in several of the divided kingdoms of the Elder Isles, placed south of Ireland and north of Iberia, roughly where the Bay of Biscay becomes the Atlantic Ocean proper, as shown with a truly terrible map. We gather from the setting and occasional footnotes that this is where so many of the myths of Europe originate; this is Atlantis and Hy-Brasil and the Fairy Isles.

It did take me a little while to find my feet, for a couple of reasons. It wasn’t initially clear to me where this Atlantean land in which the tale unfolds was situated in time; the language and mores felt largely like those of the late middle ages (or, at any rate, with that Arthurian feel of the late middle ages from which much high fantasy takes its tone) but the references did not truly help to place it anywhere - or, rather, anywhen. It is stated that the founding family of one kingdom are also of the line that gave rise to Arthur Pendragon, although this seems to have been some time before. There is a Christian missionary, and reference is stated to the power of the church of Rome. It is, I think, deliberately vague and anachronistic, and it cased to be an issue once I was in caught up in the story.

Also early on, I had a problem with some changes of tone. At the outset the authorial voice is recognisably high fantasy, and becomes somewhat mythic or fairytale at points, but then we have a sudden shift into a rather dry chapter of historical and political exposition, before returning to the fairytale fantasy tone. Not long after this, however, I saw how the separate sections began to come together and that they were threads weaving into a greater tapestry. Vance does this quite superbly, introducing what appear to be obvious directions for the plot (obvious because of the fairytale fantasy inflection of the writing) only to immediately subvert them - and then call back much later on with an unforeseen payoff.

The characters are somewhere between mythic archetypes and actual people, something brought out by the habit of several of the magicians of the books splitting off from themselves scions, or sub-personalities, which begin as an aspect of the original but quickly develop their own characteristics.

For perhaps the first quarter of the book I was enjoying Lyonesse and thought it fine but, by the halfway point, I began to see why this is considered one of the great works of fantasy.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

adrift again

I haven't made one of these pathetic posts in some time.

I'd been in a bad way and sought help. I went to my GP in December and told him how bad I'd been, that I'd been suicidal and was frightened. He was as good as ever, made sure I didn't seem an immediate risk to myself and referred me to the local mental health service. Even though it took them ages to respond (I actually had another appointment with my GP and he was furious they hadn't arranged an an assessment, other than to check again that I wasn't in imminent danger from myself and to give me contact phone numbers), I'd been okay. I think that, having asked for help had been a kind of therapy in itself, knowing I was n the first step and the future looking brighter, actually being able to see a future beyond this thing.

I had my assessment last week, the day after my 45th birthday.

It wasn't helpful. I thought I expressed fairly well the problems I was having, but I obviously failed. I told the mental health worker about my suicidal ideation, how I'd been better for the last four months since I asked for help but how frightened I was that if I slipped I'd slip all the way. I tried to tell him about my background, about the problems I'd been having, about how disconnected and stressed and hopeless I'd been feeling, about how guilty and ashamed I feel all the time, but I guess I didn't express it very well. Perhaps I came across as calm and articulate and was hoping for him to read between the lines and I was asking too much. Or perhaps I'm not worth helping.

I know, intellectually, that this is a stupid, self-regarding thing to think but as I typed it my throat tightened unbearably and tears pricked my eyes. I know its a cry for help, and we in our culture differentiate between 'actual' suicide attempts and 'cries for help'. But if someone is crying for help, surely that is because they need help? and, anyway, I don't think it's as clearly delineated as that. There's the idea of letting fate take a hand. While I profess to not believe in fate sometimes I am quite happy to leave my life in its hands; for a while I made a habit of accelerating down a steep hill on my bike and closing my eyes, but came to my senses (or chickened out) before a fateful impact. The same idea surrounds the 'cry for help'. If I cry and nobody responds, then it proves I am not worth saving.

So I feel adrift, as though I've realised that the lifeline to which I was clinging is held by nothing but seaweed. So far there are a few things staying my hand, other than plain cowardice. The potential indignity of failure in even this. Not wanting to inflict pain on my friends and relatives, or trauma on anyone who has to clean up the mess. My son. But I know I stand on a balance and that the guilt that keeps me here can easily slide over to the other side of the scales. I don't know how many times I can hit the low point before I break through.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Review: The Secret by Rhonda Byrne: Wishin' & Hopin'

This book is so inspirational! It turns out that by just believing and wanting really hard you can get whatever you want out of life! And if that doesn't work you can write a vacuous self help book full of profound sounding but utterly meaningless tripe and there are enough stupid people in the world to make you rich! This book has also taught me that I don't need to care about other people; if they don't get what they want it isn't anything to with me or anything to do with society being fair or equal, it's because they didn't wish hard enough or learn to visualise what they want! I used to give a lot of money to various charities – cancer research, rape support groups, third world aid – but I've stopped that now because I realise that the problems people have are because they secretly, deep down, wish them upon themselves, and only they can make their lives better! It's sad if a child dies of leukaemia or lots of people are killed by a tsunami or a train crash but something in them brought it on themselves, and anyway they'll get another chance in the great circle of life and they should try harder next time. And by 'try harder', I don't mean actually work to achieve anything but just wish really hard, because it turns out that all sorts of brilliant people like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Mozart, Beethoven, Plato and John D Rockefeller were successful not because they worked hard or were particularly smart or talented but JUST BECAUSE THEY KNEW THE SECRET!!!!!

NOTE: Just in case there is anyone who is especially slow on the uptake, this is sarcasm. I'm not that shocked that this book exists but that it has apparently sold somewhere in the region of 21 million copies really does make me worry for humanity. Does the author (along with her contributors, the most qualified of whom are described as “a doctor of Chiropractic” and another “an internationally known feng-shui mistress”) actually believe this bollocks, or are they just using it to milk the stupid. And if you believe in this book there's no sugaring the pill; you are a moron. A shallow, self centred, vacuous moron. I would happily spit in the face of Ms Byrne, any of her contributors or people who worked on the DVD. Yes, there is a lot to be said for the power of positive thought – because it can change your own attitude and behaviour! There's a whole field of psychology based on that idea called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There is nothing mystical about it. You know the old saying, "the universe doesn't owe you a living"?

Some of my favourite quotes:

“Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it thought persistent thoughts.” Damn, those Jews were pretty careless before WW2, weren't they?

“Quantum Physicists will tell you the universe was created from thought!” Really? Truly? Okay, NAME ONE. Seriously, just one published quantum physicist who is taken seriously by the scientific community.

“Our feelings let us know what we’re thinking.” What? What does that actually mean?

And the best, from Ester Hicks, conduit for a spirit called Abraham (seriously):
“...I used to be extremely disturbed when a person's rights were violated by violence on a person, or by someone forcefully taking someone else's property....But then, after meeting you [Abraham:], I got to the point that I see all those things they're doing with others as "games" that they're playing—more or less "agreements" that they have between one another, spoken or unspoken. I've gotten somewhat better at not feeling their pain. But can I get to the point that I don’t feel anything negative when I see someone violating the rights of another? Can I just look at whatever they're doing to one another out there, and think, You're all doing to one another what you have somehow chosen to do?"

Note: this is a review I wrote some time ago on the goodreads website

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Review: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

It’s taken some time to get around to this book. Knowing it is the last from my favourite author, knowing that once I’ve read this there’ll be no new tomes to look forward to, to get excited about, no further exploration of the Culture and the universe that it inhabits. Fortunately he has left us with many fine and several (IMHO) great books, in both the ‘M’ (scifi) and ‘M-less’ personae. The short interview the appends this paperback edition is particularly poignant, as he refers to the many ideas he has for future tales.

As are the majority of Banks’ SF novels, this is set in the vast, ancient, post-scarcity society of The Culture - or, rather, almost entirely outside of The Culture, where it interacts with the civilisations which it encounters and with which it interacts (this is a necessity; as Banks himself has pointed out, an entirely peaceful utopia makes for very dull storytelling, and he was a self-professed fan of big explosions). In this case, the main focus is the Gzilt, a humanoid society as venerable as the Culture and, in fact, one that was instrumental in forming the latter and was very nearly one of the founding members civilisations.

Ten thousand years on, the Gzilt have decided to Sublime - to move, en masse, to a higher dimension of consciousness and physicality, as have many elder civilisations before. This is something that Banks has referenced occasionally, usually in respect of long-gone peoples who have left behind vast, mysterious artefacts, but here he address the idea, the politics and the logistics of this event head-on.

Of course, there has to be a complication, here in the form of a potential secret involving the strange fact that the Gzilt seem to be the only civilisation in the history of the universe in possession of a holy book that actually seems to be factually accurate, held in the brain of a possibly mythical Culture individual who has been around since the formation ten millennia before. This leads to a long and involved galaxy-arm-spanning hunt-and-chase involving several Culture Ships (each possessed of a Mind, the AIs that are the backbone of the Culture and of whom it has been said are so much more powerful than biologicals that biologicals can’t even imagine how powerful they are), facets of the soon-to-Sublime Gzilt and two lesser ‘scavenger’ civilisation intent on using the discarded knowledge and tech to boost their own progress.

We have all the usual parts you would expect from an Iain M. Banks novel - the superb writing, the wit and humour, the insane action pieces (often using technologies such as anti-matter missiles, field manipulators and hyperspace), the superb characterisation (including several strong, rounded female characters, of course) and the humanistic examination of different cultures, outlooks and political viewpoints. There are many interesting and intriguing parts - other than the ten thousand year old human, the Culture is almost entirely represented here by the Ship Minds (itself an fascinating idea of how a vast, powerful and entirely non-hierarchical utopia gets things done), the continuation of politics despite the hard deadline for when the society will cease to be, including deciding on a ‘preferred’ scavenger species to allow to take all your best stuff.

I would have loved the Hydrogen Sonata to be Banksie bowing out with one of his great novels - but, with the run of the last four or five being so very good, this was perhaps a big ask. It is very good, but falls short of great, I think because it doesn’t hold together as a piece in quite the way that his finest novels (I think particularly of Look to Windward and Surface Detail) do.

I am not quite finished with Mr Banks yet. I still have The Quarry. While I don’t think there has been a really good non-M book in some time (a sharp decline after Whit, with only The Business really coming up to muster), perhaps this will be a fitting farewell. And, in any case, he has left us with more wonder and humanity and compassion and excitement from his thirty year career than we have any right to expect.

Review: Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying

As with most roleplayers, I first encountered the games in my early teens and via D&D. This would have been about 1983 or 84, with the red box set of D&D Basic Rules, then the blue Expert Rules. Our group very much took to heart the concept that these rules were a framework, a guideline - now take it and make it your own! While we did buy supplements and Dragon magazine, our fertile imaginations and bottomless appetite for movies and books in the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres meant we were more than willing to build (and shoehorn) our own ideas into this basic architecture.

I also played with another group of friends (I’m not sure why the two didn’t really mix, it was just one of those things). This group was less adventurous; we played different games - largely Rolemaster and Paranoia and boardgames - but stuck more within the strictures of the given rules. This was also the group where you didn’t get too attached to your character-  perhaps unsurprisingly given the systems, mortality was fierce - while in my D&D group we would run characters and their relationships for years. Of course, both groups split when we reached college age and went our separate ways..

It was some years before I found another group of like-minded friends (I had considered going to one of the local game shops and seeing about joining a group, but gaming had for me always been quite a personal, intimate thing). This group, still going these <harrumph> years later, with some changes, had a much wider experience of games than I did and introduced me to some wonders, and we discovered many more together (one of the rules of gaming: never start to tot up how much you’ve spent on rulebooks…) and one that was an utter revelation was Feng Shui by a man who shall forever be known as The Mighty Robin D. Laws.

The subtitle “Action Movie Roleplaying” tells you much of what you need to know about this game. It is specifically the Hong Kong action movie genre of John Woo, Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark, although you can easily adjust it to fit Schwarzenegger movies, Indiana Jones or The Transporter. The main point is that it is Heroic; the characters are typically Big Damn arse-kicking Heroes who can leap off balconies firing a gun in each hand, punch opponents through walls and drive high octane cars down narrow streets at ridiculous speeds.

And it works brilliantly, due to Laws’ superb design. The basic mechanic is stunningly simple. Eschewing the multiplicity of dice I have come to know and love (the old joke is that you out a roleplayer by saying “would you hand me that d6?”) Feng Shui uses two six-sided dice of different colours, a good dice (positive) and a bad dice (negative), added on to a skill/characteristic rating (if you know what I’m talking about, you’re a roleplayer; if not, don’t worry about it). What really works is the level at which this is pitched; as I say, the characters are Heroes, they don’t need to worry about fighting with ordinary minions! This is accomplished by the simple expedient that Mooks (as they are designated here), generally the kind fodder the Big Bad will throw at the heroes to keep them occupied, tend to come in squads of six and each individual is taken out wit a single point of damage - so picture Jackie Chan running through a factory, knocking bad guys from gantries as they try to mob him. This is further enhanced by advantages that the game calls shticks, special abilities of an almost (or sometimes literally, depending on the character type) magical nature. For instance, the common one of never having to reload a weapon or, one of my favourites, the rather more tricky running up the stream of bullets coming toward you to attack your opponent.

However, the real revelation for me was a step beyond that injunction in the original D&D to make these rules your own, and that is the encouragement to use description and inventiveness within the game by giving bonuses for descriptiveness, resourcefulness and imagination - along with penalties for being dull or repetitive. Example: in a firefight you can get away with saying “I take aim and shoot” a couple of times, but if you don’t try harder the Director (as the gamesmaster is called) should start to penalise you. Adding some description will counter this, and maybe give a minor bonus (“I leap over the bar for cover, blazing away with an automatic pistol in each hand”) and particularly good/descriptive/crazy ideas should earn you better bonuses (shooting down a chandelier onto a group of mooks, sliding on your back along a stream of lantern oil someone is about to set on fire while shooting, or simply punching/tripping/throwing one enemy into a pile of others. Just use your imagination, or steal from your favourite action films.

The beam of celestial light hit me in my first session playing this game. We were in a New Year parade in Kowloon when it is attacked by Triad goons/terrorists/whatever (I forget the details). My character (a fairly bog-standard Martial Arts Cop, one of the basic archetypes) was on the edge of the parade and I asked if there was a nearby lamppost or pillar I could use to swing around, kick some bad guys in the face and continue to boost up over the parade. Simon, the director, looked me squarely in the face and said “If you need there to be, there is.” Of course: movie logic!

Of course, there is the danger with this that either the players will just be too silly in their inventiveness, of the Director will expect and demand ever increasing invention to avoid penalties, but that is partly where the trust and cohesion of a good roleplaying group comes into things. In any game, the gamemaster (or Director, DM, storyteller, etc) has to set the tone and expectations, usually implicitly but occasionally explicitly, and the players let him or her know whether they are onboard. Roleplaying is a unique form or communal storytelling where each participant adjusts and makes room and reacts and accommodates to move the story forward.

This game was my introduction to the work of (The Mighty) Robin D. Laws, for my money one of the great game designers and writers and someone who has continued to work on games that foreground the storytelling above rulemastery aspects of gaming, while having systems that support and give structure - Nexus, The Dying Earth, the flexible Gumshoe system. I’ve left much out of this review - the setting and background, the influence of magic (this is primarily based on Hong Kong cinema, don’t forget, so we’re not just talking martial arts and gunfights!) but, if you haven’t yet, you should get it, get together with a group of like-minded friends, some wine and beer and chips and dips, and have yourself a real good time. In fact, 2nd edition has recently come out and I’ve not got it yet. Ah, so many games, so little time....

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Book review: Crossed by Garth Ennis and Jasen Burrows

This is a tough book to rate. To say it is disturbing is putting it mildly. There are scenes of graphic, often sexual, violence that are difficult to see. And as this is a graphic novel (graphic being the appropriate word), you do see them. Are they entirely necessary for telling to story, or just for shock value? To some extent it is shock value, and the shock and horror and disgust created by the images has an effect on the story, so I guess it is also necessary for the story to be what it is.

The format is the basic zombie/infected set up, the mass outbreak coming out of nowhere as a bunch of disparate survivors flee for their lives. These infected are not dead. Bites or bodily fluids spread the infection almost instantly, turning the victims into ravening monsters of the worst kind, powered by the desire to kill and torture and rape and eat their prey. The infection also marks their faces with a rash that forms a cross, hence the survivors name for them and the title of the book. In themselves, the crossed are nothing new; they are an embodiment of the basest evils perpetrated by psychopaths and war criminals, just like the Reavers from Serenity/Firefly. But here we are actually shown what they do.

The cross can obviously be seen as a religious reference - especially as this is Garth Ennis, who has always been obsessed with Christianity and masculinity. Is it the metaphor for an antihuman religion brainwashing people into acts of depravity? Perhaps, but this seems rather too obvious. The reddish crosses on the faces of the infected actually made me think of England football fans made up with greasepaint, an in-joke which is, I'm sure, entirely deliberate. And there are jokes, there is humanity in here, which is what makes it worth reading. The survivors have to try and keep hold of their own humanity despite the horror, despite some of the things they do to survive. At the end, the book does close with a note of hope and beauty that is achieved because of - not in spite of - the horrors we have witnessed.

So, would I read it again? No. Am I glad I read it? I'll get back to you on that. Is it well written and superbly drawn, is it gripping and affecting? Without a doubt.

However, if you are thinking of reading it, be warned. This is the sort of book that was beyond the worst nightmares of the guy who dreamt up the Comics Code Authority in the 50s.