Though they’ve been around for a few years, I only recently discovered Canadian band Metric. They are ace and make me smile. Enjoy!
Though they’ve been around for a few years, I only recently discovered Canadian band Metric. They are ace and make me smile. Enjoy!
More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon
I generally trust the SF Masterworks series to be of a high enough standard that I can pick any of its titles and I greatly enjoy scouring the shelves in Forbidden Planet in search of a new read. This was one of my random picks and, as usual, proved to be excellent despite my never having heard of it before.
This book centres around a small group of characters who are outsiders in various ways, a glimpse of the future of humanity, the next development beyond Homo sapiens. The story is told from various characters’ perspectives, and there are a couple of big jumps in time that have to be filled in by recall. This is something the author repeats – you are just getting to know a character well and then suddenly the story switches in time and perspective so that you’re lost again and need to piece together how this fits with the previous section.
It’s a valid reflection of the main characters’ experience. Because they are different, but take a while to understand their differences, they spend time struggling to fit in to the rest of society before discovering their place.
Their place seems to be together. As a group they can function as one sort-of superhuman, which is a very interesting idea and one that could have been explored over a lot more pages. But this book is a nice length and manages to fit in background, self-discovery, group functioning, romance, disagreements, relationships with “normal” humans and a lot more besides. I was a little discomfited by the ending, which seemed to go a bit religious experience-y.
The first character we get to know well is Lone, an adult with learning and possibly social difficulties. He is not named for a long time and his section, of drifting through the world being misunderstood/hated for no reason until he seems to find his place was very powerful. Sturgeon has done an impressive job of fully fleshing out a character who speaks only a handful of words and never truly understands what he is a part of.
I hugely enjoyed this book. SF Masterworks has yet to let me down!
First published in 1953.
The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and other stories
by Yann Martel
This set of four stories are incredibly moving, but each one begins so simply and matter-of-factly that you don’t realise how much you’ve been sucked in until the emotional force suddenly hits you. It’s a wonderful skill for a writer to have.
The stories appear to be taken from Martel’s own life, which may or may not be true. The narrator is certainly the same in all four, with just a few years passing between them. Whether or not they’re true doesn’t really matter, because the point isn’t the storylines themselves but how Martel tells it. He has a way of simply stating facts about the world as he sees it that somehow produces beautiful, emotionally powerful prose.
The first and title story is about a young man at university whose friend is dying of AIDS. The narrator devises a method of passing the time/distracting themselves from the horrors of reality, which is for them to invent stories about the fictional Roccamatios family, living in Helsinki (a place neither man has ever visited). They decide that it should be a saga of the twentieth century. They take turns to choose a historical event for each year and then tell a story about the Roccamatios that reflects it.
The story of the Roccamatios is not what is printed here. The historical events are given as a sort of structure to the story and they often reflect the mood of the characters, with war or murder chosen in darker moods, artistic or liberal events in brighter ones. It’s a fascinating device. But, really, this is the story of the friendship, the family, the coping methods, the horrors of an illness that was only just beginning to be understood (it is 1987) and death.
In fact death is the overarching link between all of the stories. The second is about a concerto written by a former soldier about his friend who died in the Vietnam War. The evening of the performance is described in great detail, from the venue to the musicians to the music itself. Again, it’s a curious device for getting at the story of the soldier and the life lesson that is learned, but it works wonderfully well.
The other stories delighted me with their surprising forms so I won’t reveal anything about them but that they are wonderful things. As far as I know this is Martel’s only short story collection, but his third novel was published this year so I will buy that as soon as the paperback is available. He’s a masterful writer, truly.
First published in 1993 by Faber and Faber.
This edition, revised and with an introduction by the author, published 2004 by Canongate Books.
The Black Album
by Hanif Kureishi
Despite having been written 15 years ago, this book is very relevant to the world of today, giving a frighteningly believable insight into the world of British Asians. I say “frightening” because the story’s main theme is Muslim fundamentalism and it definitely gets scary.
Shahid was raised in well-to-do south-east England and moves to London to study at college and get away from the family business. He is tired of being looked down on for his bookishness and wants to experience “real life”. Quiet and studious, he finds himself a little lonely and excluded, so when a group of British-Asian neighbours led by the charismatic Riaz reach out to befriend him, he is eager to please them. Although it is clear from the start that the relationship is all about what they can get from him (his clothes, his typing skills, his links to some college professors, his good looks) Shahid doesn’t seem to notice the bizarre nature of their interaction and agrees to everything he is asked, even when it places him in danger.
At about the same time, Shahid’s favourite college professor Deedee prompts the start of a relationship that is almost the opposite in nature – it is loving, giving, free-spirited, frenzied, with a cacophony of drugs and wild parties interlaced with their bedroom adventures. It is against college rules, which concerns Shahid, but it is also against Allah, which concerns his new friends and his life turns into a tug of war between the two.
Set in 1989, one of the main storylines is the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Though he and the book in question are not named directly, his previous works are and the themes of the book are discussed a lot. The fundamentalist group are keen to get behind the fatwa and have the book banned in their district, despite not having read it. This is the point when Shahid tries his hardest to stand up to them, touching as it does directly on something that he loves dearly. The other time that he argues hard in favour of something is when he is asked to give up his music collection, including his dearly beloved Black Album by Prince.
The central themes of religious groups trying to change the world to fit their views and book banning/censorship are interesting ones but frustratingly, as is too often the case in life, they are not really debated here. Too few of the characters are willing to openly debate matters so attempts at discussion quickly flounder.
What this book does not include – and I would have to guess that this is deliberate – is any more moderately religious characters. There are fundamentalists and there are non-believers. At one point Shahid’s sister-in-law berates him for going to the mosque to pray, saying that she thought he was raised better than that. The viewpoint is very much that religion is for the uneducated, the great unwashed, and is essential to teach them basic morality and keep them in line. But once a person has money and education it becomes useless, or worse, dangerous.
In fact there are few if any moderate characters. Deedee’s life is outrageously liberal, a sea of raves, sex and drugs. Shahid’s brother Chili also seems to be caught up in this world of drugs and is spiralling downward from what was once a comfortable married life. I suppose this is to make Shahid’s choice more even, because he is so level-headed and rational that it would be hard to believe he’d stay involved with the fundamentalists if he had a more straightforward alternative. But that might also be a more interesting story, if the author had had to dig down into what would keep Shahid with the “brothers” if the alternative wasn’t a level of drink and drugs that’s beyond the average student life, so far as I’m aware. Maybe the author is trying to be equally stereotypical on both sides of the coin. There are no greatly sympathetic characters.
The threats and violence escalate, making this work better as a thriller than as a social study. There is a prescient storyline about a bomb in a London tube station and Shahid walking miles across the city in the aftermath. It’s never clear whether the bomb is related to fundamentalism or race tensions, but that’s certainly the implication.
There are moments of humour. The book begins with one of the “brothers” persuading Shahid that he has lost all of Riaz’s clothes, so Shahid will have to give him all the clothes he wants. Later on a local Muslim claims to find a message from God in an aubergine and the vegetable becomes a minor attraction, with attempts to get in installed in the town hall. But each of these is bound up with threats and violence, so that the ridiculous becomes something more frightening than if it were rational.
It’s a well written book, full of passion and anger, but it’s not an easy read. I found it hard to sympathise with Shahid for getting into trouble by failing to say no at key points. He is too meek and obedient a hero for my taste, though that’s probably supposed to be a product of his upbringing.
Published 1995 by Faber and Faber.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro and other stories
by Ernest Hemingway
This set of short stories starts with the sad and beautiful ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, a brilliant piece of writing, but for me the rest of the collection didn’t live up to its beginnings. This was a real shame after I recently read and enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea and looked forward to delving into more of Hemingway’s work.
‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ is about Harry and his lover Helen, camped out near Kilimanjaro, waiting for Harry to either die or be rescued after his leg had been badly injured. Harry passes in and out of consciousness, tries to hide his pain from Helen and tries to help her to accept that he’s going to die. He is also cruel to her, making it clear that the best part of his life had passed before he met her, picking fights and refusing to say that he loves her. It’s a painfully evocative bit of writing, intense and yet strangely peaceful.
The other stories were more varied in terms of whether they touched me. They are brief snapshots rather than whole stories, with some recurring characters, especially a man called Nick. The format is always the same: lonely man gets on with life, always an outcast in some way, often because of war. The introduction to each story is a seemingly unrelated snippet, generally much more violent than the main story. The themes of these are war and bullfighting.
The general mood is contemplative. The moments of action are brief flickers between longer scenes of loneliness, restlessness, thoughtfulness. Descriptions are very evocative and detailed. However, sometimes the lack of action or passion is just plain tedious.
The stories work together inasmuch as Harry, hero of ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’, frequently lapses into reminisces about his life – adventures he’s had, moments that stand out – and the rest of the stories could almost be more of his reminisces, if only the heroes were all called Harry.
Overall, though, after the first story I struggled to remain interested and am now a little put off reading the rest of my Hemingway boxset.
First published in Great Britain in The Fifth Column and The First Forty-Nine by Jonathan Cape, 1939.
I am an atheist. This is not a lack of belief. I am not wishy washying around, searching for something to believe in that’s better or more convincing. I actively believe that there is no God or gods. I believe that religions are coping mechanisms created by humanity to deal with the unknown and/or scary things in life, particularly death. Which makes total sense. Life can be scary and death is downright terrifying. I will stop existing one day. My thoughts, these thoughts, will just stop. Blink out. Be no more. This person, me, everything I am, will be gone. Of course that’s scary.
I’m not easily offended. Though I care deeply about a lot of things, most potential insults wash over me without great effect. I accept that other people think differently to me. But one of the things that I do struggle with is repeated nonchalant attacks on atheism that are apparently acceptable in a country where any attack on religion is not acceptable.
Godlessness does not equal immorality. I believe in being a good person and doing good things for all sorts of reasons, some selfish and some not. I particularly like this quote by Ivan Ratoyevsky: “If anything, an atheist has to be more morally responsible precisely because we don’t blame a god for our own actions.”
Of particular concern to me – why is it okay for state-funded schools to be affiliated to a particular religion? For that religion or local church to have a say in what is or isn’t taught, in who is or isn’t accepted to their local state-funded school. In many areas, especially rural ones, the only local school is a church school, usually Church of England. I went to a C of E primary school. It wasn’t a bad school overall. But we sang hymns and said prayers every morning. The only religious speaker we ever had was the local C of E vicar. RE was 90% or more Christianity. We did a passion play at Easter and a nativity play at Christmas. It was ingrained in us that these were not just stories.
I do not want my children to be taught that way. I strongly believe in secular state-funded schooling, with religion staying at home (or church, temple, mosque, whatever). It makes me angry that religious divisions in our society are aggravated by this continued policy. Of course it doesn’t help that it’s still frowned on to openly admit that you don’t believe in God, which makes it a difficult thing to do.
A big problem is that countries like the UK (and, I believe, Australia and much of western Europe) are considered to be predominantly Christian countries even though only a small percentage of the population actually practises any sort of Christian faith. This is for all sorts of historical reasons but it is not helped by the fact that the UK government relies on census data and the census question has been proven time and again to produce skewed figures, with a significant number of people ticking “Christian” when they are nothing of the sort.
So, I have decided to publicly out myself as an atheist and ask you all (UK peeps, that is), next March, to honestly answer what your current religion is, not how you were raised or what your parents are or whether you were christened decades ago. Do you right now (or rather next March) consider yourself to be practising a religion? If not, then for goodness’ sake tick “No religion” and let’s see some accurate numbers on this subject for a change.
Little Lost Robot
by Paul McAuley
This is actually a short story, not a novel, that Tim had been trying to get me to read for some time. It was first published in Interzone, which has been home to some excellent science fiction, so I finally gave it a go.
The story begins impersonally, describing the “superbad big space robot” as it travels through the universe, fulfilling its killing mission. Gradually it becomes more and more personal. The machine has four “subselves”, programs I suppose, that run it together, in collaboration. They repair damage, formulate tactics, arm weapons and discuss their next move. Over time the robot has taken a lot of damage, including to its memory, and this is where it gets interesting.
It’s such a short story that I’d rather not give away much more than that. I found myself a little doubtful that I would like the story at first. It was a robot at war, described distantly and with reverence. But the story slowly zeroes in on the robot’s Librarian subself, imbuing it with something approximating personality, self-doubt, humanity even. It’s a very cleverly written and structured piece and toward the end I definitely felt warmth for this cold space warrior.
It probably helps, reading this, to have some familiarity with computing terminology. The robot uses a combination of strictly mechanistic terms (time periods in teraseconds, rather than being broken down into years) and oddly human terms (anger, loneliness, tenderness).
The story wasn’t what I expected. The title suggested to me something cute and sweet, maybe Wall-E-like and, though there are similarities, that’s not what this is. This is the super-efficient soldier slowly revealing his inner humanity and it’s definitely touching, but it’s not cute.
Nominated for the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction 2008.
by Richard Beard
This isn’t an easy review to write. For a start, the book is about a friend of a friend, fellow blogger Dru Marland. If my friend likes her, then I’m predisposed to like her too. Which means I didn’t approach this book neutrally. But then when do we ever? Aren’t we always biased or conditioned in some way that we probably don’t even realise? That’s the kind of question this book asks a lot. It’s very well written but a little tiring.
What started out as a biography, written by Dru’s good friend Richard, turned more into Richard’s story of his own attempts to understand Dru. Or, more specifically, Dru’s decision to become a woman.
Dru was born male and transitioned to female in her 40s. She and Richard had been friends for many years, sometimes going off on camping and walking holidays together, and the announcement that she was going to start living as a woman came as a shock to him. They remained friends through the years of Real Life Experience, hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, not to mention divorce, family rejection, workplace troubles, cruel newspaper articles and public taunts and stares.
A couple of years after the surgery, they went on a fortnight’s walking holiday, their first since Dru became Dru. The book is structured around that holiday, using their journey across Wales as a metaphor both for Dru’s transition and for Richard’s understanding. Which is a little cheesy, and also initially confusing because it means that there are three timelines – the holiday (2 weeks), the transition (7 years), Dru’s life (49 years at the time of writing, I think). There were also frequent breaks from the story for facts – statistics; details of how gender reassignment works on the NHS, privately and in some other countries; quotes from autobiographies and biographies of other transsexual women; and other research that he has done, which there’s a lot of. A lot of this was absorbing but I’ll admit that I found the quotes superfluous. I get that this background reading was an important part of Richard’s attempt to understand, but I didn’t find a quote about someone going through gender reassignment in the 1970s all that relevant. Not only was the world very different then, but it’s also not Dru’s story. And Dru’s story is a fascinating one, even without including the sex change.
This book is a thorough examination of its subject and it’s sensitively done. Obviously, Dru’s his friend. Their friendship is very sweet and engaging. And yet Richard doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. In fact he’s far braver than most people would be, I suspect. He not only probes into every aspect of Dru’s transition, he also probes himself for his own feelings about the whole thing and he’s startlingly honest. For every potential insult of Dru (is she deluded? mentally unbalanced? too masculine-looking to pass as a woman?) there’s an equally negative question aimed at himself (am I scared to be seen with her in public? because I think it’s obvious that she has changed gender and people will judge me for being with her? because I think she’s not an attractive enough woman to appease my masculinity? because I’m irritated by her not trying hard enough to be feminine, even if it has been a long arduous day of walking in the rain?).
Richard asks more general questions as well – how much of gender identification is down to social conditioning? how much influence do the parents have? is sexual orientation a factor? Some of which can’t be answered. And there are questions that Dru can’t or won’t answer. So while we discover Dru’s full biography and almost none of Richard’s, we come away having got to know Richard just as well, if not better.
All those probing questions forced me to ask some difficult questions of myself. Did I want to read this book just because it’s about sex change? Why is that of particular interest? Is it because it’s something I haven’t experienced and I want to know about all things human? That would be acceptable. Or does it have a particular draw for some darker reason? A voyeuristic preoccupation with men dressing as women, like in all those TV shows (transvesticism does seem to have a certain place in British humour), perhaps. Did I want to read it because it’s about Dru, who I have come across in a few places on the internet and found engaging?
I’d like to think that I am completely accepting of transsexual people, that I agree with the medical view that gender dysmorphia is a real condition and that the best cure is to “give them what they want”, as Richard puts it. And from a distance that’s absolutely true. I also think it’s very brave to go through something that’s so alien to other people, that requires constant explanation and effort, for the rest of your life, that’s physically difficult and painful, though those involved clearly feel that the alternative is worse. But up close, do I stare? Do I comment to my companions that I think that woman over there might not be “real”? Or if someone else points that out to me, do I eagerly watch for the clues that they saw before me? I honestly hope not, and if I ever do, I am deeply ashamed of it, but can it be helped? Aren’t we all conditioned to try to fit in and reject what doesn’t seem to conform?
One thing that really hit me about this book probably says a lot about me and my confusion on this topic. Richard casually mentions that the name most commonly chosen by transsexual women in the UK is Kate. By quite some way, apparently. Which caught my attention for obvious reasons. On one level I find that very interesting and am curious why it’s top of the list. Is it for any of the same reasons that my parents chose it for me? Not so much the “short and simple enough for my then-toddler sister to pronounce without difficulty” but more the unambiguously female, familiar and popular, timeless. Or is it for reasons that my parents probably didn’t consider? It’s definitely a girl’s name but it’s not soft and feminine. There are many famous examples, maybe including people who some transsexual women admire or aspire to. On another level I definitely experienced a moment of annoyance. Why must they choose my name? Which is significantly less accepting than I thought I was. I can justify myself a little bit by pointing out that I have always been annoyed by how common my name is, but that’s not much of an excuse.
I found this book engrossing, I greatly enjoyed it, but I didn’t tear through it and did sometimes put it down for days at a time because Richard’s self-examination can’t help but prompt a person like me to self-examine as well and it’s exhausting, challenging and a little scary to reveal yourself, even to yourself. Which makes what Richard did pretty brave in my view. It’s also reassuring that everything I could think and question about this topic and far more is covered. It’s not just me. And if the close friend of a transsexual woman admits to these thoughts then it’s probably okay for me to think them too.
I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in friendship, the everyday life of someone who’s in some way “different”, gender roles and self-examination. Is it alright to recommend it to people who are interested in gender dysmorphia? Should I stop with these questions now?
By some kind of fortuitous timing, Dru and Richard have just launched a new joint website, Being Drusilla. Check it out!
Published 2008 by Harvill Secker, a division of Random House
by Neil Gaiman
This is one of that excellent trend of children’s books that don’t shy away from being scary or gruesome because, well, children like that kind of thing. I did. Far more so than I do now.
Coraline is a young girl who moves, with her parents, to a flat in a big old house one summer. Her parents rarely have time to spend with her and as the long holiday drags on she gets increasingly bored of rainy days with nothing to do and starts exploring the house and grounds until the only thing left is whatever’s behind the mysterious door in the drawing room. Despite cryptic warnings from the neighbours, Coraline finds a way to unlock the door and her ghostly adventures in a strange new world begin.
The story is excellent and the characters brilliant, either ghoulish or eccentric apart from Coraline herself, in that slightly exaggerated manner that makes sense in children’s books. The other world is cleverly imagined, starting off as a bright, attractive place and gradually becoming stranger and scarier. Coraline is a strong heroine who learns to appreciate her slightly absent parents and to solve problems for herself. The language is very simple, in fact possibly simpler than is strictly necessary. It reads like a children’s book and as an adult I found the language a little offputting. Clearly I am not the target audience but I do think perhaps Gaiman has tried too hard to distinguish this from his more adult fiction.
However, I did enjoy it. I genuinely flinched at the scarier moments and laughed out loud at some lines. I loved the downstairs neighbours, two retired actresses whose talk of treading the boards and famous Shakespeare quotes make no sense to Coraline but might to a well read (or read to) child. The main villain is chilling and original and described well enough to picture – the illustrations by Dave McKean help, of course. I would not hesitate to recommend this for a child but not necessarily to an adult.
First published 2002 by Bloomsbury.
This was a debate held at the Watershed in Bristol tonight as part of the Festival of Ideas and an NUJ/MediaAct/Media Wise joint project to look at the future of journalism and the impact of the blogosphere. It was a lively event with a well chosen panel (actually two panels) and the whole thing was streamed, tweeted and no doubt heavily blogged so I won’t summarise everything here but I will give my reaction.
The internet is full of a lot of stuff and of course it’s not all of a high ethical and moral standard with diligently checked sources and open, honest debate, but then neither is the mainstream media. Some of tonight’s speakers mentioned the continuous lies and disinformation printed by certain widely read newspapers and, to be honest, it’s amazing that there is still such widespread trust in the printed word. An intelligent, interested person can easily find the facts (or lies) behind most, if not all, news stories with a little bit of digging around on the internet. In most cases you’ll likely find a number of blogs have done the hard work for you, providing links to verify the information.
There was a lot of talk about regulation, whether it’s necessary or helpful, and whether it could or should be applied to blogs. The PCC came in for a lot of criticism but of course any code will have its restrictions, both in what it can cover and how it can be applied. A lot of panel-members felt this was covered by self-policing, which is in some ways laughable if we’re just talking about the Fleet Street old boys club, but when you take the internet into account it does begin to make sense. There are lots of people out there ready to point out your mistakes and this actually makes it a little scary publishing anything at all on the internet. Once it’s out there it’s out there, even if there wasn’t a general rule that you shouldn’t remove your mistakes but instead add an update explaining them, or that you shouldn’t delete the comments that point them out. Both rules, by the way, that I don’t think are as widely known and acted on as some of tonight’s speakers seemed to think.
And that, I suppose, would be the point of having some kind of code of conduct that bloggers could sign up to. Yes, it’s only those who would have followed the rules anyway who would sign up, but not every reader is internet-savvy enough to know the rules of netiquette and I think it would help some of those people to sift through the endless words on the internet to find ones that have some semblance of trustworthiness.
Unsurprisingly I think the internet is a wonderful thing, a gigantic leap forward for humankind, and it saddens me that there are people who think of it as a means of opting out from “real” interaction and action. I doubt I have to persuade anyone reading this, but that opinion was voiced tonight and I have to rebut. How many campaigns, marches, demonstrations, petitions and meetings are organised on the internet, using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc? How many local events have been revitalised since they gained the tool that is the internet to communicate, research and publicise? How many genuine, true, life-changing friendships are forged on its pages, or kept alive by it? I could go on and on. I won’t.
It was a privilege to hear Iqbal Tamimi speak about her work since having to leave her home in Palestine, how she has used the internet to get information out and voices heard. This matter of getting news from behind closed doors, getting deep into human rights issues, raised the question (again) of anonymity and whether it should be a right, covered in law or at least some journalism code of conduct. The ever eloquent Brooke Magnanti reminded us how near impossible it is to maintain anonymity, whether in the face of hungry tabloids or extreme governments there will be someone who has the ability to track down and identify you. Here in the privileged West it’s easy to say that anyone who has something to say should be willing to put their name to it and that may or may not be true, but it’s a very different story when simply speaking the truth about your daily life, your government, your country can land you in jail or have you killed. That people are brave enough to write in the face of horrific punishments, simply because they want the world to know what’s happening, that is true journalism.
A huge thank you to all who those behind tonight’s event. It was fantastically interesting and I think by the end everyone was nodding along in agreement to all the very reasonable things being said.