I enjoy George Monbiot‘s columns. He is incisive, informed and, even if I don’t agree with some of his views, the world needs people like him to be a thorn in the side of the complacent. But his most recent post pissed me off. Framed as an apology from my generation and his (born in the 60s and 70s) to younger generations, he shoulders the blame for first failing to spot the coming environmental (and other) apocalypse(s) and, when we did, for despairing rather than acting.
What bollocks. Firstly, he wasn’t and isn’t the only one out there who recognised the science early on and tried to do something about it. Second, the science we had in the 1990s, when it was starting to register that we were damaging our home, the planet, is nowhere near as good as the science we have now (ditto for the food crisis and, though to a much lesser extent, soil erosion), so we had less of an idea of the urgency of the problem and the scale of the solution. But third, and most of all, to quote Philip Larkin “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They don’t mean to but they do”: the generation on whose behalf George Monbiot takes it upon himself to apologise may have fucked up, but we didn’t mean to.
Elder generations have been fucking things up for younger ones, without meaning to, since the dawn of time. My father’s generation bequeathed my generation a world on the edge of a nuclear holocaust, so my generation walked the streets and agitated until we got nukes under control. My generation inherited a world in which over 50% lived in dire poverty, so we spread the money around and dire poverty is now down to about 10% – still 10% too many, but an improvement. Going back in time, my father’s generation inherited a world of infant mortality and colonialism; his father’s generation inherited a world turning to fascism, and their children’s generations turned those around. Those evils, of nuclear proliferation, poverty, avoidable infant diseases and fascism were not planted there as a trap or a test of manhood by one generation for the next; they were unintended consequences of the solutions the previous generation deployed to solve problems they themselves had inherited. Each generation must fix the ills the last unintentionally bequeathed it, and invents the tools needed to do so.
And this is one of the many areas in which Monbiot’s dismal column falls short. Yes, vested interests have held back the introduction of cleaner technologies; yes, the oligarchs who run the planet are babbling about green this and sustainable that from the cocoons of their gas-guzzling private jets; yes, global corporations have subverted democracies and purchased autocracies. But when in history haven’t they? That’s why we have politics.
But Monbiot also misses a bigger picture. I rolled my eyes when I heard Trump boast – as he did in his State of the Union speech – that America is producing more oil than ever, as if that’s a good thing; I was angry when Bolsonaro turned control of the Amazon over to the agribusiness that will clear cut it; when the US, Russia, Saudi and Kuwait used procedural niceties to torpedo the latest set of climate talks. But, when I hear these boasts, I remind myself change has never come from incumbents. Apple was a (failing) PC manufacturer when it invented the smartphone, pushing Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson to the edge of bankruptcy; Nokia in turn was a timber company when it produced the world’s first mega-cheap mobile phone. Trump and his backers have the money and the political power to switch off fossil fuels and switch on solar, switch off the internal combustion engine and switch on the brushless AC motor, switch off mono-cultural farming and switch on food that tastes like food. But they won’t. Because they know no other way.
And that’s when I stop being depressed and laugh. Trump exemplifies the people who brag about how “smart” they are yet, rather than take advantage of the massive opportunity cleaner technologies bring, position themselves to be squashed by history’s juggernaut. Solar and other renewables are coming whether Trump and his backers like it or not; electric (and probably ownerless) vehicles are coming whether the automotive industry wants it or not, farming is set to transform whether Bolsonaro’s ranching buddy’s like it or not. Even if the first investors in these technologies invested for ideological reasons, the reason fossil fuels, electric cars and sustainable food are coming is not ideological, it is because these new technologies do things better.
We know today how to harvest today’s free sunlight straight from source, for a fraction of the cost of extracting fossil fuels; anyone still extracting yesterday’s buried sunlight from a deep hole in the ground will join the dinosaurs in that hole. We know today how to build cars with a couple of dozen moving parts (four wheels, the four motors that power them, the steering train and the doors); anyone still building cars from thousands of moving parts is going to be sitting on a scrapheap surrounded by them. We are rapidly finding out how to use much less ground, fertiliser and pesticide to produce far more – and tastier and healthier – food; anyone producing food the old way is sitting on compost. Incumbents are nearly always the losers when new technologies come along, and there’s little indication that this round of technological innovation will be any different. When there’s better product for less money, we change our behavior, fast.
Very fast. In 1915, New York city was debating the traffic arrangements to keep cars and horses separate; by 1925, nothing remained to debate – no horse-drawn carriages were left. I was one of the first buyers of a CD player in 1984; by 1994, although there was a nostalgia for vinyl ,no one spun ’45s. In the 1990s, entire countries leapfrogged over fixed-line phone systems and went from nothing to mobile networks. The then incumbents fell by the wayside. Monbiot’s guilt and pessimism is misplaced.
That is not to say that the technology we use to get climate change under control will have its own unexpected and nasty consequences, and – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – we’ll leave those consequences to the next generation. This is the human condition.
But Monbiot’s apology is meant not as such, but as a call to arms: I get it. But the tone is so self-righteous that it borders on the obnoxious, and the language is so steeped in Marxist rhetoric – rise-up-ye-masses – that it will likely repel more than it attracts. This is a shame because, despite the allusions, he is onto something that matters. It is all very well saying – hoping – that better products and technology will save the day, but incumbents are protecting their interests, the lengths to which the current global incumbents are going are dangerous. That these lengths are an expression of desperation is neither here nor there: these guys will go down fighting, and if that means taking us with them, along with the natural world and this beautiful planet we call home, that’s a price they seem willing – if not determined – to pay.
Political movements are part of the solution. But so is understanding the problem. The examples I cited above, of new technologies shoving old ones to the side, are well-known and often quoted by the rah-rah technology crowd. But while technologies come and go, what cherry-picked examples can obscure is that there are underlying systems of incumbency that are far more difficult to disrupt. And here lies the deep problem. It isn’t only about oil, cars and food. It’s about a way of conducting our affairs. And here, the need is not merely for innovation – which is a constant of human endeavour – but for a paradigm shift in the way we deploy them.
Let me draw an analogy. There are two big voices in the philosophy of science: the first is Karl Popper and the second, Thomas Kuhn. Popper characterised science as being a long series of incremental, very minor advances, each building on what had gone before, mostly by trying to replicate what had gone before, but replicating it a little better. Kuhn characterised science as being a series of “paradigm shifts” – think Newton, Einstein and Hawkings in physics. Spectacular as smartphones have been, I believe such innovations are in fact minor advances of the type Popper writes about. The spectacular technological innovations are systemic, not incremental. Democracy is a technology; so are political and civil rights. Urbanisation is another one; real-time communications one more – and I don’t mean the smartphone.
These changes were systemic, sweeping and societal. Much blood was spilt in achieving some of them; many lives were saved or made possible in others. If we are to rise to challenge of saving our planet, we need to understand how these societal and political paradigm shifts have worked in the past in order that we can at least prevent the next from being bloody, and perhaps even tailor one that makes the future brighter.
So, between the top of this post and here, I’ve decided that this will be the first of a series of posts, spread over many months, that will look at some of those paradigm shifts and see what lies for their futures. It won’t be as easy as slagging off the Great Confusicator and holding my head in my hands with despair at the antics of the Tin Lady, but it may perhaps be more useful.
Amongst the latest batch of second-hand books I was given were Purple Hibiscus and The Summer Book. These are both about growing up, are both moving and beautifully written, yet the childhoods they depict are polar opposites.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist, and Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003, her first book. I have not yet read any others, but I will be looking for them.
The central character is Kambili, a teenager living in a wealthy Nigerian family, but with a father who is a strict Catholic. Her father is a deeply conflicted person, willing to support a free press during a time of violence and repression by a military regime that comes to power in a coup, and resistant to calls to take a second wife to bear more sons, but a tyrant at home. While he loves his wife, Kambili and her brother Jaja, he himself was raised by Catholics who often used violent punishments, and, in his zeal, he inflicts the same on his family. Despite the blurb, the core of the book is the troubled relationship between Kambili and her father.
Here’s the father:
As we drove home [from confession], Papa talked loudly, above the “Ave Maria.” “I am spotless now. We are all spotless.. If God calls us right now, we going straight to Heaven. Straight to Heaven. We will not require the cleansing of Purgatory.” He was smiling, his eyes bright, his hand gently drumming the steering wheel. And he was still smiling when he called Aunty Ifeoma soon after we got back home, before he had his tea.
A brilliant depiction of the zealot’s mindset – a mindset which allows him to love his family at the same time that he inflicts brutal, violent punishments for sins real and imagined. Only hinted at in the early stages of the book – and all the more menacing for it – this sense of foreboding grows during the book and is amplified by the understated yet powerful descriptions of how repressed children act:
“Kambili Achike, please start the pledge,” she said.
Mother Lucy had never chosen me before. I opened my mouth but the words would not come out.
“Kambili Achike?” Mother Lucy and the rest of the school had turned to stare at me.
I cleared my throat, willed the words to come. I knew them, thought them. But they would not come. The sweat was warm and wet under my arms.
Finally, stuttering, I said “I pledge to Nigeria, my country…”
And again, later
“Can we watch CNN?”
I forced a cough out of my throat; I hoped I would not stutter.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Amaka continued, “because right now I think we’re going to visit my dad’s family at Ukpo.”
“We don’t watch a lot of TV,” I said.
A stunning description of a child too terrified to speak.
Amaka in the second passage is Kambili’s cousin, and Amaka’s mother, Aunty Ifeoma, runs a house very different from Kambili’s. Where Kambili’s own household is silent, Ifeoma’s is full of laughter, children who speak back, misbehave, yet are loved.
While there, Kambili meets and develops a crush on the local priest, Father Amadi. Aunty’s family know no fear in their own home, and Kambili starts to emerge from her shell. Aunty Ifeoma manages to talk the father into a return visit, which sees Kambili’s grandfather come to stay. He is a pagan and, to stay in the same house as a pagan is a sin. When Kambili’s father finds out, he inflicts a punishment the depiction of which sent shivers up my spine; when he finds out that Kambili harbours a painting of the grandfather, he beats Kambili to a pulp and, when she is released from hospital, she returns to Aunty Ifeoma’s to recuperate and comes to a kind of reconciliation.
Purple Hibiscus could be a grim read; it isn’t. The tension is largely created by the undercurrents of violence rather than the violence itself, but the joy is wonderful and the ending left a smile on my face. Nigeria itself, which I visited briefly once, comes to life in colour and smell, the people and cultural mores, the mixture of paganism and Christianity (the father is the only abusive Christian in the book), the background of a country in political turmoil, and endemic corruption. It’s on my read-again bookshelf.
So too is The Summer Book. Tove Jansson is largely remembered for the Moomins, the television series of which I vaguely remember from my childhood, but which I never read (or remember reading). This highly autobiographical novel is set during a single summer as Sophia is about six or seven years old: the stage when memories start to join up.
The Summer Book is not a novel in the conventional meaning of the word. As the blurb says, it’s a series of vignettes. They could be in almost any order, and the only characters who persist are Sophia, her father, and her grandmother. The father flits in and out of the book; we never get to meet him. The heart of the book is the relationship between Sophia, her grandmother, and the island they live on during the summer.
This work does not have the same strong first-person narrator as Purple Hibiscus, and there isn’t the faintest whiff of violence. It is, rather, a book of exploration, of a child starting to discover the world. As with Purple Hibiscus, you can feel the earth on your palms and smell the flowers, feel the sea air on your cheeks and hear the rustling of wind in the trees. The sense of discovery, of novelty, as the ancient grandmother and the young Sophia argue, connive and misbehave is almost palpable. Here is one of their antics:
Toward the end of the week, Grandmother and Sophia took the dory out for a little row. When they came to the perch shallows, they decided to go on to Squire Skerry to look for seaweed, and once in the lagoon behind Squire Skerry, it was only a stroke of the oars to Blustergull Rock. In the middle of the gravel was a large sign with black letters that said PRIVATE PROPERTY – NO TRESPASSING.
“We’ll go ashore,” Grandmother said. She was very angry. Sophia looked frightened. “There’s a big difference,” her grandmother explained. “No well-bred person goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home. But if they put up a sign, then you do it anyway because it’s a slap in the face.”
“Naturally,” Sophia said, increasing her knowledge of life considerably. They tied up to the sign.
“What we are now doing,” Grandmother said, “is a demonstration. We are showing our disapproval. Do you understand?”
“A demonstration,” her grandchild repeated, adding, loyally, “This will never make a good harbour.”
“No,” Grandmother said. “And they have the door on the wrong side of the house. They’ll never get it open in a southwester. And look at their water barrels. Ha-ha. Plastic, of course.”
“Ha-ha,” Sophia said. “Plastic, of course.”
And here they are on a summer’s day:
They walked into the pasture and sat down in the grass, which was tall and not a bit dusty. It was full of bluebells and cat’s-foot and buttercups.
“Are there ants in Heaven?” Sophia asked.
“No,” said Grandmother, and laid down carefully on her back. She propped up her hat on her nose and tried to sneak a little sleep. Some kind of farm machinery was running steadily and peacefully in the distance. If you turned it off – which was easy to do – and listened only to the insects, you could hear thousands of millions of them, and they filled the whole world with rising and falling waves of ecstasy and summer. Sophia picked some flowers and held them in them hand until they got warm and unpleasant…
What a great piece of evocative writing!
It has been a long while since I read any new (to me) fantasy. I’ve re-read Lord of the Rings a few times, will probably give Dune a second go at some point and, like millions of others, am waiting for George R. R. Martin to pull his finger out and finish Game of Thrones. But, those aside, and after cramming as much of the genre as I could into myself during early years, I kind of lost interest.
Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is not new – the first volume came out in 1995 and the series was completed in 2000 – but I’d never heard of it until I visited Scotland last autumn and was given all three volumes – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The first is by far the best. Northern Lights concerns the tale of Lyra, a deliciously repulsive young girl whose adolescence in an alternate-world Oxford is interrupted when her estranged father comes by and reveals a horrible secret. Lyra is then for all practical purposes kidnapped by her estranged mother, who she finds out to be horrid; Lyra escapes, takes up with alternate world travellers (gypsies) and sets off to the northern part of the planet.
Lyra, like all people in her world, has a daemon, a shape-changing animal that expresses the type of personality a person is. Children’s daemons, like children’s personalities, change; adults’ daemons are set in their form. The link between a person and her daemon is sacred and breakable only upon death – or so everyone believes. But both Lyra’s father and mother, for very different reasons, are finding ways to break those links. Lyra’s mother is trying, if not out of gratuitous cruelty, at least on behalf of the forces of nastiness (a kind of other-world Catholic Church); to her father, however, the severance of the bond is for a greater good.
What’s delightful about the first book is the inventiveness, the charming bond between daemon and child, the fact that Lyra is an obnoxious child but one who is interesting, and the setting, for most of the book, in the frozen wastes of the north. With the exception of a hook at the finale into the trilogy – which has the feeling of a hook grafted on – the book stands alone.
The second volume, The Subtle Knife, introduces Will, a boy in this universe, who stumbles into an alternate universe – and another – and another. Eventually he stumbles into one that Lyra has found herself in, and the two become friends. They become part of a cosmic conflict which builds further in the third part, The Amber Spyglass. This conflict is central to the plot, but I never really understood it. Sure, good versus evil, but why now? And the finale happens off-camera so I wasn’t sure who won or, come to that why it mattered. Or even why it happened – it seemed more of a plot device to bring Lyra and Will to their destiny than part of the plot. But, by then, Lyra has become such a sweet, well-behaved little girl that she’s completely uninteresting. As to WIll, I struggled to be interested in him from page one.
The two later volumes reminded me, in other words, why I lost interest in the genre: unchecked inventiveness. In Northern Lights, the inventiveness serves the plot. In the final battle of The Amber Spyglass, weird creatures are being introduced for no other reason than to be paired off with other weird creatures in mutual annihilation. Where Tolkien had orcs, goblins, trolls and elves, dwarves and hobbits each with distinct histories, Pullman’s creatures are a menagerie of placeholders, none convincing and few of them interesting.
Which is a shame. There were lots of parts of the trilogy I enjoyed. But somehow, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
Hong Kong Review of Books asked me to review two books on Hong Kong. Here are the reviews for Hong Kong on the Brink and Hong Kong Confidential.
I stayed at Rhona and Hugh’s excellent AirBnB in November. Apart from being wonderful hosts and fully deserving their five star rating, they introduced me to the writing of Sebastian Barry.
Days Without End is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century in America, and follows Thomas McNulty and John Cole through their military lives. A Long Long Way is also a soldier’s story, the life of Willie Dunne in the trenches in the First World War. So, two war stories. I’m not a great fan of war fiction as poetry to me seems the only way to do justice to the horror that is war, but these came pretty close.
Days Without End sees Thomas start as a teenage dancer, dressed in woman’s clothes at a coal-mining town. I have no doubt that Sebastian did his research and that such things happened in the lawless America of the mid-nineteenth century; I am far less convinced that the relationship between Thomas, who ends the book as a cross-dressing gay man, and a his partner, John, would go undetected or unpunished in that era – and that relationship is the plot. The wars, the atrocities against the native Americans, their effective adoption of a young girl, are all well-depicted in their futility, brutality and tenderness, yet are background. The plot is the relationship, yet, a homophobic era, Thomas’s and John’s fellow soldiers don’t even remark on it. This detracted from the overall believability of the story, which is a shame. It wouldn’t have taken much to address this.
A Long Long Way was the better book. The boredom, terror and strangeness of war are laid bare, as is its ultimate futility. What let me down was the ending, and this on two points. The first was a plot twist I found difficult to believe – not because I thought the betrayer would not do the thing that he did, but because I didn’t see how he was able to do it. But, more than that, the final two pages of the book shift voice – we go from being inside Willie’s head to outside. The book, it is true, starts outside his head when he was born. But there are 290 intervening pages, and all the shift did was tie up a loose end.
The plots of both books are linear, with almost no twists or turns, but this does is not to say there are predictable. What distinguishes the books, however, is not their plots, but the writing. Days Without End is told in the first-person using a semi-literate voice, yet one with great lyricism. Here’s a short passage:
Two miles on we got the shackles of heat lying on us again, so hot the country starts to shimmer like the desert. We had the sun half behind us to the south which was some mercy. Wasn’t a man among hadn’t had his nose skinned off a hundred times. Bear grease is good for that but it stinks like an arsehole and anyhow we ain’t seen bears for a long time.
And from the better-educated Willie Dunne of A Long Long Way
He sang like an angel might sing if an angel were ever so foolish as to sing for mortal men. His voice seemed strange and high, but not a counter-tenor. It just seemed to put a knife into the air; the notes were so clear and strong. Like a true singer, he could sing soft with strength, and sing loud without hurting the ears.
The language is polished and lyric: a pleasure to read. This wonderful use of the language made the books worth their flaws. I’m not sure I’ll finish Sebastian’s canon, but these two books were well worth the read. So thank you, Rhona and Hugh, for introducing me to his writing.
I am not a fan of Stephen King. After pressure from a few friends, I tried Carrie and found it puerile; I gave him a second chance with The Shining and found it only little less. It may be that I’m not much into the horror genre, but I found the plots were just a little too obvious (and I have not seen either movie, so hadn’t much of an idea what to expect). The characterisation was alright, but the characters themselves were neither very deep nor very interesting, and although the characters had internal conflicts, the external and supernatural events drove the plot as much as those conflicts.
So it was until I read Stephen King’s On Writing.
Part autobiography and part craft, it is a small book with much to offer. The first chunk of the book deals with him and his brother’s upbringing in a low-income family in the 1950s and 60s. The story is told with grace and humour, and goes through childhood, adolescent, the death of his mother, and his early success. By the time we come to an end of this, we are with a successful author who is drinking and snorting himself into a deep hole. He doesn’t tell us how he got out of that hole, but he did.
The second half deals with writing itself. He is not prescriptive on this: he presents it as what works for him, but claims no authority on what works for others. Like Robert Ludlum, King starts not with a plot, but with a situation and a character, and more or less leaves the character to get on with it. He doesn’t plot the book in advance, though he does have a notion of where he wants him or her to go. He goes through the processes of revision and rewriting, and the final audience (in his case, his lifelong wife, Tatty). He’s encouraging without setting expectations. All around a nice work to read. So perhaps I’ll give some of his later work a try one of these days.
King’s approach is in sharp contrast to that in Jonathan Falla’s The Craft of Fiction. Falla teaches at a creative writing school, and his book is for all practical purposes a text book. As such, it is quite prescriptive, setting out a methodology. Like King, he acknowledges that different authors have different approaches, but, unlike King, there is a kind of sub-text that the best approach is the one he proposes: a kind of fossicking approach where we wander out, find characters, find situations, insert conflict and – boom-ta-ra! – plot.
(An interesting approach to plot surfaced in an interview in the FT with William Boyd, starts with the closing scene, works backwards from there, researching in detail his settings, and not writing the book until it’s been extensively planned (Sophie Hannah, who writes psychological thrillers, said at a book that she also plots and plans before she writes), so not every author starts with the situation.)
Most of The Craft, however, is taken up with the intricacies of craft, and in this respect it is useful in a way that King’s is not. If you take the book as a load of hints, it is very useful. My main criticism is that one of the most important parts of writing – editing and revision – is crammed into the last of seventeen chapters. By contrast, King gives this process a lot of space, including reproductions of some of his own revisions.
Not a bad complement to these two is Scott Meredith’s Writing to Sell. The late Scott Meredith was the agent of P.G. Wodehouse and, as such, had a large hand in changing the American publishing business from the collegial one it was (and that Britain’s still is) to the much more hard-nosed, auction-driven business it’s become. Unlike King and Falla, Meredith devotes quite a lot of pages to the plot. Any sellable book – and the only reason to write is to sell – consists of a series of escalating problems and, at each step, the solution to one problem creates a bigger problem.
This is, of course, very formulaic. Meredith makes no apologies for this: his book is what the title states. Writing to sell is not writing to win a Nobel prize (although Camus, Hemingway and other laureates were bestsellers of their day), but to make a living.
That is something to which I aspire, and, though I’m losing hope it will ever happen, which brings me to the last and most surprising book in this little review: Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, 2018. The last time I bought one of these was over a decade ago, and it has grown. It now contains lots of useful articles by authors, agents and everyone else in the process, most just a thousand words or so long, so very digestible. The nicest thing about what has become a collection of essays is that there is no theme, no authoritative voice to put up with. That, plus an up-to-date list of everyone you may need to know in the British publishing industry, makes it a sterling acquisition.
On 17 July, 2014, MH017 was shot down over the Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. Putin’s response was quick and decisive: he declared that the person who perpetrated this act was a common murderer, that the Federation of Russian States would spare no effort in hunting him down, and hunting down the people who had sold him the weapon he used. He offered full cooperation with Interpol, and the Dutch and Malaysian authorities (most victims were Dutch and Malaysia), and –
No, he did none of the above. He squandered the opportunity for Russia to come out of this crime as the good guy. Instead, he covered up, stone-walled, and did everything possible to ensure that that common criminal walks free to this day. And that the relatives of those murdered will never see justice done.
Stories such as this are one reason that the world needs something like the International Criminal Court: there are all too many countries where the very people who are most guilty are those with the most impunity, and the relatives of their victims will never see justice done.
The US never signed up to the ICC. It has always resisted the idea that any American can be tried by a non-American court. But the US misses the point: it’s clear from the charter of the ICC that it will step in only where an individual country’s institutions have failed, or cannot be trusted to act with impartiality and due process. Despite its excesses and biases, US institutions more or less work, and can more or less be trusted to act with impartiality and follow due process. So, although the ICC may be investigating alleged war crimes by US soldiers in Afghanistan, it’s unlikely that those soldiers would ever be in the dock in the Hague: the ICC would submit its report to US authorities and let them get on with it.
Which makes it disappointing on two counts that John Bolton went into mega-arsehole mode in the UN earlier this week, withdrawing ICC funding, etc., etc. If US soldiers were committing war crimes in Afghanistan – and I’m not saying they were – then a US that practised the justice it preaches would say something like “bring it on, let us be part of this.” And second, to this day, we live in a world where tyrants get away with murder: the US has not merely reduced the change of bringing those criminals to book; it has sided with them. Opportunity squandered.
Update on 19 Sep. The UNHCR report on the Burmese army’s genocide of the Rohinga people was released today. What better demonstration that an ICC is needed?.
Milan Kundera observed somewhere or other that one of the key things fiction does is ask the reader to suspend their disbelief. Three books I’ve read over the summer push that ask a little too far.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is a cold-war spy thriller set in contemporary times. The idea is that Dominika, a ballet dancer, is coerced into becoming an operative who specializes in honey-traps – i.e., using sex as a means of doing whatever needs to be done with targets. To become this, she is sent to the Sparrow school where she’s taught… well, other than watch porn and be fucked by any and all, we’re not quite sure what she’s taught. She graduates with flying colours and is sent to entrap an American agent who’s running a highly placed mole. This entails a whole lot of nastiness, the end result being that no one is happy and several die.
The author was a CIA spy, but experience that should be an asset, isn’t. The descriptions of spy craft come across as if he’s trying to avoid giving away too many secrets; the notion that there’s a school where women are sent to become skilled seductresses comes across as an old man’s masturbatory fantasy; the idea that a woman who had been coerced into this would be any good at it is laughable, and the idea that an uncle would be the one coercing is obscene. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt that there are some women who enjoy sex and because it’s for the country would be great Sparrows – but Dominika isn’t one of them. Add to this characters that go from two-dimensional to near parody, and I’d stopped believing the fantasy less than half the way through. (The film, which I stumbled across on a flight, was even less engaging – though the ending was cleverer than the book’s.)
Jo Nesbo makes no pretention to reality in his latest Harry Hole crime thriller, The Thirst – and it shows. The bullshit detector was past the amber light less than fifty pages in, and rattling on red by the time we’d found out that we have a killer who puts steel dentures over his teeth and bites his victims to death. To compensate for the fundamental implausibility of this, we get some pseudo-science (the human jaw, we are told, can bite down with a force of 70kg – but kilograms are a measure of mass, not force), we get an elaborate pseudo-psychology, and the usual Harry Hole distractions of alcohol and potted histories of the victims.
The other Harry Hole book(s – I’m not sure how many I’ve read) have at least had some measure of “yeah, that could just about happen in the country with the world’s lowest murder rate,” but not this one – and it isn’t to do with Oslo. Humans are carnivores. Our teeth are evolved to pierce and tear flesh. We don’t need steel dentures, and dentures sharp enough to make the piercing and tearing easy would leave the serial killer with a tongue in shreds. His isn’t. Bullshit detector on 100%. End of story.
Thus, by the time I pulled Dana Stabenow’s Silk and Song off the shelf, I wanted something nice to read, and the premise was kind of cool: in the early 14th century, Marco Polo’s granddaughter, Johanna, sets off on an adventure that leads her from Cambulac (modern Beijing) to Europe and England.
There were two problems with this saga. The first was that, by the last quarter, the author had run out of plot, so relied instead on incident. Not once, but twice, Johanna and her followers rescue prisoners from heavily fortified keeps – yet though she and her band face mortal threats, they never seem to be in danger.
But the real problem is that there are too many cultural blunders. There’s an extensive bibliography, but the author has Muslims in Kashgar face to the East when they pray, where in Kashgar, they face south west (Muslims face Mecca to pray). A Persian sheik plays a major part in the story, but Persia has no sheiks because sheik is an Arabic word – and, at one point, she has 14th century Persians speaking Farsi, which is the modern language and very different to the Persian of that era. Tauregs make an appearance, but Tauregs come from the south west of the Sahara and – look at a map – their tribal lands are just too far away.
And then there was the writing. The point of view could change twice in a page, and the copy-editing was lousy. These are from two successive short paragraphs (p. 146):
The risky desert journey had paid off an excellent profit for them all…
… the journey had paid off in good traded to their advantage
That’s the same wording, twice within one column inch. Here’s another, on p. 109:
Persian, Jew, Turgesh, Sogdia, Persian
No, that wasn’t a typo by me. Persian is mentioned twice in the same list.
All of which is a shame, because I wanted the book to work. But, like the other two books, it was set in an exotic location, and that location was too riddled with nonsense to keep my disbelief suspended. Jason Matthew transposes Soviet-era spying into this century, and still has characters rely on some easy-to-find clunky short-wave radio: no way. Nesbo has a killer with dentures sharp enough to pierce human skin twice (the external skin and the artery wall), yet his mouth isn’t full of lacerations; Stabenow sets her novel in an age of random, barbarous cruelty, yet never once is any of the main characters hurt.
It’s a shame these authors don’t seem to have read sci-fi/fantasy. Frank Herbert’s Dune, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, even Anne MacCaffrey’s DragonWorld are all more believable other planets than these three books set on this one.
Right now, the mood of the times is pessimistic. The predominant trend in the Anglophone world is not about what could be, but to revert to what was. The obvious ones are Brexit and Trump, but Trudeau is a humbug who has done nothing to rein in the tar sands, while Australia may as well append “Mining, Inc.” to its name. That leaves little New Zealand as the outlier – good for them!
I don’t think I am the only one who wants the world to move forwards, but who feels on the wrong side of history. So it was a joy to attend the Singularity University Summit in Thailand in June (I’ve been flat out since, hence the gap in posting). I admit that I’d been sweet-talked into attending by my friend Lloyd, who organized the event, and, as most IT “summits” are self-congratulatory gabfests; I had low expectations. Boy, were they ever exceeded!
You can watch the highlights on Youtube here. The fundamental thesis behind what Singularity University (SU) teaches is simple. With enough critical mass, the marginal cost of production of certain technologies becomes almost zero, and their uptake becomes so rapid that it’s disruptive – meaning that incumbents don’t have time to react, and collapse. Just as the transition from horse to the internal combustion engine was done and dusted in the single decade following the First World War, and the transition from music on discs to streaming music onto your phone has happened in the decade just passed, a whole raft of technologies is set to disrupt energy, transport, money, agriculture, and a whole bunch of other things.
Of course, boundless optimism cherry picks its case studies, and not all technologies are exponential. But the presenters knew their stuff, the sessions were much fuller of facts and cautions than the average gabfest, and, above all, there were those hallmarks of confidence in presenting: jokes. I emerged from two intense, twelve-hour days invigorated and renewed.
And then, there was the food.
Humanity is eating this planet into an ecological grave. Meat and fish are not the only problems, but removing them from your diet is the simplest thing you can do to mitigate the damage. Continuing to eat meat and fish – sorry carnivorous friends – requires invincible selfishness underpinned by wilful ignorance, the wilful part being founded on having the intellectual curiosity of a house brick when it comes to your food sources. We cannot feed the world by going organic, but we can not only feed the world, but return lots of it to other species, or more of our own, if we cut meat and fish from our diets.
To their credit, lunch had a small vegan corner. It was tucked away in such an obscure part of the banqueting hall that I missed it the first time; half a dozen or so of us vegetarians huddled there, watching the other thousand or so delegates stuff their faces with animal cadavers.
But the point is this: all of the speakers knew that meat and fish has to go. Many of them said it in their presentations, others in the socialising that went with the event. Yet the cognitive dissonance regarding diet is so overwhelming that that small corner was all they could muster in the way of action. Words, yes. Action, minimal.
So here’s my suggestion for the next SU summit.
- Be Bold. Tell the delegates that they’re going to be fed vegetarian food, and tell them why.
- Don’t be Boring. Offer food that is tasty and interesting.
- Donate the Skills. Most hotels haven’t a clue how to present a tasty vegetarian meal for a large number of people (actually, most chefs believe it cannot be done!). Send an executive vegetarian chef to the hotel, months in advance, not only to agree a menu, but to train the chefs how to cook it.
- Leave a Legacy. Encourage the venues to re-use the model. If nothing else, it’s cheaper to prepare vegetarian food than meat and seafood, so more profitable.
- So, SU, how about it?
Four Reigns was first published as a newspaper serial in Thailand in the 1950s. The author, Kukrit Pramoj, was in the first generation of Thais to undergo and overseas education – he went to Queen’s College, Oxford – and I can’t help but think that there’s a lot of his own life in this book. Which makes for an interesting if rose-tainted read.
The story starts with Phloi, a likeable child who leaves her father’s house to work as a courtier of King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of the current Ratanakosin dynasty (His Majesty King Vajralongkorn is the tenth). Phloi spends her late childhood and adolescence in court, has her heart broken once, but follows her father’s advice and marries well. She has four children and the book follows their intertwined lives as well as her own.
Phloi faces few conflicts – she has good karma – which makes the story itself is somewhat saccharine. Yet the characters are well drawn and, even if the book is rather free of incident in Phloi’s own life. One of her brothers becomes a degenerate, she has an evil half sister, and so on. On top of that, not only was Thailand affected by two world wars and the Great Depression, but the kingdom was also going through the throes of a massive modernisation. And, after the death of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), there was a series of short-lived monarchs between him and the late King Bumibol (Rama IX), all of which affect the lives of the characters.
Setting aside the historical background, the book is also brought to life, especially in the early parts, by the detailed descriptions of a court life that is no more. I am not in a position to know if the details are authentic – and I suspect that many of them are recollections of the author’s own mother – but they are beautifully sketched. I was also fascinated by how much, and how little, the social mores of Thailand have changed – how Phloi is happy to ask her husband if he’d like her to find second wives and concubines (he declines), how wives and husbands separate, how the hierarchies of wives change.
Four Reigns is regarded as a classic – the eyes of a Thai sitting next to me on a plane popped out of his head when he saw me reading Tulachandra’s translation into English – yet although the book was never boring, and although it was not written as a page-turner, what let it down was a one-sidedness. The characters covered the good, the bad and the ugly, though no one was evil, but they were all upper-class and well-heeled. There was no hint of the grinding poverty that is the lot, even today, of many Thais. Somehow for me, that left a void in the centre of the novel – I’d hope for more of a seven hundred page epic.
No one, however, could accuse Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (and translated by Annie Tucker) as lacking in evil. Though written in 2011, the novel is set in broadly the same period as Four Reigns, albeit in Indonesia.
The book starts with Dewi Ayu, Halimunda’s greatest prostitute, rising from her grave, twenty years on, to avenge those who have wronged her and her daughters, but covers the time from her birth to her (first) death, overlapping the First and Second World Wars, up to the early years of Indonesia’s independence.
Often hilarious, the book describes a world of the other-natural, with ghosts and spirits, bold and cruel characters, and with lots of incident. Its world is one of fleeting relationships, of husbands who rape and husbands who love, of women determined and manipulative. It depicts the hierarchies of Indonesian towns, where crooks and cops carve up the power and populace bumbles along as best it can. Where in Four Reigns, the karma of one life determines the karma of the next; in Beauty, payback does not take that long.
Yet, despite the vivid writing and continuous invention, Beauty wore me down. Most of the final fifty pages concerned Dewi Ayu’s grandchildren and, by then, I didn’t much care. Those pages left me wondering where the book was going, and wishing it would get there sooner. As it happened, there was a neat ending, but it could have got there much sooner.
That aside, read together – and it’s mere serendipity that I did – the books are an immersion into a world as strange and wonderful as any sci-fi. Go out and buy them!