The latest from the superb Jared Diamond is an overview of the differences between modern society and the way humanity has lived for most of its histoThe latest from the superb Jared Diamond is an overview of the differences between modern society and the way humanity has lived for most of its history - as small, tribal groups. He uses examples of research into the various pre-modern tribes still extant, or recently so, including his own work of fifty years in New Guinea.
This is in no way a rosy-eyed critique of modern society, yearning for some mythic past where everything was better; Diamond is too smart and too good a scientist for that. Even when he does hold examples of where tribal peoples have a better system that modern America (his home, so the example he most often uses for the modern world, of course), he gives a wonderfully balanced view. For example, on treatment of the elderly he initially compares the way many tribes value their elders as sources of wisdom with the increasing practice of shuffling American seniors off to care homes with occasional visits, but points out that many 'primitive' societies have been far worse - exposing or banishing or killing members of the tribe when they cost more resources than they produce (a requirement of survival in harsh conditions such as desert or Arctic tundra, without modern technology) - and also that the practice of 'care homes' has arisen due to pressures that are particular to out societies.
As always, Diamond writes with an engaging, fluid clarity. The BBC reading was only five quarter-hour readings, so will have just skimmed the surface of his 500-odd page book and came across as not so much an abridgement as a taster. I think I'll have to put an order in at the library to get the full story....more
While I've read most of Orwell's novels I have somehow never got around to his non-fiction. As I was a journalism student, this is close to criminal.While I've read most of Orwell's novels I have somehow never got around to his non-fiction. As I was a journalism student, this is close to criminal. In happy remedy to this, BBC radio is currently having an Orwell season, all the programmes (readings, adaptations and documentaries) archived for posterity at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pyz0z so please pay it a visit.
Down and Out in Paris and London is, along with The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, considered one of the great pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Orwell's description of his time living on (and below) the breadline in these two capitals is breathtaking. He manages to combine a journalistic distance with a visceral understanding and explanation of what it means to be truly broke, to a level which is almost inconceivable in the same societies scant decades later. His descriptions of hardship never come across as unfair or whining, partly because the level of poverty is so extreme but mostly due to the fact that he so often compares his own plight with others he meets who are even worse off than himself; Orwell has the expectation that his privation is temporary (and we know this to be the case, in retrospect) many of the people he meets are sinking to depths he assumes he will never reach, habituated to their lot, or otherwise hopeless cases. Yet Orwell's writing is infused with compassion and a sense of social justice that he is never condescending to or belittling of their situations; without preaching he draws attention to the social inequalities that not only allow but require people to beg or starve, that marginalise a large section of society to the impoverishment of everyone due to the moral damage and human waste this engenders. Such ire as Orwell expresses (and there is not much; this is a book of compassion rather than anger) is reserved for those who perpetuate the status quo - whether they are those who use their power over anyone worse off than themselves, the religious charities who exploit the need of the poor to spread their message or those vagrants who still somehow buy into the injustice.
This is, perhaps, the definitive example of journalism as social activism, and serves not only as a reminder of how things once were but as a warning in a time when social safety nets are being dismantled in the name of austerity of the very real social and human dangers of a society that is happy to regard those who have fallen on hard times as surplus to requirements....more
Ah, one of my all time favourite RPGs. It is in the second half of the 21st century. Magic has returned to the world, large sections of the populationAh, one of my all time favourite RPGs. It is in the second half of the 21st century. Magic has returned to the world, large sections of the population have mutated into new sub-species of humanity (which become named dwarves, elves, orcs, trolls, etc, for their resemblance to figures of myth), mega corporations hold more power than nations, a new information structure that replaced the World Wide Web allows true immersive cyber reality, nations have fractured and monsters can be found in the dark back alleys.
in concept, it always sounded to me very much like some old-fashioned, sword&sorcery, Tolkien fanatic Middle Earth Roleplaying gamers had the following conversation:
Curly: man, that was so awesome! and i'm just reading a book called Snow Crash, where this hacker is REALLY a hacker because he's like awesome with a katana!
Moe: wow! that sound's awesome! i thought some more katanas would have made Neuromancer even better. you now what else would have made it truly awesome?
Larry and Curly: What man?
Moe: some like orcs and trolls and elves and wizards...
and, to be honest, the first edition was a bit like that, with a horribly clunky system, but by third edition not only had the system evolved into something more workable (and a few tweaks of my own improved further, like making dice rolls open-ended and allowing multiple successes) the authors had begun to use the ideas of fracturing society (and humanity) to point a mirror at some real-world issues. the most obvious is racism. when skin colour is no longer the most obvious physical attribute, and the blueprint of what is human has to be suddenly expanded to include shapes so far from the baseline this obviously causes problems (as Terry Pratchett once said "black and white live in perfect harmony - and gang up on green").
Three examples. One adventure involved the characters encountering the ghost of a young orc boy in a hospital and their investigations uncovering that a leading politician isn't who he had seemed. In the early days of 'goblinisation' (as the process 'mutation' was called) a wealthy couple swapped their suddenly deformed young son with an foundling, who grew up to be the politician. The city of San Fransisco is now a protectorate of Japan (in the desettlement that resulted in the break up of the USA Japan moved into to 'Frisco to protect Japanese interests and stayed) the changed human subtypes are not granted citizenship and are forced to live outside the city, crossing checkpoints early in the morning to work at menial jobs - a clear analogy to the Palestinian territories today. In earlier editions, the descriptions of the orc and troll subspecies (or meta humans, as they are called) described them as having a higher physical strength but low intelligence, and being largely nocturnal. In third edition, these sociological reports are referred to, but the question of whether the intelligence discrepancy is down to educational discrimination and the so-called nocturnalism down to not wanting to mix more than necessary with other people when you're treated like a mutant.
Throw in lots of action, gunplay, car chases, cyber crime, political shenanigan and gunplay (i know i mentioned it twice, the players like their big guns) and you have an entertaining, involved background in which to grow interesting characters and have some stonking adventures....more
An excellent and timely book on the decline of intellectualism in the USA, which is also relevant to the rest of the developed world. While I personalAn excellent and timely book on the decline of intellectualism in the USA, which is also relevant to the rest of the developed world. While I personally believe that Jacoby overplays her hand in the latter chapters on the malign influence of screen culture (the ubiquity of TV and now computers), the thrust of her argument is well written and undeniable. If we do not respect intellectualism and aspire to it for ourselves and our children, if we do not educate ourselves by reading broadly rather than accepting TV soundbites and unfounded weblog and editorial opinions and if we do not insist that our schools, colleges and universities teach rigorous thinking which we back up ourselves with the examples we give our children, we risk being manipulated by advertising, pseudo-science and self-serving politicians and, in the very worst case, risk the very values and achievements of our society....more
Air takes place in the near future, in a poor village high in the remote mountains of a fictional central Asian republic. Just as the village gets itsAir takes place in the near future, in a poor village high in the remote mountains of a fictional central Asian republic. Just as the village gets its first joint TV and internet connection, a global test takes place for a new technology that allows every human being on the planet to access the web directly without the interface of a computer or machinery or any kind. Publicity for the test – only heard in the village at second hand from the nearest town – says that this technology, Air, will change the way everybody lives. In the few minutes that the test is active life is changed forever for Mae, fashion guru to the women of the village.
This allows Ryman to examine the impact of technologies that are often talked about as having the potential to level the playing field, to more easily bring information to those that have not had it in a world where information is the basis of power and wealth. One one level he uses this to do the classic science fiction job of using the future as a mirror for the present – the Air technology representing the effect of the World Wide Web – and how claims of empowerment are often made false by the forces of established commerce and unthinking cultural imperialism.
Ryman, however, goes much further than this. He uses the events to create a conversation between past, present and future, and explore the complex relationship they have in all of us, ultimately suggesting that if in our headlong rush into the future the we lose sight of our past it will leave us as impoverished as as if we dig in our heels and refuse to accept progress at all.
For me, this book reinforced just how good a writer Geoff Ryman is. The sense of place and culture he evokes is superb, quite alien no doubt to most readers and yet rendered utterly real and personal by the well drawn characters and their social interactions. He makes huge themes approachable by exploring them on a personal level, as they affect small, everyday lives. This is also excellent science fiction, although it does not necessarily fit with Ryman's recently stated aim of making a science fiction that was meticulously realistic “hard SF”; there is something archetypal about it, something mythic. In this collision of past, present and future, of East and West, of Have and Have-nots, Ryman has given us a fable for the cyber age....more
Following on from The Traveler, which was a promising thriller combining some interesting philosophy with a decently written adventure, this sOh dear.
Following on from The Traveler, which was a promising thriller combining some interesting philosophy with a decently written adventure, this second volume takes that groundwork and flushes it down the toilet. The plot becomes ludicrous, the attempts at philosophy become badly thought out individualistic rants and the writing has somehow become painfully bad. Seriously to the point that it doesn't read like the same author. I'm not saying that The Traveler was Dostoevsky, but this is awful. The writer even seems to have lost some knowledge; in the first book he appeared to know his technology, and made excellent use of it both for his comments on the surveillance society and in terms of plot, but here it becomes the kind of badly constructed techno-thriller pseudo-scientific guff you tend to find in bad Tom Clancy knock-offs....more
An interesting, well paced thriller featuring the usual secret societies that control government and the loner who finds out that he is the scion of aAn interesting, well paced thriller featuring the usual secret societies that control government and the loner who finds out that he is the scion of a rebel faction that can bring them down, but with some interesting philosophical points that pull it above the average....more
An outstanding collection of essays and extracts from godless and freethinking writers throughout the ages. Amongst the highlights are the pamphlet foAn outstanding collection of essays and extracts from godless and freethinking writers throughout the ages. Amongst the highlights are the pamphlet for which Shelly was thrown out of university and contributions from Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. Some, such as Thomas Hardy and HL Mencken consign gods to the grave of history, while others argue strong cases for a morality that does not rely on the promise of reward or the threat of punishment from a creator. While some of the writings are distinctly anti-theistic, others argue for the wisdom of agnosticism. Nearly all are thoughtful, wise and thoroughly worth investigating, irrespective of the reader's own position on the spectrum of belief....more
This is simply one of the most frightening books I have ever read. Lanchester sets out the causes of the current economic recession following the 'creThis is simply one of the most frightening books I have ever read. Lanchester sets out the causes of the current economic recession following the 'credit crunch' with a power and clarity that is superb - he manages to explain the culture of finance, the novel financial products and the relationships between the financial institutions and governments in a way which is understandable and memorable. The dominance of 'city culture', the drive for ever increasing profits, the belief in economic models that defied any sort of common sense or historical reality, a wider culture which both de-regulated the banking sector and allowed it to ignore the regulations still in place. All terrifying, but not nearly so much as the implication that we, as a society, haven't learnt our lesson.
Lanchester states while an industry makes products which, hopefully, makes money (shoes, movies, books, whatever) for the last thirty years we have increasingly moved into a world where the bottom line is everything, where making increasing profits is the primary goal of all sectors of the western economies - even such things as health care and education. He briefly makes the aside that some countries (Canada, for example) did not buy into the laissez faire free-for-all, but as we move into a century in which economic power moves from America and Europe to China and India, I fear that they have learnt the positive lessons from us but none of the negative ones....more
This book is a bit of a mess, frankly. Characters are introduced and then disappear without explanation, sometimes to turn up again chapters later. ThThis book is a bit of a mess, frankly. Characters are introduced and then disappear without explanation, sometimes to turn up again chapters later. The narration is a mix of first, second and third person, and the tenses are all over the place, which I suppose is due to the fact that it is the product of innumerable authors and sources, and repeated translation.
The cast of characters is huge but, frankly, none of them are likable. The main character in the first half - the Old Testament - is quite seriously the most unpleasant character I've ever come across. This God character is venal, spiteful, petty, self-aggrandising, controlling, dishonest, murderous and constantly demanding. He sets impossible tasks for people and then punishes them for failure; he encourages (even orders!) the genocide of whole peoples that are doing nothing so much as living peacefully on a patch of land that he had promised generations earlier to a different bunch of people; he personally arranges the destruction of whole cities for violating rules that he has set down, even though they are nothing to do with him, the death of children for calling one of his followers names, the execution of an old man for collecting firewood on the wrong day - the list goes on and on.
The second part starts more promisingly. The main character here is God's son, Jesus (although there does seem to be an issue of parentage; Jesus is described as belonging to the bloodline of King David through his 'foster father' Joseph) who, when we rejoin him as an adult, is preaching some pretty nifty ideas about peace and brotherly love - curiously rather consonant with some Buddhist teachings that probably arrived in the Middle East in the first century BCE, but that's another story. Jesus has obviously inherited a few of his dad's less pleasant aspects; he has a temper on him, and can be seriously controlling - he tells his followers that they have to give up (indeed "hate") their families to follow him, in the manner that has been beloved of modern cult leaders, and he reinforces the earlier injunctions ("commandments"), although i was never clear on which set of sometimes contradictory orders he meant. But maybe that's just me.
Then, after Jesus is killed by the Romans for being a trouble maker, it gets seriously weird again. It's interesting that the four witnesses to the execution that write about it give massively contradictory accounts, both of the execution and Jesus life (kind of a Rashomon difference of perception thing going on there, I guess), then it rapidly gets weird and nasty again. Paul, the guy who takes over Jesus' work, is frankly a nutter. I think he's one of these "operating psychopaths" that you sometimes find in senior management positions, with a healthy dose of misogyny and self loathing thrown in. The drugs he must be taking probably don't help. I mean, you can see how bipolar he is in some of his letters to the Corinthians, but then by Revelations he's completely lost it. The apocalyptic rantings here fail as horror, mostly because they just don't make any sense. A decent horror writer knows that terror works when it connects with the reader, touches something in their psyche, but this just seems like random, drug-fuelled imagery.
Perhaps I'm being a little unfair. This book should probably be approached as a massive collection of (sometimes loosely) connected stories. Some of them are obviously meant to be parables - although sometimes you have to wonder just what lesson the reader is meant to take away - and probably not take it too seriously. And the saving grace, in this edition at least, is that some of the language is simply wonderful, he imagery occasionally breathtaking. It's interesting to compare to The Epic of Gilgamesh or the Mahabharata, books from different cultures on similar themes, although I think both of those are told better....more