March 2009


Before the cultural assault of the 1980s the word Japanese was almost universally associated with three things: cheap transistor radios, “tinny” automobiles, and, The War. In the 1970s phrases containing derogatory words like ‘Nips’ were common, and the Japanese almost universally despised, especially in small towns where xenophobia ran freely and easily between the minds and mouths of locals unused to difference greater than that between beef or chicken fried rice.

As Merv, my grandfather has grown older I’ve continued to observe that his use of these phrases was always guarded, and it is only now, in his dotage, that I’ve heard him really put weight behind words like “the Yanks”, or worse and most cringe inducing, that “Yank nigger”. But for the Japanese he always seemed to reserve some respect, even to this day.

It was with the turn of the 1990s and the death of my Grandmother, that sergeant-major of a woman, who continued to speak ill of the Japanese until her heart finally gave out on her, that Merv was able to return to Japan as part of his second trip outside the Antipodes. And I’ve often wondered what he felt when he landed in the new, slick, modern Japan built on the profits of sales to the West. Did his thoughts echo back to that time of misery? Of poverty? Of ritualistic and sadistic humiliation of a nation? Of blustering, arrogant American soldiers demanding recompense for a war they they themselves forced?

A tale Merv tells of  Japan is being a tractor driver in the ruins of Hiroshima. He tells of winter snows, and the absolute desolation of the landscape. Of still-proud but shamed Japanese begging in the streets. Of the few remaining buildings perched precariously in the kind of post-apocalyptic landscape we discussed and feared so widely during the days of the Cold War, when a fiery holocaust was a possibility we all considered.

And he tells of being on that tractor, and of working with others to lift a ruined concrete wall. And of a wave of heat hitting he and the other workers, despite the chill air, and frozen ground. But this was common, yes?

New Zealanders, lackeys to the Empire just one last time.

It was when he returned that the price of that life-changing trip occurred. A simple illness at first, a swelling in the neck. The disbelief of doctors that he was sick at all. The gradual loss of hair from his entire body, bar his armpits, and an associated loss of a third of his body weight. A third.

But in the midst of all this, and illness that crippled and almost killed him, he seems to have seen not a price paid by the Japanese for a crime, albeit one committed against another nation he continues to dislike, but simply a crime. And so the warrior became, it seems, and despite all bluster to the contrary, a pacifist.

F,FLP

This was probably the best scifi read on my list for a fair while. Hyperion is a cover version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but turned into a compelling space opera.

“Hyperion” is a world within the human galatic shere of influence, but contains a mysterious complex of temples populated by a pathological killer called “the Shrike”, and it is to Hyperion that our protagonists are travelling. To pass the time they agree to tell their own tales, and these form the bulk of the detail of the novel. It is a very good mechanism, and serves the story well.

My initial thought was that the use of stories would undermine the novel, and result in a disjointed narrative poorly strung together by the pilgrimage the characters are undertaking. I was pleased to find that while the stories are distinct, they also interrelate very subtly and the novel itself hinges off them well.  However, there is a sequel that I’m thinking will fill many of the unresolved gaps in the story itself.

The real strength of Hyperion is Simmons story-telling ability. Each of the tales actually feels like it was written by a different author, and each has its individual appeal. For instance, the tale of the “Wandering Jew” and his daughter is deeply sad, and, well, just plain great. On the other hand the Soldier’s tale is saucy, while being both arousing and disturbing.

All in all? Highly recommended.

There’s always talk of the glory of war, the forging of nations and consciousness, the conversion of boys to men. But to me war is an 18-year old digging through the bowels of a battleship, dragging decomposing bodies up to the light. It’s that boy that I think of when I consider war, a boy seeing the scrawl marks on the bulkheads, each line marking a passing day as live men suffocated slowly, trapped within the carcass of a dead vessel, doomed.

When he was 17 or 18 my Grandfather took a step to ensure he wouldn’t miss out on The War and he forged his parent’s signature on a waiver. I’m certain to this day it was a way of getting out of Te Aroha once and for all, and off to Japan he was sent. The glory of war was fading quickly, all the great battles having been fought. There was no El Alamein for him. No Crete. No Cassino (though, to tell the truth, the latter was  a farce, an ignominy levelled on us by poor leadership). Instead, once again we were the labourers for the Empire, and lackeys to the British, to whom we dutifully doffed our caps.

But it was there that he found freedom I think. For once in his life he answered to no-one but the authority of the military. In the photos he is young and smiling, genuinely happy. The trouble is… that he  despite a natural leadership he, to this day, dismays of authority and is endlessly running afoul of it. It was for that reason he was promoted to sergeant and busted to private three times. What larks, indeed.

The War. A friend today talks of the crucible of war as a place for young men to enjoy a particular freedom the veil of society masks. When men return from active service they see the regularity and norms of civilian life as an active constraint on their true natures, a limit to their abilities, and a restraint on their potential. Theirs is both opportunity and horror in war, one never realised by the cloistered and ordered suburbs, and one mimicked poorly by soft, pretentious counter-cultures, the latter itself proving a great irony.

And so it was there, serving in J-Force his eyes were opened to what the world really was. A country boy from small-town New Zealand seeing the shadows on the steps. Taking the admiral’s flag and sword from the bridge of a salvaged battleship. Seeing a proud nation in abject humiliation. Seeing the bodies of boys his age decomposing, wasting, lives squandered in the utter blackness of a vast steel mausoleum.

F,FLP

Well, we’re about 26 hours back from @glynnfoster and @jaynew‘s wedding at Furneaux Lodge in the Marlborough sounds, and I think I’ve almost recovered. What a smashing event.

Originally we thought we’d leave Chef Du Plunge at home with his grandma, but he was off the bottle about a month ago and there’s been no convincing him that it’s not a bad thing. I was even starting to show him the bottle first thing in the morning (when he hadn’t eaten for several hours), and he’d just look at the thing with this expression like “what you taking ’bout Willis?” And that would be the end of the conversation.

The first hurdle was getting CDP through two ferry trips, one of three+ hours to Picton, then another 1 1/2 to the Lodge. The next was discovering that the bunkrooms we organised were, essentially, camping. Outdoor toilet block and pay-showers included. The good news is that I like camping, so it wasn’t a problem, just… a bit of a shock, and we had no preparation for it.

We made it through the first night without incident, except for the lights outside the bunkroom not switching off and CDP thinking that it was dawn. And pretty much all night. He’d wake up and kind of go, “gaaaaaaaaaaaaa, goo! gaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaAAAAaaaaa, goo!” for about 30 minutes at a time. Cute? Yes. Annoying? Not really. At least he wasn’t hollering. We figured it was his way of saying, “wake up!! play time!!” The next night we had a quick word to the owner of the place and he happily had the lights switched off. Sweet as.

Man, what scenery. I think growing up in New Zealand I’m pretty much spoiled for natural beauty. Consequently things like Sounds with all that greenery don’t really flick my switch, but there was a time when I was walking back to the reception tent, near dusk, after checking that CDP was still sleeping in the room, and rain clouds were perched in the tops of the surrounding ridges, with fog-like tendrils floating down the gullies and through the trees.

Gorgeous.

Those same rain clouds had threatened the ceremony earlier in the day, but fortunately the wedding celebrant was well onto it, and had the whole shebang finished within seconds of the rain starting. The bride and groom has just walked away, now officially married, from the altar and into the Lodge when the rain started to spatter the guests. The accompanying Southerly merely assured that all the guests huddled for the better part of the evening.

The reception itself was terrific, with a more than adequate MC, and only one embarrassing relative incident (which was hilarious in retrospect, agonising at the time). And the food? Man… the food. Some of the chef’s ways made me think he was likely an arsehat (i.e. only serving food at 9am the next morning, buffet only, not options, with a bunch of guests sailing at or around 930? wtf?), but his food was awesome. The scallops in vanilla butter? nomnomnomnom.

And CDP? Sailed through it like a trooper. Charmed the ladies. Puked on no-one important (besides mum and dad). Slept on command (almost). And even handled the extremely rough seas heading back into Wellington. Man. Took us 8 hours to get from the Sounds back to home, and he did a great job of keeping it together while children were falling to pieces around us.

So all in all a great holiday. I’m far from refreshed for work, but the wedding itself is something I’ll write about in detail on another day. Let’s just say that some people deserve to he happy, and @jaynew is one of them. I’ve not know her long, and still not well, but everything I hear says that she’s one out of the box. Jayne, if you read this, I can’t imagine anyone else who more deserves what I think you now have.

Until I realised that this novel is nought but a p!ss-take, I was a little disappointed. I’m a fan of storyline in my books, and The Caryatids unfolds as a set of short stories interconnected by their protagonists being cloned sisters. Yay.

The setting is a world embracing the disaster of climate change. The air is heavily polluted, the oceans rising, and most nation-states have collapsed, unable to support their populations. This is of course a very real possibility (climate change, and disaster relief will likely bankrupt most Western nations in the next hundred years). Naturally things then go, you know, ‘crazy’. Into this post-disaster world have stepped two main ideological forces, the ‘Dispensation’, and the ‘Acquis’. The latter are tech-heavy hippies, and are trying to restore an environment polluted by the actions of the late-C20th and early C21st. The former are, I discovered, basically the worse cultural aspects of Americanism, writ large.

And it was then that the book started to make sense. The dialogue between characters of the Dispensation was… insane, and shallow beyond comprehension at first. A bit like trying to make sense of many, many American teenagers. But once I twigged, it was at times laugh-out-loud funny.

So all in all not a bad read at all. There’s nothing much to follow except a series of crazy episodes, so just hunker down and see what Sterling thinks the Brave New World will look like. The climate change subject is likely to continue to be a fruitful one for pretty much every novelist you can imagine…

It was from there the divergence began. Though symmetry existed (a bizarre symmetry that continues to this day, for the mother of my own son is also born to two families of 5 children, her mother the only daughter among sons, her father the only son among daughters), a divergence occured. And so one half of my history waxes, the other wanes.

My Grandfather tells me a tale, once, in a moment of confidence. It is a tale of small-town prejudice, and the malice of the small man. It goes like this. When my Great-Uncle, marries my Great-Grandfather is very proud, and as a wedding gift to the pair buys them a house in Te Aroha. When my second Great-Uncle marries, my Great-Grandfather is again very proud, and also buys them a house, but this time in Hamilton where the young couple is to live. Unfortunately, this house is less expensive that the elder sons’, so he also buys the couple an automobile. But my Grandfather chooses to marry, and my Great-Grandfather gives him 50 pound, and tells him to take care of it.

One waxes, the other wanes.

And so it was that a family is born into moonlight. The fuzzy light, shadowless, secretive. A light to hide shame, where fumbles and trickery are the norm. The soft theatrical spotlight, revealing partial shadow and emphasis, the shepherds’ crook waiting just off-stage to yank the unwanted comedian out and away from the expectant audience. The bawdy laughter rolling out from a bored provincial crowd.

But it was a choice, yes? After making so much of choice in these pages, it’s hard not to see all choice as natural and good, is it not? This is all the more important where the choice is made of honour, of the want to be decent. And most important? A man’s choice is followed by rugged determination to stand by that decision regardless of consequence.

And that was what I learned from that confidence. Fate dictates what will be, and we must wear it stoically, across squared shoulders, for to struggle against fate is to bring suffering, unhappiness. It is only in the understanding of the light in which we are raised that the delicate knitting of fate becomes apparent, and the interwoven threads of our families are laid open to the hazy light of night, and the remedy of the darning needle is stayed, lest it unravel all our lives.

But sunlight did not fall again on his face, ever.

F,FLP

I had a suspicion that this was the book Clarke wrote that inspired a fair amount of derision. In Fountains Clarke postulates the construction of a “space elevator“, a tower extending from Earth out beyond the gravitational field. It’s an idea that has been outlined at length in a large number of science fiction novels, including the recently-read Red Mars.

The (possibly apocryphal) tale I heard was that the idea of the space elevator was widely mocked by “real” scientists. An interviewer asked Clarke, “so when do you think this idea will be taken seriously?”, Clarke replied, “about 50 years after everyone stops laughing.” When I heard it the tale was enough to make me realise that not all ideas need to be met immediately. Sometimes ideas ripen, ready to be delivered.

Anyhow, the story centres on the engineer who attempts to build the space elevator. And that’s about it.

This isn’t Clarke’s most inspired story, and while there are some interesting subplots generating commentary on religion, alien visitation, and the nature of “God”, the whole novel itself is generally disjointed an pulpy. Reading this was mostly an exploration to see if more of Clarke’s writing was interesting.

Short answer? No.

No tension, no compelling characters, some great ideas, and little else.

Readable if you get stuck, or are a diehard fan of old writers with slightly homoerotic titles.

Well, what with babies waking up so early and all it’s probably a good thing I’ve given up drinking but for the very occasional beer. Man… I haven’t slept past 6.30am for longer than I can remember. Strangely, part of that is spending much of last year starting work at 8am! So I was well prepared for the transition. Likewise the oft-whinged-about heart trouble meant that before my operation I rarely slept a full night for about 18months, so exhaustion was pretty much par for the course.

All that said, am a little bit tired.

As I may have mentioned, Sunday is Father-Son Day, when Chef Du Plunge and I head out into the city to get things done. There are often trips to Mitre10, occasional trips to Moore Wilsons, but usually a trip to somewhere for “Dad to find coffee”.

The upside is that I’m very fond of coffee. The other upside is that CDP absolutely despises his pram. I think he sees it lurking in the living room and he seems to bear a deep and abiding suspicion of it. Yes… the evil pram… tool of his arch-enemy… the midday nap.

The truth of the matter is that I want him awake while we’re out and about, and sleeping when he’s supposed to be, which gives me time to get stuff done. Consequently we’ve been using a front-pack to cart the wee man about. It’s a good one that can support a child up to 12kg, and we’ll need every gram of space in it. The other reason he seems to hate the pram is that it’s constricting. CDP is a bit of a free spirit, and doesn’t like being locked into things; car-seats included. Alternately it could be because he’s twice the size of an infant his age – as big as your average 7-month old…

So. No pram. Must use front-pack. But this allows me to wander into a shop as small as Simply Paris on Cuba St, chat to the barista, “Yes yes, extremely cute beby. One short black coffee and the ham/cheese croissant please. Merci”, then stand outside at the “leaner” tables and sip my coffee, whilst also nibbling a pastry.

CDP coos at passersby, and occasionally waves his arms, all in the safety and warmth of “The Elite“, and never complaining about my leaving pastry crumbs on his noggin.

At around 9.40 I wander home, have him changed out of his nappy, and into bed by 10am. Where he cries until he falls asleep.

Pretty cruisy right?

Well, right. It is cruisy. Which is why I wonder about two things. Why in hell you’d live in the suburbs with a small child like CDP. Wandering around the block to amuse a bored baby just makes for a more bored Dad. The other thing is why some people see this as a constraint on their freedom?

It’s a great cliche that guys see fatherhood as “the loss of their freedom”.

But the freedom to do what? Sink booze? Play Wii? Not get action and complain about being single?

Sure a change of lifestyle is necessary when you swap to parenting, but it’s hardly all hard graft. Most blokes I know have had to give up something, but… so what? When you have that little blighter smiling and you in the morning because they’re so damn happy to see you, it’s worth every video game I should have grown out of 10 years ago.

I was cautious about reading this novel after the disappointment of Halting State, but while not bowled over by Saturn’s Children was at least impressed by the crazy, crazy ideas Stross comes up with.

Knowing that sometimes scifi is merely an opportunity for a thinker to showcase either ideas or imagination, witness Red Mars as an example, I embraced Saturn’s Children in the spirit it was intended. And was therefore pleasantly suprised.

Saturn’s Children is the tale of a “robot” [read: android] living in a post homo sapien universe. After creating multiple types of robot to colonise the solar system humanity has expired, but the intelligences we create to assist us are living on. It’s a great premise. Personally I’ve always thought that Clarke’s BLACK MONOLITH travelling through outer space was always more realistic that trying to develop some fictional “hyperdrive”. The fact is, “monkey in a can” is not really a viable option in an environment as hostile as deep space. Androids however? No worries.

Anywho, I digress. The android in question is accidentally drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding the possible smuggling of “replicators” [read: the DNA templates for biological lifeforms], which are highly illegal in this fictional future. And from there this turns into a possible series of books about post-human life.

Now while I’d like to call this space opera, the apparent hard science underlying the novel is plausible enough to my non-trained mind that it keeps the opera label well away, and therefore improves the story. The description of the shitness of space travel is highly amusing for example.

So, all in all, a decent read. And especially for those with a scientific bent to them. Not as fantastic as Atrocity Archives, but… so be it. I’ll try to return this to the library tomorrow, for someone who wants to read it [/looks at Alan]

There is a strange symmetry between my maternal and paternal grandparents that is, in all likelihood, something I should have noticed early in life. Both were young during the Great Depression, which swept across New Zealand and changed attitudes for some, reinforced them for others, and was purposefully interrupted by the Second World War. Further, both were romantic liaisons halted while the boys went into the Forces, and resumed upon their return.

For my father’s parents, theirs was the idyll of the apparent innocent of that Age. The enforced modesty of the post-Depression era, and the opprobrium of a post-Edwardian society still enthralled to cold love of the Mother Country meant that if theres was a fiery romance, it was not known to their children.

They recount the tale of a long bicycle ride out to the beach, to sit on grassed cliff-tops, eat watermelon, sunbathe. Did they canoodle in that place? Who knows. Did they hold hands and walk as young lovers? Kiss passionately as young people did, in that crazy, clumsy, Hollywood-esque face-planting so popular in the films of the times?

It was a time before rebellion became the norm. When courting was very much to be done properly. They were in an Auckland of appropriate behaviours and discrete, proper communities, just before the full popularisation of the motorcar, that great leveller, broke down barriers across the city, and created the metropolitan identity New Zealanders south of the Bombay hills dislike so intently.

My mother’s parents? As I say, there is a symmetry, but theirs was the small-town life. Bawdy, earthen, closer to Life itself. Theirs is a tale of a smile across a dancefloor, and a wild night of laughter. He tells of another boy interested in her, but he won her over. They spun on the dancefloor, and He, the competitor swung to close to them. My grandfather, in what became the talk of the district, flicked his hand past the competitor as he and my grandmother moved. The competitor found all this buttons had come undone, and his trousers fell to his ankles.

I can imagine the laughter now. The rolling crowd, drunk on local beer and cigarettes. The Sunday-Best dress. The slicked haircuts and cocked eyebrows. Farmer’s sons and daughters mixing it up with local shopkeepers kids. Youth spilling out of the hall to clutch at one another in their parent’s cars.

Another Age.

The same and yet so different to our own. Each a union of a small Catholic woman of Taranaki ancestry and a tall non-Catholic man. And from these two unions came two families. Each of five children. Each of whom contributed their middle child to what would eventually become my creation. And these families, living on the edge of what was to become a revolution in social thinking and action, were unawares of what was to befall them.

F,FLP

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