books


Having more than a passing interest in history this book jumped out at me as part of a peruse of the interweb. Meso-American and Andean cultures seem to be something many people are interested in, but finding books that move past the usual tropes are hard to find.

Mann really lifts the game in relation to enabling greater understanding of what the Americas were like before European intrusion, primarily by addressing the greater myths and demolishing them in order. The concern with this type of book is that the mythbusting can sometimes stray far too close to explanations that end in “because aliens”. For example, “how could nomadic, semi-conscious tribes build the step pyramids?” Answer – aliens did it.

1491 uses the latest research to demonstrate that the Americas were home to a succession of advanced urban civilisations, demolishes the “population by land-bridge” argument, undermines the “Western wilderness” fallacy, and brings a detailed, but not obsessively undue amount of attention to the scale and number of cultures displaced by Europeans.

All in all, it’s a fascinating read, and highly recommended.

As we move further and further away from the decade that was the War on Terror it becomes easier to view the madness as an aberration, and harder to view the surveillance state legacy as something normal. Personally, this difficulty is compounded by my experience of being a 20-something in the golden decade of freedom that followed the end of the Cold War and the long peace it delivered for most.

Incendiary is set at the edge of our current surveillance state, with a terrorist bombing profoundly effecting change in the life of our highly nervous protagonist. The cascade of events comes fast, and sweeps up the characters in a colossal and irresistible wave of action and reaction.

What I liked most about the novel was the incredible likability of the main character, and, in fact the characters in general. The people are in equal measures both human and unbelievably inhumane, a bizarre mishmash of the profoundly beautiful and intensely ugly condensed almost effortlessly.  You find yourself both understanding and despising some characters in equal measure, and all are inclined to work their way under your skin.

Recommended for: any occasion. Light enough to read on a plane, but deep enough to compel you to switch off the idiot box and read instead.

Ganymede is apparently the fourth book in a series, and I think I may have made a mistake reading it. While on the whole Cherie writes very well, this novel reads like an appendix to whatever books came before it.

The story revolves around New Orleans and two characters apparently drawn from the Priest’s earlier novels. They need to rescue a new bit of tech, a ‘submarine’, from the evil clutches of the Texan army and deliver it to the Union, thereby potentially ending the war. But! Before this can happen there are zombies to battle, sneakiness to be sneaked, and some of the most disjointed action you’ve ever read to tackle.

As I say, Priest writes well. I connected with the characters almost immediately, and bought into the altiverse she proposes. But the plot and story itself are disconnected, haphazard, and most probably churned out by an author who has moved into the “words per day per hour and let’s make money” stage of their career. I think that if she’s taken time to read back over what she’d written, and perhaps actually turn it into a coherent narrative, this might actually have been a great read, instead of an OK one.

Recommended for: Airports.

I think we’ll all need to agree that steampunk is now approaching its use-by date. I’m not meaning this in  spiteful way, more that steampunk has settled into that comfortable middle-age of genres – there are still just enough newbies out there who don’t think it’s old hat yet, but in itself it’s widening around the middle and becoming all-too-predictable.

So let’s compare it to true sci-fi. Back in the 1950s science fiction was brand-spanking new. It was crazy aliens, rockets, flying cars and keen-as-beans astronauts. Today it’s pretty much settled into a series of familiar tropes. Things like warp drives and hyperdrives, giant spaceships and wars with unknown powers. The genre is driven best by people who understand things tech, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll be getting the same old space opera with inter-changeable characters and predictable narrative.

And there we say welcome to The Falling Machine. While Meyer writes well, this is pretty familiar stuff with ever-so-slight twists on steampunk canon. I’d recommend it for reading on a holiday, or perhaps on the bus.

I persevered with this book because the author is a Kiwi and I wanted give him a fair go, but for the life of me I’m still not entirely sure what in the hell Burnt Ice is. And that fact pretty much sums the novel up.

This is a spoiler alert.

I’m suspicious that burnt ice refers to a period the crew spend inside a comet travelling between star systems. The galling thing is that the chain of events that get them to this point are strange. Wheeler has an impressive imagination, but the plot of this novel is non-existent. The chapters are a series of vignettes strung together without any real semblance of continuity, the characters appallingly one-dimensional, and the emphasis almost exclusively placed on “nifty ideas” that are sprinkled through the pages like leavening.

As an example, the first chapter or so is centred on introducing a critical, all important star system that our soldier heroes are transported to. So far, so good. But then, as if out of the blue this base is assaulted by sentient squid that are barely mentioned except as back-drop for the remainder of the “story”. This leaves the reader asking, “wtf?”, “where did they come from?”, “what was their beef with the humans?”, “if they’re attacking us, are they the bad guys?”, and “why did a couple of them sample the tissue of one of our characters, but this is never used in the story?”. The entire chapter could have been dispensed with and covered with the line, “after the attack of the squidlings was repulsed, they sent some heroes out to the galaxy to get answers.”

And… that pretty much sums up the whole novel. Where there should be action, there is a paragraph and we’re done. Where there should be tech that makes up the background and adds colour to the story, we have extended descriptions and pointless blather.

Two-word review: End already.

And here in the first of the ‘How to cook from an 80s cookbook’ series is Beggar’s chicken. To be honest I’m surprised they didn’t call this something dodgy, but there you go. Apparently PC was alive an well as early as the mid-80s. And so we begin:

This is one of the renowed dishes of the Orient. The chicken was originally wrapped in lotus leaves, then in clay, then thrown into a hot fire. Supply chopsticks for four lucky people.

You’ll need:

1.5kg chicken

3 shallots (I used a small onion, which was probably a mistake)

2.5cm piece green ginger

1 tsp sugar

3 tbsps soy sauce

2 tbsps dry sherry

1 tbsp water

1/4 tsp five spice powder

2 extra tbsp soy sauce

2 tbsps oil

extra oil

1kg cooking salt (!!)

4 cups plain flour

1 1/2 cups water (approx)

The recipe itself is pretty simple, the first thing to do is to mix all the dough, then stuff the chicken with the surprisingly limited amount of spices, wrap the whole shebang in foil and dough, and cook that thing for a total of FOUR HOURS. You’ll need to pay attention to that last bit.

(more…)

I came to The Iron Heel from a list of “Dystopian Fiction” I found on the interweb, a list also including such classics as 1984 and A Handmaiden’s Tale. It was interesting then to later discover that The Iron Heel is cited as an influence on Orwell, because the similarity in the authoritarian nations that emerge in London’s alternate-history USA and the industrialised world of Oceania is obvious, despite the two authorities being respectively Fascist and Communist.

The similarity in the nature of the authoritarianism depicted by London and Orwell reinforces for me the ease with which any imaginer can foresee their own system of government slipping into a future distinguished most strongly by control, with the machinery of this control only differentiated by favoured contemporary political philosophies. The potential to garner authority (and its exercise by an oligarchy or plutocracy) imagined by these authors is also exhibited the recently-read Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things (1987).

Of course, it is nothing new to claim that all dystopia are marked by authority-masquerading-as-utopia. What is interesting to me is the manner in which dystopia is so readily imagined to emerge as a consequence of contemporary events, and the suggestion that the here and now may, by virtue of being the opposite of that dreaded  future, in fact be the utopia we have long sought. This is especially the case when reading other contemporary fiction such as Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003, which I’m currently in the middle of) and by Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009), where the marvels of the C20th and early C21st are remembered as halcyon days.

The placement of utopia in the here and now, instead of placing it as a future to serve in contrast to a dystopia we need fear, a heaven and hell, is an idea in which I have become increasingly interested. In a manner of speaking, we do currently live in London’s  “wonder-city of Asgard”, and our capitalists do operate an oligarchy in which a great many wonders are possible. It was strange therefore to be reading The Iron Heel as the Occupy Movement began to unfold across the US, and to see the authorities in Oakland begin to come down on protest. Part of me wondered if what London calls ‘standing on faces’ might not have continued and expanded had there been a different President in the White House.

While The Iron Heel degrades into a fantasy of class-, or caste-based warfare, the initial exposition of the failures of capitalism are very interesting, presenting as they do a critique of an economy in which monopoly and resource exploitation are rife, and in which competition to smother smaller players is both necessary and acceptable. While reading of absorption of the petite bourgeoisie by the corporations I was easily able to see the expansion of the mega-malls across the US, and the migration of the small-business-owner into minimum-wage jobs, and in the transformation of farmers to serfs I was reminded of the growth of gigantic monoculture industrial farming.

So does this mean that I think the US is slipping into authoritarianism, with London writing a vague script to a gathering revolution? No more than I think 1984 is likely. As it is The Iron Heel sits alongside the great dystopian works as a reminder of the paths on which no rational humanist would want to find themself. Moreover, what The Iron Heel and 1984 have in common is an imagined world in which resource-exploitation continues to be feasible. If you contrast those worlds to more recent works such as the aforementioned Oryx and Crake, Far North, or even Bruce Sterling The Caryatids (2009), all of which feature the collapse of the nation-state system under stress from resource shortages and environmental change, things start to get a little more real.

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