You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2010.

The Rock and Roll Reich had spent a decade using the music as a tool of social control, taming the beleaguered English with free concerts; selling Ax’s Utopian manifesto with stirring anthems and spectacular futuristic tech. They had forged rock and roll idealism into a national religion, a passion that made hard times sweet, and it had worked.

During the week it was revealed that Alan Moore completist Pádraig Ó Méalóid had published an article by the Northampton Magus on his livejournal in two parts. In short a typically verbose and associative rant by Moore on all matters magic(k)al and the effect of populism thereon. It includes this typical pithy comparison of Aleister Crowley to contemporary goth culture –

Or there’s Alex Crowley, tiresomely attempting to persuade his school-chums to refer to him as Shelley’s Alastor, like some self-conscious Goth from Nottingham called Dave insisting that his vampire name is Armand.

The figure of ‘The Beast’, came to symbolize the democratization of the occult, with the previously upper class fascination offered by the likes of Madame Blavatsky and The Golden Dawn suddenly impacting on popular culture with the advent of the 1960’s. There is Crowley on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band cover. Then we have The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request album (not to mention Sympathy for the Devil).

It just so happens Gwyneth Jones’ sf series is concerned with a twenty-first century Britain gripped by a revival of 1960’s occultism/ rock and roll cult of personality. Except revolution for these radicals is not tokenistic phrases and a tattered Che Guevara bedroom wall poster, but an actual political movement that changes the face of Europe.

I did not realize this was actually the final book in a series of five novels concerned Jones’ ambitious vision of a future society wracked by war, global economic ruin and climate change. Concerning a ‘Triumvirate’, of rock gods – Ax, Sage and Fiorinda – who have survived years of revolution and war, only to now be facing surrender to an occupying Chinese army. Britain under their rule was transformed by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich, actualizing 1960’s utopian idealism and green values, as well as an entente cordiale with the British Islamic separatist movement. All of this despite the evil wrought by Fiorinda’s father Rufus O’Niall and his fascist movement, as well Sage’s defeat of the Pentagon’s plan to create a psychic weapon of immense power. Indeed it is only due to these incredible successes that the Chinese may have spared the lives of the Triumvirate.

If anything the conquerors of Britain want to make their own use of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Reich to win the hearts and minds of the shell-shocked English. The Celtic nations of Scotland and Ireland have managed to wrangle their own form of independence by accepting the Chinese. England shall be a test-case intended to demonstrate to the rest of Europe that domination by China is inevitable, perhaps even desirable. Meanwhile Ax attempts to be the statesman his career as a rock star somehow destined him to be and negotiate a peaceful future for the English. His followers are under house arrest, their every word is being recorded by spies and his boyfriend Sage will not agree to marry him. Plus Fiorinda is pregnant again. Charming the People’s Republic of China has become the biggest gig of his band’s career.

As this is the fifth book in a series there is a hell of a lot of exposition to get to grips with. Jones lays it out with aplomb, mostly thanks to the frankly endless stream of out and out crazy ideas. The title doubles as a Hendrix reference and a nod to Britain’s Viking cultural inheritance. Rufus O’Niall appears to have been a malevolent force to rival the Beast himself and the talk of a ‘Neurobomb’, and a pychic cold war seems like something out of The Invisibles.

This could all be so much 1960’s pretentious twaddle, but there is much of interest here.

Particularly the notion of rock stars in politics. One of the most recent examples is Bono’s cosying up to political elites in both Britain and America. I remember there were rumours at the Make Poverty History concert that the Irishman would perform on stage with the surviving Beatles and Tony Blair, rock star manqué. Michael Moorcock covered similar ground in King of the City.

Mad, sexy and very enjoyable. Great fun, need to read the rest now.

There was still everything to do – one saw that at a glance. But Ashley saw things differently from his father and grandfather. They had always had in mind a picture they had brought from ‘home’, orderly fields divided by hedgerows, to which the present landscape, by planning and shaping, might one day be made to approximate. But for Ashley this was the first landscape he had known and he did not impose that other, greener one upon it; it was itself.

I am constantly amazed by this country and its incredible flora & fauna. I have spoken here before about how much I enjoy just sitting on the porch watching the birds. The other morning I found a number of baby Huntsman spiders in the house. Considering I have developed a sudden fear of spiders since coming here – well they’re bigger and poisonous unlike their European cousins – I found the little creatures surprisingly cute. However, a lot of Australia is also familiar. After all it was colonized by Britain over two hundred years ago and has kept pace culturally. Here I am on the other side of the world drinking Dr. Pepper.

The two protagonists of this novel, Ashley and Jim, view Australia’s natural state as a privilege, its untamed landscape something that should be preserved. The two men are both descended from English colonists, yet divided by class. Still they possess an equal fascination for the land they think of as they own.

Ashley encounters Jim during an afternoon ride through his ‘property’, and is inspired to hire the young man (though there are only three years difference between them) to identify the different species of birds who inhabit the area. He declares the land to be a sanctuary, a refuge for the wildlife that they find there, not to be tilled, shaped into gardens, or plots.

While Ashley is a ‘to the manor born’, product of wealth, having studied in Cambridge and Germany and become accustomed to a life of leisure, Jim’s fascination with the land is the result of his desire to escape his violent father. Secretly he fears that he has inherited the family lust for violence. The monitoring of birds proves to be his dream job, a calming and meditative activity. Imogen Harcourt, a fellow naturalist, becomes the final piece of the trio, helping Jim catalogue the species of birds with her detailed photography.

The second half of the novel disrupts this quiet sense of calm, with the call to war in Europe dragging both Ashley and Jim across to the other side of the world, the one to officer class, with his employee sent into the trenches around Armentières. The horrors of war transform Jim’s perception of the world. Where previously he could lose himself in the wonders of nature, his posting on the frontline causes him to envision a future defined by the industry of war itself. Everything free and natural that he loves will be so much collateral damage in the territorial conflicts of man.

David Malouf’s writing is both poetical and elegiac in its descriptions of two men’s growing awareness of the transience of nature and human experience. Jim’s thoughts in particular are beautifully captured. Malouf even finds strange comedy amidst the chaos of war, with a German soldier earning the nickname ‘Parapet Joe’, for his habit of shooting his machine-gun to jazz rhythms. This is later followed by a stunning vision of the afterlife, with the Australian Diggers living up to their name for all eternity.

Malouf’s story is also one of ‘refugees’, with Imogen and Jim sighting a bird native to England that has made it all the way to Queensland. Whereas Jim thinks he has discovered a new species, to Imogen it symbolizes everything she has left behind. Jim and Ashley insist on they’re being ‘native Australians’, with Aboriginals appearing only briefly during the course of the novel. They do not realize how they themselves are refugees. When the war in Europe overtakes them it is only they fading memory of the beautiful landscape they have left behind that gives them hope.

This is a delicately moving and beautifully phrased novel.

‘Sure,’ said George. ‘We kinda look after each other.’ He indicated Lennie with his thumb. ‘He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.’

Slim looked through George and beyond him. ‘Ain’t many guys travel around together.’ He mused. ‘I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.’

I had to study Steinbeck’s The Pearl when I was preparing for my Junior Cert exams. Sadly I suspect having to read a book in school often has the effect off killing of any interest the writing might invoke. Obviously not always, but in my mind the writing of Steinbeck is synonymous with the schoolroom. This is a real shame, as it has taken sixteen years for me to read another book of his.

George and Lennie are labourers travelling on the road during the Great Depression. It is a hard time for everyone and few can afford to work land on their own, becoming itinerant farm hands to make what little money they can. George complains often about how he has to care for Lennie, a giant of a man with the mind of a child. Not knowing his own strength, the gentle giant was involved in an incident at their last job that forced the two men to go on the run. George desperately tries to teach Lennie not to draw attention to himself, promising a bright future once they earn enough, living off land of their own, with rabbits that he can play with as a reward for his good behavior.

After they arrive at their new job, George quickly realizes that they are going to have to keep their heads down. The boss’ son Curley takes an immediate dislike to Lennie, looking to prove himself by getting into a fight with the much larger man. If that was not bad enough, Curley’s wife of two weeks has a habit of flirting with the labourers, which only makes the jumped up landowner’s son even angrier. When elderly farmhand Candy offers to go in with the two men on their plan to buy property of their own, it seems their dreams are just within reach. George just has to make sure Lennie does not draw any undue attention to himself.

Steinbeck writes simply and directly without sentiment, or overwrought moralizing. When Lennie begs George to talk about their wonderful plans for the future it is heart-breaking, as is his childlike joy at petting small, vulnerable animals. Unfortunately as he does not know his own strength, he can accidentally harm such creatures, an ominous hint of where Steinbeck intends to take his story.

The symbol of an elderly dog close to death lies at the heart of this story. In a time of such economic desperation men are reduced to the state of animals and the long suffering dog’s fate reminds his owner Candy that he can expect little more mercy.

This book is so sad it brought a tear to my eye, but I also could not help but admire Steinbeck’s gift for expressing such humble truth.

“I’ve fought ten single combats and I won them all, but I fought on the wrong side and for all the wrong reasons. I’ve been ruthless, and brutal, and a coward. I’ve stabbed men in the back, burned them, drowned them, crushed them with rocks, killed them asleep, unarmed, or running away. I’ve run away myself more than once, I’ve pissed myself with fear. I’ve begged for my life. I’ve been wounded, often, and badly, and screamed and cried like a baby whose mother took her tit away. I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if I’d been killed years ago, but I haven’t been, and I don’t know why.”

Ok, a one sentence review. If you like the fantasy novels of Andrzej Sapkowski, Fritz Leiber, or George R.R. Martin, you are required by law to love this book.

Oh I’m sorry, should I go on?

The quote above is taken from a rare speech from Logen Ninefingers, the ostensible ‘hero’, of this book – although it quickly becomes apparent that there are no virtuous heroes in Abercrombie’s grimy fantasy world. The story actually follows three threads attached to three protagonists.

Logen, the warrior from the North with a bloody reputation; Sand dan Glotka, who heads the Inquisition of the city of Adua and having survived years of horrible torture has returned a broken man, burning with the desire to make others suffer as he has suffered; and the pompous young lord Jezal dan Luther, whose station in life has awarded him great advantages that he takes for granted.

These three men are slowly drawn into a vast conspiracy that will see kingdoms clash, barbarism sweep the land and a malevolent force from the ancient past twist the rules of life and death.

When we first meet Logen he has just fallen to his presumed death from a cliff after a battle with savage Shanka marauders. Alone, tired and hungry, with his only friend a cooking pot, Logen comes upon a bedraggled young man who claims to be an apprentice magus. Apparently this nervous young fellow’s master, the legendary magus Bayaz, has requested the presence of the infamous Ninefingers. Having nothing to lose, his honour long gone, along with friends and family, Logen agrees to travel southwards.

Below the border with the Northern kingdoms, Glotka and his torturers have been set upon a conspiracy between the merchant classes against the crown. Glotka was once a noble himself, a handsome soldier whose skill with the fencing sabre won him fame and the love of women. After years as a hostage he has been reduced to a physical cripple, sucking soup through gummy jaws and in constant pain. He takes no passion in inflicting similar suffering on those he questions, as he is no longer capable of feeling much emotion at all.

However, he does feel contempt for Jezal, who reminds him so much of himself as a younger man. The lord is selfish, ignorant and through the advantages afforded him due to his breeding, a natural adept with the blade. His reputation rests on success in the annual ‘Contest’, a battle of skills between the greatest fencers within the kingdom. Confident to the point of extreme arrogance, Jezal finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed with the sister of a superior officer, a woman named Ardee who disturbs his self-possession with her quick wit and knowing smile. She is a commoner though and he a lord, so a match between them would be impossible. Which only serves to spur on his desire for her.

The overall plot of the book is concerned with corruption, intrigues at court and a growing war between the allied kingdoms of the Union and the Northern lands belonging to the war-chief Bethod. More peripheral characters are drawn into the plot, with dialogue liberally peppered with contemporary insults. The book’s title itself comes from a quote from Homer and its moral compass swings wildly from one extreme to another. In that at least it has a lot in common with recent attempts to deconstruct the fantasy novel, but more importantly Abercrombie is very funny (which is surprising giving the amount of gore and slaughter on show here).

This is quite a thick tome, the first book in a series called The First Law (referring to a rule practiced by the magi to not communicate with spirits), yet I flew through it in a day. Great ribald fun.

Reviewing this book presents an interesting problem. Generally when I write I refer to my knowledge of the author, or the material to ensure readers are familiar with what I am about to discuss. However, here I am writing about Wonder Woman, a superhero of sixty-nine years standing. Yet the character published in the comics today is nothing like that originally created by William Marston in 1941. There have been several reinventions of the character, with her personality and background having undergone drastic changes. In fact at the time of writing, J. Michael Straczynski has ushered in yet another revamp. Of course for any non-comic readers, this must all seem impenetrable. Most remember Wonder Woman as the character played by Lynda Carter on television.

Who is Wonder Woman?

What I admire about Gail Simone’s approach to this question is that she touches lightly on all the differing and conflicting iterations of the character’s history, endorsing each interpretation, while at the same time strongly asserting what Wonder Woman is not. As this collection concludes her run on the book, the final two stories of her run reassert the author’s view of the Amazonian princess. She is a warrior, but never a murderer, taking life only when she has no other choice. She is proud, but not prideful and feels slightly isolated by how others regard her. She calls the women she meets ‘sister’, due to a sense of affection and fellow feeling. She is a feminist icon, but more than that she is an inspiration to everyone.

In effect Simone and Marston are here at least on the same page. Wonder Woman as a character is equally as great, if not greater, than Superman.

Contagion collects the final two stories, A Murder of Crows illustrated by Aaron Lopresti and Wrath of the Silver Serpent with Australian artist Nicola Scott as well as Fernando Dagnino.

A Murder of Crows opens with what I assume is a homage to one of my favourite B-Movies Q The Winged Serpent, directed by Larry Cohen. An Aztec god is feeding in the subway tunnels of Washington DC. After forcing the deity to relieve himself of a train full of passengers, he confesses to Wonder Woman that he was compelled to attack the commuters, not usually having any taste for humans. Then the villains of the piece are revealed. Sinister boys dressed in mocked up school uniforms who are mentally influencing the citizens of Washington to give into feelings of rage and hatred.

The violence soon escalates, with people of different creeds fighting openly in the streets. Power Girl (Superman’s cousin from another reality…comics are confusing) arrives to investigate, only to also fall under the sway of the malevolent children. In time honoured fashion, the two comic book heroes fight one another, with Wonder Woman surprised to find herself punched as far as Canada!

Simone has a lot of fun with the brotherhood of the crows, who resemble the Children of the Damned and enjoy commenting sarcastically about the chaos they are causing. One even mentions that he will be going online later to blog his views on the events of the evening. The ‘versus battle’ between Power Girl and Wonder Woman gives Simone the opportunity to introduce alternating narration from both characters describing their impressions of one another. It makes for strong character beats and demonstrates an understanding of what makes the two women tick.

Wrath of the Silver Serpent is a more epic story, with an invading army of aliens who live by a corrupted Amazonian code besieging Washington DC. Wonder Woman discovers a disturbing connection between herself and the marauding aliens, heavily armed female warriors who decimate planets, converting everything on the surface into food to feed themselves. They choose only one hundred women from each world they visit to become members of their ‘citizenry’ and then move on. Wonder Woman proposes to their fanatical leader Astarte a public trial by combat between herself and their greatest warrior in order to spare the Earth.

This story has everything from widescreen action spectacles to the thematic subtext of what makes an Amazon ‘peace loving warrior’. It also features one of the few male gay superheroes in the DC, a reincarnated Achilles, who rides a flying elephant. There are also talking albino gorillas. It’s that kind of book.

In my opinion this is the definitive take on Wonder Woman. I recommend the whole run.

I pretend to look at her kitchen while I think about everything Lily has just said and how she must feel when people pretend not to see her, or her illness. She’s sick, not stupid, so being invisible must be…well…it must certainly be something. I’m just not sure what. Worse still, I don’t know if I’m one of those people. I don’t know if I’ve ever ‘not seen’ someone, or if I’ve seen their illness instead of them. I’ve never thought about it before.

From the title alone I could tell this book would be something different. Where other stories about people living with disabilities can be sanctimonious or overly sentimental, Rebecca Bloomer set out to tell her tale with good humour and directness. It is an approach not unlike Foley Russel’s own, as he goes about getting to know the ‘poor girl’, of the title, Lily, who is living with cystic fibrosis. My father was a special needs teacher prior to his retirement, which in effect resulted in every student within the school considered ‘not normal’, winding up in dad’s class. Consequently issues relating to the integration of children with disabilities are something that I have always cared deeply about.

I would like to thank Odyssey Books for the review copy of this book.

Foley Russel and his mate Shay enjoy each other’s company too much to bother with schoolwork. After all, water fights and computer console games are a lot more fun than reading some boring old book. So it takes a special kind of teacher to get through to them and luckily Miss D just happens to be just that kind of educator. Invited out on a day’s outing to the local library, the boys are surprised to find an odd assemblage of local heroes and authors waiting for them inside. Miss D explains that they are each going to write a special book report about some very special people. Everyone gathered within the library has either featured in, or written a book. The students have to choose a subject and then review the book that concerns them.

On a whim Foley approaches the girl sitting in a wheel chair, wondering what speeds it could reach with a rocket attached to the back.

Lily Ashford has not had a book written about her. In fact she has written one of her own, a fantasy novel about a prince lost in a dark wood threatened by shadow beasts. Foley does not understand why Lily writes about princes and magic when she has a tube up her nose. That’s worth writing about, right? Lily explains that she’s tired of being seen as a disease instead of a thirteen-year-old. She wants to escape from being stared at in the street, or having to sit in small classes with other kids living with disabilities. Slowly Foley begins to understand and Lily becomes more than that girl in a wheelchair, but a friend.

Bloomer writes with admirable humour and insight about her characters. First Foley and Shay are well captured as self-involved teenagers, but this does not exclude the parents featured in the novel from the same degree of character detail. Oftentimes novels for children, or young adult fiction rely upon that Charles Schulz trick of reducing the adult world to white noise, incomprehensible to the younger protagonists. Both Foley and Lily’s mothers have their own lives. Their pleasure at the growing friendship between their children is as much due to the love they feel for their kids, as it is happiness at the prospect of having made a new friend of their own.

Bloomer also intersperses explanatory boxes similar to hyperlinked Wikipedia articles into the text, giving greater clarity to what is being said. This illustrates the purpose of Foley Russel and That Poor Girl desiring to inform, but not preach, broaching the painful subject matter in a familiar and intimate way.

Impassioned, yet affectionate, this is a very enriching novel.

The rim of the Ringworld grew from a dim line occluding a few stars, to a black wall. A wall a thousand miles high, featureless, though any features would have been blurred by speed. Half a thousand miles away, blocking ninety degrees of sky, the wall sped past at a hellish 770 miles per second. Its edges converged to vanishing points, to points at infinity at either end of the universe; and from each point at infinity, a narrow line of baby blue shot straight upwards.

This is a book I have been aware of for many years, but never took the time to read. In fact just last week I saw a copy, the very same edition from The Gollancz Space Opera Collection (pretty covers) in fact, in Elizabeth’s Books in Sydney, but passed it up in favour of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway. Then on the weekend while I was browsing in the library I came upon it again. This was fate I decided. I have no idea why I never got round to reading Ringworld before, or its sequels, as I have read Niven. In 1971 he wrote an infamous parody called Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex. Lampooning the, already existing, fanboy fascination with the sex life of Superman, it has inadvertently influenced writers of the comic book itself in the years since.

Louis Wu has turned 200 years old and is so bored by his birthday party that he is racing daylight across the Earth itself, by jumping from city to city to extend his special day as much as he can. Halfway through a jump – the primary method of transportation on Earth in the 29th century – he finds himself redirected to an anonymous room with a most unusual occupant. Calling himself Nessus, Louis finds himself in the company of a representative of that mysterious alien race referred to as the puppeteers, a two-headed non-humanoid, covered in fur and standing upright on three legs. Nessus explains that Louis has been chosen for a special mission, one which he may be especially suited for. Known for his repeated sabbaticals from human space, Louis is a xenophile. He has lived so long that only the very peculiar remains interesting to him and the puppeteers have something very unusual they want him to inspect.

Nessus selects a crew of three companions for a journey to a structure in space detected by the puppeteer race. He chooses a Kzin ambassador named Speaker-to-Animals to accompany them, as this aggressive space-faring race, recently humbled by a series of disastrous wars with humans, has been judged suitable for the rigours of the mission. Finally there is Teela Brown, also human and a recent romantic conquest of Louis’. Nessus explains that as she is the result of several generations of successful breeding, thanks to population control lotteries on Earth, she has been judged to have evolved the trait of luck itself. Louis finds the thought somewhat amusing, but fails to dissuade either Nessus, whom he thinks is superstitious, or the fatally curious Teela, not to come.

The prize is a puppeteer vessel the Long Shot, which will change the destinies of both the human and Kzin races. In reality though the Ringworld itself, the structure that fascinates the puppeteers, is prize enough, as it may be the solution to the problems of all races. A self-sustaining artificial structure that encircles a star.

If that sounds familiar, perhaps you have heard of the Dyson sphere, a heady example of blue-sky thinking here utilized for Niven’s purposes. I have often wondered how many crazy ideas that may one day be plausible are hidden away in the annals of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the use of a planetary body’s gravity to slingshot a vessel into space. NASA eventually accomplished the feat.

In fact Niven’s book resembles one of Clarke’s, Rendezvous With Rama, despite predating it by only two years. In both we have humans arriving on an alien structure that appears to be artificial, yet is capable of sustaining life. Niven, however, has a healthier sense of humour, especially where sex is concerned. Louis and Teela’s lovemaking is at one point interrupted by a hunting Kzin bounding over them.

Flirting with theories of evolution and religion, this is a quick page-turner with a fascinating premise. An enjoyable yarn.

Join me at The Momus Report

Vote For Me!

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share