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[...] it is not only the world’s fastest growing medium, but also the fastest growing area of global expertise in how to entertain, retain and connect twenty-first-century consumers. If the future is looking more and more like a game, it’s partly because the science of satisfaction has never before been so precise, so powerful, or so profitable. Where play goes, the world will follow.

As you perhaps may have gathered, I spent most of my childhood reading books. This was not due to choice on my part. I have never owned a gaming console. In fact I did not even really start to experiment with computer games until Massively Multiplayer Online titles really began to take off.

Of course I quickly learned what other MMO players know quite well – you go online to fight goblins and monsters you can kiss your social life goodbye. What is interesting is to observe just how mainstream this behaviour actually is. As today’s author Tom Chatfield points out in Fun Inc. there is not a world of difference between online gaming and social network sites such as Facebook. In fact, users of Mark Zuckerberg’s private nation spend an awful lot of time – notably during work hours – playing game applications on the site. Yet these people are not regarded with the same measure of contempt as the proverbial gamer ‘man-child‘ is.

Chatfield’s account gives a history of computer gaming, from its early development in 1962 as an experimental programming model in M.I.T. through to the evolution of the text-based games that led to genre defining titles such as Ultima and then onward through the console wars between Nintendo and Sega, which made clear just how much money could be earned from this evolving entertainment medium. Which was advanced to even more dizzying heights by the entry of Sony Entertainment, with their own console the PlayStation. Gaming is now a billion dollar industry, even threatening the box office clout of big budget Hollywood movies, with the console now poised to become the central entertainment hub of the family home.

Three heavily critical quotes of three very different mediums are presented to the reader at the beginning of Fun Inc.’s fifth chapter. The first is taken from Plato’s Phaedrus and describes Socrates’ disapproval of the written word. The second is taken from Georges Duhamel‘s book Scenes from the Life of the Future, insisting on the corruptive influence of film. Finally we come to a lambasting of gaming as an activity in itself, with London’s Mayor Boris Johnson stepping up to the plate, denouncing gamers as follows:

They become like blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious. [It] teaches them nothing. It stimulates no ratiocination, discovery or feat of memory.

Of course the fear of the new is nothing, um, new. What Chatfield is describing here is a fatal inability to recognize the pervasiveness of gaming. The teenage boy is the typical symbolic game player and yet many professionals, male and female, indulge in virtual worlds after work. One fascinating anecdote has a corporate position interviewee be scolded by a executive for not mentioning on his C.V. that he ran a guild in World of Warcraft. It showed team-building skills and managerial potential. However, there remain scare stories of gaming inspiring acts of real world violence. Chatfield treats of the media furore, as well as the many psychological studies of the effect of games.

There is even an unfortunate quote from Roger Scruton, taken from a 2008 article for The Times “Can Virtual Life Take Over From Real Life?“, where he rails against the ephemeral nature of virtual relationships, be they online communication or in-game narratives. I wonder has he since played Dragon Age?

In the second half of this book, Chatfield’s analysis really takes off. There are some very revealing discussions of online gaming profits, gold farming, Europe’s Pirate Party, as well as spotlighting the work of literate game writers/creators such as Rhianna Pratchett and Jason Rohrer – his game Passage sounds like a genuinely affecting, as well as intentionally morbid, game.

Unfortunately having read Greg Lastowka’s Virtual Justice recently, much of the material here was already familiar to me. In fact the early chapters resembled a superficial a potted history of the game industry. Once again there is discussion of Qui Chengwei, as well as the World of Warcraftblood plague‘.

Then again I read PC PowerPlay a very stimulating games magazine. So hit and miss fare overall.

Researchers today estimate that over two billion dollars changed hands in 2009 in exchange for items that exist only within virtual worlds. When tens of millions of people start spending billions of dollars on virtual objects, there will inevitably be disputes that lead to lawsuits. The questions that these lawsuits raise seem unusual enough to warrant a separate field of legal analysis. The generic term for this new field is “virtual law.”

I have been really looking forward to writing this review, as not only do I get to talk about this book – I can direct you to where you can find the book in PDF form (Here). The author’s website has further information on his research. I should mention I was originally directed to Lastowka by io9’s article published this week.

That felt good. I like to share.

Greg Lastowka opens his book on the legal ramifications of online conduct by comparing three castles, representing three states of law. Firstly he introduces the era of the physical castle itself, a fortified site of power for regants and later gentrified land-owners. Property law today still descends from the relationship of those who lived on the land of these castle inhabitants, with ‘landlord’, and ‘tenants’, the tell-tale references to the past. Then we have Disney’s Cinderella Castle, that fantastical gateway to the Magical Kingdom(TM) that actually enjoys surprising autonomy in its zoning laws, courtesy of clever negotiation on the part of Disney with Florida state officials. Finally we have the castle of Lord Britain. You may not of heard of him. He exists in the game series Ultima, has occasionally served as an alter-ego for developer Richard Garriott.

Lastowka relays two interesting anecdotes in regards to Ultima. The first describes how ‘virtual property’, such as a castle that can be owned within the game by a player, has become so desirable that it holds actual financial value. This is something that is common to many game series. In fact developers now market downloadable content for games such as Oblivion to players for a nominal fee. Lastowka asks, if virtual property has value, then shouldn’t the laws regarding ‘real property’, also apply?

The second Ultima tale also presents something of a riddle. In what almost sounds like the beginnings of a fairy tale, it appears Garriott as Lord Britain witnessed a player being robbed by another player. He intervened and using his in-game abilities, defeated the thief. Then moments later the ‘criminal’, repeated the same act. Garriott this time banned the player from Ultima, only to be confronted with the argument that if the game did not explicitly ban such behaviour, theft in this instance, the player should not therefore be punished so disproportionately.

Lastowka discusses how other online and virtual platforms such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, even Facebook’s Farmville (and I would include social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and the like also) have continually frustrated legal precedence, as the laws relating to theft, assault, libel are bound to geographical jurisdictions. Where is the jurisdiction when the perpetrator and the victim are separated by thousands of miles, with the servers where the event, in situ, happened in an entirely different location again?

Even online behaviour is held to a different standard from the Real World. Are husbands and wives who indulge in in-game relationships with virtual avatars guilty of adultery? Can an emotional attachment to a stranger wearing a digital body be considered real? We have the tragic case of Qiu Chengwei, who committed murder after his virtual sword was stolen and the police refused to get involved. As much as the ‘Dragon Saber’, sword may not have seemed important to the police, in Qui Chengwei’s eyes it was something worth killing for.

How does the law regulate such acts if some see the matter relating to fantasy and others a profoundly personal reality? John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace articulates the feeling of many online pioneers, that the internet is a virtual state and not beholden to the legalities of the physical world. This is a notion that often crops up in discussions of online censorship.

However, such appeals to freedom and group self-policing do not account for the need for legal protection and prosecution of cybercrime. This conflict between the idealised anarchist online state and legal precedent continues today.

As a causal online gamer, I found this to be a very interesting book. It eschews legalese and is quite well argued. Recommended.

The boat was so small that we were jammed into every crevice, corner and spare patch of deck. It was almost impossible to get downstairs into the hold, which was heaving with sweating bodies and the suffocating stench of old fish. Forty people had transformed this tiny fishing boat into a living, seething mass of human desperation floating in the English Sea.

I find myself wandering through Town Hall’s shopping area in Sydney each morning thinking fondly about how this is my home. It is not my home though. My status is still uncertain. There is no guarantee I will be granted residency in Australia. It is confusing sometimes, as having lived here already for a year this place feels like home to me. I am caught between two worlds, two different cultures – and despite people speaking English here, living in Australia is a very different experience from being in Ireland. I am an immigrant, it sneaks up on me every now and then, but despite the inconvenience of not being able to work, I enjoy a very comfortable life.

When I think about the experiences of refugees who come here to escape from war, persecution and impoverishment, I realize just how lucky I am. In the recent Australian election the term ‘boat people’, was bandied about like an unfeeling political football. For the experiences of so many refugees to be reduced to a pithy sound bite, this struck me as extremely unfair. Which is why I was very interested to read Anh Do’s story. Here we have a much loved Australian celebrity, who is a comedian, actor, screenwriter and unstoppable centre of charisma, and just also happens to be one of these much discussed ‘boat people’.

Anh Do was born in 1977 in Vietnam. His parents decided to risk the many dangers of travelling out of the country on a simple fishing boat to escape to Australia. Anh Do’s family survived pursuit from Communist soldiers, storms, marauding pirates and starvation, eventually arriving at a safe harbor and from there on to Sydney.

Anh attributes their survival to a welcome combination of incredible luck and his father’s quick wit. At one point following a boarding of the boat by pirates, the starving refugees were stripped naked, robbed, assaulted and in a final humiliation, their engine was stolen. Thankfully Anh’s father Tam replaced a missing rubber band on a second broken engine with a strip from the bottom of a shoe. The boat roared into life.

The family’s life in Sydney was free of the oppression they had fled from, but they were instead crippled by poverty. Thanks to the goodwill of charities and generous neighbours the refugee Vietnamese family managed to make a start of life in Australia, with Tam and his wife worked to support their growing family of three children. Eventually other members of the family made the trek from Vietnam, with the Do household often hosting more than one family, including other refugees who simply needed a place to stay until they had the means to move on. Anh attributes this to his mother’s enduring desire to help others, an aspect of her training as a nun. Troubled times were ahead for the family though, with Tam, having become more and more reliant on alcohol, eventually leaving his young family. With the household income suddenly halved, Anh took it on himself to help his mum make ends meet, excelling in his studies in the hope of one day getting a decent job to help buy her a proper house, so that she might never want again.

Who knew becoming a standup comedian could be so profitable?

Anh’s story is not a sentimental rags to riches story. It is sincere in its treating of inspiring themes such as the importance of family and the capacity of the individual to excel. The book opens with Anh finally tracking down his father Tam in Melbourne to confront him years after he walked out. It ends with him now the father of a family of his own, a professional film-maker along with his brother Khoa and an ardent supporter of local charities in the Sydney area that help disadvantaged youths.

He’s also a very funny bloke. This book is filled with moments just as likely to make you laugh out loud as cry. The Deal or No Deal appearance was my personally favourite sequence.

An amazing story.

As the car disappeared down the road, old Granny Frinda lay crumpled on the red dirt calling for her grand-daughters and cursing the people responsible for their abduction. In their grief the women asked why their children should be taken from them. Their anguished cries echoed across the flats, carried by the wind. But no one listened to them, no one heard them.

My copy of this book is actually titled Rabbit-Proof Fence and features a photo from the Philip Noyce film of the same name as a cover illustration. I have never seen the film as I felt the material would upset me too much. The thought of families being torn apart is very distressing. It also bothers me that many Australian colonials would have been Irish and we too would have been subject to racial/cultural oppression, only to repeat the racist measures towards the Aborigine people of Australia. All in the name of progress of course.

Nugi Garimara opens her story with a quick study of the history of European colonization of Australia. The displacement of Aboriginal tribes continues the further inland white settlements move, with the cattle trails used by drovers also commandeering watering holes in the outback itself, ever shrinking possible locations for habitation. What inevitably followed was the introduction of slave labour and as a consequence of that, the emergence of half-caste children, referred to as muda-muda. This was blamed on the promiscuity of Aborigine women, with a blind eye being turned to their exploitation at the hands of the whites occupying what had been their land.

The story begins in 1931 with three muda-muda girls from Jigalong in Western Australia being chosen for re-education as a result of their half-caste birth. This was justified as a policy designed to protect children of mixed parentage. Often muda-muda were bullied by other native children for their lighter skin. Daisy, Molly and Grace were cousins who had come to think of one another as sisters, having bonded over their outsider status. The Australian government policy was to obtain children and train them to be employed in white households as servants. This was regarded as a form of rescue, for the belief was that children of mixed-race parentage were in fact more intelligent than native Aborigines and would therefore make better workers.

Molly, the eldest girl, Grace and Daisy were taken by a man named Constable Riggs to the Moore River settlement, hundreds of kilometers south of Jigalong. They travelled by car and by boat, far out of territory known to the three girls. When they arrived at Moore River they were forbidden from speaking in their native language and instructed in English. At the settlement they are befriended by another girl Martha Jones, who tries to help them adjust to their new surroundings. She warns them of the danger of trying to escape, as the authorities employ ‘black trackers’, to return girls who run away, who are then locked up and fed only bread and water. Some of the girls who had been captured were even shaved bald and patrolled around inside the building, so the other Aborigine girls could see what happened to those who ran.

Despite the danger, Molly tells her sisters to save what food they can and then one morning leads them out of the settlement and into the countryside. Using what hunting skills they have the girls live off the land at first, until they decide to visit houses along the way to beg for food. This gives them an opportunity to spread misinformation, informing the whites they meet that they are travelling to different destinations, as their movements are being reported back to the police with every sighting. Molly’s plan is a simple one. Make for the rabbit-proof fence that runs all the way north to Jigalong and try to avoid big towns that may have police officers looking for them.

This incredible true story is all the more effecting for the simple and direct manner in which it is told. Ironically it was thanks to Molly’s white father, who first told her about the rabbit-proof fence, that she was inspired to flee the re-education camp at Moore River. Garimara writes with unfeigned emotion, something I am not used to in historical books.

It is a very sad story. I have nothing more to say.

If LA isn’t the first true American city, she is certainly the greatest. I think so many journalists and tourists report condescendingly on her because they don’t being to understand the depth of the culture-shock they have experienced. A shock nothing like as immediate as the one you receive from New York, but one which is in my view far more lasting and harder to cope with.

I bought this book from a second hand store shortly after J.G. Ballard died. I had just read Michael Moorcock’s tender obituary and was thrilled to discover more about their friendship. The girl in the shop remarked that she had been surprised so many folk were buying up Ballard books before she heard the news. It was a curious friendship between the two men, both writers who appeal to quite different perspectives on the world.

Ballard’s writing evokes a fascination with a coldly objective world, where humanity itself is a passing phase and the remnants left behind, abandoned cities and nuclear fallout, have just as much a claim to life. There is a fascination with an ordered vision of a world stripped of human failings and mortality. Moorcock by contrast takes a perverse pleasure in the grit and grime of fantasy realms, where stories are all lies and wonder is to be found in the rotten core of human history.

What I find odd about the correspondence collected in this volume is that the style is indistinguishable from the crooked authorial voice of his fiction. Indeed I began to question just how real these sights and encounters with the strange denizens of Hollywood were, as the adventures of Moorcock the Englishman abroad seemed too similar to those of his character Colonel Pyat in Jerusalem Commands. If this is fiction disguised as travel writing, it is a fine joke.

We are not privy to Ballard’s replies in this correspondence and Moorcock makes reference to painful personal events during the course of his stay in the States. His marriage had just broken down and emotionally crippled, he travelled to L.A. to visit a writer friend from his New Worlds days, Graham Hall, who was himself dying.  Moorcock gives an unsentimental account of his friend’s selfishness and hurtful decision to drink himself to death. He is also deeply affected by what he sees as the waste of a potentially great writer’s talent. While Moorcock’s name is frequently associated with psychedelic drugs, he eschews puritan hypocrisy in his lamenting of a friend’s life destroyed by drink. He contrasts the aspirational character of Californians, living in a beautiful landscape of sun and surf, with the fatalistic affectations of English Bolshieness, would-be working class heroes with a college degree and ideology in a bottle.

Moorcock’s attempts to raise funds to rescue his soaring overdraft – courtesy of his estranged family relations back in England – land him a position as a script-writer on a revisionist King Arthur film. He identifies the director of the picture only as ‘Ike’, an old Hollywood player who has just had a great success with the space opera genre. I assumed this was a coded reference to Irvin Kershner and a quick google would appear to confirm this. At any rate ‘Ike’ is something of a cartoonish figure, a monstrous ego on legs who insists on Moorcock introducing a black character into the Arthurian cycle on one day and homages to Kurosawa on the next. The well-worn dictatorial relationship between the director and the screen-writer is ploughed through, with Moorcock emerging shaken and disturbed.

Once again I begin to wonder just how real ‘Ike’, is. He seems more a collection of Hollywood player clichés, which does not mean he does not exist. Just Moorcock’s flights of invective remind me more of a fictional dilemma than an actual account. An earlier encounter with a sf fan tattoo artist also raised suspicions. The character in question is identified by the name Gulliver and bonds with Moorcock over Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. The main character of which is memorably described as having a number of facial tattoos, and named Gulliver Foyle. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but it made me curious nonetheless.

For Hollywood itself is a place filled with unreality, where the ‘English countryside’, of a Robin Hood serial is just over the hill. Trust Moorcock to prove to be such a winning guide to the darker half of sunny L.A. Evocative and very intimately written.

We were gabbing about Oprah’s abundant advice on how to improve our health, relationships, homes, finances, spiritual lives, fashion sense, and the list goes on and on. Winfrey inspires masses of women all over the world. And yet, it dawned on me, for every Oprah fan I’ve come in contact with, there has also been someone who can’t hide her vitriol about the media sensation. I wondered why.

So Oprah made a very exciting announcement on her show last week. To commemorate the last season of her talk show/infotainment hour, the most powerful woman on American daytime television is bringing her audience to Australia, courtesy of Qantas Airlines and Tourism Australia. Then John Travolta popped out of a plane.

And yes, they’re going to rename the Sydney Opera House the Oprah House.

So I felt it was timely to read Robyn Okrant’s book Living Oprah. From January 1 2008 this performance artist/yoga instructor/self-confessed Oprah addict wrote a blog dedicated to following every piece of advice released by every facet of the Queen of Television’s media empire. From her television chatshow, to O magazine and her online website, author Okrant would dedicate herself to ‘living her best life’, as per Oprah’s instruction. Novels bearing the Oprah book club seal of approval would be read, the medical advice of special guest Dr Oz would be followed and the various exotic dishes that met with approval would be dined upon.

To be honest, reading a book a day seems a lot less daunting now.

Okrant takes us through her experiences living under Oprah’s instructions on a month by month basis. Each chapter ends with itemised breakdown of the costs incurred and time spent on each activity. Also the growing popularity of Okrant’s Living Oprah blog transforms the author into a media personality of her own right, although on a much smaller scale. One of the admirable aspects of her endeavour is her refusal to accept endorsements, despite the financial costs of abiding by the rules of her challenge. Every time a book title is announced on Oprah’s book club amazon’s electronic shelves are emptied.

This leads to an interesting question. Should one person wield so much influence over such a large number of people? I remember Oprah’s syndicated show back in the 80’s when it was indistinguishable from the many other talkshows on the airwaves – Phil Donohue, Arsenio Hall, Regis and Kathie Lee. Oprah is now the face of an incredible media empire. She is courted by corporate, charities, celebrities and national tourist boards. Okrant begins to feel concerned when her guru announces her support for Barack Obama as presidential nominee as a ‘private citizen’. Had the chosen candidate been anyone else on the ticket, would she have been willing to throw her vote away for the sake of her project?

I believe the first time I encountered the word ‘Oprahism’, was in William Gibson’s Idoru. The book is set in a near-future era, where AIDS has been cured due to a mass media ‘saint’ and various new cults have sprung up to challenge traditional religions, including the worship of Oprah Winfrey herself. It was an amusing conceit, but perhaps we are starring at the disturbing reality right now.

Okrant’s book posits how is it possible to abide by any of the lifestyle philosophies, or commercial endorsements, when many are contradictory. A programme promoting detox diets may well be followed by an episode featuring a delicious desert. For want of a better word, Oprahism appears to represent a confusing mixture of cosy Objectivism, a Luddite resentment of modern technology, rampant consumerism and body fetishism. Okrant suggests that Oprah’s influence is so pervasive her audience swallows all of this whole, without any real critical assessment.

Of course Okrant’s own role in this is questionable. How sincere is this project? Is it performance art keyed to trending topics? For one she promotes that execrable book The Secret (which has also received Oprah’s thumbs up) – I don’t object to positive thinking so much, as the poisonous notion of ‘negative attraction’. Also during the period of writing ‘geek chic’, was quite popular. So Okrant quotes “With great power comes great responsibility”, attributing it to Uncle Ben from the movie Spider-man, 2002. I told you I was a geek.” Quoting from the movie does not make you a geek – it makes you an audience member!

While this is a interesting project, I couldn’t help but suspect a degree of parasitism.

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

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